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Brunei

Executive Summary

Brunei Darussalam is a monarchy governed since 1967 by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Emergency powers in place since 1962 allow the sultan to govern with few limitations on his authority. The Legislative Council, composed of appointed, indirectly elected, and ex officio members, met during the year and exercised a purely consultative role in recommending and approving legislation and budgets.

The Royal Brunei Police Force and the Internal Security Department have responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country and come under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, respectively. For crimes that fall under the Sharia Penal Code, which the government fully implemented in April 2019, both entities are supported by religious enforcement officers from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Departments of Labor and Immigration in the Ministry of Home Affairs also hold limited law enforcement powers for labor and immigration offenses, respectively. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security matters but maintain some domestic security responsibilities. The secular and sharia judicial systems operate in parallel. The sultan maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports of security force abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: cases of degrading treatment or punishment (caning and, in law although not in practice, stoning and amputation); arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship and criminal libel laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; trafficking in persons; the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although the law was not enforced.

There were no reports of official impunity for violations of the law by government officials.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law does not specifically prohibit torture. Caning may be ordered for certain offenses under both secular and sharia law, and it is mandatory for some offenses. The Sharia Penal Code (SPC) includes offenses punishable by corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. The SPC prohibits caning persons younger than 15. Secular law prohibits caning for women, girls, boys younger than eight, men older than 50, and those ruled unfit for caning by a doctor. Juvenile boys older than eight may be caned with a “light rattan” stick. Canings were conducted in the presence of a doctor, who could interrupt the punishment for medical reasons. The government generally applied laws carrying a sentence of caning impartially; the government sometimes deported foreigners in lieu of caning. The sharia court did not hand down any sentences imposing corporal or capital punishments.

There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

Administration: A government-appointed committee composed of retired government officials monitored prison conditions and investigated complaints concerning prison and detention center conditions.

The prison system has an ombudsperson’s office through which judicial officials, Legislative Council members, community leaders, and representatives of public institutions visit inmates on a monthly basis. A prisoner may complain to a visiting judge, the superintendent, the officer in charge, or, in the case of female prisoners, the matron in charge. “Spiritual rehabilitation” programs were compulsory for Muslim inmates.

“Spiritual rehabilitation” programs were compulsory for Muslim inmates.

Sharia convicts were kept in the same prison facilities but separated from inmates convicted in the secular courts. Sharia convicts were subject to the same regulations as secular convicts.

Independent Monitoring: There were no reports of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) monitoring prison conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons arrested for secular (not sharia) offenses to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these prohibitions but may supersede them by invoking emergency powers.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

A magistrate must endorse a warrant for arrest, except when police are unable to obtain an endorsement in time to prevent the flight of a suspect or when a suspect is apprehended in the act of committing a crime. After an arrest, police may detain a suspect for a maximum of 48 hours for investigation before bringing the suspect before a magistrate or sharia judge. Secular and sharia law enforcement agencies respected and upheld this right. Police stations maintained a policy of no access to detained individuals during the 48-hour investigative period, including by attorneys. Authorities may hold detainees beyond the initial 48 hours with a magistrate’s or sharia judge’s approval.

Authorities reportedly informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. Authorities made information on detainees public after the 48-hour investigative period. Police may deny visitor access after the 48-hour investigative period in exceptional cases, such as probable cause to suspect witness tampering.

The law allows for bail at the discretion of the judge overseeing the case. There is no provision to afford pro bono legal counsel to poor defendants, except in capital offenses. In noncapital cases, indigent defendants may act as their own lawyers. Some civil society organizations provided pro bono legal service to indigent defendants in noncapital cases before secular courts. There were no reports of suspects being held incommunicado or without access to an attorney after the initial 48-hour investigative period.

Authorities may detain persons without a hearing in cases of detention or arrest under the Internal Security Act, which permits the government to detain suspects without trial for renewable two-year periods. In these cases, the government convenes an independent advisory board consisting of senior security and judicial officials to review individual detentions and report to the minister of home affairs. The minister is required to notify detainees in writing of the grounds for their detention and of relevant allegations of fact. The advisory board must review individual detentions annually.

Sharia law operates in parallel with the country’s common law-based courts. In cases involving offenses covered by both the SPC and secular law–such as murder, rape, and theft–an “assessment committee” including a secular law prosecutor, a sharia prosecutor, a regular police officer, and a religious enforcement officer determines whether the secular or sharia court system should try the case. If a dispute arises, the attorney general acts as final arbiter.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law does not provide specifically for an independent judiciary, and both the secular and sharia courts fall administratively under the Prime Minister’s Office, run by the sultan as prime minister and the crown prince as senior minister. The government generally respects judicial independence, however, and there were no known instances of government interference with the judiciary. In both judicial systems, the sultan appoints all higher-court judges, who serve at his pleasure. Deliberations by the assessment committee of secular and sharia officials convened to determine whether specific cases would proceed through secular or sharia court were not public, nor did the government make public the grounds for the committee’s decisions.

Trial Procedures

Secular law provides for the right to a fair, timely and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. The Internal Security Act, which is part of secular law, allows for preventative detention in cases of subversion and organized violence. Sharia procedures do not specifically provide for the right to a fair trial.

Defendants in criminal proceedings are presumed innocent and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges. Trials are public and conducted by a judge or panel of judges. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials, although the law does allow for trial in absentia, and to counsel of their choice. There were no reports of defendants who were not allowed adequate time or facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants had access to an interpreter (if needed) free of charge and have the right to confront accusers, to cross-examine and call witnesses, to present evidence, to not testify or confess guilt, and to appeal. Lawyers have access to the accused, although not during the initial 48-hour investigatory period unless the investigation is concluded and charges are filed.

In general, defendants in sharia proceedings have the same rights as defendants in criminal cases under secular law.

While sharia courts have long had jurisdiction in certain civil matters when at least one party is Muslim, many SPC elements apply to all persons in the country, regardless of nationality or religion; some sections of the law have specific applicability to Muslims. In October the sharia court prosecuted its first case involving a non-Muslim citizen who was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for theft.

The Internal Security Act establishes significant exceptions to the rights granted in secular law. Individuals detained under the act are not presumed innocent and do not have the right to legal counsel. Those detained are entitled to make representation against a detention order to an advisory board, either personally or through an advocate or attorney.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law does not provide for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations, and there is no provision for judicial review of any action of the government. By customary practice, individuals may present written complaints about rights violations directly to the sultan for review.

Property Restitution

The law bans noncitizens (including foreign investors, permanent residents, and stateless individuals) from owning land outright or holding land via a power of attorney or trust deeds, and when implemented retroactively it declared all such contracts null and void. The law does not provide for financial compensation or restitution. These elements of the law, however, were not implemented.

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

The law permits government intrusion into the privacy of individuals, families, and homes. The government reportedly monitored private email, mobile telephone messaging, and internet chat-room exchanges suspected of being subversive or propagating religious extremism. An informant system was part of the government’s internal security apparatus to monitor suspected dissidents, religious minorities, or those accused of crimes. Persons who published comments on social media critical of government policy, both on public blogs and personal sites such as Facebook, reported that authorities monitored their comments. In some cases, persons were told by friends or colleagues in the government they were being monitored; in other cases, it appeared critical comments were brought to the attention of authorities by private complainants.

Longstanding sharia law and the SPC permit enforcement of khalwat, a prohibition on the close proximity of a Muslim and a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse or close relative. Non-Muslims may be arrested for violating khalwat if the other accused party is Muslim. Not all suspects accused of violating khalwat were formally arrested; some individuals received informal warnings.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Speech: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the Legislative Council may “speak their opinions freely” on behalf of citizens, but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the law it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The law also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This philosophy identifies Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or to “wound religious feelings.”

The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. SPC sections provide, in certain circumstances, for death sentences for apostasy from Islam, deriding Islamic scriptures, and declaring oneself as god, among other offenses. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers did not permit comments or stories on these subjects.

The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including publicly displaying Christmas decorations. Some establishments, however, openly sold Christmas decorations or advertised Christmas-themed events. Christmas remained an official national holiday.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval for hiring foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit. Foreign newspapers generally were available. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.

The government owns the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels are also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything with what the government deems seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing for, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a significant fine and a maximum prison term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences.

Observers reported prohibitions against covering a variety of topics, such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and not being able to report on topics such as crime until there has been an official press release by the relevant government agency. In the past, the government shuttered media outlets, reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events, and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics. There were no such reports during the year. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.

The SPC prohibits publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution to Muslims or to persons with no religion of publications related to religions other than Islam. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.

Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the sultan or the government. Persons convicted under the law face a significant fine, a maximum of three years in prison, or both. There were no reports of such cases during the year.

Internet Freedom

The government restricted access to the internet, censored online content, and had the capability to monitor private online communications. The government monitored private email and internet chat-room exchanges it believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive views, including those of religious minorities, or material on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications and the Prime Minister’s Office enforce the law that requires internet service providers and internet cafe operators to register with the director of broadcasting in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Authority for the Infocommunications Technology Industry advised internet service and content providers to monitor for content contrary to the public interest, national harmony, and social morals.

Internet companies self-censored content and reserved the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government continued awareness campaigns warning citizens about the misuse of and social ills associated with social media, including the use of social media to criticize Islam, sharia, or the monarchy. The government maintained a hotline for reporting fake or malicious information circulated on social media that involved public or national interests.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Although there are no official government restrictions on academic freedom, government authorities must approve public lectures, academic conferences, and visiting scholars, and the sultan serves as chancellor of all major universities.

Academics reported practicing self-censorship. In recent years, some researchers published overseas under a pseudonym when they perceived that certain topics would not be well received by the authorities. Religious authorities reviewed publications to verify compliance with social norms.

There were government restrictions on cultural events. All public musical or theatrical performances require prior approval by a censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The board determines the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted some activities. Although the Censorship Board rarely required changes in performances, delays associated with the censorship process posed logistical hurdles for performing arts organizations. Authorities restricted traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government’s emergency powers restrict the right to assemble. Public gatherings of 10 or more persons require a government permit, and police may disband an unofficial assembly of five or more persons deemed likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Permits require the approval of the minister of home affairs. The government routinely issued permits for annual events but has in recent years occasionally used its authority to disrupt political gatherings. Organizers of events on sensitive topics tended to hold meetings in private rather than apply for permits or practiced self-censorship at public events.

Freedom of Association

The law does not provide for freedom of association. The law requires formal groups, including religious, social, business, labor, and cultural organizations, to register with the Registrar of Societies and provide regular reports on membership and finances. Applicants were subject to background checks, and proposed organizations were subject to naming requirements, including for example a prohibition on names or symbols linked to triad societies (Chinese organized-crime networks). The government reported it accepted the majority of applications to form associations, but some new organizations reported delaying their registration applications after receiving advice that the process would be difficult. The government may suspend the activities of a registered organization if it deems such an act to be in the public interest.

Organizations seeking to raise funds or donations from the general public are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and each individual fundraising activity requires a separate permit. Approved organizations dealt with matters such as pollution, wildlife preservation, arts, entrepreneurship, and women in business.

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 government generally respected the legal right to freedom of internal movement and the right to emigrate but imposed restrictions on foreign travel and repatriation.

Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreign residents working on a contractual basis, must apply for exit permits to travel abroad. Government guidelines state no government official may travel alone, and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but the government enforced this policy inconsistently. The country’s tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel.

Exile: By law the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

g. Stateless Persons

There are no recent, reliable statistics on the number of stateless persons in the country, but observers estimated there were tens of thousands, most of whom had permanent resident status. Most stateless residents were native born, of Chinese heritage, and from families that have resided in the country for generations. Other stateless residents included members of indigenous tribes, whose lands span Brunei and the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak, and the foreign wives of Malay Muslim men. The vast majority of stateless persons held a certificate of identity, which functions as a passport. Certificate holders have some rights similar to those of citizens, including rights to subsidized health care and education. The government has no data available on stateless persons who hold no form of residency or certificate of identity.

Stateless persons may apply for citizenship if they are adults born in the country and resident for 12 of the last 15 years, provided they pass a test demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Malay culture and language. Women married to citizens and the minor children of citizens who did not obtain citizenship at birth–such as children of citizen mothers and permanent resident fathers–may also apply. Members of the stateless community who passed the Malay culture and language test have for years reported a de facto suspension of citizenship approvals for stateless adult residents, with many reporting that although five to 10 years had elapsed since they passed their test they still had not been granted citizenship. The minister of home affairs noted that most of the 389 applicants awarded citizenship during the year had married Malay Muslim citizens and were not members of the ethnic Chinese community, although the local press did highlight two members of the ethnic Chinese community who gained citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government. The sultan rules through hereditary birthright. While the country is a constitutional sultanate, in 1962 the then ruler invoked an article of the constitution that allows him to assume emergency powers. The sultan continued this practice and in December 2018 renewed the state of emergency for an additional two years. As of December 15, the sultan had not renewed the state of emergency for another two years.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Political authority and control rest entirely with the sultan. The Legislative Council, composed primarily of appointed members with little independent power, provided a forum for limited public discussion of proposed government programs, budgets, and administrative deficiencies. It convenes once per year in March for approximately two weeks. Council members serve five-year terms at the pleasure of the sultan.

Persons age 18 and older may vote by secret ballot in village consultative council elections. Candidates must be Muslim, approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and have been a citizen or permanent resident for more than 15 years. The councils communicate constituent wishes to higher authorities through a variety of channels, including periodic meetings chaired by the minister of home affairs. The government also meets with groups of elected village chiefs to allow them to express local grievances and concerns.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The National Development Party is the only registered political party. The party pledged to support the sultan and the government and made no criticisms of the government.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: The constitution requires that all ministers be of Malay ethnicity and Muslim except as permitted by the sultan. The cabinet included an ethnic Chinese minister, and members of tribal minorities also held senior government positions. Women accounted for more than half of civil service employees, and many held senior positions, including at the deputy minister level. Women are subject to an earlier mandatory retirement age than men (55 versus 60 years), which may inhibit their career progression. The law requires that elected village heads be Malay Muslim men.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices.

Corruption: Although corruption was not pervasive, the sultan publicly criticized police, the military, and the immigration and labor departments for corrupt activities, including visa fraud, among other shortcomings. In a high-profile criminal case, the common law High Court convicted a husband-and-wife duo of former judges in January on charges of misappropriating and laundering more than 11.5 million dollars in government funds. They were sentenced to five and 10 years, respectively. The case was particularly noteworthy because the couple was very well connected–one was the son of the minister of religious affairs and the other the daughter of a retired high ranking military officer.

Financial Disclosure: Government officials are not subject to routine financial disclosure reports, but by law officials must declare their assets if they are the subject of an investigation. The government did not make these declarations public. The Anticorruption Bureau also issued a public warning to all government workers that it is empowered to investigate any official who maintains a standard of living above or disproportionate to his or her past or present emolument.

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

Neither domestic nor international human rights groups could operate freely due to government restrictions. No registered civil society organizations dealt directly with human rights, mostly due to self-censorship. A few domestic organizations worked on humanitarian issues, such as assistance for victims of domestic violence or provision of free legal counsel for indigent defendants. They generally operated with government support, and the government was somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, although they reported practicing self-censorship and avoiding sensitive issues. Regional and other international human rights organizations occasionally operated in the country but faced the same restrictions as all unregistered organizations. In December 2019 the UN resident coordinator visited the country noting that UN agencies already had some roles there, including the International Labor Organization’s work with the Ministry of Home Affairs on labor standards and the World Health Organization’s work with the Ministry of Health on public-health issues.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Secular law stipulates imprisonment from eight to 30 years plus caning with a minimum of 12 strokes as punishment for rape. The SPC provides stoning to death as the maximum punishment for rape. The law does not criminalize rape against men or spousal rape and explicitly states that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife is not rape as long as she is not younger than 14 (15 if she is ethnic Chinese). There is no specific domestic violence law, but authorities arrested individuals in domestic violence cases under the law related to protection of women and girls. The criminal penalty under the law is one to two weeks in jail and a fine for a minor assault; an assault resulting in serious injury is punishable by caning and a longer prison sentence. Islamic family law provides protections against spousal abuse and for the granting of protection orders, and it has been interpreted to cover sexual assault. The penalty for violating a protection order is a significant fine, maximum imprisonment of six months, or both.

Police investigated domestic violence only in response to a report by a victim but reportedly did respond effectively in such cases.

The government reported rape cases, but there were no data available on the prevalence of the crime. All rape cases are tried under the secular civil law. However, if a rape case were to be tried under the Sharia Penal Code the high evidential standards may discourage reporting of the crime. A special police unit staffed by female officers investigated domestic abuse and child abuse complaints.

The Department of Community Development in the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports provided counseling for women and their spouses. Some female and minor victims of domestic violence and rape were placed in protective custody at a government-sponsored shelter while waiting for their cases to be scheduled in court. Islamic courts staffed by male and female officials offered counseling to married couples in domestic violence cases. Islamic courts recognized assault as grounds for divorce.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No law criminalizes FGM/C for women of any age. There were no statistics on the prevalence of FGM/C, but international media and contacts reported that in general Type 4 FGM/C was done within 40 days of birth based on religious belief and custom and that the practice was widespread. Contacts also reported that the procedure was sometimes performed outside of a medical setting. The Ministry of Religious Affairs declared “circumcision” for Muslim girls (sunat) to be a religious rite obligatory in Islam and described it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification).

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and states that whoever utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object intending to insult the modesty of a woman shall be punished by up to three years in prison and a fine. The law also stipulates that whoever assaults or uses criminal force, intending thereby to outrage, or knowing the act is likely to outrage the modesty of a person, shall be punished by caning and a maximum imprisonment of five years. There were reports of sexual harassment, but there were no data available on the prevalence of the crime.

Reproductive Rights: Couples have the legal right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and they have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Social, cultural, and religious pressures may have affected some women’s access to contraception or health care for sexually transmitted infections. Unmarried Muslim women had difficulty obtaining contraception from government clinics, turning to private clinics or reproductive services abroad instead. Women seeking medical assistance for complications arising from illegal abortions were reported to police after being given care. The government provides access to health services for sexual violence survivors.

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

Discrimination: In accordance with the government’s interpretation of the Quran, Muslim women and men are accorded different rights, particularly as codified in sharia law, applicable to Muslims. Secular civil law permits female citizens to own property and other assets, including business properties. Noncitizen husbands of citizens may not apply for permanent resident status until they reside in the country for a minimum of seven years, whereas noncitizen wives may do so after two years of marriage. Although citizenship is automatically inherited from citizen fathers, citizen mothers may pass their nationality to their children only through an application process in which children are first issued a certificate of identity (and considered stateless).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, or, following an application process, the mother. Citizenship is not derived by birth within the country’s territory. Birth registration is universal and equal for girls and boys. Stateless parents must apply for a special pass for a child born in the country. Failure to register a birth is against the law and later makes it difficult to enroll the child in school.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is a crime and was prosecuted but did not appear prevalent. The Royal Brunei Police Force includes a specialized Woman and Child Abuse Crime Investigation Unit, and the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports provided shelter and care to victims.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 14 years and seven months with parental and participant consent, unless otherwise stipulated by religion or custom under the law, which generally sets a higher minimum age. The Islamic Family Act sets the minimum marriageable age at 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim men and makes it an offense to use force, threat, or deception to compel a person to marry against his or her own will. Ethnic Chinese must be 15 or older to marry, according to the Chinese Marriage Act, which also stipulates sexual intercourse with an ethnic Chinese girl younger than 15 is considered rape even if with her spouse. Observers reported that, although permitted by the law, marriages involving minors were rare and generally prohibited by social custom.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 14 (15 if ethnically Chinese) constitutes rape and is punishable by imprisonment of from eight to 30 years plus a minimum of 12 strokes of the cane. The law provides for protection of women, girls, and boys from commercial sexual exploitation through prostitution and “other immoral purposes,” including pornography. The government applied the law against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” to prosecute rape of male children. The minimum age for consensual sex outside of marriage is 16.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish community in the country. Comments disparaging Jewish persons collectively were occasionally posted online and on social media.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities or mandate accessibility or the provision of most public services to them. Access to buildings, information, transportation, and communications for persons with disabilities was inconsistent. The law does not specifically address access to the judiciary for persons with disabilities. All persons regardless of disability, however, receive the same rights and access to health care.

Although not required by law, the government provided inclusive educational services for children with disabilities who attended both government and religious schools alongside nondisabled peers. Persons with disabilities may participate in local village elections.

During the year the Department for Community Development continued its outreach programs promoting awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities.

By a decree from the sultan, all children with disabilities younger than age 15 are eligible to receive a monthly disability allowance of Brunei Dollars (BND) 450 ($330). Nine registered NGOs worked to supplement services provided by the three government agencies that supported persons with disabilities. The government introduced alternative methods of payment to ensure that persons with disabilities received disability allowance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The government favors ethnic Malays in society through the national Malay Islamic Monarchy philosophy. Under the constitution, ministers and most top officials must be Malay Muslims, although the sultan may make exceptions. Members of the military must be Malay. The government pressured both public- and private-sector employers to increase hiring of Malay citizens. There were no known incidents of violence against members of ethnic minority groups, but the government continued policies that favored ethnic Malays in employment, health, housing, and land ownership.

Indigenous People

Some indigenous persons were stateless. Indigenous lands were not specifically demarcated, and there were no specially designated representatives for indigenous groups in the Legislative Council or other government entities. Indigenous persons generally had minimal participation in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, and traditions and in the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, or other natural resources on and under indigenous lands.

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

Secular law criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” understood to mean sex between men. In 2017 legal amendments increased the minimum prison sentence for such carnal intercourse to 20 years. The amendments were intended to apply in cases of rape or child abuse wherein both attacker and victim are male, because existing law covered only assault of a woman by a man. The SPC bans liwat (anal intercourse) between men or between a man and a woman who is not his wife, with a maximum penalty of death by stoning. The SPC also prohibits men from dressing as women or women dressing as men “without reasonable excuse” or “for immoral purposes.” Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that the Ministry of Religious Affairs summoned transsexual individuals to their offices and demanded that they agree to maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of these reported cases.

At a private Pride gathering, members of the LGBTI community reported societal discrimination in public and private employment, housing, recreation, and in obtaining services including education from state entities. Members said the absence of online or in-person support injured their mental health but that they were reluctant to seek counseling at government health centers. Members of the LGBTI community reported the government monitored their activities and communications. Like all events in the country, events on LGBTI topics were subject to restrictions on assembly and expression. The LGBTI community reported that the government would not issue permits for community events or other occasions on LGBTI topics.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

HIV and HIV-related stigma continued and discrimination occurred. By law foreigners infected with HIV are not permitted to enter or stay in the country, although no medical testing is required for short-term tourists.

The Ministry of Health reported more than 70 persons were infected with HIV between 2018 and 2019, of whom 90 per cent were men. In response, on October 7, the Brunei Darussalam AIDS Council, a government-linked NGO, provided free HIV testing and anonymous counseling for all men, an initiative to encourage infected men to seek resources and assistance without fear of scrutiny over the cause or source of infection.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, with significant oversight by the Registrar of Trade Unions. It does not provide for collective bargaining and prohibits strikes. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers for union activities, but it does not provide for reinstatement for dismissal related to union activity. There were no unions or worker organizations in the country.

By law unions must register with the government under the same process and are subject to the same laws as other organizations (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). All unions that do not register with the Trade Union Registrar face penalties. The registrar is prohibited from registering unions whose pursuit is unlawful, where there is already a union deemed to be representative, or if it represents more than one industry. While the law permits the formation of trade union federations, as long as they are of the same sector, it forbids affiliation with international labor organizations unless the minister of home affairs and the ministry’s Department of Labor consent. The law prescribes the use of trade union funds, prohibiting contributions to political parties or payment of court penalties. The law requires officers of trade unions to be “bona fide” (without explanation), which has been interpreted to allow authorities broad discretion to reject officers and require that such officers have been employed in the trade for a minimum of two years.

Penalties for violating laws on unions include fines, imprisonment, or both. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights.

In the absence of unions or worker organizations, there were no reports of government enforcement of laws respecting their establishment or operation. NGOs were involved in labor issues, such as wages, contracts, and working conditions. These NGOs largely operated openly in cooperation with relevant government agencies, but they reported avoiding confrontation with the government and engaged in self-censorship.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, although the government did not effectively enforce the law, and forced labor occurred. Convictions for forced labor could lead to penalties including fines, imprisonment, and caning, but most cases alleging forced labor were settled out of court. Penalties were seldom applied. Penalties were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping. The 2019 Antitrafficking in Persons Order and the 2019 Prevention of People Smuggling Order replaced a single law covering both offenses. The government subsequently established an interagency committee under the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate the government’s efforts to counter human trafficking.

The government did not effectively investigate any cases of debt bondage or forced labor. The heads of specialist trafficking units within the police department continued to meet regularly to coordinate antitrafficking policy and implement the national action plan to combat trafficking, including for forced labor.

Some of the approximately 100,000 foreign migrant workers in the country faced involuntary servitude, debt bondage, nonpayment of wages, passport confiscation, abusive employers, or confinement to the home. Although it is illegal for employers to withhold wages, some employers, notably of domestic and construction workers, did so to recoup labor broker or recruitment fees or to compel continued service.

Although the government forbade wage deductions by employers to repay in-country agencies or sponsors and mandated that employees receive their full salaries, many migrant workers arrived in debt bondage to actors outside the country. Bangladeshi media reports indicated that widespread fraud in work visa issuance made many migrant workers–particularly an estimated 20,000 Bangladeshi nationals working mostly in the construction industry–vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Three local women, who were charged in November 2019 for providing false information to the Department of Immigration and National Registration on foreign workers’ visa applications, remained under investigation as of November. The accused allegedly submitted applications for foreign workers claiming that the workers would have jobs with a specific company, but the jobs did not actually exist. Under the law the charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a substantial fine.

The sultan conducted a surprise inspection of the Immigration and Labor Departments on October 5 to address what he called “shortcomings” in the trustworthiness and efficiency of both departments. Among his concerns, the sultan raised the case of a syndicate selling fake national identification cards, intimating that immigration officials must have been complicit in the operation. In a rare explicit reference to Bangladeshi workers, the ruler also attributed the “uncontrolled influx” of foreign labor to government mismanagement in issuing employee visas.

Although prohibited by law, retention of migrant workers’ travel documents by employers or agencies remained a common practice.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Various laws prohibit the employment of children younger than 16. Parental consent and approval by the Labor Commission are required in order for those younger than 18 to work. Female workers younger than 18 may not work at night or on offshore oil platforms.

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law on procuring or offering children younger than 18 for prostitution or illicit intercourse refers only to girls and not to boys.

The Department of Labor, which is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, effectively enforced child labor laws. Penalties for child labor violations include a fine, imprisonment, or both, and were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. There was no list of hazardous occupations prohibited for children. There is also no list of types of light work activities legal for children ages 14 to 16.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation. There is no law requiring equal pay for equal work. The law limits employment in certain government positions and the military based on ethnic origin (see section 6).

The law restricts women from serving in certain military combat roles, such as infantry. The government’s executive training program for middle managers introduced several initiatives to increase public awareness of sexual harassment in the work place, including discussion and outreach to members of the government and private sectors as well as NGOs. Reflecting government policy, most public and many private employers showed hiring biases against foreign workers, particularly in key sectors such as oil and gas. Some LGBTI job applicants faced discrimination and were often asked directly about their sexual identity. Many foreign workers had their wages established based on national origin, with those from certain foreign countries receiving lower wages than others.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law does not set a minimum wage for the private sector. Wages were set by contract between the employee and employer and were sometimes calculated based on national origin. Many employed citizens received adequate salaries with numerous allowances, but complaints about low wages were common, especially in entry-level positions. The government found that local employees in the private sector had an average monthly compensation of BND 2,260 ($1,670), compared with BND 1,570 ($1,160) for foreign workers. Wages for employed foreign residents varied widely.

The standard workweek for most government agencies and many private companies is Monday through Thursday and Saturday. The law provides for overtime in excess of 48 hours per week. The law also stipulates an employee may not work more than 72 hours of overtime per month.

Government regulations establish and identify appropriate occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. The law clarified that the responsibility for identifying unsafe conditions lies with OSH experts, not workers. Individuals were encouraged to report violations of health and safety standards, but the law does not explicitly protect the right to remove oneself from a hazardous workplace.

The government does not effectively enforce laws on working hours or occupational safety and health. The commissioner of the Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing labor laws. The Department of Labor inspected working conditions both on a routine basis and in response to complaints. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. The number of labor inspectors in the department was adequate to conduct mandated inspections, but inspectors failed to bring charges against some employers who violated the law. For example, following numerous inspections of workers’ accommodations, many of which were found to be unsuitable, labor inspectors did not prosecute any employers. The focus was primarily on detecting undocumented foreign workers rather than worker protection. The department has the power to terminate the licenses of abusive employers and revoke their foreign labor quotas, and it did so occasionally.

Employers who violate laws regarding conditions of service–including payment of wages, working hours, leave, and holidays–may be fined for a first offense and, for further offenses, be fined, imprisoned, or both. Penalties for violations of wage, hour, and health and safety standards were not commensurate with those such as fraud or negligence.

Foreign laborers (predominantly Filipinos, Indonesians, and Bangladeshis) dominated most low-wage professions, such as domestic service, construction, maintenance, retail, and food service, in which violations of wage, overtime, and health and safety regulations most frequently occurred.

In September the Ministry of Energy issued a stop-work order against Hengyi Industries’ refinery following an unplanned inspection of the site where it found 27 foreign workers living in illegal dormitories, 10 of whom lacked employment documents.

Government enforcement in sectors employing low-skilled labor in small-scale construction or maintenance projects was inadequate. This was especially true for foreign laborers at construction sites, where complaints of wage arrears, inadequate safety, and poor, unsafe living conditions were reported.

There were some reports of industrial accidents during the year, most commonly in the construction sector, where the labor force is overwhelmingly foreign. In August, for example, a road worker was struck and killed by a car after authorities failed to close a bridge to traffic during repairs.

Burma

Executive Summary

Burma has a quasi-parliamentary system of government in which the national parliament selects the president and constitutional provisions grant one-quarter of parliamentary seats to active-duty military appointees. The military also has the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs and one of two vice presidents, as well as to assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. General elections were held on November 8 and widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people, despite some structural flaws. Voters in all constituencies where the government determined elections could be held safely elected members of parliament in both the upper and the lower houses, as well as state and regional legislatures. The government cancelled polling in more than half of the townships in Rakhine State, in addition to cancellations in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere due to insecurity. Results declared on November 14 showed the National League for Democracy maintained its majority of parliament, while a military-aligned party lost seats. By the terms of the constitution, the military itself filled by appointment 25 percent of seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in state and regional legislatures. National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi continued to be the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor.

The Myanmar Police Force is primarily responsible for internal security. The Border Guard Police is administratively part of the Myanmar Police Force but operationally distinct. Both fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by an active-duty military general, so they are subordinate to the armed forces’ command. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security but are engaged extensively in internal security, including combat against ethnic armed groups. Under the constitution, civilian authorities have no authority over the security forces; the armed forces commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, maintained effective control over all security forces. Members of the security forces continued to commit numerous serious human rights abuses.

Extreme repression of and discrimination against the minority Rohingya population, who are predominantly Muslim, continued in Rakhine State. Intense fighting between the military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in January displaced thousands more civilians, further disrupted humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and resulted in serious abuses of civilian populations. Fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State, as well as fighting there among ethnic armed groups, temporarily displaced thousands of persons and resulted in abuses, including reports of civilian deaths and forced recruitment by the ethnic armed groups.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces; enforced disappearance by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflicts, including killings of civilians, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuses or punishments, unlawful recruitment of child soldiers, arbitrary denial of humanitarian access, and other conflict-related abuses; severe restrictions on free expression, including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of journalists, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; the inability of some citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minority groups; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although those laws were rarely enforced; and the use of forced and child labor, including the worst forms of child labor.

There continued to be almost complete impunity for past and continuing abuses by the security forces. In a few cases the government took limited actions to prosecute or punish subordinate officials it claimed were responsible for crimes, although in ways that were not commensurate with the seriousness of the acts. In the few cases where the military claimed to try to convict perpetrators, the process lacked transparency and no details were provided about the identity of the individuals, the crimes they were charged with, or their sentences.

Some ethnic armed groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, disappearances, physical abuse and degrading treatment, unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect local populations in conflict zones. These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.

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

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

There were numerous reports security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings (see also section 1.g.) of civilians, prisoners, and other persons in their power.

On April 7, seven persons in Paletwa Township, Chin State, were killed when military airstrikes hit the village. Those killed included two children, a mother, and an infant. Eight others were injured. On June 10, Myo Thant, a 43-year-old also from Paletwa Township, was shot and killed by members of military’s 22nd Light Infantry Brigade.

In late June, a 60-year-old farmer named Lone Hsu was killed and a woman was injured when soldiers opened fire on a village in northern Shan State. The incident sparked a protest by more than 10,000 persons in Kyaukme Township, who called for an end to military brutality against civilians. On June 29, the military announced the squadron commander would be court-martialed because the shooter–an infantry soldier–had died in battle. There was no report of action as of November.

There were reports of suspects in custody dying as a result of police mistreatment. On August 10, two 17-year-old boys, sentenced to two years’ incarceration at the Mandalay Community Rehabilitation Centre for robbery, died under suspicious circumstances after a failed escape attempt, according to local media. The families of the deceased noted injuries found on the bodies of both boys.

b. Disappearance

There were reports of disappearances by security forces.

Khaing Khant Kyaw, a student at the Defense Services Medical Academy in Rangoon, disappeared in late August after he criticized military leaders in an August Facebook post. As of November, his whereabouts were unknown, according to the news service Myanmar Now.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization, at least 18 persons from Paletwa Township in Chin State and from Rakhine State remained missing as of November, some two years after disappearing. At least three were reportedly abducted by the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army (AA) (see also section 1.g.).

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

The law prohibits torture; however, members of security forces reportedly tortured and otherwise abused suspects, prisoners, detainees, and others. Such incidents occurred, for example, in prisons and in Rakhine State. Authorities generally took no action to investigate incidents or punish alleged perpetrators.

Human rights groups reported incidents of alleged torture by security forces and some ethnic armed groups in ethnic minority areas. In Rakhine State, hundreds of prisoners reportedly were subject to torture and abuse by state prison and security officials.

Sexual violence by security force members continued. On January 14, a Chin woman was hospitalized after she was reportedly tortured while in the custody of military forces operating under the Western Command in Ann, Rakhine State. She was arrested on suspicion that her husband had been in contact with members of the AA. In another case on June 29, a woman in Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township was allegedly raped by three military personnel at gunpoint. The 36-year-old woman filed a complaint with Sittwe Police Station, and the police station accepted the complaint and opened cases for rape, abduction with the intent to rape, and aiding and abetting rape. The military was also conducting an internal investigation.

Although there were reports of official investigations into some cases of alleged sexual violence, the government released no information on them.

Security forces reportedly subjected detainees to harsh interrogation techniques designed to intimidate and disorient, including severe beatings and deprivation of food, water, and sleep.

There was a widespread impression that security force members enjoyed near complete impunity for abuses committed. Police and military tribunals were often not transparent about investigations, trials, or punishments they claimed to have undertaken. There was no information to suggest that human rights training was a prominent part of overall security forces training or that rights abuses were punished in ways commensurate with the seriousness of crimes committed.

On September 16, the military’s Office of the Judge Advocate General announced that it was “investigating possible wider patterns of violations in the region of northern Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017.” The announcement came after release of a report by a government-appointed commission on violence in the region that found security forces had committed war crimes (see section 5, Government Human Rights Bodies).

On June 30, the military announced that two officers and a soldier had been convicted for “weakness in following the instructions” during the “Gu Dar Pyin incident.” Rakhine State’s Gu Dar Pyin village was the site of a massacre by the military in 2017, part of its campaign of mass atrocities that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The military did not provide any other information, such as the names and ranks of those convicted, their role in the massacre, or their sentences.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons, labor camps, and military detention facilities were reportedly harsh and sometimes life threatening due to overcrowding, degrading treatment, and inadequate access to medical care and basic needs, including food, shelter, and hygiene.

Physical Conditions: There were 46 prisons and 50 labor camps, the latter referred to by the government as “agriculture and livestock breeding career training centers” and “manufacturing centers.” A prominent human rights group estimated there were approximately 70,000 prisoners. Women and men were held separately. Overcrowding was reportedly a serious problem in many prisons and labor camps. In March, before the latest general amnesty, a human rights group reported that occupancy at the country’s largest prison was nearly triple capacity. Some prisons held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. More than 20,000 inmates were serving court-mandated sentences in labor camps located across the country.

Corruption was endemic in the penal system. Some authorities reportedly sent prisoners whose sentences did not include “hard labor” to labor camps in contravention of the law and “rented out” prisoners as labor to private companies for personal financial gain, although official policy prohibited both practices. In spite of reforms in recent years, conditions at the camps remained life threatening for some, especially at 18 labor camps where prisoners worked as miners.

Bedding was often inadequate and sometimes consisted of a single mat, wooden platform, or laminated plastic sheet on a concrete floor. Prisoners did not always have access to potable water. In many cases family members had to supplement prisoners’ official rations, medicine, and basic necessities. Inmates also reportedly paid prison officials for necessities, including clean water, prison uniforms, plates, cups, and utensils.

Medical care was inadequate and reportedly contributed to deaths in custody. Prisoners suffered from health problems, including malaria, heart disease, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, skin diseases, and stomach problems, caused or exacerbated by unhygienic conditions and spoiled food. Former prisoners also complained of poorly maintained physical structures that provided no protection from the elements and had rodent, snake, and mold infestations.

Prison conditions in Rakhine State were reportedly among the worst.

Administration: Prisoners and detainees could sometimes submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship or negative repercussions, but there was no clear legal or administrative protection for this right.

Some prisons prevented full adherence to religious codes for prisoners, ostensibly due to space restrictions and security concerns. For example, imprisoned Buddhist monks reported authorities denied them permission to observe holy days, wear robes, shave their heads, or eat on a schedule compatible with the monastic code. For the general prison population, some authorities allowed individual or group worship, but prohibited long beards, wearing robes, or shaved heads.

Independent Monitoring: The ICRC had conditional and limited access to all prisons and labor camps; it did not have access to military detention sites. With prior approval from the Prison Department, it could visit prisons and labor camps twice monthly but could not meet privately with prisoners. The ICRC reported its findings through a strictly confidential bilateral dialogue with prison authorities. These reports were neither public nor shared with any other party.

The Ministry of Home Affairs Department of Corrections operates the prison and labor camp system. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime were able to visit facilities during the past year, although some restrictions on access remain.

The military did not permit access to its detention facilities.

Improvements: The UN Office of Drugs and Crime strengthened its health system program in four prisons by including measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law does not prohibit arbitrary arrest, and the government continued to arrest persons, often from ethnic and religious minority groups, and notably in Rakhine State, on an arbitrary basis. Persons held generally did not have the right to appeal the legality of their arrest or detention administratively or before a court.

The law allows authorities to order detention without charge or trial of anyone they believe is performing or might perform any act that endangers the sovereignty and security of the state or public peace and tranquility. The civilian government and the military continued to interpret these laws broadly and used them arbitrarily to detain activists, student leaders, farmers, journalists, political staff, and human rights defenders.

Personnel from the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs and police commonly conducted searches and made arrests at will, despite the law generally requiring warrants.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law generally requires warrants for arrest, but this this requirement was not always followed.

By law authorities may hold suspects in pretrial detention for two weeks (with a possible two-week extension) before bringing them before a judge or informing them of the charges against them. According to the Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar, police regularly detained suspects for two weeks, failed to file a charge, and released suspects briefly before detaining them for a series of two-week periods with pro forma trips to the judge in between.

The law grants detainees the right to consult an attorney, but in some cases authorities refused to allow suspects this right. The law provides access to fair and equal legal aid based on international standards and mandates the independence of and legal protection for legal aid workers. The government failed to provide adequate funding and staffing to implement the law fully. Through September the legal aid program handled 300 cases.

There is a functioning bail system, but bribery was a common substitute for bail. Bail is commonly offered in criminal cases, but defendants were often required to attend numerous pretrial hearings before bail was granted.

In some cases the government held detainees incommunicado. There were reports authorities did not inform family members or attorneys of arrests of persons in a timely manner, reveal the whereabouts of those held, and often denied families the right to see prisoners in a timely manner.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary arrests, including detention by the military in conflict areas.

Amnesty International documented arbitrary detention in several townships in Rakhine State. A villager from Kyauktaw Township witnessed soldiers arresting 10 villagers, including her husband, on March 16. She said soldiers punched, kicked, and used guns to hit those who resisted.

On July 24, land activist Gei Om was taken into custody after a local official sent a letter of complaint to authorities in Mindat Township, Chin State, alleging that Gei Om had spread false news about possible illicit activities, was involved in an illegal land dispute settlement in 2016, and had been collecting illegal taxes from villagers. Prior to his arrest, Gei Om helped local community leaders to monitor the impact of a model farm project to harvest oil seed plants designed by the Management Committee of Mindat Township, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. They reportedly found that those in charge of the model farms had engaged in illegal logging and that the farms had caused environmental damage in Natma Taung National Park.

Pretrial Detention: Judges and police sometimes colluded to extend detentions. According to the Independent Lawyers’ Association, arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detentions resulted from lengthy, complicated legal procedures and widespread corruption. Periods of detention prior to and during trials sometimes equaled or exceeded the sentence that would result from a conviction.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Although habeas corpus exists in law, security forces often arrested and detained individuals without following proper procedures, in violation of national law. Arbitrary arrest or detention was sometimes used to suppress political dissent, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law calls for an independent judiciary, but the government manipulated the courts for political ends and sometimes deprived citizens of due process and the right to a fair trial, particularly in freedom of expression cases.

The criminal justice system was overburdened by a high number of cases lodged against small-time drug users, who constituted an estimated 50 percent of caseloads in the courts.

Corruption in the judiciary remained a significant problem. According to civil society organizations, officials at all levels received illegal payments at all stages of the legal process for purposes ranging from influencing routine matters, such as access to a detainee in police custody, to substantive decisions, such as fixing the outcome of a case.

The case of political activist Aung That Zin Oo (known as James) illustrates the prolonged delays, procedural irregularities, and political maneuvering that mark the judicial process. On August 25, a township court convicted James of carrying fake identification cards during a 2015 protest and sentenced him to six months at hard labor. James was tried and convicted because the local immigration office refused to drop the charges against him, although all charges against others arrested with him were dropped when the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in 2016.

The military and the government directly and indirectly exerted influence over the outcome of cases. Former military personnel, for example, served in key positions, and observers reported that the military pressured judicial officials in cases involving military interests, such as investments in military-owned enterprises.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial but also grants broad exceptions, effectively allowing the government to violate these rights at will. In ordinary criminal cases, the government allowed courts to operate independently, and courts generally respected some basic due process rights such as allowing a defense and appeal. Defendants do not enjoy a presumption of innocence or the rights to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them; to be present at their trial; to free interpretation; or, except in capital cases, to consult an attorney of their choice or have one provided at government expense. There is no right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; defense attorneys in criminal cases generally had 15 days to prepare for trial. There is a fair trial standards manual, but because of the low standard of legal education, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges were often unfamiliar with precedent, case law, and basic legal procedures. While no legal provision allows for coerced testimony or confessions of defendants to be used in court, authorities reportedly accepted both. There were reports of official coercion to plead guilty despite a lack of evidence, with promises of reduced sentences to defendants who did so.

Although the law provides that ordinary criminal cases should be open to the public, members of the public with no direct involvement in a case were sometimes denied entry to courts. Defense attorneys generally could call witnesses and conduct cross-examinations. Prodemocracy activists generally were able to retain counsel, but other defendants’ access to counsel was inadequate.

Local civil society groups noted the public was largely unaware of its legal rights, and there were too few lawyers to meet public needs.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government continued to detain and arrest journalists, activists, and critics of the government and the military. According to civil society groups who use a definition of political prisoners that includes those who may have engaged in acts of violence and excludes some charges related to freedom of expression and religion, there were 36 convicted political prisoners as of October. Another 584 individuals were facing trial for their political views, of whom 193 were in pretrial detention and the rest were out on bail, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The ICRC had very limited access to political prisoners.

Authorities held some political prisoners separately from common criminals, but political prisoners arrested in land rights disputes were generally held together with common criminals.

On May 18, the Union Election Commission annulled Aye Maung’s status as a lower house lawmaker and barred him from running in future elections due to his treason conviction. In 2019 Aye Maung, then chairman of the Arakan National Party, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for high treason and another two years for defamation of the state after remarks interpreted by the government as expressing and encouraging support for the AA.

Many former political prisoners were subject to surveillance and restrictions following their release, including the inability to resume studies or secure travel, identity, or land ownership documents.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

No specific mechanisms or laws provide for civil remedies for human rights abuses; however, complainants may use provisions of the penal code and laws of civil procedure to seek civil remedies. Individuals and organizations may not appeal an adverse decision to regional human rights bodies but may make complaints to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.

Property Restitution

Under the constitution the state owns all land, although there is a limited amount of freehold land and the law allows for registration and sale of private land ownership rights. Most land is held in long-term lease, meaning that while this leasehold land is still owned by the government, it is leased to private parties on a long-term basis with a general expectation that the leasehold will automatically roll over upon its expiration. The law provides for compensation when the government acquires privately held land for a public purpose; however, civil society groups criticized the lack of safeguards in the law and declared that compensation was infrequent and inadequate when offered. The government can also declare land unused or “vacant” and assign it to foreign investors or designate it for other uses. Authorities and private-sector organizations seized land during the year; restitution was very limited. In Mon State, for example, retired military personnel acting as private-sector land agents obtained land use rights to pursue development of rubber plantations, while those displaced received minimal compensation.

The General Administration Department of the Office of the Union Government oversees land restitution. There is no judicial review of land ownership or confiscation decisions, although there are limited administrative processes to manage objections. Administrative bodies subject to political control by the national government make final decisions on land use and registration. Researchers and civil society groups stated land laws facilitated land confiscation without providing adequate procedural protections. In some cases, advance notice of confiscations was not given.

The law does not favor recognition of traditional land-tenure systems (customary tenure). In March the new Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management Law came into effect, requiring anyone occupying land classified as “vacant, fallow, or virgin” to apply for permits within six months. Continued use of the affected land without applying for permits meant land users would be in trespass and could be sentenced to up to two years in prison. If rigorously enforced, this order could result in millions of persons losing rights of access to their lands. Understanding of the new law and the application process was low in affected communities.

Beginning in September, police began to arrest farmers for violating the new law. Eight farmers were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for farming land in Ayeyarwady Region that the local government seized as vacant and sold to a private company.

Civil society groups argued the new law was unjust and called for its immediate suspension. These groups also called for customary tenure to be defined and included in all land laws since it is included in the National Land Use Policy.

Observers were concerned about official statements suggesting that the new law could also be used to prevent displaced Rohingya from returning to their land or receiving adequate compensation. Officials stated that burned land would revert to the government and posted signs in several venues to that effect. Given that the military bulldozed villages, demolished structures, and cleared vegetation to build security bases and other structures in Rakhine State and given that the land law states that land not used productively within four years reverts to the government, civil society groups saw little progress in returning land confiscated by the government.

In March a group of 41 Karenni farmers and activists who were detained for more than six months for damaging property in a dispute with the army predating the new law were released from prison in Loikaw, Kayah State, after completing their sentences and paying fines. During the year many other farmers were awaiting trial in similar cases.

Neither restitution nor adequate compensation was provided to persons or communities whose land was confiscated under the former military regime.

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

The law protects the privacy and security of the home and property, but these protections were poorly enforced. The law does not protect the privacy of correspondence or other communications.

Some activists reported the government systematically monitored citizens’ travel and closely monitored the activities of politically active persons, while others reported they did not experience any such invasions of privacy. Special Branch police, official intelligence networks, and other administrative systems (see section 2.d.) were reported agents of such surveillance.

The government and military commonly monitored private electronic communications through online surveillance. Police used Cellebrite technology to breach cell phones. While Cellebrite halted new sales in the country and stopped servicing equipment that was already sold in late 2018, authorities continued to employ the technology.

Authorities in Rakhine State required Rohingya to obtain a permit to marry officially, a step not required of other ethnicities. Waiting times for the permit could exceed one year, and bribes usually were required. Unauthorized marriages could result in prosecution of Rohingya men under the law, which prohibits a man from “deceitfully” marrying a woman, and could result in a prison sentence or fine.

There were reports of regular, unannounced nighttime household checks in northern Rakhine State and in other areas.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

There were long-running armed internal conflicts across the country. Reports of killings, disappearances, beatings, torture, forced labor, forced relocations, the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, excessive use of force, disregard for civilian life, sexual violence, and other abuses committed by government forces and armed opposition and rebel groups were common. Within the military, impunity for abuses and crimes continued, although the military took disciplinary action in limited cases.

Conflict continued and escalated between the military and the AA in central and northern Rakhine State and expanded into southern Chin State; clashes between the military and multiple armed groups in northern Shan State took place throughout the year. Heavy fighting between the military and the AA displaced tens of thousands of civilians and resulted in civilian casualties and credible reports of military abuses. Although fighting between the two sides quieted in November and December and some individuals returned home, the situation remained tense and most displaced persons were unable to do so. The military also clashed with the Karen National Union in Karen State, temporarily displacing hundreds in February and March.

Killings: Military officials reportedly killed, tortured, and otherwise seriously abused civilians in conflict areas without public inquiry or accountability. Following ethnic armed groups’ attacks on the military, the military reportedly often directed its attacks against civilians, resulting in deaths. Some ethnic armed groups, most notably the AA, also allegedly committed abuses. The AA allegedly killed off-duty police and military personnel as well as civilians suspected of providing information to the military. Multiple local and international groups reported that the number of dead and injured civilians in the fighting between the military and the AA from January to April alone far surpassed the total for all of 2019–by one accounting, 151 were killed and 394 wounded through the middle of April–as the overall humanitarian situation deteriorated while the geographic scope of fighting grew.

The military blamed the AA for these and other killings of police: a police lieutenant was killed in Kyauktaw, Rakhine State on June 13; a police captain was shot by multiple assailants at the same station on August 12; two off-duty Border Guard Police officers were abducted in Maungdaw, Rakhine State on September 8, one was killed and the other was missing as of October. On September 8, four persons, including two children, were killed and another 10 wounded when the military fired artillery into a village in Myebon Township, Rakhine State, according to local residents and press.

Abductions: Government soldiers and nonstate armed groups abducted villagers in conflict areas.

The AA often abducted officials and others for propaganda purposes. On January 21, the AA released lower house member of parliament Hawi Tin after two months in custody. The AA detained him and several Indian nationals en route from Paletwa, Chin State, to Kyauktaw, Rakhine State. On October 19, the AA claimed responsibility for the October 14 abduction of two NLD candidates who were campaigning in Taungup Township, Rakhine State. The NLD rejected AA demands for the release of students and other protesters in exchange for the candidates.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports provided credible information that the military tortured and beat civilians alleged to be working with or perceived to be sympathetic to ethnic armed groups in Rakhine State. There were also continued reports of forced labor and forced recruitment by the United Wa State Army, the Restoration Council of Shan State, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

In May a video released by Radio Free Asia on social media showed soldiers viciously beating five blindfolded and bound men from Ponnagyun Township, Rakhine State, on April 27 aboard a naval vessel. The five were forced to confess to being AA members, although relatives and local villagers claimed they were civilians from a village the military shelled on April 13. The military released a statement on May 12 admitting that members of the security forces performed “unlawful interrogations” and promising to “take actions.”

Civilians, armed actors, and NGOs operating inside the country and along the border reported continued indiscriminate landmine use by the military and armed groups.

Child Soldiers: Four ethnic armed groups–the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization; the Shan State Army, the armed wing of the Shan State Progress Party; the United Wa State Army; and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army–were listed in the UN secretary-general’s 2020 report on Children and Armed Conflict as perpetrators of the unlawful recruitment and use of children. The military was conditionally delisted by the secretary-general as a perpetrator of unlawful recruitment and use of children due to continued progress on child recruitment, although the secretary-general called for continued progress on use of children.

The penalties imposed for recruiting and using child soldiers in a manner inconsistent with relevant laws were not commensurate with the seriousness of these actions. Most child recruitment or use cases reportedly culminated in reprimands, demotions, relocations, fines, or decreases in pensions, penalties significantly less severe than those prescribed by criminal law. Despite military directives prohibiting the use and recruitment of children, some children were still used by the military for noncombat roles in conflict areas. On child recruitment, reports continued that middlemen fraudulently facilitated enrollment of underage recruits, sometimes at the request of the recruits’ families. The Ministry of Defense undertook to investigate military personnel implicated in unlawfully recruiting child soldiers. There was, however, no evidence that the government prosecuted soldiers in military or civilian courts for recruiting or using child soldiers.

The military generally allowed UN monitors to inspect for compliance with agreed-upon procedures for ending the unlawful use and recruitment of children and identifying and demobilizing those already recruited. There were, however, some delays in securing official permissions, and access to conflict areas was often denied. The government allowed the United Nations to engage ethnic armed groups on the signing of joint plans of action to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to demobilize and rehabilitate those already serving.

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

Other Conflict-related Abuse: The government restricted the passage of relief supplies and access by international humanitarian organizations to conflict-affected areas of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, and Shan States. The government regularly denied access to the United Nations, international NGOs, and diplomatic missions, asserting the military could not ensure their security or by claiming that humanitarian assistance would benefit ethnic armed group forces. In some cases the military allowed gradual access as government forces regained control over contested areas.

A World Health Organization vehicle with UN markings transporting COVID-19 test samples to Rangoon came under fire in Minbya Township, Rakhine State, on April 20, during heavy fighting in the area. The driver was hit and died of his injuries on April 21. The military and the AA traded blame for the attack. Based on the nature of the attack and the vehicle’s passage through a military checkpoint shortly before coming under fire, most observers believed the AA was responsible, although the attack may have been unintended. The government announced the formation of a four-member committee to investigate the attack.

In a separate incident, a convoy of five clearly marked World Food Program trucks came under fire in southern Chin State on April 29 while transporting food aid to vulnerable communities around Paletwa, the site of numerous recent clashes between the military and the AA. One of the drivers suffered a minor injury, and three of the five trucks were damaged. The World Food Program supplies ultimately reached Paletwa on May 2, traveling the final distance by boat.

Reports continued that the military forced civilians to act as human shields, carry supplies, or serve in other support roles in conflict areas such as northern Shan, southern Chin, and Rakhine States. On October 5, military forces conscripted 14 Rohingya civilians, many of them teenagers, to act as “guides” in the village of Pyin Shae, in Buthidaung Township, according to local civil society, officials, and multiple press reports. The soldiers, anticipating a clash with the AA forced the villagers to walk in front of them–using them, in effect, as human buffers. One press report indicated the military might also have believed the area was mined. When the group came under fire from AA forces, two teenage boys were killed and a man was seriously injured; the others fled.

As of November, an estimated 326,500 persons remained displaced by violence in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, and Shan States. An increase of 60,000 in 12 months in Rakhine and Chin States was driven by the fighting between the AA and the military. In some cases, villagers driven from their homes fled into the forest, frequently in heavily mined areas, without adequate food, security, or basic medical care.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists and others who criticized the government or military continued.

Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech was more restricted than in 2019. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences.

Some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services and ultranationalist Buddhist groups. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, and writers.

On January 17, the Karen State government charged Karen environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe over his role in a traditional prayer ceremony to protect local water resources against pollution from a coal-powered cement factory. He fled when police attempted to arrest him and was still in hiding as of November. The local government General Administration Department filed a complaint against Saw Tha Phoe for making or circulating statements that may cause public fear or alarm and incite the public to commit an offense against the state or “public tranquility.”

On May 7, the Kayah State government placed numerous restrictions on civil society and political activities, using COVID-19 as a pretext to ban any speeches, writing, pictures, posters, placards, pamphlets, or other activity deemed to be defamatory to authorities, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper.

On September 4, Maung Saungkha, an activist, poet, and cofounder of the freedom of expression activist organization Athan, paid a fine to avoid a prison sentence over an act of peaceful protest to mark the first anniversary of the mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States. Saungkha unfurled a banner asking: “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine [State] and killing people?”

Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military, including multiple Buddhist monks. Cases against at least three prominent, protolerance monks critical of the military and Burmese Buddhist ultranationalism, Sein Ti Ta, Myawaddy Sayadaw, and Thawbita, remained open as of November.

As of November, proceedings continued in the cases against democracy activist Nilar Thein and four others for their protest during a court hearing for Peacock Generation members (see Academic and Freedom and Cultural Events below). Nilar Thein and the four others were charged with “obstructing” and “deterring” a public official. The maximum sentence is three years in jail.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of November, authorities approved 47 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2019, and security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those used in previous years.

Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets to cover protests and civil unrest, topics not reported widely in state-run media.

The military continued to react harshly to perceived critical media commentary through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country, according to Freedom House.

On April 3, Takotaw Nanda (also known as Aung Kyi Myint), a Channel Myanmar News journalist, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for allegedly disrupting a public service and unlawful assembly after live-streaming on Facebook a May 2019 protest against a Mandalay Region cement plant. In May 2019, Aung Marm Oo, editor-in-chief of Development Media Group in Rakhine State, went into hiding after charges were filed that the group reported human rights violations in the continuing fighting between the military and the AA. Aung Marm Oo, also known as Aung Min Oo, received death threats, while Special Branch police interrogated journalists at the media group and questioned his family members.

Authorities took actions against journalists for erroneous reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 21, chief editor of Dae Pyaw News Agency, Zaw Min Oo, was sentenced to two years in prison for falsely reporting a COVID-19 death in Myawady, Karen State, on April 3. He was charged with publishing or circulating a statement, rumor, or report that could arouse “public mutiny, fear, alarm or incitement.” On July 10, Zaw Min, a reporter from Khit Thit Media, was fined for incorrectly reporting a local quarantine center had no staff to feed nine patients and no masks or soap were available.

The government relaxation of its monopoly on domestic television broadcasting continued, with five private companies broadcasting using Ministry of Information platforms. The news broadcasters, however, were subject to the same informal restrictions as were print and online media. The government offered three public channels–two controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly aired the military’s content. Two private companies that had strong links to the previous military regime continued to broadcast six free-to-air channels. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. The military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.

Violence and Harassment: Government agents, nationalist groups, and businesspersons engaged in illegal enterprises, sometimes together with local authorities, continued to attack and harass journalists who criticized government policy on a range of issues.

On February 9, ultranationalists from the Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar National Organization protesting in Rangoon threatened and physically intimidated staff at Khit Thit Media and 7 Day News, according to Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor of Khit Thit Media and a member of the government-sponsored Myanmar Press Council.

On March 4, Frontier Myanmar journalist Naw Betty Han and Ko Mar Naw, a photojournalist from Myanmar Times, were detained for one day and allegedly tortured by the ethnic Karen Border Guard Forces in Myawaddy Township, Karen State, for reporting on the Chinese Shwe Kokko development project.

On May 13, Kyaw Lin, a journalist who reported for online independent news outlets Myanmar Now and Development Media Group, was assaulted in Sittwe, Rakhine State, by two individuals shouting death threats. Kyaw Lin had reported on fighting between the AA and the military. In 2017, an unknown attacker stabbed him in Sittwe after he published an article on local land prices. The perpetrators of the May 13 assault were still at large as of October.

Authorities prevented journalists’ access to northern Rakhine State except on government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not based in the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to foreign media, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship, and the government allowed open discussion of some sensitive political and economic topics, but legal action against publications that criticized the military or the government increased self-censorship.

Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. The government ordered media outlets to use certain terms and themes to describe the situation in northern Rakhine State and threatened penalties against journalists who did not follow the government’s guidance, exacerbating self-censorship on that topic.

The military filed a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council when a January 25 Reuters story quoted a lawmaker as saying that army artillery fire had caused the deaths of two Rohingya women. After the reported advocacy by the press council, however, the military withdrew its complaint on March 18 “in the interest of maintaining good relations with the press council.”

The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country.

Journalists continued to complain about the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.

Libel/Slander Laws: A criminal defamation clause in the telecommunications law was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression; charges were filed against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens perceived as critics of the government and the military.

Noted filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Gyi was freed on February 21 after serving seven months in prison for libel for Facebook posts that were critical of the military’s role in politics.

As of November, a case against three prominent political activists, lawyer Kyi Myint, poet Saw Wai, and former army captain Nay Myo Zin, continued in the courts. In late 2019 the military charged them with defamation for remarks they made in April 2019 about amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Nay Myo Zin was serving a one-year prison term in Insein Prison on the same charge from another military lawsuit.

National Security: In March the government and military designated the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and an unlawful association under the law. Nay Myo Lin, founder and editor of Voice of Myanmar, a local Mandalay news outlet, was arrested on March 30 for publishing an interview with an AA spokesperson. He was charged in a local court under sections of the law prohibiting organizations and individuals from contacting or associating with outlawed organizations–a charge carrying a maximum life sentence. Police released Nay Myo Lin on April 10 when the court decided to drop the case.

Internet Freedom

The government censored online content, restricted access to the internet, and continued to prosecute internet users for criticism of the government and military and their policies and actions. In March the Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a series of directives ordering internet providers to block websites.

By order of the Transport and Communications Ministry, mobile phone operators in 2019 stopped mobile internet traffic in eight townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in southern Chin State due to “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” Although the ministry announced on June 23 that internet restrictions were extended only through August 1, as of November only 2G data networks were available, according to Human Rights Watch. Some persons reported being unable to access the internet at all. On October 31, the ministry announced all mobile operators should extend restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile data services in the eight townships until at least December 31.

The telecommunications law includes broad provisions giving the government the power to temporarily block and filter content, on grounds of “benefit of the people.” According to Freedom House, pressure on users to remove content continued from the government, military, and other groups. The law does not include provisions to force the removal of content or provide for intermediary liability, although some articles are vague and could be argued to cover content removal. Pressure to remove content instead came from the use or threat of use of other criminal provisions.

In the second half of March, the Posts and Telecommunications Department ordered mobile operators to block more than 2,000 websites, including 67 allegedly distributing “fake news.” In May it followed up by instructing the operators to block a further 22 sites alleged to contribute to “fearmongering” and “misleading of the public in relation to the coronavirus.” Neither the government nor the operators released a full list of the blocked websites, but among those that could no longer be accessed were several registered news organizations, including Rakhine State-based Development Media and Narinjara News, Voice of Myanmar, Karen News from Karen State, Mandalay-based In-Depth News, and Mekong News, which was based in eastern Shan State’s Tachileik.

The government’s Social Media Monitoring Team reportedly continued to monitor internet communications without clear legal authority, according to Freedom House. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship, although there were military-affiliated disinformation campaigns on social media.

The government limited users’ ability to communicate anonymously by enforcement of SIM card registration requirements. Subscribers must provide their name, citizenship identification document, birth date, address, nationality, and gender to register for a SIM card; noncitizens must provide their passports. Some subscribers reported being required by telecommunications companies to include further information beyond the bounds of the regulations, including their ethnicity.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued.

The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. In September and October, approximately 57 students at universities across the country, who protested human rights violations in Rakhine State, called on the government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and urged reform of laws to comply with international standards for the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. They were arrested and faced a variety of criminal charges, according to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The students were charged with unlawful assembly, various speech-related crimes, antimilitary incitement, and other crimes, according to the federation. As of November, more than 20 were imprisoned, while the remainder were awaiting sentencing or were in hiding while facing arrest warrants, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions, although among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions because of their historical role in protests. Although some student unions were allowed to open unofficial offices, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, as in previous years, was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.

There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events. There is a ban on street art. On April 3, three street artists were arrested for painting a mural about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating a law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after Buddhist hardliners complained the mural portrayed a grim reaper figure that they believed looked like a Buddhist monk, spreading the COVID-19 virus. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

In a series of seven verdicts delivered between October 2019 and June 2020, courts handed down prison sentences to the leader and five other members of the satirical street performance group Peacock Generation. Group leader Zayar Lwin was sentenced to a total of five and one-half years in prison; the others received sentences of two to six years. The military brought the charges after a performance in which members satirically criticized the military’s political power in a democracy. At year’s end up to 25 members still faced charges that carry up to six months in prison, while two members were released in June and August, respectively, having already completed sentences of more than a year.

Public film showings were possible with the cooperation of the Ministry of Information. The MEMORY! film festival showed prescreened classic films in public spaces in Rangoon “under the high patronage of the Ministry of Information.” According to the organizers, mutual trust with the ministry enabled freedom of expression for organizers, participants from civil society organizations, and audiences. Organizers showed films including challenging themes. While MEMORY! faced information ministry censorship, mostly for nudity or Buddhist imagery, no film was banned in its entirety, and journalistic fora and public discussions around the films were free of interference.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights. In addition to direct government action, the government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected. While the law only requires notification of protests, authorities treated notification as a request for permission. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass and provisions criminalizing actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.

Restrictions remained in place in 11 Rangoon townships on all applications for processions or assemblies. Some civil society groups asserted these restrictions were selectively applied and used to prevent demonstrations against the government or military.

Farmers and social activists continued to protest land rights violations and land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups reported the arrest of farmers and supporters. Many reported cases involved land seized by the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military.

Whether civil society organizations were required to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues varied by situation and by government official. Some officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained.

On January 17, four activists–Naw Ohn Hla, Maung U, U Nge (also known as Hsan Hlaing), and Sandar Myint–were sentenced to one month in prison after they were found guilty of protesting without authorization. Police charged the four activists after they participated in a peaceful demonstration organized by residents of the Shwe Mya Sandi housing project in Karen State in April 2019.

On March 20, Than Hla (also known as Min Bar Chay), an ethnic Rakhine development worker, was found guilty of protesting without permission after he participated in a demonstration calling for justice and an end to security force violations in Rakhine State. He was sentenced to 15 days in prison; he was released the same day authorities announced that a second charge of protesting without permission was dropped.

Freedom of Association

Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.

The law on registering organizations stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs. In the run-up to the November general election, the government began insisting that NGOs receiving foreign funding were required to register.

Registration requires sponsorship from a government ministry. Some NGOs that tried to register under this law found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, NGOs classed as “advocacy groups” would have to pay tax if the Internal Revenue Department determined, based on their tax return, that they made a “profit.” Advocacy groups include those working on human, women’s, labor, and land rights. NGOs expressed concern about the new rules and warned they could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

Activists reported that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss human rights and political issues openly, although discussion of the most sensitive issues could lead to prosecution. They reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity continued.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law does not protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. Local regulations limit the rights of citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country. By law the president may require the registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require foreigners to register every change of address exceeding 24 hours.

In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restricted freedom of movement.

Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State where most Rohingya resided. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” in order to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.

Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and generally required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, a temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks, but it is given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, effectively eliminating many opportunities to work or study. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township immigration office ranging from the official amount of 30,000 to more than two million kyats ($22 to $1,460). The extensive administrative measures imposed on Rohingya and foreigners in Rakhine State effectively prevented persons from changing residency.

Rohingya faced prison terms of up to two years for attempting to travel out of Rakhine State without prior authorization. A total of 128 Rohingya from Rakhine State were arrested in November 2019 after disembarking from boats near beach resorts in the Ayeyarwady Region. They were charged for traveling without valid identity documents, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence, a modest fine, or both. On April 8, a court dropped illegal travel charges against more than 200 accused persons, but according to activists hundreds more Rohingya charged with illegal travel remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions to prevent foreign travel by political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documents required for foreign travel.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

As of November, an estimated 326,500 individuals were living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, and northern Shan States. The large number of primarily ethnic minority IDPs in primarily ethnic-dominated parts of the country can be traced back to decades of conflict between the central government and ethnic communities.

As of November, an estimated 40,000 IDPs lived in areas of the country outside government control, primarily in northern Kachin State. Fighting in Rakhine, Chin, and Shan States displaced tens of thousands of additional persons during the year, compounding the long-term displacement of communities in these areas. Most of those newly displaced in Shan State, however, were able to return home. Locally based organizations had some access to IDPs in areas outside government control, but the military restricted their access, including through threats of prosecution. The military largely restricted access to IDPs and Rohingya in areas of Rakhine State to only the Red Cross and the World Food Program, resulting in unmet humanitarian needs among these IDPs. The government had not granted the United Nations or other international organizations humanitarian access to areas in Kachin State outside of military control since 2016.

The United Nations reported significant deterioration in humanitarian access during the year–a situation further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic–and the military continued to block access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse). The Arakan Army-military conflict in Rakhine State and the COVID-19 pandemic were cited as justifications for additional onerous restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State, most of which were not justified on security or public health grounds, according to humanitarian partners operating in Rakhine State.

The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move, limiting access to health services, employment opportunities, secure refuge, and schooling. While a person’s freedom of movement generally derived from possession of identification documents, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic minority states reported the government restricted the travel of IDPs and stateless persons.

The approximately 132,000 primarily Rohingya IDPs in Sittwe, Pauktaw, and other townships were dependent on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps for Rohingya, although the COVID-19 pandemic restricted access from August.

An October Human Rights Watch report on the detention of Rohingya described the IDP camps’ severe restrictions on movement; limited access to education, health care, and work; and the denial of fundamental rights. It referred to the camps collectively as “An Open Prison Without End.” According to the report, more than 130,000 Muslims–mostly Rohingya, as well as a few thousand Kaman–remain confined in IDP camps in central Rakhine State. Rohingya in the camps were denied freedom of movement through overlapping systems of restrictions–formal policies and local orders, informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing, and a widespread system of extortion that made travel financially and logistically prohibitive. In 24 camps or camp-like settings, severe limitations on access to livelihoods, education, health care, and adequate food or shelter were compounded by increasing government constraints on humanitarian aid.

The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded freedom of movement restrictions in IDP camps. In general, IDP camps did not have dedicated quarantine centers or testing facilities due to lack of space and dedicated staff. If there was a positive case, movement restrictions were imposed on the entire camp and residents were not allowed to leave or enter the camp, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. IDPs who required testing, hospitalization, and quarantine were moved to outside government facilities where the government and humanitarian organizations provided targeted support for the patient and direct contacts. IDPs received adequate care, and outside of a few isolated cases, there were no major COVID-19 outbreaks at IDP camps.

Camp shelters, originally built to last just two years, deteriorated without construction and maintenance, leading to overcrowding and vulnerability to flood and fire. According to Human Rights Watch, these IDP camp conditions were a direct cause of increased morbidity and mortality in the camps, including increased rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal deaths. Lack of access to emergency medical assistance, particularly in pregnancy-related cases, led to preventable deaths.

Approximately 70 percent of the 120,000 school-age Muslim children in central Rakhine camps and villages were out of school, according to Human Rights Watch. Given the movement restrictions, most could only attend underresourced temporary learning centers led by volunteer teachers. Restrictions that prevented Rohingya from working outside the camps had serious economic consequences. Almost all Rohingya in the camps were forced to abandon their pre-2012 trades and occupations.

Despite the adoption of a national camp closure strategy in 2019, the government’s approach to “closing” IDP camps largely consisted of building new infrastructure near existing camps and reclassifying them as villages without addressing movement restrictions; providing security, livelihoods, or basic services; or consulting with IDPs on their right to return to their areas of origin or to resettle in areas of their choice.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government did not always cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Dozens of Rohingya were arrested and charged under immigration laws after returning from Bangladesh informally in June and July during heightened scrutiny of border crossings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees did not register any asylum seekers during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

The vast majority of Rohingya are stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, up to 600,000 Rohingya were estimated to remain in Rakhine State. There were also likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent. Although these latter groups did not face the same level of official and social discrimination as Rohingya, they were still subject at best to the lesser rights and greater restrictions of associate and naturalized citizenship.

The government recognizes 135 “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. The law defines “national ethnic group” as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Despite this rule, the government has granted “national ethnic group” status to ethnic groups or withdrawn that status from them throughout the country on various occasions. The Rohingya are not on the list. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate.

The law also establishes two forms of citizenship short of full citizenship: associate and naturalized. Citizens of these two types are unable to run for political office; form a political party; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. Only members of the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.

Some Rohingya may be technically eligible for full citizenship. The process involves additional official scrutiny and is complicated by logistical difficulties, including travel restrictions and significant gaps in understanding the Burmese language. In practice this also requires substantial bribes to government officials, and even then it does not guarantee equality with other full citizens. In particular, only Rohingya are required to go through an additional step of applying for the National Verification Card (NVC), in which their identity papers will describe them as “Bengali” and presumes them to be noncitizens. This can lead to discrimination in access to public services and a wide range of societal discrimination. While members of other ethnic groups faced challenges, they are not singled out the same way Rohingya are in obtaining citizenship.

The law does not provide any form of citizenship (or associated rights) for children born in the country whose parents are stateless.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to apply for NVCs, created in 2015. The government claimed that these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship as well as other government documentation, such as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards. NGO reports indicated that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. For example, there were reported cases of government officials requiring Rohingya to have an NVC to go fishing or access a bank account. Many Rohingya expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process as well as fear that after turning in their old documents they would not be issued new documents. Many said they were already citizens and expressed fear the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would provide a form of lesser citizenship, thereby formalizing their lack of rights. Rohingya in Rakhine State had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs, while some Muslims from other ethnic groups had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for Citizenship Scrutiny Cards in other parts of the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens a limited ability to choose their government through elections held by secret ballot. General elections are held every five years, and by-elections are held to fill empty seats due to locally cancelled races or other vacancies in nonelection years. The electoral system is not fully representative and does not assure the free expression of the will of the people. Under the constitution, active-duty military are appointed to one-quarter of all national and regional parliamentary seats, and the military has the right to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs–which has responsibility for police, prisons, and other domestic security matters–and border affairs. The military can also indefinitely assume power over all branches of the government should the president declare a national state of emergency. The constitution prohibits persons with immediate relatives holding foreign citizenship from becoming president. Amending the constitution requires approval by more than 75 percent of members of parliament, giving the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments. NLD efforts to reform the 2008 military-drafted constitution failed in March due to the military’s veto. Significant portions of the population were disenfranchised due to restrictive citizenship laws or the cancellation of elections due to security concerns.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Observers considered the November 8 national election to be generally reflective of the will of the people, notwithstanding some structural shortcomings. The NLD, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, won approximately 80 percent of the contested 1,150 seats at the state, regional, and union levels in the election. The NLD won 396 of 476 races for national assembly seats; a military-affiliated party won 33, and various ethnically based parties took 47. By-elections in 2017 and 2018 were also assessed as basically free and fair. Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency due to her marriage to a British national.

Most potential Muslim candidates were disqualified from running in the November 8 general election by electoral authorities or blocked by their own parties from running, apparently on a discriminatory basis. Some political parties, including the NLD, nominated Muslim candidates. Two Muslim members of parliament were elected. Almost all members of the Rohingya community, many of whom voted prior to 2015, were disenfranchised and barred from running for office. The government also canceled voting in some conflict-affected ethnic minority areas.

The November general election featured more than 90 political parties and more than 5,640 candidates. The electoral commission cancelled elections across most of Rakhine and parts of Chin, Kachin, Mon, and Shan states and Bago Region, which generated further disillusionment in the electoral process among ethnic minorities and disenfranchised approximately 1.5 million persons nationwide. The government did not permit the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya in Rakhine State or in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights commented before the elections that there was “no evidence that the government was willing or prepared to facilitate the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of voting age Rohingya in Rakhine state or in refugee camps in Bangladesh.”

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition parties exercised their rights to assemble and protest. New political parties were generally allowed to register and compete in elections, which featured fewer restrictions than in 2015 on party organization and voter mobilization. Only sporadic interference from military and government officials was reported during the campaign and on November 8, unlike during the 2015 election, when military Special Branch elements were very active as election preparations were underway.

Electoral competition was skewed in part by the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s systematic support from the military, whose personnel and their families were eligible to vote in advance without observers present, in some cases in military barracks, despite a May change to the election law that requires service members to vote at public polling places on election day. Moreover, some legal provisions can be invoked to restrict parties’ operations. The constitution requires that political parties be loyal to the state. Laws allow for penalties, including deregistration, against political parties that accept support from foreign governments or religious bodies or that are deemed to have abused religion for political purposes or disrespected the constitution. The electoral commission, which is appointed by the ruling party, censored opposition party broadcasts on state-run television.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Nevertheless, women and minority groups continued to be underrepresented in government, and policies limited participation in practice. For example, in some municipal elections, the vote was apportioned at the household level, with only one member, usually the male head of household, allowed to vote for the entire household. Women made up only approximately 17 percent of national and local elected legislators.

Ethnic minority parliamentarians from ethnic minority political parties comprised less than 9 percent of legislators at the national, state, and regional level; this did not include the numerous ethnic minority members of the NLD or the Union Solidarity and Development Party (see Recent Elections above for participation of Muslims and Rohingya).

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials and the government continued efforts to curb corruption.

Corruption: Corruption remained widespread, particularly in the judicial sector. Police reportedly often required victims to pay substantial bribes for criminal investigations and routinely extorted money from members of the public. The government took some steps to investigate and address corruption of government officials.

On May 22, former Tanintharyi Region chief minister Lei Maw was sentenced to 30 years in prison for bribery, becoming the most senior official ever to be jailed for corruption. On the other side of the ledger, on August 27, the telecommunications minister ordered a shutdown of the Justice for Myanmar website. The site, established in April, sought to expose corrupt links between the military and business communities.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials were not subject to public financial disclosure laws. The law requires the president and vice presidents to furnish a list of family assets to the speaker of the joint houses of parliament, and the law requires persons appointed by the president to furnish a list of personal assets to the president. The government did not make the reports available to the public.

Civil servants cannot accept gifts worth more than 25,000 kyats ($18). The rules also require civil servants to report all offers of gifts to their supervisors, whether they are accepted.

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

The government did not allow domestic human rights organizations to function independently. Human rights NGOs were able to open offices and operate, but there were reports of harassment and monitoring by authorities, and authorities sometimes pressured hotels and other venues not to host meetings by activists or civil society groups. The government systematically denied international institutions or organizations attempting to investigate human rights abuses access to the country or sensitive regions.

Foreign human rights activists and advocates, including representatives from international NGOs, continued to be restricted to short-term visas that required them to leave the country periodically for renewal. The government continued to monitor the movements of foreigners and interrogated citizens concerning contacts with foreigners.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government has not agreed to the opening of an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and has not approved visa requests for its staff.

The government has also refused to cooperate with or give the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, created by the UN Human Rights Council, access to the country.

The government continued to refuse entry to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar but permitted UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner-Burgener to open an office in the country and to meet with opposition figures, IDPs, senior officials including Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and others in 2019.

In January the International Court of Justice unanimously ordered the government to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the court on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter. The government submitted its first report in May. The report was not made public. The court’s order followed a 2019 suit by the Gambia alleging that Myanmar violated the Genocide Convention by committing atrocities against Rohingya; failing to prevent and punish genocide; and committing continued violations of the convention. International human rights organizations continued to assert that the country remains in violation of its obligations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission investigated some incidents of human rights abuses. The commission has the power to conduct independent inquiries, and in some cases it called on the government to conduct investigations into abuses. Human rights advocates questioned its ability to operate as a credible, independent mechanism, noting a lack of substantive investigations into allegations of widespread and systematic human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces. The commission supported the development of human rights education curricula, distributed human rights materials, and conducted human rights training. During the year it investigated one human trafficking case and pushed for equal rights for women police officers.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry for Rakhine State, formed by the government in 2018, released only the executive summary of its final report on January 21. It described the government security forces’ actions in Rakhine State in 2017 as largely in response to a massive insurgency by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attempted to frame the 2017 violence as part of an armed conflict with Rohingya. The report argued that genocide did not occur and denied the existence of any credible reports of rape and sexual violence, while acknowledging that limited “war crimes and serious human rights violations may have occurred.” As of November, the full report had not been released.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women is illegal but remained a significant problem, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape of a woman outside of marriage carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not a crime unless the wife is younger than 14, and the penalty is a maximum of two years in prison. The law prohibits committing bodily harm against another person, but there are no laws specifically against domestic violence or spousal abuse unless the wife is younger than 14. Overlapping and at times contradictory legal provisions complicated implementation of these limited protections.

The number of reported rapes increased over the previous year, but it was unclear whether this was due to increased awareness or increased incidences of rape. Police generally investigated reported cases of rape, but there were reports police investigations were not sensitive to victims. Civil society groups continued to report police in some cases verbally abused women who reported rape, and women could be sued for impugning the dignity of the perpetrator.

Domestic violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious problem. Abuse within families was prevalent and considered socially acceptable. Spousal abuse or domestic violence was difficult to measure because the government did not maintain comprehensive statistics and victims typically did not report it, although the government attempted to document cases, and reported cases were on the rise. In April Myanmar Times reported the observation by Daw Htar, founder of the NGO Akhaya Women Myanmar, that over the two weeks when the government started community lockdowns in some areas, there was a spike in domestic violence complaints compared to the prelockdown period.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and imposes a maximum of one year’s imprisonment and a fine for verbal harassment and a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine for physical contact. There was no information on the prevalence of the problem because these crimes were largely unreported. Local civil society organizations reported police investigators were not sensitive to victims and rarely followed through with investigations or prosecutions.

Reproductive Rights: The right of individuals to manage their reproductive health is limited by the 2015 Population Control and Health Care Law, which restricts sexual and reproductive rights, including the imposition of birth-spacing requirements. The president or the national government may designate “special regions” for health care that consider population, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. In a special region the government may allow the creation of special health-care organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing regulations related to family planning.

Access to family planning was limited in rural areas, and local organizations noted that the unmet need for family planning was particularly high in Rakhine State. Economic hardship and security concerns in conflict-affected regions also limited access to family planning.

In 2020 limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors was available through both public and private facilities, and the Department of Social Welfare adapted gender-based violence services to COVID-19, including expanding virtual platforms for online training.

According to UN 2017 estimates, the maternal mortality ratio nationwide was 250 deaths per 100,000 live births. The 2017 National Maternal Death Surveillance and Response Report stated the maternal mortality ratio in Rakhine State was the second lowest among states and regions. This was not consistent with the previous pattern of Rakhine State reporting a relatively higher maternal mortality ratio, and the Ministry of Health and Sports acknowledged that the results reflected underreporting of maternal deaths due to the conflict in Rakhine State and other parts of the country. NGOs reported that humanitarian access and movement restrictions among Rohingya limited access to health-care services and contributed to maternal mortality rates in Rakhine State being higher than the national average. Complications resulting from unsafe abortions were also a leading cause of maternal deaths.

Other major factors influencing maternal mortality included poverty; limited availability of and access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information, including contraception, and maternal and newborn health services; a high number of home births; and the lack of access to services from appropriately trained and skilled birth attendants, midwives, auxiliary midwives, basic health staff, and other trained community health workers. The UN Population Fund estimated that skilled health personnel attended only 60 percent of births.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. The law allows the government to impose coercive birth-spacing requirements–36 months between children–if the president or national government designates “special regions” for health care based on factors such as population, migration rate, natural resources, birth rates, and food availability. Once a special region is declared, the government may create special healthcare organizations to perform various tasks, including establishing family planning regulations. The government did not designate any such special regions during the year.

In Rakhine State, local authorities prohibited Rohingya families from having more than two children, although some Rohingya with household registration papers reportedly could circumvent the law.

Discrimination: By law women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men, including property and inheritance rights and religious and personal status, but it was not clear the government enforced the law. Customary law was widely used to address issues of marriage, property, and inheritance; it differs from the provisions of statutory law and is often discriminatory against women.

The law requires equal pay for equal work, but it was not clear the formal sector respected this requirement. NGOs reported some sectors did not comply, and other forms of workplace discrimination were common (see section 7.d.).

Poverty affected women disproportionately.

The law restricts the ability of Buddhist women to marry non-Buddhist men by imposing a requirement of public notification prior to any such marriage and allowing for objections to the marriage to be raised in court, although the law was rarely enforced.

Children

Birth Registration: The law automatically confers full citizenship to children of two parents from one of the 135 recognized national ethnic groups and to children who met other citizenship requirements. Moreover, the government confers full citizenship to second-generation children of both parents with any citizenship, as long as at least one parent has full citizenship. Third-generation children of associate or naturalized citizens can acquire full citizenship. Many long-term residents in the country, including the Rohingya, are not among the recognized national ethnic groups, however, and thus their children are not automatically conferred citizenship (see section 2.g.).

A prominent international NGO noted significant rural-urban disparities in birth registration. In major cities (e.g., Rangoon and Mandalay), births were registered immediately because registration is required to qualify for basic public services and to obtain national identification cards. In smaller towns and villages, birth registration often was informal or nonexistent. For the Rohingya community, birth registration was a significant problem (see section 2.g.). The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State noted in its interim report that nearly half of all residents in Rakhine State lacked birth documentation.

A birth certificate provides important protections for children, particularly against child labor, early marriage, and recruitment into the armed forces and armed groups. Sometimes a lack of birth registration complicated access to public services in remote communities.

Education: By law education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fourth grade (up to age 10). This leaves children ages 10 through 13 vulnerable to child labor, since they are not required to attend school but are not legally permitted to work, because the minimum age for work is 14. The government continued to allocate minimal resources to public education, and schools charged informal fees.

Schools were often unavailable in remote communities and conflict areas, and access to them for internally displaced and stateless children also remained limited.

Child Abuse: Laws prohibit child abuse, but they were neither adequate nor enforced. NGOs reported corporal punishment was widely used against children. The punishment for child abuse is a maximum of two years’ imprisonment or a modest fine. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement continued child protection programs in partnership with UNICEF to improve data collection, develop effective laws, provide psychosocial assistance, and combat trafficking, and added COVID-19 awareness raising. Violence in Rakhine, Chin, Shan, and Kachin states exposed many children to an environment of violence and exploitation.

Online and street protests continued following the alleged May 2019 sexual assault of a two-year-old girl, pseudonym “Victoria,” at a nursery school in Nay Pyi Taw. Protesters raised concerns about the transparency of the trial, and in July 2019 Win Ko Ko Thein, the leader of an online protest campaign, was arrested for Facebook posts “defaming” the police officers investigating the case. Both cases continued as of November. Legal violations during the “Victoria” trial included the police’s December 2019 disclosure of the victim’s name and of photographs further identifying the child and her parents, their occupations, and the family’s address. On June 2, the promotions of three senior police officers responsible were suspended.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law stipulates different minimum ages for marriage based on religion and gender. The minimum age for Buddhists is 18, while the minimum age for non-Buddhists is 16 for boys and 15 for girls. Child marriage occurred, especially in rural areas. There were no reliable statistics on forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Children were subjected to sex trafficking in the country, and a small number of foreign child-sex tourists exploited children, according to Human Rights Watch. The 2019 Child Rights Law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children, including pimping and prostitution; separate provisions within the penal code prohibit sex with a minor younger than 14. The penalty for the purchase and sale of commercial sex acts from a child younger than 18 is 10 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits child pornography and specifies a minimum penalty of two years’ imprisonment and a modest fine. The law on child rights provides for one to seven years’ imprisonment, a substantial fine, or both for sexual trafficking or forced marriage. If a victim is younger than 14, the law considers the sexual act statutory rape. The maximum sentence for statutory rape is two years’ imprisonment when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 14 and 10 years’ to life imprisonment when the victim is younger than 12.

The country’s antitrafficking in persons law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense.

Displaced Children: The United Nations estimated that approximately 40 percent of IDPs were children. The mortality rate for child IDPs was significantly higher than the national average.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was one synagogue in Rangoon serving a very small Jewish population. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law directs the government to ensure that persons with disabilities have easy access to public transportation. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions.

Civil society groups reported that children with disabilities attended school through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other persons; many never attended school due to stigma and lack of any accommodation for their needs.

Persons with disabilities reported stigma, discrimination, and abuse from members of the public and government officials. Students with disabilities cited barriers to inclusive education as a significant disadvantage.

Military veterans with disabilities in urban areas received official benefits on a priority basis, usually a civil service job at pay equivalent to rank. Persons with disabilities in rural areas typically did not have access to livelihood opportunities or affordable medical treatment. Official assistance to civilian persons with disabilities in principle included two-thirds of pay for a maximum of one year for a temporary disability and a tax-free stipend for permanent disability. The law providing job protection for workers who become disabled was not implemented.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Wide-ranging governmental and societal discrimination against members of minority groups persisted, including in areas such as education, housing, employment, and access to health services. Ethnic minority groups constituted 30 to 40 percent of the population. The seven ethnic minority states comprised approximately 60 percent of the national territory, and significant numbers of minority group members also resided in the country’s other regions.

International observers noted that significant wage discrepancies based on religious and ethnic backgrounds were common.

Burmese remained the mandatory language of instruction in government schools. The government’s official education plan does not cover issues related to mother tongue instruction, but ethnic languages were taught as extra subjects in some government schools. Progress was slow due to insufficient resources provided by the government, the nonstandardization of regional languages, a lack of educational material in minority languages, and varying levels of interest. In schools controlled by armed ethnic groups, students sometimes had no access to the national curriculum.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that claims to have lived in the area of Rakhine State for generations. The Rohingya faced severe discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Large numbers of Rohingya were forced into internal exile in 2012, and the majority of the population was forced into refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017 during a military ethnic cleansing campaign.

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

Political reforms in recent years made it easier for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community to hold public events and openly participate in society, yet discrimination, stigma, and a lack of acceptance among the general population persisted. Transgender persons, for example, were subject to police harassment, and their identity is not recognized by the state. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment. LGBTI persons reported facing discrimination from healthcare providers.

On March 12, an openly gay restaurant owner was sentenced to five years in prison under the “unnatural offenses” law for allegedly sexually assaulting a male member of his staff.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were continued reports of societal violence and discrimination, including employment discrimination, against persons with HIV/AIDS. Negative incidents, such as exclusion from social gatherings and activities; verbal insults, harassment, and threats; and physical assaults continued to occur. Laws that criminalize behaviors linked to an increased risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS remain in place, directly fueling stigma and discrimination against persons engaged in these behaviors and impeding their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services.

Although the law nominally decriminalizes drug use, possession of small amounts of illegal drugs still leads to long prison sentences. Excessive law enforcement activities and local antidrug groups threatened at-risk drug abusers and hindered access to HIV, harm reduction, and other essential health services. Likewise, the antisodomy law creates an environment that discourages men who have sex with men from accessing available services.

High levels of social stigma and discrimination against female sex workers and transgender women hindered their access to HIV prevention, treatment, and social protection services. Police harassment of sex workers deterred them from carrying condoms.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. The law permits labor organizations to demand the reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity, but it does not explicitly prohibit antiunion discrimination in the form of demotions or mandatory transfers, nor does it offer protection for workers seeking to form a union. The law does not provide adequate protection for workers from dismissal before a union is officially registered.

Laws prohibit civil servants and personnel of the security services and police from forming unions. The law permits workers to join unions only within their category of trade or activity, and the definition of trade or activity lacks clarity. Basic labor organizations must have a minimum of 30 workers and register through township registrars with the Chief Registrar’s Office of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population (Ministry of Labor). Township-level labor organizations require support from a minimum of 10 percent of relevant basic labor organizations to register; regional or state labor organizations require a minimum of 10 percent of relevant township labor organizations. Each of these higher-level unions must include only organizations within the same trade or activity. Similarly, federations and confederations also require a minimum number of regional or state labor organizations (10 percent and 20 percent, respectively) from the next lower level in order to register formally. The law permits labor federations and confederations to affiliate with international union federations and confederations.

The law provides for voluntary registration for local NGOs, including NGOs working on labor issues. Organizations that choose to register are required to send organizational bylaws and formation documents to the government and secure sponsorship from a government ministry. Broader restrictions on freedom of assembly remained in place (see section 2.b.).

The law gives unions the right to represent workers, to negotiate and bargain collectively with employers, and to send representatives to a conciliation body or conciliation tribunal. Union leaders’ rights to organize, however, are only protected after the official registration of the union. The law does not contain detailed measures regarding management of the bargaining process, such as requiring bargaining to be in good faith or setting parameters for bargaining or the registration, extension, or enforcement of collective agreements. The National Tripartite Dialogue Forum, with representatives from government, business, and labor unions, met during the year. The forum consulted with parliament on labor legislation.

The law stipulates that disputes in special economic zones be settled in accordance with original contracts and existing laws. The government appointed a labor inspector for each such zone and established zonal tripartite committees responsible for setting wage levels and monitoring the ratio of local and foreign labor.

The government partially enforced applicable labor laws; penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. As of November the implementing regulations for the Settlement of Labor Dispute Law amended in 2019 remained in draft.

The law provides the right to strike in most sectors, with a majority vote by workers, permission of the relevant labor federations, and detailed information and three days’ advance notice provided to the employer and the relevant conciliation body. The law does not permit strikes or lockouts in essential services such as water, electric, or health services. Lockouts are permitted in public utility services (including transportation; cargo and freight; postal; sanitation; information, communication, and technology; energy; petroleum; and financial sectors), with a minimum of 14 days’ notice provided to the relevant labor organizations and conciliation body. Strikes in public utility services generally require the same measures as in other sectors, but with 14 days’ advance notice and negotiation between workers and management before the strike takes place in order to determine maintenance of minimum service levels. The law prohibits strikes addressing problems not directly relevant to labor issues.

The amended law no longer defines complaints as “individual” or “collective,” but as “rights-based” or “benefits-based.” A “rights-based” dispute includes violations of labor laws, whereas a “benefits-based” dispute pertains to working conditions as set by the collective agreement, contract, or position. The type of dispute determines the settlement procedure. Under the amended law, “rights-based” disputes do not go through a conciliation process or an arbitration proceeding but go directly to court proceedings. The amended law has no requirements for good faith bargaining and permits worker welfare committees to negotiate disputes, even in workplaces where unions exist. The amended law significantly increases fines for labor violations, but it eliminates prison terms as punishment for violations.

Labor groups continued to report labor organizations’ inability to register at the national level, a legal prerequisite for entering labor framework agreements with multinational companies.

There were continued reports of employers engaging in forms of antiunion discrimination. The International Labor Organization (ILO), labor activists, and media outlets reported employers firing or engaging in other forms of reprisal against workers who formed or joined labor unions, including using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for dismissing workers organizing unions in factories. Trade unions reported cases in which criminal charges were filed against workers for exercising their right to strike, and trade union members were arrested and charged with violating peaceful assembly laws when holding demonstrations regarding labor rights generally.

Worker organizations reported that formal dispute settlement and court procedures were not effective at enforcing labor laws. Workers resorted to engaging in campaigns with international brands to pressure factories to reinstate workers or resolve disputes. For example, in August, after negotiations between Kamcaine Manufacturing with the Industrial Worker’s Federation of Myanmar regarding terminations, Kamcaine Manufacturing agreed to reinstate 57 dismissed union members, including seven executive members. Similarly at the Youngan factory, union organizers were dismissed, but the company later complied with the arbitration council’s decision to reinstate the workers.

Labor organizations also reported that local labor offices imposed unnecessary bureaucratic requirements for union registration that were inconsistent with the law.

Workers and workers’ organizations continued to report they generally found the Ministry of Labor to be helpful in urging employers to negotiate.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Laws prohibit most forms of forced or compulsory labor, although it is allowed for use by the military and penal institutions. Laws also provide for the punishment of persons who impose forced labor on others. The law provides for criminal penalties for forced labor violations; penalties differ depending on whether the military, the government, or a private citizen committed the violation. The penalties are commensurate with analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the law, particularly in the areas where significant conflict was occurring.

The government established a forced labor complaints mechanism under the Ministry of Labor, which began receiving and referring cases during the year, replacing the previous mechanism run in coordination with the ILO. The ILO and unions expressed concerns that the government’s mechanism does not provide sufficient protections for victims. Since February the mechanism had received at least 34 complaints and carried over an additional 24 open cases reported through the interim mechanism that took over from the ILO in 2019. Of these 58 combined cases, the labor ministry reported that 25 were officially listed as settled, while 33 were listed as continuing cases. Cases are listed as settled once they have been referred to the appropriate authorities and action has been taken. For example, cases of underage military recruitment are considered settled once they have been referred to the Ministry of Defense and the victim has been released from military service and provided social assistance. These complaints were in addition to the 61 complaints received directly by the ILO as of November.

Although reports of forced labor continued, the ILO reported their number of complaints decreased. Reports of forced labor predominantly arose in conflict and ceasefire areas. The complaints mechanism was not accessible in these areas.

The military’s use of forced labor declined, although the 2020 Secretary-General’s Report on Children and Armed Conflict noted an increase in use of children by the military with indicators of forced labor in conflict-affected areas in Rakhine State. The military continued to compel forced labor by civilians as porters, cleaners, and cooks in conflict areas. Although the military and the government received complaints through the complaints mechanism about the military’s use of forced labor, no military perpetrators were tried in civilian court, and it was not possible to confirm military assertions that perpetrators were subjected to military justice.

Prisoners in the country’s 50 labor camps engaged in forced labor (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions).

The ILO did not receive any verified reports of forced labor in the formal private sector, although domestic workers remained at risk of forced labor. There were reports of forced labor in the production of a variety of agricultural products and of jade, rubies, and teak. Traffickers forced men to work domestically and abroad in fishing, manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, and construction, and they subjected women and girls primarily to sex trafficking or forced labor in garment manufacturing and domestic service.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The 2019 Child Rights Law sets the minimum age at 14 for work in certain sectors, including shops and factories; the law establishes special provisions for “youth employment” for those older than 14. There is, however, no minimum age for work for all sectors in which children were employed, including agriculture and informal work. Some sector-specific laws identify activities that are prohibited for children younger than 18. The law prohibits employees younger than 16 from working in a hazardous environment, and the government prepared a hazardous work list. Penalties under the Child Rights Law are analogous to other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Trained inspectors from the Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department monitored the application of these regulations, but their legal authority only extends to factories. In addition, inspectors were hindered by a general lack of resources.

The United Nations documented a sharp reduction in the recruitment of children by the Burmese military for use in armed combat, although it continued to document cases, mainly in Rakhine State, of the use of children by the military in noncombat roles. Both practices continue to occur within some ethnic armed groups (see section 1.g.).

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Child labor remained prevalent and highly visible. Poverty led some parents to remove their children from school before completion of compulsory education.

In cities children worked mostly as street vendors, refuse collectors, restaurant and teashop attendants, and domestic workers. Children often worked in the informal economy, in some instances exposing them to drugs and petty crime, risk of arrest, commercial sexual exploitation, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections (also see section 6). Children were also vulnerable to forced labor in teashops, agriculture and forestry, gem production, begging, and other fields. In rural areas children routinely worked in family agricultural activities, occasionally in situations of forced labor. Child labor was also reported in the extraction of gems and jade, as well as rubber and bricks.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not prohibit employment discrimination.

Restrictions against women in employment exist based on social and cultural practices and beliefs. Women remained underrepresented in most traditionally male-dominated occupations (forestry, carpentry, masonry, and fishing) and were effectively barred by hiring practices and cultural barriers. Women were not legally prohibited from working in certain professions, except in underground mines. The law governing hiring of civil service personnel states that nothing shall prevent the appointment of men to “positions that are suitable for men only,” with no further definition of what constitutes positions “suitable for men only.”

There were reports government and private actors practiced discrimination that impeded Muslim-owned businesses’ operations and undercut their ability to hire and retain labor, maintain proper working standards, and secure public and private contracts. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including the denial of promotions and firing of LGBTI persons. Activists reported job opportunities for many openly gay and lesbian persons were limited and noted a general lack of support from society as a whole. Activists reported that in addition to general societal discrimination, persons with HIV/AIDS faced employment discrimination in both the public and private sectors, including suspensions and the loss of employment following positive results from mandatory workplace HIV testing.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The official minimum daily wage was above the poverty line. The minimum wage covers a standard eight-hour workday across all sectors and industries and applies to all workers in the formal sector except for those in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. The law requires the minimum wage to be revised every two years. Overtime cannot exceed 12 hours per workweek, should not go past midnight, and can exceed 16 hours in a workweek only on special occasions. The law also stipulates that an employee’s total working hours cannot exceed 11 hours per day (including overtime and a one-hour break). The law applies to shops, commercial establishments, and establishments for public entertainment. The law requires employers to pay employees on the date their salary is due for companies with 100 or fewer employees. For companies with more than 100 employees, the employer is required to pay employees within five days from the designated payday. Up to 75 percent of the workforce was in the informal sector or self-employed and thus was not covered by the laws.

The 2019 Occupational Safety and Health law sets standards for occupational safety and health, and welfare. The law does not provide inspectors the authority to make unannounced inspections or initiate sanctions. The Ministry of Labor has the authority to suspend businesses operating at risk to worker health and safety until risks are remediated.

Labor unions reported instances in which workers could not remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Unions reported that workers concerned about COVID-19 positive cases in factories were nonetheless required to work. Penalties for safety and health violations were not commensurate with those for crimes like negligence.

The Ministry of Labor’s Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department oversees labor conditions in the private sector. Inspectors were authorized to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar violations. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of labor law inspectors and factory inspectors was insufficient to address occupational safety and health standards, wage, salary, overtime, and other issues adequately. In some sectors other ministries regulated occupational safety and health laws (e.g., the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation).

Workers’ organizations alleged government inspections were rare and often announced with several days’ notice that allowed factory owners to bring facilities–often temporarily–into compliance. Corruption and bribery of inspectors reportedly occurred, according to UNICEF, unions, and the labor NGO Solidarity Center.

The public sector was reasonably likely to respect labor laws; frequent violations occurred in private enterprises. Workers continued to submit complaints to relevant government agencies and the dispute settlement mechanism.

There were no recent statistics available on industrial accidents leading to death or serious injury of workers. In July a landslide in a mining area killed at least 172 persons scavenging for jade in an area closed because of heavy rains.

Cambodia

Executive Summary

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 national election, having banned the main opposition party in 2017, turning the country into what is now a de facto one-party state. The prime minister since 1985, Hun Sen, continued in office. International observers, including foreign governments and international and domestic nongovernmental organizations, criticized the election as neither free nor fair and not representative of the will of the people.

The Cambodian National Police maintain internal security. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are responsible for external security and also have some domestic security responsibilities. The national police report to the Ministry of Interior, while the armed forces report to the Ministry of National Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces, which have at times threatened force against opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling party. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; political prisoners and detainees; the absence of judicial independence; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on political participation; diminishing ability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor, including forced or compulsory child labor.

A pervasive culture of impunity continued. There were credible reports that government officials, including police, committed abuses with impunity, and in most cases the government took little or no action. Government officials and their family members were generally immune to prosecution.

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

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

There was at least one report that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On January 1, Tuy Sros, one of five persons arrested in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey Province, died in police custody. Two others arrested with him reported that military police beat Sros unconscious and refused to provide medical treatment. After widespread coverage of the case in local media, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation, and two police officers were arrested.

b. Disappearance

Eyewitnesses reported that on June 4, several armed men abducted Thai prodemocracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside his Phnom Penh apartment in broad daylight. Several human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO) accused the Cambodian government of not actively investigating Wanchalearm’s disappearance, and alleged that Thai and Cambodian authorities may have colluded on the case. Authorities initially publicly denied an abduction had taken place, claiming that official records showed Wanchalearm had left the country three years earlier. The government launched an investigation into the case on June 9 after reportedly receiving a request to do so from the Thai embassy. As of year’s end, the Cambodian police investigation had not uncovered any suspects, a possible motive, or the whereabouts of Wanchalearm. A media officer of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva raised concerns that the incident “may now comprise an enforced disappearance.” As of November the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was conducting an investigation.

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

The constitution prohibits such practices; however, beatings and other forms of physical mistreatment of police detainees and prison inmates reportedly continued during the year.

There were credible reports military and police officials used physical and psychological abuse and occasionally severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation. On May 8, the aunt of Orn Tith alleged that prison guards had tortured and murdered her nephew, who was in custody for stealing and damaging a car, and that his body was covered in bruises when she went to retrieve it. In a report released in May, Amnesty International wrote that authorities “routinely subject suspects to torture and other forms of ill-treatment” as part of the nation’s “war on drugs” campaign. According to eyewitnesses, land rights activist Tuy Sros was tortured before his death (see section 1.a.).

Although the law requires police, prosecutors, and judges to investigate all complaints, including those of police abuse, in practice there was impunity for government officials and family members for human rights abuses. Judges and prosecutors rarely conducted independent investigations. Although the law allows for investigations into accusations of government abuse, in practice cases were pursued only when there was a public outcry or they drew the prime minister’s attention. If abuse cases came to trial, presiding judges usually passed down verdicts based only on written reports from police and witness testimony. In general police received little professional training on protecting or respecting human rights.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh and in many cases life threatening.

Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding was a problem. According to the Ministry of Interior, as of April authorities held an estimated 39,000 prisoners and detainees in 29 prisons designed to hold a maximum of 11,000 prisoners. The ministry reported the government’s “war on drugs” had exacerbated overcrowding as approximately 22,000 of the prisoners and detainees were held for drug trafficking crimes.

In most prisons there was no separation of adult and juvenile prisoners (including children living with incarcerated mothers) or of persons convicted of serious crimes, minor offenses, or in pretrial detention. According to a local NGO, as of January prisons held 43 pregnant women and 103 children living with their mothers. The General Department of Prisons did not report how many prisoners died in custody. In February a five-month-old baby living with his mother in a prison died. The court had sent the child’s mother, eight months pregnant at the time, into pretrial detention in June 2019 on charges of possessing a small amount of illegal drugs. She was still awaiting trial when her baby died.

Allowances for food and other necessities were inadequate in many cases. Family members often provided these at least in part and sometimes had to pay a bribe to do so. Observers continued to report that authorities misappropriated allowances for prisoners’ food, exacerbating malnutrition and disease. Authorities did not provide updated figures on access to clean water; as of 2016, only 18 of 29 prisons provided clean water. Prisons did not have adequate facilities for persons with mental or physical disabilities. NGOs also alleged prison authorities gave preferential treatment, including increased access to visitors, transfer to better cells, and the opportunity to leave cells during the day, to prisoners whose families could pay bribes. According to a local NGO, groups of inmates organized and directed by prison guards violently attacked other prisoners. NGOs reported significant drug use by prisoners, made possible by bribing guards.

The country had seven government and three private drug rehabilitation centers. Most observers agreed the majority of detainees in such facilities were there involuntarily, committed by police or family members without due process. According to the National Authority for Combating Drugs, no detainee was younger than age 18. Observers noted employees at the centers frequently controlled detainees with physical restraints and subjected them to intense physical exercise.

Administration: There were no prison ombudsmen or other government advocates for prisoners. Prisoners could submit complaints about alleged abuse to judicial authorities through lawyers, but a large number of prisoners and detainees could not afford legal representation. The government stated it investigated complaints and monitored prison and detention center conditions through the General Department of Prisons, which reportedly produced biannual reports on prison management. The prisons department, however, did not release the reports despite frequent requests by civil society organizations.

Authorities routinely allowed prisoners and detainees access to visitors, although rights organizations confirmed families sometimes had to bribe prison officials to visit prisoners. There were credible reports officials demanded bribes before allowing prisoners to attend trials or appeal hearings, before releasing inmates who had served their full term of imprisonment, or before allowing inmates to exit their cells. NGOs reported unequal punishment among the inmates, noting that wealthy prisoners were better treated than others, while greater restrictions such as stricter surveillance and not being allowed to receive gifts from visitors were placed on human right defenders.

Independent Monitoring: The government allowed, subject to preconditions and restrictions, international and domestic human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Commission, to visit prisons and provide human rights training to prison guards. Some NGOs reported limited cooperation from local authorities who, for example, generally made it difficult to gain access to pretrial detainees.

The Ministry of Interior required lawyers, human rights monitors, and other visitors to obtain permission prior to visiting prisoners–often from multiple government agencies depending on the case–and sometimes the government required NGOs to sign a formal memorandum of understanding delineating their roles during prison visits.

Although some local independent monitoring groups were able to meet privately with prisoners, others were not. A local human rights NGO that provides medical care to prisoners reported the government periodically refused requests to visit convicted prisoners who were members of an opposition political party. Another NGO reported the government accused it of harboring political bias and using its visits to embolden political prisoners. Representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission reported they were usually able to visit prisons and hold private meetings when interviewing a particular prisoner of interest.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and limits pretrial detention to a maximum of 18 months; however, the government in some cases did not respect these prohibitions, notably holding former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha under house arrest arbitrarily and well beyond the legal limit. After 26 months in pretrial detention, in November 2019 the government partially lifted judicial restrictions, effectively releasing him from house arrest, but not allowing him to travel abroad or engage in political activity. In addition the charges of treason against him still stood, and he remained under court supervision.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires police to obtain a warrant from an investigating judge prior to making an arrest, unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. The law allows police to take a person into custody and conduct an investigation for 48 hours, excluding weekends and government holidays, before they must file charges or release a suspect. In felony cases of exceptional circumstances prescribed by law, police may detain a suspect for an additional 24 hours with the approval of a prosecutor. Nevertheless, authorities routinely held persons for extended periods before charging them.

There was a bail system, but many prisoners, especially those without legal representation, had no opportunity to seek release on bail. Authorities routinely denied bail for politically sensitive cases.

Arbitrary Arrest: As of July a local NGO had recorded 16 arbitrary arrests. The actual number of arbitrary arrests and detentions was likely higher, since many victims in rural areas did not file complaints due to the difficulty of traveling to human rights NGO offices or due to concern for their family’s security. Authorities took no legal or disciplinary action against persons responsible for the illegal detentions.

On June 2, Koh Kong provincial authorities seized 18 activists’ bicycles and blocked them from proceeding further after they launched a cycling trip to the capital to draw attention to local environmental issues. Authorities initially claimed the group had to be screened for COVID-19, but after conducting nasal swabs, authorities confiscated their bicycles until the activists agreed to call off their plans rather than face arrest for “incitement.” Local rights NGOs described the government actions as politically motivated, pointing out that the group had not broken any laws.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Vocational Training reported that in 2019 the government rounded up 1,000 homeless persons, beggars, persons with mental disabilities, and persons engaged in prostitution. Authorities placed them in social affairs centers without adequate medical treatment or food. In April the ministry acknowledged it had been unsuccessful in treating or reintegrating these individuals into society.

Pretrial Detention: Under the law police may arrest and detain accused persons for a maximum of 24 hours before allowing them access to legal counsel, but authorities routinely held prisoners incommunicado for several days before granting them access to a lawyer or family members. Government officials stated such prolonged detentions were frequently the result of the limited capacity of the court system. The law allows for a maximum pretrial detention of six months for misdemeanors and 18 months for felonies, but NGOs reported authorities held some accused in pretrial detention for longer than the legal maximums. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees without legal representation. In April the Ministry of Interior reported holding 13,729 pretrial detainees, approximately one-third of all prisoners.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: A backlog of court cases and long delays in obtaining judicial rulings interfered with a person’s right to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of his or her detention. On May 18, the Justice Ministry launched a six-month campaign to resolve the backlog of nearly 40,000 court cases across the country.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts. Court decisions were often subject to political influence. Judicial officials, up to and including the chief of the Supreme Court, often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party, and observers alleged only those with ties to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) or the executive received judicial appointments. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined. In the continuing treason trial of former political opposition leader Kem Sokha, the government has given conflicting statements, at times insisting the court was acting independently, while at other times insisting the trial will last for “years” or that the outcome will depend on other factors, such as the EU’s partial withdrawal of trade benefits.

Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was very inefficient and could not assure due process.

Observers alleged the Bar Association of Cambodia heavily favored admission of CPP-aligned members at the expense of nonaligned and opposition attorneys and at times admitted unqualified individuals to the bar solely due to their political affiliation. Impartial analysts revealed that many applicants to the bar paid high bribes for admittance. On October 16, Ly Chantola, a supporter of the governing party who had helped draft the law dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was elected president of the Bar Association.

A shortage of judges and courtrooms delayed many cases. NGOs also believed court officials focused on cases that might benefit them financially. Court delays or corrupt practices often allowed accused persons to escape prosecution. There were widespread allegations that rich or powerful defendants, including members of the security forces, often paid victims and authorities to drop criminal charges. These allegations were supported by NGO reports and instances of rich defendants appearing free in public after their high-profile arrests were reported in the media without further coverage of court proceedings or final outcomes of the cases. Authorities sometimes urged victims or their families to accept financial restitution in exchange for dropping criminal charges or for failing to appear as witnesses.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary rarely enforced this right.

Defendants are by law required to be promptly informed of the charges against them, presumed innocent, and have the right of appeal, but they often resorted to bribery rather than rely on the judicial process. Trials are not always public and frequently face delays due to court bureaucracy. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney, confront and question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law, however, allows trials in absentia, and courts have convicted suspects in absentia. In felony cases, if a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the law requires the court to provide the defendant with free legal representation; however, the judiciary was not always able to provide legal counsel, and most defendants sought assistance from NGOs, pro bono representation, or “voluntarily” proceeded without legal representation. In the absence of the defense attorneys required in felony cases, trial courts routinely adjourned cases until defendants could secure legal representation, a process that often took months. Trials were typically perfunctory, and extensive cross-examination usually did not take place. NGOs reported sworn written statements from witnesses and the accused in many cases constituted the only evidence presented at trials. The courts offered free interpretation.

There was a critical shortage of trained lawyers, particularly outside the capital. The right to a fair public trial often was denied de facto for persons without means to secure counsel. A 2017 report by the International Commission of Jurists indicated the high cost of bribes needed to join the bar association was partly responsible for keeping the number of trained lawyers low, which helped raise lawyers’ income whether earned through legal or illegal means.

Authorities sometimes allegedly coerced confessions through beatings or threats or forced illiterate defendants to sign written confessions without informing them of the contents. Courts accepted such forced confessions as evidence during trials despite legal prohibitions against doing so. According to a human rights NGO that observed the appellate court for a year (2017-18), 10 defendants were threatened and 21 defendants were tortured to confess. The only appeals court is in Phnom Penh, and NGOs reported that fewer than half of defendants were present at their appeals because of transport problems from other parts of the country.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

As of August a local human rights NGO estimated authorities held at least 40 political prisoners or detainees, 23 of whom were officials or supporters of the dissolved political opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. More than 80 opposition party supporters and activists arrested in 2019 were released on bail with charges still pending and could face re-arrest any time.

On January 15, CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s trial began. Initially, only a limited audience–one diplomat plus interpreter from each embassy–was permitted to observe proceedings. Under public pressure the court relented, also permitting NGO representatives and independent media to attend. Hearings in Sokha’s case were indefinitely postponed in March due to COVID-19 concerns and as of November had not resumed. In July the court warned Sokha that his trips to provinces outside of Phnom Penh could be interpreted as “political activities”–banned under the terms of his court-supervised release from house arrest. On October 16, local government authorities temporarily stopped Sokha from distributing aid to flood victims in Banteay Meanchey Province, deeming it a “political activity.”

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The country has a system in place for hearing civil cases, and citizens are entitled to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Some administrative and judicial remedies were available. NGOs reported, however, that public distrust in the judicial system due to corruption and political control deterred many from filing lawsuits and that authorities often did not enforce court orders.

Property Restitution

Forced collectivization and the relocation of much of the population under the Khmer Rouge left land ownership unclear. The land law states that any person who peacefully possessed private or state land (excluding public lands, such as parks) or inhabited state buildings without contest for five years prior to the 2001 promulgation of a law on restitution has the right to apply for a definitive title to that property. Most citizens, however, lacked the knowledge and means to obtain formal documentation of land ownership.

Provincial and district land offices continued to follow pre-2001 land registration procedures, which did not include accurate land surveys or opportunities for public comment. Land speculation in the absence of clear title fueled disputes in every province and increased tensions between poor rural communities and speculators. Some urban communities faced forced eviction to make way for commercial development projects.

Authorities continued to force inhabitants to relocate from land in dispute, although the number of cases declined in recent years. Some persons also used the threat of legal action or eviction to intimidate poor and vulnerable persons into selling their land at below-market values. As of July a local NGO reported 44 new cases of land grabbing and forced evictions. Another human rights NGO investigated 33 new cases of land grabbing as of June, affecting 1,327 families across the country.

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

Although the law provides for the privacy of residence and correspondence and prohibits illegal searches, NGOs reported police routinely conducted searches and seizures without warrants. The government routinely leaked personal correspondence and recordings of telephone calls by opposition and civil society leaders to government-aligned media.

NGOs and international media reported that in May the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the cabinet published fake videos on social media in an attempt to smear the reputation of internationally renowned activist monk Luon Sovath. The videos of Sovath–known for his work documenting land rights abuses–included doctored recordings of his telephone conversations. The government used the social media postings as the reason for defrocking Sovath and charging him with sexual assault. Sovath subsequently fled the country and applied for political asylum in Switzerland.

Local authorities reportedly entered and searched community-based organizations and union offices.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

On April 29, a new state of emergency law went into effect. The law, which the prime minister claimed was necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic, allows the government to ban or limit freedoms of travel, assembly, information distribution, and the ability to leave one’s home during a declared emergency. NGOs and UN experts condemned the law, arguing that it lacked an effective oversight mechanism and could be used to infringe on the rights of the people. As of November the government had not declared a state of emergency.

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. Since 2017, however, the government has carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media and dissenting voices in the country and enacted ever-greater restrictions on free expression; many individuals and institutions reported widespread self-censorship.

Freedom of Speech: The constitution grants freedom of speech except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive implementing the criminal defamation law reiterates these limits.

Election laws require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaigns and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties in the media.

The government arrested and prosecuted citizens on disinformation and incitement charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Police and courts interpreted “incitement” broadly; as of June authorities had made more than 17 arrests for statements posted to social media, many related to the COVID-19 pandemic. NGOs reported that police forced 11 individuals to sign agreements not to post “fake news” in exchange for dropping charges. On March 12, police in Kampot forced a 14-year-old to apologize in front of her school after a classmate posted on social media her private message claiming that three persons had died of COVID-19 in her town. A Kampot NGO recorded 27 cases of violations of freedom of speech.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government, military forces, and the ruling party continued to own or otherwise influence newspapers and broadcast media; there were few significant independent sources for news. The three largest progovernment newspapers did not criticize the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. In April the Ministry of Information revoked the license of radio station Rithysen after the station owner criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Election Committee (NEC) code of conduct for the 2018 election established a substantial fine for reporters who interviewed any voter near a polling station or published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election.

Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. On June 25, the government arrested Ros Sokhet for “incitement to provoke social chaos” after he criticized on Facebook the government’s pandemic response. In April the government arrested Sovann Rithy, the owner of TV FB, on the same charge, after he posted on social media an exact quote from the prime minister telling motorbike taxi and tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers to sell their vehicles if they had trouble making ends meet amid the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On October 27, the Supreme Court ruled against an appeal by former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, allowing an investigation into espionage charges against the two to continue. The two were charged in 2017 with “collecting information illegally for a foreign nation” and in 2018 with distributing pornography. If found guilty of the first charge, the two face seven to 15 years in prison. NGOs and observers argued that the case was politically motivated and pointed to the prolonged trial and confiscation of the journalists’ passports as proof of government intimidation of media.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government, however, used other means to censor media, most notably through its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or the CPP. Private media admitted to practicing self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. Reporters claimed that newspaper editors told them not to write on topics that would offend the government and have also reported self-censoring due to the chilling effect of recent criminal cases against journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law limits expression that infringes on public security or libels or slanders the monarch, and it prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame the king, government leaders, or public institutions. The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests.

National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ and media’s rights to criticize government policies and officials.

From January to March, the government arrested 17 individuals who shared information about COVID-19 on social media. Government spokesperson Phay Siphan stated this information sharing was “disturbing and dangerous” and could affect national security and spread panic.

Internet Freedom

There were credible reports that government entities monitored online communications.

The telecommunications law was widely criticized by leading civil society and human rights activists, who stated it provides the government broad authority to monitor secretly online discussion and communications on private telecommunication devices. The law gives the government legal authority to monitor every telephone conversation, text message, email, social media activity, and correspondence between individuals without their consent or a warrant. Any opinions expressed in these exchanges that the government deemed to impinge on its definition of national security could result in a maximum 15 years’ imprisonment.

The government has the authority to shut down any social media page or website that publishes information leading to “turmoil in the society that undermine[d] national defense, national security, national relations with other countries, the economy, social order, discrimination, or national culture or tradition.” In April the government revoked the license of popular Facebook news site, TV FB, when the director posted–on his personal social media account–a quote from coronavirus-related remarks made by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A “cyber war team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit was responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. In 2019 the prime minister threatened that his cyber experts could in four minutes identify, to within five feet, the telephone of anyone who posted a defamatory Facebook post. On October 26, the prime minister played a recording of a private Zoom session in which exiled opposition parliamentarian Ho Vann allegedly urged opposition supporters to protest in front of the Chinese embassy. Hun Sen warned Ho Vann to “behave appropriately” as his wife and children were still living in Cambodia.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no formal or overt government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although scholars tended to exercise caution when teaching political subjects due to fear of offending politicians. Many individuals in academia resorted to self-censorship or expressed their opinions anonymously.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this right. Only 40 percent of respondents in a survey released in July for the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project said they felt free to assemble peacefully, compared with 65 percent in 2016.

The law requires advance notification for protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security–terms left undefined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation–as reasons for denying permits.

There were credible reports the government prevented associations and NGOs from organizing human rights-related events and meetings because those NGOs failed to receive permission from local authorities; although the law requires organizers to notify local authorities at least five days in advance of a demonstration, it does not require preapproval of such events. Government authorities occasionally cited the law to break up meetings and training programs deemed hostile to the government.

Despite these restrictions, the press reported a number of unauthorized public protests related to a variety of issues, including land and labor disputes and demands to release political prisoners. Since the arrest of union leader Rong Chhun on July 31, authorities on multiple occasions forcibly dispersed protesters demanding his release, leading to at least four injuries. In other cases police arrested and charged some demonstrators for trespassing on private property and protesting without a valid permit. On September 7, police arrested several organizers of a protest gathering in Phnom Penh planned for the following day to demand the release of Rong Chhun and other activists. The gathering went ahead, and some participants were arrested.

According to a local NGO, as of July there had been 62 cases of violations of freedom of assembly. Another human rights NGO recorded 185 assemblies–101 related to land rights, 68 to workers’ rights, and 16 others–taking place from April 2019 to March. Of those, authorities restricted 53 in some way and stopped 21 more.

On July 10, the fourth anniversary of the death of prominent government critic Kem Ley, authorities closed a convenience store at the Caltex Bokorpetrol gas station where he had been shot and stopped NGOs and activists from gathering in his hometown to prevent possible demonstrations or protests.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government continued to restrict it, targeting specifically groups it believed could be involved in political dissent. The law requires all associations and NGOs to register and to be politically neutral, which not only restricts the right to association but also restricts those organizations’ rights to free expression.

Vague provisions in several laws prohibiting any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and the culture of Cambodian society” created a substantial risk of arbitrary and politicized restriction of the right of association. According to critics, the laws on associations and trade unions establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, reinforcing legal and political objections to registering groups. Laws on reporting activities and finances, including the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts also impose burdensome obligations that also allow officials to restrict or close organizations for petty reasons. Some NGOs and unions complained that police carefully monitored their activities and intimidated participants by sending uniformed or plainclothes police to observe their meetings and training sessions.

A local NGO recorded 333 cases of the government restricting freedom of association from April 2019 to March, targeting the former opposition party in 182 cases, NGOs in 103, worker unions in 25, and informal community groups in 23.

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. In April the government restricted the movement of persons into and out of the capital during the lunar new year holiday in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Exile: Some government critics and opposition politicians have gone into self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The system, however, is not equally accessible to all refugees and asylum seekers and is not transparent. Asylum seekers who enter the country without documentation or overstay their visas are vulnerable to deportation. The government does not grant resident status or a resident “book” to refugees, only a “refugee card.”

Freedom of Movement: Authorities restrict the movement of refugees. For example, local authorities require Montagnards who have been granted refugee status to stay confined to their temporary homes, aside from shopping trips for groceries and other essential items.

Employment: The law allows refugees to work and operate a business. Refugees, however, are generally not provided with resident status or resident books, making it difficult to exercise these rights.

Access to Basic Services: The government’s refusal to grant resident status and resident books to refugees limits their access to basic services.

g. Stateless Persons

The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless. According to UNHCR, there were an estimated 57,444 stateless persons in country as of the end of 2019, primarily ethnic Vietnamese. The government did not effectively implement laws or policies to provide such persons the opportunity to gain nationality (see section 6, Children). The most common reason for statelessness was lack of proper documents from the country of origin. According to an NGO, individuals without proof of nationality often did not have access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the courts, or the right to own land.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, in practice there is no such ability. By law the government has the ability to dissolve parties and ban individuals from party leadership positions and political life more broadly. The law also bars parties from using any audio, visual, or written material from a convicted criminal.

As of August only 12 of 118 CNRP officials barred from political activity from 2017-22 had applied for and been granted restoration of their political rights–three during the year and nine in 2019. Local experts and opposition party members complained the “rehabilitation” process is arbitrary, creates a false appearance of wrongdoing on the part of the banned politicians, and allows the prime minister to choose his own political opponents. The original ban on political activity followed the Supreme Court’s 2017 dissolution of the CNRP, a decision many decried as driven by political bias, noting that the decision was based on the accusation that its leader had committed “treason” before its leader was convicted on any charges. When the CNRP was dissolved, 5,007 local elected officials from the party were removed from their positions and replaced with CPP officials. The CPP dominates all levels of government from districts and provincial councils to the National Assembly.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national election occurred in 2018. Although 20 political parties participated, the largest opposition party, the CNRP, was excluded. The 19 non-CPP parties that competed in the election, many newly established, had limited support.

Although campaign laws require news outlets to give equal coverage to each party participating in an election, there was no evidence of the law’s enforcement during the 2018 election; news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties. Given the decline in independent media outlets, government-controlled news outlets provided the majority of content and coverage prior to the election. This was particularly the case in rural areas, where voters had less access to independent media.

Approximately 600,000 ballots cast in 2018 were invalid, compared with an estimated 100,000 in the previous election. Observers argued this was a sign of protest; given the pressure to vote and the absence of the CNRP from the ballot, many voters chose to spoil their ballots intentionally rather than vote for a party. According to government figures, 83 percent of registered voters went to the polls. The ruling CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Government statistics could not be verified due to a lack of independent observers.

Most independent analysts considered the entire election process seriously flawed. Most diplomatic missions to the country declined to serve as official observers in the election. Major nonstate election observation bodies, including the Carter Center and Asian Network for Free Elections, also decided against monitoring the election after determining the election lacked basic credibility. The National Election Committee accused the international community of bias, arguing the international community supported it only when the CNRP was on the ballot. Although nominally independent, the government installed closed-circuit television cameras in the committee offices, enabling it to observe the committee’s proceedings.

Political Parties and Political Participation: As of July a local NGO reported that 55 political parties were registered with the Ministry of Interior. Excepting the CPP and several small progovernment parties, political parties suffered from a wide range of legalized discrimination, selective enforcement of the law, intimidation, and biased media coverage. These factors contributed significantly to the CPP’s effective monopolization of political power. Membership in the CPP was a prerequisite for many government positions.

As of July there had been 23 incidences of threats to political activists, according to a local NGO. On October 19, two assailants on a motorbike assaulted Din Varin, secretary general of the executive committee of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, while he was walking home from a cafe in Phnom Penh, hitting him on the face with a large rock. As of November at least 10 opposition officials suffered similar assaults, but the government has not arrested any suspects.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of ethnic minorities in the political process, but cultural practices that relegate women to second-class status–epitomized by the Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct for women which dates back to the 14th century–limited women’s role in politics and government. Despite repeated vows by the CPP to increase female representation, the number of women elected to the National Assembly in the 2018 national election declined to 19, from 25 in the 2013 national election. The 2017 local elections saw participation for the first time of the Cambodia Indigenous People’s Democracy Party.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

Corruption: The penal code defines various corrupt acts and specifies penalties for them. The anticorruption law establishes the National Council against Corruption and the Anticorruption Unit to receive and investigate corruption complaints. The unit did not collaborate frequently with civil society and was considered ineffective in combating official corruption. Instead, it focused on investigations of opposition figures, leading to a widespread perception the unit served the interests of the ruling CPP.

The Anticorruption Unit has never investigated a high-level member of the ruling party, despite widespread allegations of corruption at senior levels of the party and government. For example, according to a Radio Free Asia report in September, the two daughters of senior minister and former commander-in-chief of the armed forces Pol Saroeun acted as fronts in a real estate fraud in Australia valued at roughly $100 million. A Radio Free Asia report in April said that Hun Kimlong, niece of Prime Minister Hun Sen and husband of police chief Neth Savoeun, spent $2.7 million on villas in Cyprus. Hun Kimlong and Neth were two of eight politically connected Cambodian elites identified in an October 2019 Reuters report as having gained Cypriot citizenship by investing more than $2.2 million each in that country.

Civil servants must seek clearance and permission from supervisors before responding to legislative inquiries about corruption allegations.

Corruption was endemic throughout society and government. There were reports police, prosecutors, investigating judges, and presiding judges took bribes from owners of both legal and illegal businesses. Citizens frequently and publicly complained about corruption. Meager salaries contributed to “survival corruption” among low-level public servants, while a culture of impunity enabled corruption to flourish among senior officials.

Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index report noted the judiciary remained the most corrupt sector of government for the fifth year in a row, followed by law enforcement.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public servants, including elected and appointed officials, to disclose their financial and other assets. The Anticorruption Unit is responsible for receiving the disclosures, with penalties for noncompliance ranging from one month to one year in prison. Senior officials’ financial disclosure statements were not publicly available and remained sealed unless allegations of corruption were filed. Only one financial disclosure statement has ever been unsealed, that of the then National Assembly vice president Kem Sokha. NGOs have long advocated amending anticorruption laws to place on the public record all property owned by government officials.

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

There were multiple reports of a lack of official cooperation with human rights investigations and in some cases, intimidation of investigators by government officials. The government threatened legal action against three NGOs–Licadho, STT, and Central–over the publication of a report on the negative effects of microlending on loan recipients.

Approximately 25 human rights NGOs operated in the country, and a further 100 NGOs focused on other areas included some human rights matters in their work, but only a few actively organized training programs or investigated abuses.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Although the government generally permitted visits by UN representatives with human rights responsibilities, authorities often turned down their requests for high-level meetings and denied them access to opposition officials, including Kem Sokha. Government spokespersons regularly chastised UN representatives publicly for their remarks on a variety of human rights problems.

Government Human Rights Bodies: There were three government human rights bodies: separate Committees for the Protection of Human Rights and Reception of Complaints in the Senate and National Assembly and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, which reported to the prime minister’s cabinet. The Cambodian Human Rights Committee submitted government reports for international human rights review processes, such as the Universal Periodic Review, and issued responses to reports by international organizations and government bodies, but it did not conduct independent human rights investigations. Credible human rights NGOs considered the government committees of limited efficacy and criticized their role in vocally justifying the government crackdown on civil society and the opposition.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia continued to investigate and prosecute leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime who were most responsible for the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers are a hybrid tribunal, with both domestic and international jurists and staff, governed by both domestic law and an agreement between the government and the United Nations. Two separate cases, those of Meas Muth and Ao An, remained before the chambers. In August the Supreme Court moved to close the latter case, as there was no agreement to indict Ao An. As of November, the Extraordinary Chambers had not ruled whether they would proceed with either of the remaining cases.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape and domestic violence were significant problems. The law, which does not specify the sex of a victim, criminalizes rape and “indecent assault.” Rape is punishable by five to 30 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not specifically mentioned in the penal code, but the underlying conduct can be prosecuted as “rape,” “causing injury,” or “indecent assault.” Charges for rape were rare. The law criminalizes domestic violence but does not set out specific penalties. The penal code assigns penalties for domestic violence ranging from one to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Rape and domestic violence were likely underreported due to fear of reprisal, social stigma, discrimination, and distrust of police and the judiciary. Women comprised a small proportion of judicial officials: 14 percent of judges, 12 percent of prosecutors, and 20 percent of lawyers, which likely contributed to underreporting of rape and domestic abuse. NGOs reported authorities inadequately enforced domestic violence laws and avoided involvement in domestic disputes.

Rape and domestic violence sometimes led to death: a local NGO reported 10 killings in a 2018 investigation of 39 cases of domestic violence and 18 of rape. In these 57 cases, authorities arrested only 23 perpetrators. Most observers believed neither authorities nor the public generally regarded domestic violence as a criminal offense.

The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs implemented a code of conduct for media reporting on violence against women, which bans publication of a survivor’s personal identifiable information, photographs of victims, depictions of a woman’s death or injury, depictions of nudity, and the use of certain offensive or disparaging words against women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also operated a reporting system within the government to increase accountability and transparency in the government’s response to violence against women.

Sexual Harassment: The penal code criminalizes sexual harassment, imposing penalties of six days to three months’ imprisonment and modest fines. Workplace sexual harassment is believed to be widespread (see section 7.d.).

On July 10, four female police officers submitted a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng reporting sexual assault by Ouk Kosal, the police chief of Kampong Thom Province. The letter stated they had reported the case on multiple occasions since 2018 but had yet to receive justice. The police chief resigned and became a monk within days of the letter going public, but as of November, no legal action was taken against him.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

According to the country’s 2019 census, the maternal mortality rate was 141 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 178 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015. Major factors influencing high maternal mortality rates included shortages of adequate health facilities, medications, and skilled birth attendants. According to the 2014 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey, the latest such survey available, the modern contraceptive prevalence rate among married women between 15 and 49 years was approximately 39 percent, and 12 percent of women between ages 15 to 19 years had given birth or were pregnant with their first child.

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

Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal rights for women and men, including equal pay for equal work and equal status in marriage. The government did not effectively enforce the law. For the most part, women had equal property rights, the same legal right as men to initiate divorce proceedings, and equal access to education, but cultural traditions and child-rearing responsibilities limited the ability of women to reach senior positions in business and government or even participate in the workforce (see section 7.d.).

The government expected women to dress according to “Khmer traditions.” In February Prime Minister Hun Sen accused some women of wearing “skimpy clothing” while selling goods online and ordered authorities to investigate. Two days later, police arrested Ven Rachana, a Facebook vendor, on charges of pornography for dressing in a way that “affects the honor of Cambodian women.” On April 24, she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Children

Birth Registration: By law children born to one or two ethnic Khmer parents are citizens. A child derives citizenship by birth to a mother and father who are not ethnic Khmer if both parents were born and living legally in the country or if either parent acquired citizenship through other legal means. Ethnic minorities are considered citizens. The Ministry of Interior administered the birth registration system, but not all births were registered immediately, primarily due to lack of public awareness of the importance of registering births and corruption in local government.

Failure to register births resulted in discrimination, including the denial of public services. Children of ethnic minorities and stateless persons were disproportionately unlikely to be registered. NGOs that serve disenfranchised communities reported authorities often denied access to education, including books, and health care for children without birth registration. NGOs stated such persons, when adults, were also often unable to gain employment, own property, vote, or access the legal system.

Education: Education was free, but not compulsory, through grade nine. Many children left school to help their families in subsistence agriculture or work in other activities. Others began school at a late age or did not attend school at all. The government did not deny girls equal access to education, but families with limited resources often gave priority to boys, especially in rural areas. According to international organization reports, enrollment dropped significantly for girls after primary school in urban areas, while secondary school enrollment for boys dropped significantly in rural areas.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was common, and legal action against perpetrators was rare, according to observers. According to UNICEF’s Violence Against Children Report, approximately one in two Cambodian children had experienced extreme violence. Child rape continued to be a serious problem, and reporting of the crime rose in the past several years. As of July a local human rights NGOs investigated 67 cases of children’s rights violations, 56 of which were rape or attempted rape. On October 4, police arrested a 15-year-old autistic boy, accusing him of stealing property from the opposition party’s headquarters. Police handcuffed him and forced him to sign an agreement to stop entering prohibited areas before releasing him after two days in detention.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both men and women is 18; however, children as young as 16 may legally marry with parental permission.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual intercourse with a person younger than 15 is illegal. The government continued to raid brothels to identify and remove child sex-trafficking victims, although the majority of child sex trafficking was clandestine, occurring in beer gardens, massage parlors, beauty salons, karaoke bars, other retail spaces, and noncommercial sites. Police investigated child sex trafficking in brothels or when victims filed complaints directly, but did not typically pursue more complicated cases, for example those involving online sexual exploitation. Undercover investigation techniques were not allowed in trafficking investigations, which impeded officials’ ability to hold child sex traffickers accountable.

The country remained a destination for child sex tourism. The government used the law to prosecute both sex tourists and citizens for the sexual exploitation of children. The law provides penalties ranging from two to 20 years in prison for commercial sexual exploitation of children. The law also prohibits the production and possession of child pornography.

Local human rights organizations and local experts were concerned about the government’s failure to punish appropriately foreign residents and tourists who purchase or otherwise engage in sex with children. Endemic corruption at all levels of the government severely limited investigations and prosecutions of child sex traffickers, and the government took no action to investigate or prosecute complicit officials.

Displaced Children: Displaced children represented a serious and growing problem. The government offered limited, inadequate services to street children at a single rehabilitation center in Phnom Penh. In 2017 a local NGO estimated there were 1,200 to 1,500 displaced street children in Phnom Penh with no relationship to their families and 15,000 to 20,000 children who worked on the streets but returned to families in the evenings.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs and other observers alleged many private orphanages were mismanaged and populated by sham orphans to lure donations from foreigners. From 36,000 to 49,000 children lived in residential care institutions or orphanages, according to UNICEF and research conducted by Columbia University in 2018. Approximately 80 percent of these children had at least one living parent. The study also found that residential care resulted in lower developmental and health outcomes for children and put them at higher risk for future exploitation. There were no state-supported or -operated orphanages or other child protection programs that provided safe alternatives for children.

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

Anti-Semitism

A small Jewish foreign resident community lived in Phnom Penh. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination, neglect, exploitation, or abandonment of persons with physical or intellectual disabilities but was not effectively enforced. The law does not address access to transport. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth has overall responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, although the law assigns specific tasks to other ministries, including the Ministries of Health, Education, Public Works and Transport, and National Defense.

Persons with disabilities faced significant societal discrimination, especially in obtaining skilled employment.

Children with limited physical disabilities attended regular schools. According to a Ministry of Education report in 2019, there were 60,284 disabled students throughout the country. The ministry worked to train teachers on how to integrate students with disabilities into the class with nondisabled students. Children with more significant disabilities attended separate schools sponsored by NGOs in Phnom Penh; education for students with more significant disabilities was not available outside of Phnom Penh.

Although there are no legal limits on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote or participate in civic affairs, the government did not make any concerted effort to assist their civic engagement.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Experts acknowledged an increase in negative attitudes towards the rising number of Chinese nationals in the country, in part due to perceived links with criminal activity, particularly in Sihanoukville. Khmer-language newspapers regularly reported stories of crimes committed by Chinese residents and business owners, including gang violence, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, pornography, drunk driving, and drug possession. On August 15, authorities arrested 29 Chinese nationals and charged them with kidnapping. In November the government reported it had deported 542 foreign nationals for illegal activities, most of them Chinese nationals, in the first nine months of the year. On November 20, Sihanoukville officials deported two Chinese women for prostitution.

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

No law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, nor was there official discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Societal discrimination persisted, however, particularly in rural areas.

LGBTI persons generally had limited job opportunities due to discrimination and exclusion. LGBTI persons were occasionally harassed or bullied for their work in the entertainment and commercial sex sectors.

A local LGBTI rights organization reported incidents of violence or abuse against LGBTI persons, including domestic violence by family members. Stigma or intimidation may have inhibited further reporting of incidents. Police did not prioritize investigations into LGBTI-related complaints.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law broadly provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, to bargain collectively, and to strike. The law excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, puts significant restrictions on the right to organize, limits the right to strike, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, and imposes minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices. The government failed to enforce applicable laws effectively. Penalties for discrimination in hiring and dismissing employees were commensurate with penalties for other types of discrimination.

Onerous registration requirements amounted to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. Union registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The law forbids unregistered unions from operating. Civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health-care, and informal sectors may form only “associations,” not trade unions, affording them fewer worker protections than unionized trades. The law also restricts illiterate workers from holding union leadership. The labor ministry approved 67 new unions in the first nine months of the year, down from 635 in 2017, although the COVID-19 pandemic may have interfered with the union registration process.

Some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew contracts with short-term employees who joined unions. (Most workers in the formal manufacturing sector were on short-term contracts.) Employers and local government officials often refused to provide necessary paperwork for unions to register. Some employers took advantage of the prolonged registration process to terminate elected union officials prior to the unions’ formal registration, making them ineligible to serve as union officers and further retarding the registration process.

Labor activists reported many banks refused to open accounts for unregistered unions, although unions are unable by law to register until they provide banking details. Provincial-level labor authorities reportedly stalled registration applications indefinitely by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice has decreased, particularly for garment- and footwear-sector unions.

Workers reported various other obstacles while trying to exercise their right to freedom of association. There were reports of government harassment of independent labor leaders, including the use of spurious legal charges. Several prominent labor leaders associated with the opposition or independent unions had charges pending against them or were under court supervision. Most notably, in July authorities arrested longtime union leader and head of the pro-opposition Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Rong Chhun, for “incitement” over comments he made to media criticizing the government for its handling of the border dispute with Vietnam. As of November, Rong was still in detention.

On January 17, authorities arrested four union leaders at a factory making handbags and charged them with “incitement” for organizing a protest to demand the reinstatement of three union members who had been fired. For nearly two months, until May 28, government officials, allegedly at the behest of her employer, Superl Cambodia, detained a union leader at a factory making women’s handbags after she posted on social media about the company’s plans to lay off workers.

In 2019 some 140 workers faced criminal charges for their union activities, with approximately 20 of them convicted, according to public reports.

Reports continued of other forms of harassment, sometime violent. In February, five masked men assaulted a union leader, sending him to the hospital. Some unions complained that police monitored their activities and intimidated members and guests by sending uniformed police to stand outside their offices during meetings (see section 2.b.). A construction workers union complained that authorities interrupted its meetings to ask for the union’s registration and lease documents.

Several unions reported increased union-busting activity amid the sharp economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in April, two factories fired five union leaders after they organized a protest against the government’s decision to postpone the Khmer New Year holiday. In July the Le Meridien Hotel in Siem Reap fired three union activists for social media comments and other advocacy for better wages for workers at the hotel.

The law stipulates that workers can strike only after meeting several requirements, including the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as conciliation, mediation, and arbitration); the completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the absolute majority of union members; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers can be criminally charged if they block entrances or roads or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. A court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers. In January a court issued such an injunction ordering workers at the NagaWorld hotel and casino complex not to strike; approximately 3,000 workers defied that court order and went on strike, ultimately securing higher wages and the reinstatement of a union leader whom NagaWorld had fired.

There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. Unions initiated most strikes without meeting all the requirements stated above, making them technically illegal, according to Better Factories Cambodia (BFC). Participating in an illegal strike, however, is not in itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers failed to renew the short-term contracts of union activists; in others, they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. Government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals were generally ineffective.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training’s Strike Demonstration Resolution Committee reported that during the first half of the year, 50,700 workers conducted 92 strikes and demonstrations, compared with 26 strikes involving 16,585 workers in the same period of 2019. The report stated the committee resolved 57 of the 92 cases successfully while 35 others went to the Arbitration Council. Most of the strikes concerned unpaid wages and denial of benefits following factory closures due to the sharp economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the year the government restricted workers’ right to assembly. Authorities turned down most union requests for rally permits on the grounds that social distancing would be difficult or impossible during such events. Unions complained that police prevented them from marching and broke up such activities before marchers could reach their destination.

The resolution of labor disputes was inconsistent, largely due to government officials’ ability to classify disputes as “individual” rather than “collective” disputes. The Arbitration Council only hears collective disputes. Unions reported progress in “minority” unions’ ability to represent workers in collective disputes. The Arbitration Council noted it received 45 cases in the first seven months of the year, down from 68 cases for the same period in 2019.

There is no specialized labor court. Labor disputes that are designated “individual” disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent.

The law places significant, detailed reporting responsibilities on labor unions, such as a requirement to submit annual financial statements, including, under some circumstances, independently audited statements. Union representatives feared many local chapters would not be able to meet the requirements, and unions that fail to meet these requirements face fines.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.

The government did not effectively enforce the law, and while there were penalties for employing forced labor or hiring individuals to work off debts (a maximum of one month’s jail time or a fine), they were not commensurate with penalties for analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping (at least one year of imprisonment). Officials reported forced labor was likely most common in the construction sector. Moreover, there was evidence that employers, particularly those operating brick kilns, were violating the law prohibiting forced or bonded labor.

Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear.

Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to a report from the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, by the end of 2019 more than 2.6 million persons in the country had loans from microfinance lenders totaling some $10 billion, contributing to an increase in child labor and bonded labor. The Cambodia Microfinance Association and Association of Banks in Cambodia disputed the size of the problem.

Forced overtime remained a problem in factories making products for export. Unions and workers reported some factory managers had fired workers who refused to work overtime.

Children were also at risk of forced labor (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law establishes 15 as the minimum age for most employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. Although the law prohibits work by children younger than 15, it does not apply to children outside of formal employment relationships. The law permits children between the ages of 12 and 15 to engage in “light work” that is not hazardous to their health and does not affect school attendance; an implementing regulation provides an exhaustive list of activities considered “heavy work.” These include agriculture, brickmaking, fishing, tobacco, and cassava production. The law limits most work by children between the ages of 12 and 15 to a maximum of four hours on school days and seven hours on other days and prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

Ministry of Labor regulations define household work and set the minimum age for it at 18. The regulation, however, does not specify rights or a minimum age for household workers employed by relatives.

The law stipulates fines for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions, but such sanctions were rarely imposed. The penalties for employing child labor were not commensurate with penalties for analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping (at least one year of imprisonment), with the exception of employing children in working conditions that affected the child’s health or physical development, which carries a two- to five-year prison sentence (10 years if the working conditions cause the child’s death).

Child labor inspections were concentrated in Phnom Penh and provincial formal-sector factories producing goods for export rather than in rural areas where the majority of child laborers work. Inadequate training also limited the local authorities’ ability to enforce child labor regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors. In addition, the National Committee on Countering Child Labor reported the labor inspectorate does not conduct inspections in hospitality or nightlife establishments after business hours because the inspectorate lacks funds to pay inspectors overtime. In 2019 the government stated it had imposed penalties on only three firms for violations of child labor standards.

Many children worked with their parents on rubber, cassava, cashew, and banana plantations, according to a union active in the agriculture sector. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of workers on those plantations were children.

Children were vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor, including in agriculture, brick making, and commercial sex (see also section 6, Children). Poor access to basic education and the absence of compulsory education contributed to children’s vulnerability to exploitation. Children from impoverished families were at risk because some affluent households reportedly used humanitarian pretenses to hire children as domestic workers whom they abused and exploited. Children were also forced to beg.

Child labor in export-sector garment factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC has found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 550 covered factories. In its latest available report covering 2019, the BFC discovered only two children younger than 15 working in export garment factories. The BFC and others expressed concern, however, that child labor and other abuses may be more prevalent in factories making footwear and travel goods for export and with subcontractors to export-sector garment factories, as the BFC does not monitor these sectors or subcontractors.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, political opinion, birth, social origin, HIV-positive status, or union membership. The law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or communicable disease status. The constitution stipulates that citizens of either sex shall receive equal pay for equal work.

The government generally did not enforce these laws. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines, civil, and administrative remedies.

Harassment of women was widespread. Penalties for sexual harassment (six days to three months in jail, plus a fine, according to the criminal code) were not commensurate with penalties for several types of election interference (one to three years’ imprisonment). A 2018 BFC report stated that more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in their factory and 40 percent did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage covered only the garment and footwear sector. It was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.

The law provides for a standard legal workweek of 48 hours, not to exceed eight hours per day. The law establishes a rate of 130 percent of daytime wages for nightshift work and 150 percent for overtime, which increases to 200 percent if overtime occurs at night, on Sunday, or on a holiday. Employees may work a maximum two hours of overtime per day. The law prohibits excessive overtime, states that all overtime must be voluntary, and provides for paid annual holidays. Workers in marine and air transportation are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from limitations on work hours prescribed by law.

Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained that employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10, including overtime. Workers often faced dismissal, fines, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the government did not do so effectively. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. Penalties for violating laws on minimum wage (six days to one month’s imprisonment) and overtime (a fine of 31 to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage) were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud (six months to three years’ imprisonment). Outside the export garment industry, the government rarely enforced working-hour regulations. The government enforced standards selectively due to poorly trained staff, lack of necessary equipment, and corruption. Ministry officials admitted their inability to carry out thorough inspections of working hours and stated they relied upon the BFC to do such inspections in export-oriented garment factories.

Because most construction companies and brick factories operated informally and without registration, workers in those sectors had few benefits. They are not entitled to a minimum wage, lack insurance, and work weekends and holidays with few days off. The majority of brick-factory workers did not have access to the free medical care provided by the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), because those factories were not registered as fund members.

By law workplace health and safety standards must be adequate to provide for workers’ well-being. Labor inspectors assess fines according to a complex formula based on the severity and duration of the infraction as well as the number of workers affected. Labor Ministry inspectors are empowered to assess these fines on the spot, without the cooperation of police, but no specific provisions protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law effectively. Government inspection of construction worksites was insufficient. Penalties for violating occupational safety and health laws (typically a fine of 30 to 120 times the prevailing daily base wage) were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud (six months to three years’ imprisonment.)

Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF noted that 239 workers in three factories reportedly fainted during the first six months of the year, down from 417 workers during the same period in 2019. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticides in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from production processes all continued to contribute to mass fainting.

Compliance with safety and health standards continued to be a challenge in the garment export sector due largely to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities.

Workers and labor organizations raised concerns that the use of short-term contracts (locally known as fixed-duration contracts) allowed firms, especially in the garment sector where productivity growth remained relatively flat, to avoid wage and legal requirements. Fixed-duration contracts also allowed employers greater freedom to dismiss union organizers and pregnant women simply by failing to renew their contracts. The law limits such contracts to a maximum of two years, but more recent directives allow employers to extend this period to up to four years. The Arbitration Council and the International Labor Organization disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee should be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract” (also see section 7.a.).

Work-related injuries and health problems were common. On January 4, a building still under construction collapsed in the coastal tourist town of Kep, killing 36 local workers and injuring 23 others. In July a crane collapse at a construction site in the border town of Poipet killed five persons.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

Indonesia is a multiparty democracy. In April 2019, Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) won a second five-year term as president. Voters also elected new members of the House of Representatives and the Regional Representative Council, as well as provincial and local legislatures. Domestic and international observers deemed the elections to be free and fair. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, elections for some provincial and local executives originally scheduled for September 23 were postponed until December 9 to allow for implementation of health safety protocols.

The Indonesian National Police is responsible for internal security and reports directly to the president. The Indonesian National Armed Forces, which also report to the president, are responsible for external defense and combatting separatism, and in certain conditions may provide operational support to police, such as for counterterrorism operations, maintaining public order, and addressing communal conflicts. Civilian authorities maintained control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed abuses.

In Papua and West Papua Provinces, government forces continued security operations following a 2018 attack by the Free Papua Movement in which 19 civilians and one army soldier were killed. This led to the displacement of thousands of provincial residents, further Free Papua Movement attacks that caused civilian and security force deaths, and created serious humanitarian concerns.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture by police; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.

While the government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses, impunity for historic and continuing serious human rights abuses remained a significant concern, especially as some of those implicated in past abuses received promotions and occupied senior official positions.

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

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

Allegations the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings included media reports that security personnel used excessive force that resulted in deaths during counterinsurgency operations against armed groups in Papua. In these and other cases of alleged misconduct, police and the military frequently did not conduct any investigations, and when they did, failed to disclose either the fact or the findings of these internal investigations. Official statements related to abuse allegations sometimes contradicted civil society organization accounts, and the frequent inaccessibility of areas where violence took place made confirming the facts difficult.

Internal investigations undertaken by security forces are often opaque, making it difficult to know which units and actors are involved. Internal investigations are sometimes conducted by the unit that is accused of the arbitrary or unlawful killing, or in high-profile cases by a team sent from police or military headquarters in Jakarta. Cases involving military personnel can be forwarded to a military tribunal for prosecution, or in the case of police, to public prosecutors. Victims, or families of victims, may file complaints with the National Police Commission, National Commission on Human Rights, or National Ombudsman to seek an independent inquiry into the incident.

On April 13, security forces shot dead two university students near the Grasberg mine in Mimika, Papua. Security forces allegedly mistook the students, who were reportedly fishing at the time, as separatist militants. Military and police began a joint investigation following the incident, but no results were released as of October, prompting families of the victims to call for an independent investigation into the killings (see also section 2.a., Libel/Slander).

On July 18, military personnel shot and killed a father and son, Elias and Selu Karungu, who with neighbors were trying to return to their home village in Keneyam District, Nduga Regency, Papua. Media reported witnesses claimed the civilian group hid for a year in the forest to avoid conflict between security forces and the Free Papua Movement (OPM). The two were allegedly shot at a military outpost where the son Selu was detained. The armed forces (TNI) claimed the two were members of the OPM and had been spotted carrying a pistol shortly before the shooting.

Members of the OPM attacked medical personnel and others. At least six persons died in militant attacks during the year. On August 16, members of the armed forces and national police shot and killed Hengky Wamang, the alleged mastermind behind several high-profile attacks in Papua. At least three other insurgents were injured in the firefight but escaped into the nearby jungle, along with villagers who fled the battle.

In August the military command of Merauke, Papua, charged four military personnel from the East Java-based 516th Mechanized Infantry Battalion with battery that led to eventual death for their alleged involvement in killing 18-year-old Oktovianus Warip Betera on July 24. The incident began when a shop owner reported Betera, whom the shop owner said was stealing, to the military. The soldiers beat Betera, brought him to their command post, and continued torturing him. He was taken to a clinic and pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

On September 19, a Christian pastor, Yeremia Zanambani, was fatally shot in the Intan Regency in Papua Province. TNI officials maintained that members of the West Papua National Liberation Army were responsible for Yeremia’s death. Members of the community and prominent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged members of TNI were responsible for the killing. The president of the Papuan Baptist Churches Fellowship, Socrates Sofyan Yoman, claimed this was the third case since 2004 in which members of TNI were involved in the killing of a pastor in Papua. In October an interagency fact-finding team concluded there was strong evidence that security force personnel were involved in the death but did not completely rule out the involvement of the OPM. In November the National Commission on Human Rights reported that its investigation indicated TNI personnel had tortured Yeremia before shooting him at close range and categorized the incident as an extrajudicial killing.

Land rights disputes sometimes led to unlawful deaths. For example in March, two farmers were killed by a member of the private security staff of a palm oil plantation company in Lahat District, South Sumatra Province. The victims were members of the local community involved in a land rights dispute, and were attempting to negotiate with the company for the return of their land. A local NGO alleged local police were present at the scene of the attack and did not intervene. The attacker was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to nine years in prison.

On March 30, three employees of PT Freeport Indonesia were shot by OPM-affiliated militants–one fatally–during an attack on a housing compound in Kuala Kencana, Papua, a company town in the lowlands area of Timika housing local and expatriate Freeport employees.

The lack of transparent investigations and judicial processes continued to hamper accountability in multiple past cases involving security forces.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The government and civil society organizations, however, reported little progress in accounting for persons who disappeared in previous years or in prosecuting those responsible for such disappearances.

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

The constitution prohibits such practices. The law criminalizes the use of violence or force by officials to elicit a confession; however, these protections were not always respected. Officials face imprisonment for a maximum of four years if they use violence or force illegally. No law specifically criminalizes torture, although other laws, such as on witness and victim protection, include antitorture provisions.

NGOs reported that police used excessive force during detention and interrogation. Human rights and legal aid contacts alleged, for example, that some Papuan detainees were treated roughly by police, with reports of minor injuries sustained during detention.

National police maintained procedures to address police misconduct, including alleged torture. All police recruits undergo training on the proportional use of force and human rights standards.

The Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), a local NGO, reported 921 cases of police brutality reported to it between July 2019 and June 2020, resulting in injury to 1,627 persons and 304 deaths.

On April 9, police in Tangerang arrested Muhammad Riski Riyanto and Rio Imanuel Adolof for vandalism and inciting violence. NGOs reported that police forced the suspects to confess by beating them with steel rods and helmets and placing plastic bags over their heads. In July, six police officials from the Percut Sei Tuan police headquarters in North Sumatra were convicted of torturing a construction worker who was a witness in a murder case. They could face up to seven years in prison. All the officials involved were discharged from the police force after an internal investigation. Human rights groups demanded police also compensate the victim’s family.

On August 7, Balerang police detained Hendri Alfred Bakari in Batam for alleged drug possession. During a visit with Hendri while he was in detention, Hendri’s family claims that they saw bruises all over Hendri’s body and heard him complain about chest pains. He died in the hospital on August 8.

Aceh Province has special authority to implement sharia regulations. Authorities there carried out public canings for violations of sharia in cases of sexual abuse, gambling, adultery, alcohol consumption, consensual same-sex activities, and sexual relations outside of marriage. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims, foreigners, or Muslims not resident in Aceh. Non-Muslims in Aceh occasionally chose punishment under sharia because it was more expeditious and less expensive than secular procedures. For example, in February a Christian man convicted of illegal possession of alcohol requested punishment under sharia in exchange for a reduction in his sentence.

Canings were carried out in mosques in Aceh after Friday prayers or, in one instance, at the district attorney’s office. Individuals sentenced to caning may receive up to 100 lashes, depending on the crime and any prison time served. Punishments were public and carried out in groups if more than one individual was sentenced for punishment.

Security force impunity remains a problem. During the year, military courts tried a few low-level and some mid-level soldiers for offenses that involved civilians or occurred when the soldiers were off duty. In such cases military police investigate and pass their findings to military prosecutors, who decide whether to prosecute. Military prosecutors are accountable to the Supreme Court and the armed forces for applying the law. NGOs and other observers criticized the short length of prison sentences usually imposed by military courts in cases involving civilians or off-duty soldiers. In September brigadier generals Dadang Hendryudha and Yulius Silvanus were appointed to armed forces leadership positions, despite being convicted in 1999 (and serving prison sentences) for their roles, as part of the army special forces’ Rose Team, in the kidnapping, torture, and killing of students in 1997-98. In January Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto appointed as his staff assistant Chairawan Kadarsyah Kadirussalam Nusyirwan, the former Rose Team commander.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in the country’s 525 prisons and detention centers were often harsh and sometimes life threatening, due especially to overcrowding.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a serious problem, including at immigration detention centers. According to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, as of January there were 293,583 prisoners and detainees in prisons and detention centers designed to hold a maximum of 133,931. Overcrowding posed hygiene and ventilation problems and varied at different facilities. Minimum- and medium-security prisons were often the most overcrowded; maximum-security prisons tended to be at or below capacity. Prison officials reported that overcrowding was one cause of a February prison riot in North Sumatra.

Concern about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prisons led officials to release nearly 40,000 prisoners across the country. This mass sentence reduction, however, did not apply to inmates convicted for “political crimes,” such as Papuan and Moluccan activists.

By law prisons are supposed to hold those convicted by courts, while detention centers hold those awaiting trial. In fact most prisons have two facilities on the same compound, one designed for pretrial detainees and one for convicted prisoners. Persons held at the two facilities do not normally mix. At times, however, officials held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners due to overcrowding.

By law children convicted of serious crimes serve their sentences in juvenile prison, although some convicted juvenile prisoners remained in the adult prison system despite continuing efforts to end this practice.

Authorities generally held female prisoners at separate facilities. In prisons with both male and female prisoners, female prisoners were confined in separate cellblocks. According to NGO observers, conditions in prisons for women tended to be significantly better than in those for men. Women’s cellblocks within prisons that held prisoners of both genders, however, did not always grant female prisoners access to the same amenities, such as exercise facilities, as their male counterparts.

NGOs noted authorities sometimes did not provide prisoners adequate medical care. Human rights activists attributed this to a lack of resources. International and local NGOs reported that in some cases prisoners did not have ready access to clean drinking water. There were widespread reports the government did not supply sufficient food to prisoners, and family members often brought food to supplement relatives’ diets.

Guards in detention facilities and prisons regularly extorted money from inmates, and prisoners reported physical abuse by guards. Inmates often bribed or paid corrections officers for favors, food, telephones, or narcotics. The use and production of illicit drugs in prisons were serious problems, with some drug networks basing operations out of prisons.

Administration: The law allows prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to authorities without censorship and to request investigation of alleged deficiencies. Complaints are submitted to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights where they are investigated and are subject to independent judicial review.

Independent Monitoring: Some NGOs received access to prisons but were required to obtain permission through bureaucratic mechanisms, including approval from police, attorneys general, courts, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and other agencies. NGOs reported that authorities rarely permitted direct access to prisoners for interviews. There is no regular independent monitoring of prisons.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements, but there were notable exceptions.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Security forces must produce warrants during an arrest. Exceptions apply, for example, if a suspect is caught in the act of committing a crime. The law allows investigators to issue warrants, but at times authorities, especially police Criminal Investigation Department, made questionable arrests without warrants. By law suspects or defendants have the rights to contact family promptly after arrest and to legal counsel of their choice at every stage of an investigation. Court officials are supposed to provide free legal counsel to persons charged with offenses that carry the death penalty or imprisonment for 15 years or more, and to destitute defendants facing charges that carry a penalty of imprisonment for five years or more. Such legal resources were limited, however, and free counsel was seldom provided. Lack of legal resources has been particularly problematic for persons involved in land disputes. Local government officials and large landowners involved in land grabs reportedly turned to accusing community activists of crimes, hoping the community’s lack of legal and financial resources and resulting detentions would hamper efforts to oppose the land grab.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary arrest by police, primarily by the Criminal Investigation Department. There were multiple media and NGO reports of police temporarily detaining persons for participating in peaceful demonstrations and other nonviolent activities advocating self-determination, notably in Papua and West Papua (see section 2.b.). The majority were released within 24 hours.

In one case police detained 10 students of Khairun University for participating in a Papua Independence Day protest in Ternate in December 2019.

Pretrial Detention: The legal length of pretrial detention depends on factors such as whether the suspect is a flight risk or a danger or is charged with certain crimes. Terrorism suspects are governed by special rules.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary and the right to a fair public trial, but the judiciary remained susceptible to corruption and influence from outside parties, including business interests, politicians, the security forces, and officials of the executive branch.

Decentralization created difficulties for the enforcement of court orders, and at times local officials ignored them.

Four district courts are authorized to adjudicate cases of systemic gross human rights violations upon recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission. None of these courts, however, has heard or ruled on such a case since 2005.

Under the sharia court system in Aceh, 19 district religious courts and one court of appeals hear cases. The courts usually heard cases involving Muslims and based their judgments on decrees formulated by the local government rather than the national penal code.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, but judicial corruption and misconduct hindered the enforcement of this right. The law presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty, although this was not always respected. Defendants are informed promptly and in detail of the charges at their first court appearance. Although suspects have the right to confront witnesses and call witnesses in their defense, judges may allow sworn affidavits when distance is excessive or the cost of transporting witnesses to the court is too expensive, hindering the possibility of cross-examination. Some courts allowed forced confessions and limited the presentation of defense evidence. Defendants have the right to avoid self-incrimination. The prosecution prepares charges, evidence, and witnesses for the trial, while the defense prepares their own witnesses and arguments. A panel of judges oversees the trial and can pose questions, hear evidence, decide on guilt or innocence, and impose punishment. Both the defense and prosecution may appeal a verdict.

The law gives defendants the right to an attorney from the time of arrest and at every stage of investigation and trial. By law indigent defendants have the right to public legal assistance, although they must prove they have no funds for private legal assistance. NGO lawyer associations provided free legal representation to many, but not all, indigent defendants. All defendants have the right to free linguistic interpretation. In some cases, procedural protections were inadequate to ensure a fair trial. With the notable exceptions of sharia court proceedings in Aceh and some military trials, trials are public.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

NGOs estimated that 56 political prisoners from Papua and West Papua were incarcerated, either awaiting trial or after being convicted under treason and conspiracy statutes, including for actions related to the display of banned separatist symbols. Eight Moluccan political prisoners remained in prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

A small number of the many Papuans detained briefly for participating in peaceful protests were charged with treason or other criminal offenses. On June 16, seven National Committee for West Papua and United Liberation Movement for West Papua activists were convicted under treason articles and sentenced to a minimum of 10 months in prison for their role in allegedly inciting violence during the protests in late 2019. In the case of the 10 Khairun University students detained (see section 1.d.) in December 2019, prosecutors charged one student, Arbi M. Nur, with treason for his involvement in the Papuan Independence Day protests.

Local activists and family members generally were able to visit political prisoners, but authorities held some prisoners on islands far from their families.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Victims of human rights abuses may seek damages in the civil court system, but widespread corruption and political influence limit victims’ access to justice.

Property Restitution

An eminent domain law allows the government to expropriate land for the public good, provided the government properly compensates owners. NGOs accused the government of abusing its authority to expropriate or facilitate private acquisition of land for development projects, often without fair compensation.

Land access and ownership were major sources of conflict. Police sometimes evicted those involved in land disputes without due process, often siding with business-related claimants over individuals or local communities. In April local police accompanied and assisted employees of a palm oil company in destroying rice storage huts on land belonging to the Mafan Farmers Group in Sedang village, South Sumatra. Members of the farmers’ group reported that this destruction was part of the company’s effort to force them off their land.

In August in South Central Timor District, East Nusa Tenggara, the provincial government evicted 47 households of the Pubabu indigenous community from their land, allegedly without due process. Local media reported that the indigenous community had leased the land to an Australian livestock company, and later the provincial government, but refused to extend the lease after it expired in 2012.

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

The law requires judicial warrants for searches except in cases involving subversion, economic crimes, and corruption. Security forces generally respected these requirements. The law also provides for searches without warrants when circumstances are “urgent and compelling.” Police throughout the country occasionally took actions without proper authority or violated individuals’ privacy.

NGOs claimed security officials occasionally conducted warrantless surveillance on individuals and their residences and monitored telephone calls.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution broadly provides for freedom of expression, with some limitations.

Freedom of Speech: The law criminalizes speech deemed insulting to a religion or advocating separatism. The law also criminalizes hate speech, defined as “purposeful or unlawful dissemination of information aimed to create hatred or animosity against an individual or a particular group based on their race, beliefs, and ethnicity.”

By law “spreading religious hatred, heresy, and blasphemy” is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Protests by Islamist groups or conservative clerical councils often prompted local authorities to act under the law. According to the legal aid foundation, between January and May there were at least 38 blasphemy-related cases arising from at least 25 arrests.

In February, North Maluku resident Mikael Samuel Ratulangi was arrested for a 2019 Facebook post viewed as insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The case has been passed to the attorney general’s office, pending trial.

Although the law permits flying a flag symbolizing Papua’s cultural identity generally, a government regulation specifically prohibits the display of the Morning Star flag in Papua, the Republic of South Maluku flag in Molucca, and the Free Aceh Movement Crescent Moon flag in Aceh. In May an activist, Sayang Mandabayan, was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of nine months. He had been arrested in September 2019 at the Manokwari airport for traveling with 1,500 small Morning Star flags.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. The government, however, sometimes used regional and national regulations, including those on blasphemy, hate speech, and separatism, to restrict the media. Permits for travel to Papua and West Papua Provinces remained a problem for foreign journalists, who reported bureaucratic delays or denials, ostensibly for safety reasons. The constitution protects journalists from interference, and the law requires that anyone who deliberately prevents journalists from doing their job shall face a maximum prison sentence of two years or a substantial fine.

Violence and Harassment: From January to July, the Alliance of Independent Journalists reported 13 cases of violence against journalists that included doxing, physical assaults, and verbal intimidation and threats perpetrated by various actors, including government officials, police, and security personnel, members of mass organizations, and the general public. The alliance and other NGOs reported that journalists faced increased hostility because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, noting that in April and May there were three cases of violence against journalists.

On April 22, Ravio Patra, a researcher and activist with the United Kingdom-based Westminster Foundation for Democracy, was arrested in Jakarta on charges of incitement after a message calling for riots was sent from his WhatsApp account. Patra claimed before his arrest that his account had been hacked and that he was being framed, possibly by police. Patra, released on bail after two days, was as of November awaiting trial and still waiting to learn the results of the police investigation into the hacking of his account.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Attorney General’s Office has authority to monitor written material and request a court order to ban written material; this power was apparently not used during the year.

Libel/Slander Laws: Criminal defamation provisions prohibit libel and slander, which are punishable with five-year prison terms.

Elements within the government, including police and the judiciary, selectively used criminal defamation and blasphemy laws to intimidate individuals and restrict freedom of expressions. In May, South Kalimantan police arrested and detained journalist Diananta Putra Sumedi for online defamation, accusing him of misquoting the head of a local Dayak ethnic group association in a November 2019 article about a dispute with a palm oil company. In August he was sentenced to three months and 15 days in prison for “inciting hatred.” On July 13, district police of Mimika, Papua, referred a slander investigation involving a Papuan identified only by the initials ST and the chief of Papua provincial police to local prosecutors. Police had arrested ST on May 27 in the Kuala Kencana area for a Facebook post that accused the police chief of using the COVID-19 pandemic to incite the killing of students near the Grasberg mine in Mimika (see section 1.a.) and medical workers in Intan Jaya Regency.

National Security: The government used legal provisions barring advocacy of separatism to restrict the ability of individuals and media to advocate peacefully for self-determination or independence in different parts of the country.

Nongovernmental Impact: Hardline Muslim groups sometimes intimidated perceived critics of Islam. In August several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the United Islam Community Forum released a statement condemning the Shia community and their plans to celebrate the Islamic holiday of Ashura. In their statement, the constituent organizations said they would disperse any events that the Shia community planned.

In May a group of law students (the Constitutional Law Society) from Gajah Mada University were forced to cancel an academic discussion with the theme, “Dismissing the President in a Pandemic, a Constitutional Perspective,” after speakers and event coordinators received death threats.

Media organizations complained of hacking attacks following the publication of articles critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Independent Journalist Alliance, at least four media organizations have been targeted in digital attacks, ranging from denial of service attacks to doxing and the hacking of media servers and the removal of stories. For example, in August the Tempo.co website was hacked and the site’s welcome page was replaced with the text, “stop hoaxes, do not lie to the Indonesian people. Return to the proper journalistic ethical code.” An August attack against Tirto.id after publishing articles critical of the State Intelligence Agency and the armed forces’ involvement in formulating a COVID-19 treatment led to the sudden disappearance of articles from the website.

Internet Freedom

The government prosecuted individuals for free expression under a law that bans online crime, pornography, gambling, blackmail, lies, threats, and racist content and prohibits citizens from distributing in electronic format any information deemed by the court defamatory. The law carries maximum penalties of six years in prison, a substantial fine, or both. NGOs have criticized the law’s vague and ambiguous provisions, which they note have been misused by authorities and private individuals to silence and punish critics, leading to increased self-censorship by journalists and activists.

Moreover, officials used direct pressure on internet service providers to degrade perceived opponents’ online communications. In June, however, courts determined that government officials exceeded their authority in directing internet service providers to slow internet connections in Papua and West Papua in response to protests in August and September 2019. The court determined that the government failed to prove that the country was in a true “state of emergency” when it chose to impose the internet restrictions.

In June multiple NGOs and Papuan activists reported repeated disruptions of online discussions on Papuan issues. Unnamed actors attempted to dox Papuan activists and hacked into Zoom discussions to threaten meeting participants. During August and September, protests in Papua, Jakarta, and elsewhere, authorities limited access to the internet or to particular social media sites, stating this was done to prevent the spread of disinformation.

National police increased social media monitoring to prevent the spread of false information and acts of contempt against President Jokowi and his administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Human rights contacts noted that the police established several task forces dedicated to combating false information and executed more than 9,000 “cyber patrols,” resulting in blocking or deleting more than 2,000 social media accounts. Those alleged to have insulted the president or government officials could be charged with defamation and insult, with a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison. In May former army officer Ruslan Buton was arrested in Southeast Sulawesi for criticizing President Jokowi’s leadership during the pandemic and calling for his resignation.

The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology continued to request that internet service providers block access to content containing “prohibited electronic information,” including pornography, radical religious content, extortion, threats, and hate speech. Failure to enforce these restrictions could result in the revocation of a provider’s license. The government also intervened with social media, search engines, app stores, and other websites to remove offensive and extremist content and revoked the licenses of those that did not promptly comply with government demands.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government generally did not place restrictions on cultural events or academic freedom, but occasionally disrupted sensitive cultural events or activities or failed to prevent hardline groups from doing so. Universities and other academic institutions also sometimes succumbed to pressure from Islamist groups seeking to restrict sensitive events and activities.

The government-supervised Film Censorship Institute censored domestic and imported movies for content deemed religiously or otherwise offensive.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government sometimes restricted these freedoms.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and outside Papua the government generally respected this right. The law requires demonstrators to provide police with written notice three days before any planned demonstration and requires police to issue a receipt for the written notification. This receipt acts as a de facto license for the demonstration. Police in Papua routinely refused to issue such receipts to would-be demonstrators out of concern the demonstrations would include calls for independence, an act prohibited by law. A Papua provincial police decree prohibits rallies by seven organizations labeled as proindependence, including the National Committee of West Papua, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, and the Free Papua Movement. Restrictions on public gatherings imposed to address the COVID-19 pandemic limited the public’s ability to demonstrate.

In July police aggressively dispersed members of the Papuan Student Alliance in Denpasar, Bali; local student activists uploaded videos of this to Facebook. The videos showed police using a water cannon against students peacefully commemorating members of the Free Papua Movement killed during a military operation in 1998 in Biak, Papua. The director of a local legal aid foundation reported that police used force against multiple participants and confiscated participants’ and organizers’ banners and posters.

In December 2019 the University of Khairun in Ternate, North Maluku, expelled students Fahrul Abdulah Bone, Fahyudi Kabir, Ikra S Alkatiri, and Arbi M Nur for joining a demonstration outside of Muhammidiyah University in Ternate that supported Papuan dissidents. The university released a statement confirming the dismissal of the four students, arguing they had “defamed the good name of the university, violate[d] student’s ethics, and threaten[ed] national security.” In April the dismissed students, with the help of Ambon Ansor Legal Aid, sued the university in the Ambon state administrative court. Local courts dismissed the students’ lawsuit, leading the students to appeal the decision in the Makassar administrative court. Proceedings continued as of October.

In October mass protests erupted nationwide in opposition to a newly passed omnibus law on economic reforms. A wide range of civil society groups participated in the protests, including the Anti-Communist National Alliances, which includes the Islamic Defenders Front and the (Islamist) 212 Alumni, labor activists and unions, including the Indonesian Worker’s Union, and student organizations. Protesters voiced concerns regarding provisions affecting environmental protection, civil liberties, and labor rights. Some demonstrations turned violent, and property damage was notable in several neighborhoods in Jakarta. Police were criticized for their use of tear gas against demonstrators.

Freedom of Association

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, which the government generally respected. The regulations on registration of organizations were generally not onerous. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) advocacy groups, however, reported that when attempting to register their organizations, they were unable to state explicitly that they were LGBTI advocacy groups on their registration certificate.

To receive official registration status, foreign NGOs must have a memorandum of understanding with a government ministry. Some organizations reported difficulties obtaining these memoranda and claimed the government withheld them to block their registration status, although cumbersome bureaucracy within the Ministry of Law and Human Rights was also to blame.

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 and generally allows for travel outside of the country. The law gives the military broad powers in a declared state of emergency, including the power to limit land, air, and sea traffic. The government did not use these powers during the year.

In-country Movement: The government continued to impose administrative hurdles for travel by NGOs, journalists, foreign diplomats, and others to Papua and West Papua. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, authorities severely limited movement in and out of Papua and West Papua, enforcing these restrictions far more strictly and for a longer period than elsewhere.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The government collects data on displacement caused by natural hazards and conflict through the National Disaster Management Authority, although the lack of systematic monitoring of return and resettlement conditions made it difficult to estimate reliably the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported there were 104,000 IDPs due to disasters and 40,000 IDPs due to conflict and violence as of December 2019.

The law stipulates the government must provide for “the fulfillment of the rights of the people and displaced persons affected by disaster in a manner that is fair and in line with the minimum service standards.” IDPs in towns and villages were not abused or deprived of services or other rights and protections, but resource and access constraints delayed or hindered the provision of services to IDPs in some cases, notably for those who fled to the countryside and forests to escape conflict in Papua and West Papua.

The return of persons displaced by conflict in Papua and West Papua has been slow and difficult. More than 10,000 residents of Wamena who fled violence there in 2019 had not returned to their homes as of September. Other groups of civilians who reportedly fled government-insurgent clashes faced potential violence from security forces when attempting to return to their homes, as was the case for a group of dozens of persons attempting to return to the Keyenam District of West Papua in July.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Migrant workers were often subjected to police extortion and societal discrimination.

Rohingya Muslims were a small but growing segment of the refugee and asylum-seeker population. In August some Rohingya refugees and supporters in Makassar, South Sulawesi, protested in front of the city legislature, demanding greater recognition and respect for their human rights. Members of the community stated they were often denied proper medical treatment and received no support when filing for asylum. Community representatives also alleged the government aggressively monitored them and that they faced severe restrictions on their freedom of movement–for example, Rohingya who married locals were not permitted to leave refugee housing–and challenges finding work.

Access to Asylum: The country is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention and does not allow permanent local settlement or naturalization of asylum seekers or persons judged to be refugees. The government allows refugees to settle temporarily while awaiting permanent resettlement. The law acknowledges UNHCR’s role in processing all refugee status determinations in the country. Regulations establish a detailed refugee management process, outlining the specific responsibilities of national and subnational agencies from the time of refugee arrival to departure for resettlement or repatriation. UNHCR officials reported 13,612 known refugees and asylum seekers were in the country as of July.

Employment: The government prohibits refugees from working, although it did not strictly enforce this prohibition.

Access to Basic Services: The government does not generally prohibit refugees from accessing public elementary education, although many barriers prevented enrollment of more than a small number of refugee children, including lack of access to government-issued student identification numbers. A small number of refugees enrolled in language and other classes in private, refugee-run schools or in NGO-sponsored programs. Refugees have access to basic public health services through local health clinics, which the government subsidizes. Treatment for more serious conditions or hospitalization, however, is not covered under this program.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In April 2019 Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) won a second five-year term as president. Voters also elected new members of the House of Representatives and the Regional Representative Council, as well as provincial and local legislatures. Domestic and international observers deemed the elections free and fair.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, elections for some provincial and local executives originally scheduled for September 23 were postponed until December 9 to allow the government to implement heightened health safety protocols.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There are no inordinate restrictions on parties and political participation, although NGOs raised concerns about the growing number of uncontested races in the regional head elections, which they attribute in part to the high costs of launching successful political campaigns.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law on political parties mandates that women comprise a minimum of 30 percent of the founding membership of a new political party. As of November, 10.6 percent of candidates for the December local elections were women, lower than the 20.5 percent rate for the 2019 national elections, but higher than the 8.8 percent rate in the 2018 local elections.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but government efforts to enforce the law were insufficient. Despite the arrest and conviction of many high-profile and high-ranking officials, there was a widespread perception that corruption remained endemic. The Corruption Eradication Commission, national police, the armed forces’ Special Economics Crime Unit, and the Attorney General’s Office may all investigate and prosecute corruption cases. Coordination between these offices, however, was inconsistent and in the case of the armed forces unit, nonexistent. The Corruption Eradication Commission does not have authority to investigate members of the military, nor does it have jurisdiction in cases where state losses are valued at less than one billion Indonesia rupees (IDR) ($70,900).

Many NGOs and activists maintained that amendments in 2019 to the Corruption Commission statute weakened its ability to investigate corruption. The amendments established a supervisory body selected and appointed by the president, whose responsibilities include approving commission wiretaps and removed the commission’s independent status by making it part of the executive branch. In the past, Corruption Eradication Commission investigators were sometimes harassed, intimidated, or attacked due to their anticorruption work.

Corruption: The Corruption Eradication Commission investigated and prosecuted officials suspected of corruption at all levels of government. Several high-profile corruption cases involved large-scale government procurement or construction programs and implicated legislators, governors, regents, judges, police, and civil servants. From mid-2019 to early in the year, the commission recovered state assets worth approximately IDR 385 billion ($27.3 million). In 2019 the commission conducted 142 investigations, initiated 234 prosecutions, and completed 136 cases resulting in convictions.

On January 14, the Attorney General’s Office arrested four persons for corruption at distressed state-owned insurer PT Asuransi Jiwasraya (Jiwasraya). According to the Supreme Audit Agency, all of the suspects were being investigated for receiving kickbacks in return for including high-risk stocks in Jiwasraya’s investment mix and engaging in stock market rigging.

On July 16, a Jakarta court sentenced one officer to two years’ and another to 18 months’ imprisonment for throwing acid in the face of corruption investigator Novel Baswedan in 2017. Baswedan’s face was badly scarred, and he lost 75 percent of his vision in the attack. Baswedan’s work for the Corruption Eradication Commission had led to the conviction of numerous high-level officials. He denounced the court for not pursuing the masterminds of the attack and called for an independent commission to investigate.

In September local courts in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, formally charged Syaifullah (one name only), the former acting head of the Communication and Information Agency, with corruption. According to the district attorney, Syaifullah stole funds from the 2019 “Pokok Pikiran” program totaling IDR 50 million ($3,550). Syaifullah faced a maximum sentence of five years and a fine. Police have not yet arrested Syaifullah because of concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to NGOs and media reports, police commonly demanded bribes ranging from minor payoffs in traffic cases to large amounts in criminal investigations. Corrupt officials sometimes subjected Indonesian migrants returning from abroad, primarily women, to arbitrary strip searches, theft, and extortion.

Bribes and extortion influenced prosecution, conviction, and sentencing in civil and criminal cases. Anticorruption NGOs accused key individuals in the justice system of accepting bribes and condoning suspected corruption. Legal aid organizations reported cases often moved very slowly unless a bribe was paid, and in some cases prosecutors demanded payments from defendants to ensure a less zealous prosecution or to make a case disappear.

The National Ombudsman Commission received complaints related to litigation favors and maladministration in court decisions. In 2019 the Judicial Commission received 1,544 public complaints of judicial misconduct and recommended sanctions against 130 judges accused of manipulating trials.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires senior government officials and other officials working in certain agencies to file financial disclosure reports. The law requires that the reports include all assets held by the officials, their spouses, and their dependent children. The law requires reports be filed when the official takes office, every two years thereafter, within two months of leaving office, and immediately upon request by the corruption commission. The commission is responsible for verifying disclosures and publicizing them in the State Gazette and on the internet. There are criminal sanctions for noncompliance in cases involving corruption and compliance is generally high. Not all assets were verified due to commission resource limitations.

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

Domestic and international human rights organizations generally operated without government restriction (except in Papua and West Papua), investigating and publishing findings on human rights cases and advocating improvements to the government’s human rights performance. Government representatives met with local NGOs, responded to their inquiries, and took some actions in response to NGO concerns. Some officials, particularly those based in Papua and West Papua, subjected NGOs to monitoring, harassment, interference, threats, and intimidation. In the aftermath of August/September 2019 unrest in Papua, then coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs Wiranto said that the government would “temporarily limit access to Papua,” due to security concerns. As of September access for journalists, foreign diplomats and nonresidents remained heavily restricted.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government permitted UN officials to monitor the human rights situation in the country. Security forces and intelligence agencies, however, tended to regard foreign human rights observers with suspicion, especially those in Papua and West Papua, where their operations were restricted.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Many independent agencies addressed human rights problems, including the Office of the National Ombudsman, the National Commission on Violence against Women, and the National Human Rights Commission. The government is not required to adopt their recommendations and at times avoided doing so. Some agencies, including the human rights and violence against women commissions, may refer cases to police or prosecutors.

The Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to investigate human rights violations perpetrated by the government and the then active Free Aceh Movement between 1976 and 2005, has taken 3,040 statements from victims, former separatists, and witnesses. Since 2018 the commission has conducted three sets of public hearings; one local hearing in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh; and two thematic hearings in Banda Aceh in which victims of human rights abuses gave public testimony. Budget constraints continued to pose challenges for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its budget was further reduced during the year to reallocate funds for COVID-19 emergency response.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, domestic abuse, and other forms of violence against women. The legal definition of rape covers only forced penetration of sexual organs, and filing a case requires a witness or other corroboration. Rape is punishable by four to 14 years in prison. While the government imprisoned some perpetrators of rape and attempted rape, sentences were often light, and many convicted rapists received the minimum sentence. Marital rape is not a specific criminal offense in law but is covered under “forced sexual intercourse” in national legislation on domestic violence and may be punished with criminal penalties.

The National Commission on Violence against Women’s annual report recorded a 6-percent increase in known cases of all types of violence against women over the 2019 report. According to the report, the majority of incidents were domestic violence cases. Civil society activists underscored that many cases go unreported, as many victims do not report abuse because of fear of social stigma, shame, and lack of support from friends and family. According to the national commission, from January to May there were 892 reported cases of violence against women, with the majority occurring after lockdown policies were implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This figure is equivalent to 63 percent of total cases reported during the entirety of 2019.

Civil society organizations operated integrated service centers for women and children in all 34 provinces and approximately 436 districts and provided counseling and support services of varying quality to victims of violence. Larger provincial service centers provided more comprehensive psychosocial services. Women living in rural areas or districts with no such center had difficulty receiving support services, and some centers were only open for six hours a day, not the required 24 hours. Nationwide, police operated “special crisis rooms” or “women’s desks” where female officers received reports from female and child victims of sexual assault and trafficking and where victims found temporary shelter.

In addition to 32 provincial-level anti-trafficking-in-persons task forces, the government has 251 task forces at the local (district or city) level, which were usually chaired by the head of the local integrated service center or of the local social affairs office.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C reportedly occurred regularly. A 2017 UNICEF report based on 2013 government data estimated that 49 percent of girls age 11 and younger underwent some form of FGM/C, with the majority of girls subjected to the procedure before they were six months old. Media reports said that annual mass circumcisions still occur, including ceremonies organized by the As-Salaam Foundation, which paid parents to allow their daughters to undergo the Type IV procedure which, according to the World Health Organization, includes pricking, scraping, or piercing for nonmedical reasons. National law prohibiting this practice has never been tested in court as nobody has ever been charged for performing FGM/C.

The Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection continued to lead official efforts to prevent FGM/C. In 2019 the ministry created an intergovernmental roadmap with the aim of eliminating FGM/C by 2030. The strategy involves building an anti-FGM/C consensus from the bottom up, beginning with efforts to develop more complete data on FGM/C to attract public attention, dispel old myths, and measure progress on stopping the practice. The roadmap also involves working with local religious and community leaders to educate the public about the harmful effects of FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibiting indecent public acts serves as the basis for criminal complaints stemming from sexual harassment. Violations are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years and eight months and a small fine. Civil society and NGOs reported sexual harassment was a problem countrywide. In July the House of Representatives dropped a long-sought sexual violence eradication bill from the year’s legislative program, using delays imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse. Sexual violence victims and victim rights activists were disappointed by this decision, and a coalition of organizations (the Women’s Anti-Violence Movement Alliance) organized weekly protests in front of House of Representatives to push for the bill’s passage.

Reproductive Rights: While the law recognizes the basic right of couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, other regulations impact its effective implementation for women.

By law the government must provide information and education on reproductive health that do not conflict with religious or moral norms. NGOs reported that government officials attempted to restrict the provision of reproductive health information related to contraceptives and other services deemed as conflicting with religious or moral norms.

According to 2017 data from the Ministry of Health, 57 percent of married women used modern contraception. WHO data from 2019 showed that 78 percent of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years old) believed their family planning needs were satisfied with modern methods. While condoms were widely available, regulations require husbands’ permission for married women to obtain other forms of birth control. Local NGOs reported that unmarried women found it difficult to obtain contraceptives through health care systems. Media and NGOs reported such women were stigmatized, including by health-care staff who repeatedly asked about marital status and sometimes turned away unmarried women seeking routine procedures such as pap smears.

The United Nations Population Fund reported that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted access to family planning and reproductive services. The National Agency for Population and Family Planning reported that approximately 10 percent of its clients dropped out of its programs during the pandemic and warned of a “pandemic baby boom.”

NGOs reported that reproductive health services are not consistently provided to victims of sexual violence. NGOs reported rape victims sometimes experienced difficulties obtaining emergency contraceptives from medical providers.

According to 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) data, the maternal mortality rate was 177 per 100,000 live births, down from 184 in 2016. According to Ministry of Health data from 2019, 91 percent of live births were attended by health professionals, of whom 63 percent were midwives, 30 percent doctors or nurses, and 6 percent traditional healers. The ministry estimated in the same year that 89 percent of pregnant women received four or more prenatal care visits. In 2017 UNICEF reported that 87 percent of women received postnatal care within two days of giving birth. According to 2018 WHO data, the adolescent birth rate was 36 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19.

The Ministry of Health and NGOs identified several factors contributing to the maternal mortality rate, including lack of training for midwives and traditional birth attendants, continued lack of access to basic and comprehensive emergency obstetric care, and limited availability of essential maternal and neonatal medications. Hospitals and health centers did not always properly manage complicated procedures, and financial barriers and the limited availability of qualified health personnel caused problems for referrals in case of complications. A woman’s economic status, level of education, and age at first marriage also affected maternal mortality.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men in family, labor, property, and nationality law, but it does not grant widows equal inheritance rights. The law states that women’s work outside their home must not conflict with their role in improving family welfare and educating the younger generation. The law designates the man as the head of the household.

Divorce is available to both men and women. Many divorced women received no alimony, since there is no system to enforce such payments. The law requires a divorced woman to wait 40 days before remarrying; a man may remarry immediately.

The National Commission on Violence against Women viewed many local laws and policies as discriminatory. These included “morality laws” and antiprostitution regulations. More than 70 local regulations in various locations throughout the country require women to dress conservatively or wear a headscarf. In June the regent of Central Lombok ordered all female Muslim civil servants to wear a cadar or niqab Islamic face covering instead of a facemask as part of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Human rights activists viewed this instruction as discriminatory since male civil servants and non-Muslim women faced no restrictions on their attire. The Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for “harmonizing” local regulations that are not in line with national legislation and may recommend to the Constitutional Court that local regulations be overturned. To date the ministry has not invoked this authority.

Women faced discrimination in the workplace, both in hiring and in gaining fair compensation (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived through one’s parents or through birth in national territory. Birth registration may be denied if the citizenship of the parents cannot be established. Without birth registration, families may face difficulties in accessing government-sponsored insurance benefits and enrolling children in schools.

The law prohibits fees for legal identity documents issued by the civil registry. Nevertheless, NGOs reported that in some districts local authorities did not provide free birth certificates.

Education: Although the constitution states that the government must provide free education, it does not cover fees charged for schoolbooks, uniforms, transportation, and other nontuition costs. The Ministry of Education and Culture, representing public and private schools, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs for Islamic schools and madrassahs, operated a system giving students from low-income families a financial grant for their educational needs. Nonetheless, high poverty rates nationwide put education out of reach for many children.

According to the National Statistics Agency’s most recent data, in 2017 approximately two million children ages seven to 15 did not attend primary or secondary school, and the enrollment rate in some districts was as low as 33 percent.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, but NGOs criticized the slow police response to such allegations. The law also addresses economic and sexual exploitation of children. Some provincial governments did not enforce these provisions. In June a church caretaker was arrested for allegedly molesting at least 20 altar boys between the ages of 11 and 15 since 2002. He faced five to 15 years’ imprisonment and a substantial fine. The same month police arrested a French retiree resident in Jakarta on charges he molested more than 300 children and beat those who refused to have sex with him. He was also accused of videotaping these children, and police were investigating whether he attempted to sell the videos. According to police, he committed suicide in July while in custody before his trial was completed.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: In September 2019 the national legislature raised the minimum marriage age for women from 16 to 19; it was already 19 for men. Exceptions to the minimum age requirements are allowed with court approval. The courts officially permitted more than 33,000 child marriages with parental consent between January and June of this year, a significant increase over the 24,000 child marriages permitted in the whole of 2019. Children’s rights activists are concerned that increased economic pressure from COVID-19 may be leading parents to resort to child marriage to reduce the economic burden on their households. The National Statistics Agency reported in 2018 that approximately 11 percent of girls in the country marry before the age of 18. Provinces with the highest rates of early marriage include West Sulawesi, Central Kalimantan, Southeast Sulawesi, South Kalimantan, and West Kalimantan. The main drivers of early marriage are poverty, cultural tradition, religious norms, and lack of sexual reproductive health education.

The reduction of child marriage is one of the targets set in the National Mid-Term Development Plan 2020-2024. The government aims to reduce new child marriages in the country to 8.7 percent of all marriages by 2024. On February 4, the government launched a National Strategy on the Prevention of Child Marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law forbids consensual sex outside of marriage with girls younger than 15. It does not address heterosexual acts between women and boys, but it prohibits same-sex sexual acts between adults and minors.

The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and the use of children in illicit activities. It also prohibits child pornography and prescribes a maximum sentence of 12 years and a substantial fine for producing or trading in child pornography.

According to 2016 data, the most recent available from the Ministry of Social Affairs, there were 56,000 underage sex workers in the country; UNICEF estimated that nationwide 40,000 to 70,000 children were victims of sexual exploitation and that 30 percent of female commercial sex workers were children.

Displaced Children: The most recent Ministry of Social Affairs data from 2017 estimated there were 16,000 street children in the country. The government continued to fund shelters administered by local NGOs and paid for the education of some street children. The social welfare ministry in 2019 indicated that 183,104 children were registered in its Integrated Social Welfare Data system, of whom 106,406 were residing in child welfare institutions, with 76,698 in family placement. The ministry indicated that 8,320 street children were receiving assistance, although NGOs noted that the actual number of street children was significantly higher.

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

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish population was extremely small, estimated at approximately 200. There were no significant reports of anti-Semitism during the year, but studies in recent years indicated a high level of anti-Semitic sentiment.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities and mandates accessibility to public facilities for persons with disabilities. The law applies to education, employment, health services, and other state services but was seldom enforced. Comprehensive disability rights law provisions impose criminal sanctions for violators of the rights of persons with disabilities.

Vulnerable segments of society, including persons with disabilities, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. They have experienced difficulties accessing information on the pandemic, adopting virus-related public health strategies, and receiving health care from service providers.

According to government data, approximately 30 percent of the 1.6 million children with disabilities had access to education. More than 90 percent of blind children reportedly were illiterate. In February and July, the government issued new regulations requiring courts be made accessible for persons with disabilities and that educational facilities at all levels be made accessible for persons with disabilities.

According to the General Election Commission, there were potentially 137,247 voters with disabilities out of 105 million voters registered to vote in regional head elections. The numbers, however, may change as voter verification continues. The law provides persons with disabilities the rights to vote and run for office and election commission procedures provide for access to the polls for voters with disabilities.

Despite a government ban, NGOs reported that families, traditional healers, and staff in institutions continued to shackle individuals with psychosocial disabilities, in some cases for years. The government continued to prioritize elimination of this practice, and the Ministry of Social Affairs signed memoranda of understanding with relevant ministries and law enforcement agencies to increase coordination to address the issue. While recognizing incidents of “shackling” continued to decline, NGOs noted a lack of public awareness of the issue.

Indigenous People

The government views all citizens as “indigenous” but recognizes the existence of several “isolated communities” and their right to participate fully in political and social life. The Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago estimated that between 50 and 70 million indigenous persons were in the country. These communities include the Dayak tribes of Kalimantan, families living as sea nomads, and the 312 officially recognized indigenous groups in Papua. Indigenous persons, most notably in Papua and West Papua, were subjected to discrimination, and there was little improvement in respect for their traditional land rights. The government failed to prevent companies, often in collusion with local military and police units, from encroaching on indigenous persons’ land. Central and local government officials were also alleged to have extracted kickbacks from mining and plantation companies in exchange for land access at the expense of indigenous peoples.

Mining and logging activities, many of them illegal, posed significant social, economic, and legal problems for indigenous communities. Melanesians in Papua cited racism and discrimination as drivers of violence and economic inequality in the region.

Since 2016 the government has granted more than 50,000 acres of forest concessions to nine local indigenous groups. These hutan adat (customary forest) land grants were a new land classification specifically designated for indigenous groups. Nevertheless, access to ancestral lands remained a major source of tension throughout the country, and large corporations and the government continued to displace individuals from ancestral lands.

On February 17, police arrested Dilik Bin Asap and Hermanus Bin Bison following allegations by palm oil company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada that the two men had harvested fruit on land claimed by the company in Lamandau District, Central Kalimantan. The land is also claimed by local Dayak villagers who said the government improperly issued a land concession to the company that overlaps with Dayak lands. Community lobbying efforts to resolve the dispute have remained unsuccessful.

On March 7, Jakarta police also arrested farmer and land rights activist James Watt, who had gone to Jakarta to report the arrests of Dilik and Hermanus to the National Human Rights Commission. Following Watt’s arrest, he was returned to Kalimantan and charged with orchestrating the alleged improper use of land. On April 26, Watt’s codefendant Bin Bison died in pretrial detention. Authorities denied petitions from his lawyers for his release for medical treatment as his condition worsened. On June 15, a local court convicted Bin Asap and Watt of the theft. The two announced plans to appeal.

In August in connection with the same dispute, police arrested Effendi Buhing, leader of the local Dayak indigenous community, for directing locals to steal equipment from the palm oil company. Police released Effendi after two days in detention. Effendi subsequently reported his arrest to the National Human Rights Commission.

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

No national law criminalizes same-sex sexual activity, except between adults and minors. Aceh’s sharia law makes consensual same-sex sexual activities illegal and punishable by a maximum of 100 lashes, a considerable fine, or a 100-month prison term. According to Aceh’s sharia agency chief, at least four witnesses must observe individuals engaging in consensual same-sex sexual activities for them to be charged. Local organizations held anti-LGBTI protests.

Producing media depicting consensual same-sex sexual activity–vaguely and broadly defined in the law–is often prosecuted as a crime under the antipornography act. Penalties include potentially extremely large fines and imprisonment from six months to 15 years, with heavier penalties for crimes involving minors.

In September police arrested nine persons suspected of organizing a gay party at a Jakarta hotel. Police officials stated the nine were charged under pornography provisions of the criminal code. A coalition of NGOs protested the arrest, arguing that the activities did not constitute pornography under the law and that police exceeded their authority by arresting individuals for private conduct. Media reported police set up a special task force to investigate alleged homosexual activity.

Antidiscrimination law does not protect LGBTI individuals, and discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons continued. Families often put LGBTI minors into therapy, confined them to their homes, or pressured them to marry persons of the opposite sex.

According to media and NGO reports, local authorities harassed transgender persons, including by forcing them to conform to the cultural behavior associated with their biological sex, and forced them to pay bribes following detention. In many cases officials failed to protect LGBTI persons from societal abuse. Police corruption, bias, and violence caused LGBTI persons to avoid interaction with police. Officials often ignored formal complaints by victims and affected persons, including refusing to investigate bullying directed at LGBTI individuals. In criminal cases with LGBTI victims, police investigated the cases reasonably well, as long as the suspect was not affiliated with police. Human Rights Watch Indonesia noted anti-LGBTI rhetoric in the country has increased since 2016.

In April a transgender woman was burned to death in Jakarta after she was accused of stealing. Police arrested four individuals and the cases were with the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution.

Police arrested a social media personality after he posted a video of himself distributing boxes full of garbage disguised as food aid to transgender women. The victims settled the case and the charges were dropped. Members of the LGBTI community noted an increased level of intolerance after police in East Java opened six pedophilia cases against members of the LGBTI community in January and February.

Transgender persons faced discrimination in employment and access to public services and health care. NGOs documented government officials’ refusal to issue identity cards to transgender persons. The law only allows transgender individuals officially to change their gender after the completion of sex reassignment surgery. Some observers claimed the process was cumbersome and degrading because it is permissible only in certain undefined special circumstances and requires a court order declaring that the surgery is complete.

LGBTI NGOs operated but frequently held low-key public events because the licenses or permits required for holding registered events were difficult to obtain.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Stigmatization and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS were pervasive, despite government efforts to encourage tolerance. Societal tolerance varied widely and official fear of a backlash from religious conservatives often resulted in muted prevention efforts. Societal barriers to accessing antiretroviral drugs compounded expenses and put these drugs beyond the reach of many. Persons with HIV/AIDS reportedly continued to face employment discrimination. Closer collaboration between the Ministry of Health and civil society organizations increased the reach of the government’s awareness campaign; however, some clinics refused to provide services to persons with HIV/AIDS.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Individuals diagnosed with or suspected of having the COVID-19 virus faced discrimination in their communities.

Individuals suspected of using black magic were often targets of violence. In May a man was stabbed by someone accusing him of being a shaman. In July a mob attacked two men who were accused of using magic to multiply money.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, with restrictions, provides for the rights of workers to join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination.

Workers in the private sector have, in law, broad rights of association and formed and joined unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements. The law places restrictions on organizing among public-sector workers. Civil servants may only form employee associations with limitations on certain rights, such as the right to strike. Employees of state-owned enterprises may form unions, but because the government treats most such enterprises as essential national interest entities, their right to strike is limited.

The law stipulates that 10 or more workers have the right to form a union, with membership open to all workers, regardless of political affiliation, religion, ethnicity, or gender. The Ministry of Manpower records, rather than approves, the formation of a union, federation, or confederation and provides it with a registration number.

The law allows the government to petition the courts to dissolve a union if it conflicts with the constitution or the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice. Authorities may compel a union to dissolve if its leaders or members, in the name of the union, commit crimes against the security of the state and they may receive a minimum of five years in prison. Once a union is dissolved, its leaders and members may not form another union for at least three years. The International Labor Organization (ILO) noted its concern that dissolving a union could be disproportionate to the seriousness of the violation.

The law includes some restrictions on collective bargaining, including a requirement that a union or unions represent more than 50 percent of the company workforce to negotiate a collective labor agreement (CLA). Workers and employers have 30 days to conclude a CLA before negotiations move to binding arbitration. CLAs have a two-year lifespan that the parties may extend for one year. Unions noted that the law allows employers to delay the negotiation of CLAs with few legal repercussions.

The right to strike is legally restricted. By law workers must give written notification to authorities and to the employer seven days in advance for a strike to be legal. The notification must specify the start and end time of the strike, venue for the action, and reasons for the strike, and it must include signatures of the chairperson and secretary of the striking union. Before striking, workers must engage in mediation with the employer and then proceed to a government mediator or risk having the strike declared illegal. In the case of an illegal strike, an employer may make two written requests within a period of seven days for workers to return. Workers who do not return to work after these requests are considered to have resigned.

All strikes at “enterprises that cater to the interests of the general public or at enterprises whose activities would endanger the safety of human life if discontinued” are deemed illegal. Regulations do not specify the types of enterprises affected, leaving this determination to the government’s discretion. Presidential and ministerial decrees enable companies or industrial areas to request assistance from police and the military in the event of disruption of or threat to “national vital objects” in their jurisdiction. The ILO has observed that the definition of “national vital objects” was expanding and consequently imposing overly broad restrictions on legitimate trade union activity, including in export-processing zones. Regulations also classify strikes as illegal if they are “not as a result of failed negotiations.” Unions alleged that the government’s recent increase of the number of “national vital objects” was done to justify the use of security forces to restrict strike activity.

The government did not always effectively enforce provisions of the law protecting freedom of association or preventing antiunion discrimination. Antiunion discrimination cases moved excessively slowly through the court system. Bribery and judicial corruption in workers’ disputes continued, and unions claimed that courts rarely decided cases in the workers’ favor, even in cases in which the Ministry of Manpower recommended in favor of the workers. While such workers sometimes received severance pay or other compensation, they were rarely reinstated. Authorities used some legal provisions to prosecute trade unionists for striking, such as the crime of “instigating a punishable act” or committing “unpleasant acts,” which criminalized a broad range of conduct.

Penalties for criminal violations of the law protecting freedom of association and the right to enter into collective labor agreements include a prison sentence and fines, and they were generally commensurate with similar crimes. Local Ministry of Manpower offices were responsible for enforcement, which was particularly difficult in export-promotion zones. Enforcement of CLAs varied based on the capacity and interest of individual regional governments.

Several common practices undermined freedom of association. Antiunion intimidation most often took the form of termination, transfer, or filing unjustified criminal charges. Labor activists claimed that companies orchestrated the formation of multiple unions, including “yellow” (employer-controlled) unions, to weaken legitimate unions. Some employers threatened employees who contacted union organizers. Companies often sued union leaders for losses suffered in strikes. Unions also alleged that employers commonly reassigned labor leaders deemed to be problematic.

Many strikes were unsanctioned or “wildcat” strikes that broke out after a failure to settle long-term grievances or when an employer refused to recognize a union. Unions reported that employers also used the bureaucratic process required for a legal strike to obstruct unions’ right to strike. Unions noted that employers’ delays in negotiating CLAs contributed to strike activity and legal measures taken against union members in the event of a failed CLA negotiation. The ILO cited the lack of a strong collective bargaining culture as a factor contributing to many labor disputes.

The increasing use of contract labor directly affected workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively. Under the law, contract labor is to be used only for work that is “temporary in nature”; a business may outsource work only when such work is an auxiliary activity of the business. Government regulations limit employers’ ability to outsource jobs to five categories of workers (cleaning services, security, transportation, catering, and work related to the mining industry). Nevertheless, many employers violated these provisions, sometimes with the assistance of local offices of the Ministry of Manpower. For example, unions reported that hotel owners often attempted to use the cleaning services exemption to justify terminating unionized hotel housekeeping staff and outsourcing those services.

On November 3, President Jokowi signed into law the Omnibus Bill on Job Creation, which made sweeping changes to more than 70 labor, tax, and other laws to cut red tape and make the country more open to investment. Labor unions and civil society organizations protested passage of the law, which they say weakens worker protections and allows encroachment on indigenous and protected land.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, prescribing penalties of imprisonment and a fine, which were commensurate with similar crimes.

In order to limit prospects for forced labor among Indonesian workers abroad, the National Social Security Administration enrolls these migrant workers and their families in the national social security program, enables authorities to prosecute suspects involved in illegal recruitment and placement of workers, and limits the role of private recruitment and placement agencies by revoking their authority to obtain travel documents for migrant workers. Government agencies may suspend the licenses of recruitment agencies for coercive or deceptive recruitment practices and contract signings, sending migrant workers to an unauthorized destination country, document forgery, underage recruitment, illegal fees (such as requesting several months of workers’ salaries), and other violations.

The government continued its moratorium on sending domestic workers to certain countries where its citizens had been subjected to forced labor. Some observers noted this moratorium resulted in an increasing number of workers seeking the services of illegal brokers and placement agencies to facilitate their travel, increasing their vulnerability to human trafficking. The government has asserted such moratoriums are needed until receiving countries can guarantee protections against the abuse and exploitation of its migrant workers.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. There were credible reports that forced labor occurred, including forced and compulsory labor by children (see section 7.c.). Forced labor occurred in domestic servitude and in the mining, manufacturing, fishing, fish processing, construction, and plantation agriculture sectors.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Law and regulations prohibit all labor by children between the ages of five and 12. Children ages 13 and 14 may work up to 15 hours per week; children ages 15 to 17 may work up to 40 hours per week (not during school or evening hours and with written permission from parents). The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor, as defined by the ILO. It does not, however, extend to the informal economy, where most child labor takes place. Companies which legally employ children for the purpose of artistic performances and similar activities are required to keep records of their employment. Companies that legally employ children for other purposes are not required to keep such records. In 2019 through its Family Hope Program, the government removed 18,000 children from child labor.

The government did not effectively enforce the law prohibiting the worst forms of child labor, since it did not effectively investigate, prosecute, or sanction persons who involve children in the production, sale, or trafficking of illicit drugs. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes.

Child labor commonly occurred in domestic service, rural agriculture, light industry, manufacturing, and fishing. The worst forms of child labor occurred in commercial sexual exploitation, including the production of child pornography (also see section 6, Children); other illicit activities, including forced begging and the production, sale, and trafficking of drugs; and in fishing and domestic work.

According to a 2019 National Statistics Agency report, there were approximately 1.6 million children ages 10 to 17 working, primarily in the informal economy.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation but not specifically with respect to sexual orientation or gender identity, national origin or citizenship, age, language, or HIV or other communicable disease status. There were no legal restrictions against women in employment to include limiting working hours, occupations, or tasks.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were commensurate with those for violations of similar laws, but they were not applied outside the formal sector. According to NGOs, antidiscrimination protections were not always observed by employers or the government. Human rights groups reported some government ministries discriminated against pregnant women, persons with disabilities, LGBTI individuals, and HIV-positive persons in hiring. For example, in November 2019 the Attorney General’s office openly stated it would not accept applications from persons with disabilities or LGBTI applicants. The Ministry of Manpower, the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Agency, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the National Development Planning Board worked in partnership to reduce gender inequality, including supporting equal employment opportunity task forces at the provincial, district, and municipal levels. Women, however, still lagged behind men in wages.

Migrant workers and persons with disabilities commonly faced discrimination in employment and were often only hired for lower status jobs.

Some activists said that in manufacturing, employers relegated women to lower paying, lower level jobs. Jobs traditionally associated with women continued to be significantly undervalued and unregulated. NGOs reported discriminatory behavior toward domestic workers continued to be rampant.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Minimum wages varied throughout the country, since provincial governors had authority to set a minimum wage floor and district heads had authority to set a higher rate. Minimum wages were above the official poverty line.

Government regulations exempt employers in certain sectors, including small and medium enterprises and labor-intensive industries such as textiles, from minimum wage requirements.

The overtime rate for work in excess of a 40-hour workweek was 1.5 times the normal hourly rate for the first hour and twice the hourly rate for additional overtime, with a maximum of three hours of overtime per day and a maximum of 14 hours per week.

The law requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace and to treat workers with dignity. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

Local officials from the Ministry of Manpower are responsible for enforcing minimum wage, work hours, and health and safety regulations. Penalties for violations include fines and imprisonment (for violation of the minimum wage law), which were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes. Government enforcement remained inadequate, particularly at smaller companies, and supervision of labor standards continued to be not fully enforced. Provincial and local officials often did not have the technical expertise needed to enforce labor law effectively. The number of inspectors was inadequate to enforce compliance, although in 2019 the government substantially increased its labor inspectorate funding, with a specific budget for enforcing child labor regulations.

Authorities enforced labor regulations, including minimum wage regulations, only for the estimated 43 percent of workers in the formal sector. Workers in the informal sector did not receive the same protections or benefits as workers in the formal sector, in part because they had no legal work contract that labor inspectors could examine.

The law does not mandate that employers provide domestic workers with a minimum wage, health insurance, freedom of association, an eight-hour workday, a weekly day of rest, vacation time, or safe work conditions.

Plantation agriculture workers often worked long hours without government-mandated health insurance benefits. They lacked proper safety gear and training in pesticide safety. Most plantation operators paid workers by the volume of crop harvested, which resulted in some workers receiving less than minimum wage and working extended hours to meet volume targets.

Unions continued to urge the government, especially the Ministry of Manpower, to do more to address the country’s poor worker safety record and lax enforcement of health and safety regulations, particularly in the construction sector. There were no reliable national estimates for workplace deaths or injuries. In April the Confederation of Worker’s Union urged the government to require business owners to comply with government requirements to suspend operations during COVID-19 lockdowns because many factory workers were required to report to work by their employers in defiance of government lockdown orders.

Laos

Executive Summary

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is ruled by its only constitutionally authorized party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The most recent National Assembly election held in 2016 was not free and fair. The ruling party selected all candidates, and voting is mandatory for all citizens. Following the election the National Assembly approved Thongloun Sisoulith to be prime minister.

The Ministry of Public Security maintains internal security and is responsible for law enforcement; the ministry oversees local, traffic, immigration, and security police, village police auxiliaries, and other armed police units. The armed forces, under the Ministry of Defense, also have some domestic security responsibilities, including counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and border security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary detention; political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including censorship; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including that of workers; restrictions on political participation; and corruption.

While the government prosecuted and punished officials for corruption, there were no prosecutions or punishments for officials who committed other abuses, and police and security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

In 2018 three Thai political dissidents who were living in the country, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Phu Chana, and Kasalong (one name only), disappeared, having last been seen in Vientiane two days before a visit by the Thai prime minister. Shortly after they disappeared, the bodies of Phu Chana and Kasalong were found near the Mekong River, on the Thai side of the border. The bodies were reportedly bound, disemboweled, and filled with concrete, and the faces beaten beyond recognition. As of November the killers and the place of death remained unknown and Surachai remained missing. The government made no public comment on the case and told the diplomatic community the investigation into the deaths was a Thai responsibility. International media reported that the government had assured Thai officials they would closely monitor Thai activists living in the country and prevent them from engaging in activities against the Thai government.

There was no progress in the 2012 abduction of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader and retired founder of a nonprofit training center, who was abducted by persons in plainclothes after what appeared to be an orchestrated stop of his vehicle by traffic police in Vientiane.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. In 2019 civil society organizations and lawyers claimed some prisoners were beaten or given electric shocks. International media reported in 2019 that prisoners arrested for protesting loss of access to land were subjected to electric shocks following their arrest and suffered from malnourishment and poor health after being jailed for more than a year. In April 2019 Sy Phong, imprisoned since 2011 for leading land protests in Salavan Province, died; the government said his death was from natural causes, but others claim he was tortured.

Impunity reportedly remained a problem; there were no statistics available on its prevalence. The Ministry of Public Security’s Inspection Department allowed the public to submit written complaints via its website or through complaint boxes maintained throughout most of the country. Observers noted that the website is cumbersome to use and statistics on the utilization of the website and boxes were not available. The government revealed no information regarding the existence of a body that investigates abuses by security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention facility conditions varied widely and in some prisons were harsh due to minimal food supply, overcrowding, and inadequate medical care.

Physical Conditions: Prison cells were crowded, with beds no wider than 20 inches. Some prisons reportedly held juveniles with adults, although no official or reliable statistics were available on the overall population or gender of prisoners countrywide. Due to a lack of space, pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held together. There was no information available on the prevalence of death in prisons or pretrial detention centers, although one lawyer claimed in 2019 that some prisoners had died due to overheating at a recently opened prison in Vientiane Province.

Some prisons forced inmates to reimburse authorities upon release for the cost of food eaten during incarceration. Prisons generally provided inadequate food that families and friends had to augment.

Although most prisons had a clinic, usually with a doctor or nurse on the staff, medical facilities were usually deficient. Prisoners had access only to basic medical care, and treatment for serious ailments was unavailable. Prisoners received vaccinations upon arrival; if sick, they had to pay for necessary medicine. In some facilities prisoners could arrange for treatment in police hospitals in emergencies.

Administration: The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for monitoring prison and detention center conditions. Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities and to request investigation of credible allegations of problematic conditions, although there were no reports of prisoners, detainees, or their family members making such requests due to fear of exacerbating poor detention conditions.

There was no ombudsperson to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. Prison wardens set prison visitation policies. Family members generally had access to prisoners and detainees once per month. Prisoners and detainees could follow some private religious practices, but authorities did not provide any facilities for communal worship.

Independent Monitoring: Government officials did not permit regular independent monitoring of prison conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but some government officials did not respect these provisions, and arbitrary arrest and detention persisted.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Both police and military forces have arrest powers, although generally only police exercised them. The law provides detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of their detention. The law also requires authorities to notify detainees of the charges against them and inform next of kin of their detention within 24 hours of arrest, but this did not always occur, especially in rural areas. There is a bail system, but authorities implemented it arbitrarily. There are legal procedures for house arrest, particularly for health reasons. The law provides detained, arrested, or jailed persons the right to legal representation upon request. These provisions often were not respected. International press reported, for example, that Houayheuang (“Muay”) Xayabouly, arrested in September 2019 for criticizing the government on Facebook (see section 2.a.), was not allowed to meet with visitors while the investigation was ongoing, which barred her from obtaining outside legal advice or representation.

Arbitrary Arrest: Police continued to exercise wide latitude in making arrests, relying on a provision of the law that permits warrantless arrests in urgent cases. Police reportedly used the threat of arrest to intimidate persons or extract bribes.

In March police arrested Sithon Tippravong, a Lao Evangelical Church pastor from Savannakhet Province; as of October he remained detained in a provincial jail. Provincial officials did not inform him of the charges, even after his case was transferred to provincial prosecutors.

At times authorities continued to detain prisoners who had completed their sentences, particularly if they were unable to pay court fines.

Pretrial Detention: The law limits detention without trial to one year. The length of detention without a pretrial hearing or formal charges is also limited to one year. The Office of the Prosecutor General reportedly made efforts to have authorities bring all prisoners to trial within the one-year limit, but officials occasionally did not meet the requirement. The exact number of detainees held more than a year was unknown.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and judges acting outside the law with impunity continued. Some judges reportedly accepted bribes. According to a local lawyer, it was “difficult for people with less money” to win a court case due to widespread corruption. The legal framework provides for defense counsel, evidentiary review, and the presumption of innocence. Despite these provisions, judges reportedly decided guilt or innocence in advance of trials, basing their decisions on police or prosecutorial investigation reports. Most defendants chose not to have attorneys or trained representatives due to the general perception that attorneys could not influence court decisions.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, although the judiciary did not always uphold this right. The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence. Most trials, including criminal trials, were primarily pro forma examinations of the accused and reviews of the evidence. Defendants do not have a legal right to know promptly and in detail the charges against them, but the law requires authorities to inform persons of their rights. Trials are public, except for those involving certain types of family law or related to national security, state secrets, or children younger than age 16.

The law provides defendants the right to defend themselves with the assistance of a lawyer or other persons, but there remained a lack of qualified lawyers. Lawyers sometimes were unwilling to defend sensitive cases due to fear of retaliation by local authorities. A civil society advocate noted that the police sometimes intimidated or sought to discredit witnesses. A defense attorney’s role is limited to such actions as asking the court for leniency in sentencing or appealing a technical matter, rather than arguing the merits of the case, challenging evidence, or mounting a true defense. Authorities provided defense attorneys at government expense only in cases involving children, cases likely to result in life imprisonment or the death penalty, and cases considered particularly complicated, such as those involving foreigners. There is no legal right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense.

For a fee the government allows interpreters to provide explanations of laws and defendant rights to ethnic minority citizens and foreigners who cannot communicate in the Lao language.

Defendants may have someone other than an attorney assist them in preparing written cases and accompany them at trial. Defendants may question and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may refuse to testify, although authorities reportedly imposed harsher penalties on defendants who did not cooperate. There is no right of appeal.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no government statistics or reliable estimates available regarding the number of political prisoners. In June 2019, nine citizens from Sekong Province were sentenced to from two to six years’ imprisonment for their 2017 protest of the government’s decision to give a Vietnamese company a concession for a rubber plantation on land that had previously been used for farming. Three political prisoners, Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong, convicted and sentenced in 2017 to 20, 16, and 12 years’ imprisonment, respectively, on multiple charges including treason, propaganda against the state, and gatherings aimed at causing social disorder, remained in prison.

Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country

As of November the whereabouts of Od Sayavong, a Lao prodemocracy activist living in Thailand who disappeared in August 2019, remained unknown. He had been critical of the Lao government and was seeking asylum in a third country. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders stated Od might have “been disappeared.”

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides for judicial independence in civil matters, but enforcement of court orders remained a problem. A person may seek a judicial remedy for violations of civil or political rights in a criminal court or pursue an administrative remedy from the National Assembly. Individuals may seek redress for violations of social and cultural rights in a civil court.

Property Restitution

Some families relocated due to a rail project linking Vientiane to China complained that they were not adequately compensated.

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

The law generally prohibits such actions, but the government continued its broad use of security law exemptions when it perceived a security threat.

The law prohibits unlawful searches and seizures but in many cases does not require a warrant. Although the law requires police to obtain search authorization from a prosecutor or a panel of judges, police did not always obtain prior approval, especially in rural areas. Security laws allow the government to monitor individuals’ movements and private communications, including via mobile telephones and email without a warrant (see section 2.a.). In March the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications announced all mobile phone users must register their SIM cards by providing their personal information to the government.

The Ministry of Public Security monitored citizens’ activities through a surveillance network that included secret police. A police auxiliary program in urban and rural areas, operating under individual village chiefs and local police, shared responsibility for maintaining public order and reported “undesirable” persons to police. Members of Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) affiliated organizations, including the Lao Women’s Union, the Lao Youth Union, and the Lao Front for National Development, also monitored citizens.

The law allows citizens to marry foreigners only with prior government approval. Authorities may annul marriages entered into without approval, with both parties subject to arrest and fines. The government normally granted permission to marry, but the process was lengthy and burdensome, offering officials opportunities to solicit bribes. Premarital cohabitation with foreigners is illegal, although it was rarely prosecuted.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism it deemed harmful to its reputation.

Freedom of Speech: The law provides citizens the right to criticize the government but forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.

In late August, Champasak provincial police arrested Sangkhane Phachanthavong for criticizing the government in his Facebook posts; he was held in jail for a month. There were reports that during his confinement, he was “re-educated” and instructed to stop posting critical content.

As of November, Houayheuang (“Muay”) Xayabouly remained in prison. She was arrested in September 2019 on charges of defaming the country when she criticized on Facebook the government’s response to flooding in Champasak and Salavan Provinces, after previously using social media to criticize graft and greed among government officials. She pled guilty and in November 2019 was sentenced to five years in prison and a 20 million kip ($2,260) fine.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, particularly after the 2012 disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate (see section 1.b.). NGOs said they also tried to avoid saying anything that might further delay government approval of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) needed to carry out their work. NGOs reported that citizens are taught at an early age not to criticize the government.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news reflected government policy. The government permitted publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including ones specializing in business, society, and trade. By law foreign media must submit articles to the government before publication; however, authorities did not enforce these controls. The government did not allow foreign news organizations to set up bureaus in the country, except those from neighboring communist states China and Vietnam. In September the army started a new television channel, reportedly funded by the Chinese government.

Although the government closely controlled domestic television and radio broadcasts, it did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Citizens had 24-hour access to international stations via satellite and cable television. The government required owners of satellite receivers to register them and pay a one-time licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict their use.

In August, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith urged media and publishing officials to continue “defeating the fake, deceptive, and harmful news” found in social media. International media reports interpreted the prime minister’s speech as an instruction to the press not to report negatively on the government.

One domestic news outlet reported that they were told by government officials to stop investigating a controversial land use dispute.

In September the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (Ministry of Information) reiterated a warning to social media outlets that had not yet complied with a 2019 order to register with the government. The order required any “individual, legal entity, state or private sector” that posts news stories on social media platforms to register or face legal consequences.

The government restricted the activities of foreign journalists. Authorities denied journalists free access to information sources and at times required them to travel with official escorts.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Officials reviewed all articles in privately owned periodicals after publication and by law could penalize those whose articles did not meet government approval. Publishers and journalists were generally aware of what content the government would approve for publication and practiced self-censorship. The Ministry of Information’s Mass Media Department did not confirm whether the government disapproved any publication during the year.

Authorities prohibited dissemination of materials deemed subversive of national culture or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to national culture was subject to a fine of one to three times the value of the item or imprisonment of up to one year.

In August the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued instructions reiterating that social media users must not post content or comments that contain criticism of the government. Observers noted that articles or comments on articles critical of the government suddenly disappeared from social media sites.

Internet Freedom

The government controlled domestic internet servers and sporadically monitored internet usage but did not block access to websites. The government maintained infrastructure to route all internet traffic through a single gateway, thereby enabling it to monitor and restrict content, although the government’s technical ability to monitor internet usage was limited. The National Internet Committee under the Prime Minister’s Office administers the internet system. The office requires internet service providers to submit quarterly reports and link their gateways to facilitate monitoring.

The cybercrime law criminalizes dissent and puts user privacy at risk by requiring individuals to register on social media sites with their full names, making it difficult to share news articles or other information anonymously. Authorities continued to detain or arrest persons who criticized the government.

Authorities individually warned social media bloggers to stop posting stories they perceived to be critical of government policies, including posts on the government’s response to flooding and corruption.

The law prohibits certain content on the internet, including deceptive statements and statements against the government and the LPRP. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has authority to direct internet service providers to terminate internet services of users found violating the law.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The law provides for academic freedom, but the government imposed restrictions. The Ministry of Education tightly controlled curricula, including in private schools and colleges.

Both citizen and noncitizen academic professionals conducting research in the country may be subject to restrictions on travel, access to information, and publication. The government required exit stamps for state-employed academic professionals to travel for research or to obtain study grants.

The government requires producers to submit films and music recordings produced in government studios for official review. The Ministry of Information attempted to limit the influence of Thai culture on local music and entertainment, but these attempts had little effect.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law does not provide for the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and prohibits participation in demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that “cause turmoil or social instability,” without explicit government permission. Participation in such activities is punishable by a maximum five years’ imprisonment; however, this was infrequently enforced. In 2018 police in Savannakhet shut down a benefit concert at which performers and attendees wore T-shirts with the slogan “No bribes for jobs”; observers said this continued to have a chilling effect on protests.

Freedom of Association

The law tightly restricts the right of freedom of association. For example, political groups other than organizations approved by the LPRP are prohibited. Moreover, the government occasionally influenced board membership of civil society organizations and forced some organizations to change their names to remove words it deemed sensitive, such as “rights.”

Government registration regulations apply to nonprofit civil society organizations, including economic, social welfare, professional, technical, and creative associations at the district, provincial, or national level, depending on their scope of work and membership. The registration process for NGOs was burdensome, in practice often taking more than two years, and authorities restricted NGOs’ ability to disseminate information and conduct activities without interference. NGOs are also required to obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs approval to receive foreign funding greater than $60,000. NGOs also must accept “advice and assistance” from the government to ensure their operations are in line with party policy and the law.

Taxation of NGOs, including nonprofit organizations, varied from organization to organization. Taxation requirements for international and local NGOs that receive foreign funding could be cumbersome and varied, depending heavily on prenegotiated MOUs.

Some ministries appeared open to regular engagement with civil society organizations, illustrated by continued invitations to attend meetings at ministries, continued government participation in donor working-group meetings, and ministries actively seeking input from NGOs as they draft legislation. As in recent years, the government invited NGOs to the National Assembly’s intersession and plenary. Civil society observers commented the NGOs with whom the government engaged were not necessarily representative of civil society as a whole. Despite some positive steps, civil society organizations faced many challenges to carrying out their societal roles.

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 government restricted freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.

In-country Movement: Citizens traveling for religious purposes, including to minister, give advice, or visit other churches, are required to seek permission from central and provincial authorities. This process can take several weeks. Christian groups reported problems obtaining permission to travel within the country, although many chose to ignore this requirement.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The absence of comprehensive and timely monitoring by international organizations and independent observers made it difficult to verify the number and condition of internally displaced persons; their situation, protection, and reintegration; government restrictions on them; and their access to basic services and assistance. These difficulties were greatly exacerbated by travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, between March 24 and May 30, an estimated 79,200 Lao migrant workers returned from Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These workers were required to spend 14 days in one of 46 government-run quarantine centers; many then returned to their home villages.

The collapse of a dam under construction in Attapeu Province in 2018 displaced an estimated 6,000 persons. International and national media reported there were still displaced individuals from this dam collapse as of November, but no numbers were available. In 2019 up to 40,000 persons were displaced in southern provinces due to heavy flooding during the monsoon season; as of November numbers on how many remained displaced were unavailable. The government continued working with international partners to provide housing or land for those displaced by the 2018 dam collapse and 2019 monsoon season flooding, but there were reports that progress was slow and possibly hampered by corruption.

The government continued to relocate some villagers to accommodate land concessions given to development projects and relocated highland farmers, mostly from ethnic minority groups, to lowland areas under its plan to provide better access to roads and health and education services, and to end opium production and slash-and-burn agriculture. Families frequently reported the government displaced them for government projects, for example a railway linking Vientiane with China. Others were forced to move away from productive agricultural land and lost their access to land and livelihoods in the process.

Ongoing hydropower projects also caused many families to relocate. In many cases the government moved families to higher (and less productive) ground. In one case 100 families were relocated to a hilly area to allow for construction of a dam and reportedly rehoused in homes in danger from landslides. A UN special rapporteur in March 2019 issued a report criticizing the government for focusing on “large-scale initiatives including infrastructure projects and industrial plantations that have separated persons from their land, often resulting in hardship and debt.”

The government relied on assistance from NGOs, bilateral donors, and international organizations to cover the needs of those it resettled, but aid was not available in all areas.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugee 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.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Thai political activists living in the country disappeared in recent years (see section 1.b.).

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, but the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Ministry of Public Security did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status but dealt with individuals on a case-by-case basis.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law denies citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, and it did not provide for the free expression of the will of the people. Although the constitution outlines a system comprising executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the LPRP controlled governance and leadership at all levels through its constitutionally designated leading role.

Elections and Political Participation

The National Assembly appointed election committees, which must approve all candidates for local and national elections. Candidates do not need to be LPRP members, but almost all were, and the party vetted all candidates.

The National Assembly chooses or removes the country’s president, vice president, and other members of the government. The National Election Committee manages elections, including approval of candidates. The activities of the National Election Committee were not transparent.

Recent Elections: The most recent election for National Assembly members was in 2016. The government allowed independent observers to monitor certain polling stations; the LPRP selected all candidates. Several of the observers were members of the diplomatic corps and foreign press. The government determined which polling stations observers could visit, and these selected polling stations were reportedly better prepared and organized than others not under observation.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution designates the LPRP as the sole legal party. The formation of other political parties is illegal.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s leadership roles were limited, especially in rural areas. As of November, after the majority of provincial and ministerial Party Congress elections were held, only an estimated 10 percent of positions in the Standing Party Secretary Committees were held by women. Of the population, 80 percent lived in rural areas where the village chief and council handled most routine matters, and fewer than 3 percent of village chiefs were women. The LPRP’s Party Congress elections in 2016 increased the number of ethnic minority members in the 69-member LPRP Central Committee from seven to 15, and from two to three in the 11-member Politburo. There were seven women in the committee. The number of ethnic minority ministers in the 27-member cabinet increased from two to six, including a deputy prime minister. Three women were in the cabinet.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials and the government made some progress in addressing corruption. Some officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Official corruption was widespread and found at all levels of government, and it was acknowledged by government-controlled media. In March 2019 local media reported that investigating agencies discovered more than 1,000 cases of corruption in 2018, with 1,285 persons involved (including 970 government officials and 315 persons from the private sector). The government anticorruption hotline reportedly was used often, and members of the public frequently raised awareness of government officials’ inappropriate or suspicious activities on social media; such postings were not censored or removed.

Observers characterized the reshufflings of officials at various levels, including provincial officials in Champasak Province in March and within the Ministry of Information in June, as “clean-up” measures to remove corrupt officials. In February nonstate news sources reported some staff members of the Lao Border Logistical Service Company, a state-owned enterprise run by the Ministry of Finance, had been convicted of corruption; the company director received a life sentence, while three lower-level staff received nine-year sentences. Sources also reported that the appointment of a new chief executive officer for Electricite du Laos, the state corporation that generates and distributes electricity in the country, was made in response to corruption and weak management in the organization. During 2019 several party members or central or provincial authorities were punished for corrupt acts such as embezzlement, theft, or illegal timber trading; consequences issued included warnings, demotion, “re-education,” or dismissal.

Financial Disclosure: There is no legal requirement for public disclosure of assets and income by appointed or elected officials, although LPRP policy requires senior officials, prior to taking their designated positions, to disclose their personal assets and those of their dependents, but not their incomes, to the party’s inspection committee. The committee inspects the officials’ assets before and after they have been in their positions. Persons not compliant with this policy are subject to unspecified sanctions, although the LPRP used its control of government authorities and media to block public censure of corrupt officials who were party members.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups operated only under government oversight, and the government limited their ability to investigate or publish findings on human rights abuses.

The government intermittently responded in writing to requests for information on the human rights situation from international human rights organizations. The government maintained human rights dialogues with some foreign governments and continued to receive training in UN human rights conventions from international donors. In January civil society representatives were, for the first time, included in the country’s delegation to its Universal Periodic Review.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government continued to support a National Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the minister to the Prime Minister’s Office and composed of representatives from the government, National Assembly, the judiciary, and LPRP-affiliated organizations. The Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs acts as the secretariat for the National Human Rights Steering Committee and has authority to review and highlight challenges in the protection of human rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of “a person” and provides for penalties of four to six years’ imprisonment; there is no law against spousal rape. Sentences are significantly longer and may include life imprisonment if the victim is younger than age 18 or is seriously injured or killed. Rape cases tried in court generally resulted in convictions with sentences ranging from three years’ to life imprisonment. A 2016 UN Population Fund study found that one in seven women experienced physical or sexual violence, most of whom said they had experienced such violence multiple times. Only 4 percent of women who had experienced violence contacted the police.

Domestic violence is illegal but often went unreported due to social stigma. In June 2019 an advocate for women’s rights said gender-based violence was widespread and engrained into cultural norms. Enforcement of the domestic violence law varied, and observers reported that violence against women in rural areas was rarely investigated. Penalties for domestic violence, including battery, torture, and detention of persons against their will, may include both fines and imprisonment. The law grants exemption from penal liabilities in cases of physical violence without serious injury.

The Lao Women’s Union and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (Ministry of Labor), in cooperation with NGOs, assisted victims of domestic violence by operating shelters, providing a hotline phone number, and employing counselors. The Counseling and Protection Center for Women and Children in Vientiane operated a countrywide hotline for reporting domestic violence that also provided victims with counseling.

Sexual Harassment: The law does not criminalize sexual harassment, but indecent sexual behavior toward another person is illegal and may be punished by six months to three years in prison. Victims rarely reported sexual harassment, and its prevalence remained difficult to assess.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, and they had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported, however, that information on and access to sexual and reproductive health services were limited, especially for unmarried youth.

Social and cultural barriers restricted access to contraception. Contraceptive commodities were not widely available in rural areas and were often unaffordable.

No legal, social, or cultural barriers, or government policies undercut access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, although poverty and an underdeveloped health care system impeded such access for some women. UNFPA’s 2020 report stated that 34 percent of women used a modern method of contraception while 8 percent of women had an unmet need for family planning.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services to survivors of sexual violence.

According to 2017 UN estimates, the maternal mortality rate was 185 deaths per 100,000 live births, and the lifetime risk of maternal death was one in 150. Pregnancy and childbirth remained a leading cause of death among women of reproductive age due to limited antenatal and obstetric care and services as well as high rates of adolescent pregnancy, especially in rural areas. According to UNFPA estimates, skilled health personnel attended 64 percent of births, and very few medical centers were equipped to deal with obstetric emergencies, especially in small or ethnic villages. The adolescent birth rate remained high at 83 births per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years of age.

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

Discrimination: The law provides equal rights for women and men and equal pay for equal work, but in some regions traditional attitudes about gender roles kept women and girls in subordinate positions and prevented them from equally accessing education, employment, and business opportunities. The law also prohibits discrimination in marriage and inheritance, although varying degrees of cultural-based discrimination against women persisted, with greater discrimination practiced by some ethnic minority groups in remote areas.

The Lao Women’s Union operated countrywide to promote the position of women in society, including by conducting programs to strengthen the role of women; programs were most effective in urban areas. Many women occupied decision-making positions in the civil service and private business, and in urban areas their incomes frequently were higher than those of men. Poverty continued to affect women disproportionately, especially in rural and ethnic minority communities.

Children

Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship if both parents are citizens, regardless of where they are born. Children born of one citizen parent acquire citizenship if born in the country or, when born outside the country’s territory, if one parent has a permanent in-country address. Parents did not register all births immediately. The village chief registers children born in remote areas, and then the local authority adds the name and date of birth of the child in the family registration book. Every family must have a family registration book. If parents fail to register a child at birth, they may request to add the child to the family registration book later.

Children born in the country to parents who are unable to certify their citizenship but who are integrated into society can request citizenship. This requires multiple levels of government approval, including the National Assembly. Not all children born in the country who would otherwise be stateless are able to acquire citizenship.

Education: Education is compulsory, free, and universal through fifth grade, but a shortage of teachers and the societal expectation that children would help their parents with farming in rural areas prevented some children from attending school. There were significant differences among ethnic groups in educational opportunities available to boys and girls. Instruction was not offered in any language other than Lao, which discouraged ethnic minority children from attending school. To increase elementary school attendance by ethnic minority children, the government continued to support the establishment of boarding schools in rural areas countrywide. School enrollment rates for girls were lower than for boys, although the gender disparity continued to decrease. According to 2016 data, 17 percent of school-age girls, compared with 11 percent of school-age boys, never attended school.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits violence against children, and offenders are subject to re-education programs and unspecified penal measures in more serious cases.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for boys and girls is 18, but the law allows marriage as young as 15 with parental consent. Approximately 35 percent of girls married before they reached 18, and 9 percent married before they were 15, a practice particularly common among certain ethnic groups and impoverished rural families.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: There is no legal age of consent. It is unlawful for an adult to have sex with a child age 12 or younger; this is punishable by 10 to 15 years in prison. Sex with a child between age 12 and 15 is unlawful if it involves payment or offering of benefit (punishable by three to five years in prison), and sex with a child between 15 and 18 is unlawful if it involves “persuading, deceiving, inducing…[or] paying” the child (punishable by one to three years in prison). The law states that a person who coerces someone younger than 18 into prostitution can be punished by 10 to 20 years in prison. The penalty for child rape varies with the age of the victim; the rape of a 15- to 18-year-old carries a penalty of six to 10 years in prison, while the rape of a child younger than 15 has a penalty of 10 to 20 years. The penalty for possession of child pornography is three months to one year; the penalty for the dissemination of such material is one to three years.

The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The government continued efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex through periodic raids and training workshops. The government and NGOs hosted seminars to train tourism-sector employees and provided many major international hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang with posters warning against child sex tourism.

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

Anti-Semitism

There was no significant Jewish community in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

Although constitutional protections against discrimination do not apply specifically to persons with disabilities, the law spells out the rights of persons with disabilities to education, health care, and public transportation, while also providing tax exemptions for small businesses owned by persons with disabilities. It includes a provision for persons with disabilities to receive an identification card as part of an effort to collect data on disabilities so the government can provide better and more comprehensive services for persons with disabilities. Advocates for persons with disabilities said the law broadly defined the rights of such persons but did not indicate how outcomes, such as accessible facilities or increased employment opportunities, would be achieved. Little information was available regarding discrimination in the workplace, although persons with disabilities reported it was difficult sometimes to access basic services and obtain employment.

The Ministry of Labor has primary responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health is also involved in addressing health-related needs of persons with disabilities and continued to coordinate with international NGOs.

The law requires construction projects begun after 2009 to provide accessibility for persons with disabilities, particularly buildings, roads, and public places. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings built before 2009, but Ministry of Labor regulations resulted in construction of additional sidewalk ramps.

The government continued to implement its strategic plan to protect the rights of children with disabilities and enable them to study alongside other children in schools countrywide. The nongovernmental Lao Disabled People’s Association noted that in many cases students with disabilities lacked access to separate education.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Societal discrimination persisted against minority ethnic groups, despite law and policy providing for equal rights for all members of national, racial, and ethnic groups and barring discrimination against them, including in employment and occupation.

Some critics continued to charge that the government’s resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture and opium production adversely affected many ethnic minority groups, particularly in the north. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, notably those in remote locations, maintained they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas.

The Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent of the 50 official ethnic groups in the country. Several Hmong officials served in senior ranks of government and the LPRP; these included one Politburo member and several members of the LPRP Central Committee. Some Hmong reportedly maintained separatist or irredentist political beliefs. Amnestied former Hmong insurgents continued to be the focus of official suspicion and scrutiny, and the government leadership remained suspicious of the political objectives of some Hmong.

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

No law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment, or government services. There were no reports of discrimination, but observers said societal stigma and concern about repercussions led some to withhold reporting incidents of abuse.

There were no legal impediments to organized lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) groups or activities, but local activists reported they did not attempt to hold activities they believed the government would deem sensitive or controversial.

Some societal discrimination in employment and housing reportedly persisted, and there were no government efforts to address it. Local activists explained that most openly LGBTI persons did not attempt to apply for government or high-level private-sector jobs because there was a tacit recognition that employers would not hire them. LGBTI advocates said that while the country still had a conservative and traditional society, gay and lesbian persons were becoming more integrated, but the transgender population continued to face high levels of societal stigma and discrimination.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law does not provide for the right of workers to form and join worker organizations independent of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), an organ of the LPRP. The law defines collective bargaining but does not set out conditions, and it requires the examination of all collective bargaining agreements by the Labor Administration Agency. The law provides for the right to strike, subject to certain limitations. The law does not permit police, civil servants, foreigners, and members of the armed forces to form or join unions. There is a general prohibition against discrimination against employees for reasons unrelated to performance, although there is no explicit prohibition against antiunion discrimination. There is no explicit requirement for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law requires a workforce of 10 or more workers to elect one or more employee representatives. Where a trade union exists, the head of the union is by default the employee representative. Both representatives and trade union heads may bargain collectively with employers on matters including working conditions or recruitment, wages, welfare, and other benefits.

Trade union law allows workers in the informal economy, including workers outside of labor units or who were self-employed, to join LFTU-affiliated unions. It also establishes rights and responsibilities for “laborer representatives,” which the law defines as “an individual or legal entity selected by the workers and laborers in labor units to be a representative to protect their legitimate rights and interest.”

There was no information on the resources dedicated to enforcement of freedom of association provisions of the labor laws. Penalties under law for infringing on workers’ freedom of association include fines, incarceration, business license revocation, or some combination of these; these penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving civil rights. Violations and enforcement were rare.

The government reported the law permits affiliation between unions of separate branches of a company but does not explicitly allow or disallow affiliation at the industry, provincial, or national levels. There were reports that unions not affiliated with the LFTU and without legal standing existed in some industries, including the garment industry, light manufacturing, and agricultural processing. These unions were not allowed to strike.

Labor disputes reportedly were infrequent, and the Ministry of Labor generally did not enforce the dispute resolution section of the labor law, especially in dealings with joint ventures in the private sector. In May former employees of one of the largest private enterprises in the country assembled outside the Ministry of Labor to demand assistance after being laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministry officials later met with the LFTU and the Lao National Chamber of Commerce to find a resolution, which involved severance pay to the workers for 36 or 24 months, depending on their tenure at the company.

According to law workers who join an organization that encourages protests, demonstrations, and other actions that might cause “turmoil or social instability” can face prison time. The government’s overall prohibition of activities it considered subversive or demonstrations it considered destabilizing, workers’ lack of familiarity with the provisions of the amended labor law, and general aversion to open confrontation continued to make workers extremely unlikely to exercise their right to strike.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law prohibits private employers from using forced labor, and the penalties for perpetrating forced labor may include fines, suspension from work, revocation of business license, and prosecution. The law allows for prisoners to work. There may be civil or criminal prosecutions for forced labor violations. Penalties for trafficking in persons, which includes forced labor, consist of imprisonment, fines, and confiscation of assets. Such penalties were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Due to limited numbers of inspectors, among other factors, the government did not effectively enforce the law.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law allows children from ages 14 to 18 to work a maximum of eight hours per day, provided such work is not dangerous or difficult. Employers may employ children 12 to 14 to perform light work that does not affect their health or school attendance. The law applies only to work undertaken in a formal labor relationship, not to self-employment or informal work.

The Ministry of Public Security and Justice and the Ministry of Labor are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, including in the informal economy, but enforcement was ineffective due to the lack of inspectors. The law prescribes penalties of imprisonment and fines, which were not commensurate with analogous crimes, such as kidnapping. The Ministry of Labor conducted public awareness campaigns, organized workshops with the National Commission for Mothers and Children in the northern and southern provinces, and collected data on child labor as part of its effort to implement the National Plan of Action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.

There were reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, Children).

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law requires equal pay for equal work, although a gender wage gap persisted, and prohibits discrimination in hiring based on a woman’s marital status or pregnancy, and it protects against dismissal on these grounds. The government enforced prohibitions against employment discrimination or requirements for equal pay; penalties under law included fines and were commensurate to laws related to those for civil rights.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In 2018 the government raised the monthly minimum wage for all private-sector workers; it was above the estimated national poverty line.

The law provides for a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 hours for employment in dangerous activities). Overtime may not exceed 45 hours per month, and each period of overtime may not exceed three hours. Employers may apply to the government for an exception, which the law stipulates workers or their representatives must also approve. The law does not specify penalties for noncompliance with minimum wage and overtime provisions, but it states they could include warnings, fines, “re-education,” or suspension of business license. The laws were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud. The law was not effectively enforced.

Occupational health and safety standards existed, but inspections were inconsistent. The law provides for safe working conditions and higher compensation for dangerous work, but it does not explicitly protect the right of workers to remove themselves from a hazardous situation. In case of injury or death on the job, employers are responsible to compensate the worker or the worker’s family. The law requires employers to report accidents causing major injury to or death of an employee or requiring an employee to take a minimum of four days off work to the Labor Administration Agency. The law also mandates extensive employer responsibility for workers who become disabled while at work. The law does not specify penalties for noncompliance with occupational safety and health provisions, but it states they could include warnings, fines, “re-education,” or suspension of business license. They were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.

The law also prohibits the employment of pregnant women and new mothers in occupations deemed hazardous to women’s reproductive health. The law requires the transfer of women working in such jobs to less demanding positions, and they are entitled to maintain the same salary or wage.

The government did not always effectively enforce the law.

The Department of Labor Management within the Ministry of Labor is responsible for workplace inspections. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

Some piecework employees, especially on construction sites, earned less than the minimum wage. The overtime or wage law was not effectively enforced.

According to civil society organizations, the establishment of large-scale, foreign-financed agricultural plantations led to displacement of local farmers. Unable to continue traditional practices of subsistence agriculture, many farmers sought employment as day laborers through local brokers, many of whom operated informally and thus left workers vulnerable to exploitation.

There were a number of undocumented migrant workers in the country, particularly from Vietnam and Burma, who were vulnerable to exploitation by employers in the logging, mining, and agricultural sectors. Migrants from China and Vietnam also worked in construction, plantations, casinos, and informal service industries, sectors where wage and occupational safety and health violations were common.

Malaysia

Executive Summary

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. It has a parliamentary system of government selected through regular, multiparty elections and is headed by a prime minister. The king is the head of state, serves a largely ceremonial role, and has a five-year term. The kingship rotates among the sultans of the nine states with hereditary Malay rulers. In 2018 parliamentary elections, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, resulting in the first transfer of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Before and during the campaign, then opposition politicians and civil society organizations alleged electoral irregularities and systemic disadvantages for opposition groups due to lack of media access and malapportioned districts favoring the then ruling coalition. In February the Pakatan Harapan coalition collapsed, and power transferred to the new Malay-dominated Perikatan Nasional coalition; Muhyiddin Yassin became prime minister.

The Royal Malaysian Police maintain internal security and report to the Ministry of Home Affairs. State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers have authority to enforce some criminal aspects of sharia. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; reports of torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on and intolerance of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; violence against transgender persons; criminalization of consensual adult same-sex sexual activities; and child labor.

The government arrested and prosecuted some officials engaged in corruption, malfeasance, and human rights abuses, although civil-society groups alleged continued impunity.

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

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

There were scattered reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, mostly in the prison system. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together stated that Dhan Bahdur, a 26-year-old Nepali citizen, died on May 31, five days after he was detained in Kuala Lumpur. The NGO declared police did not properly notify the coroner of the death as required by law, and called on authorities to make details of the case public. In August, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin revealed that 23 detainees, including two children, died in immigration detention centers from January to June. In a 2018 report on custodial deaths, the NGO Lawyers for Liberty described a “broken system that abets the perpetrators of these crimes.”

Investigation by the Criminal Investigation Division within the Royal Malaysian Police into the use of deadly force by a police officer occurs only if the attorney general initiates the investigation or approves an application for an investigation by family members of the deceased. When the attorney general orders an official inquiry, a coroner’s court convenes, and the hearing is open to the public. In such cases, courts generally issued an “open verdict,” meaning that there would be no further action against police.

In July the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) urged the release of a September 2019 government report on the Wang Kelian mass grave site found along the Thai border in 2015, in which according to NGOs that investigated, a transnational crime syndicate committed murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, and rape as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against Rohingya migrants.

b. Disappearance

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

In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of Christian converts Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu. Police continued to make little progress in their investigation, citing a lack of information in the case. One witness testified that Pastor Hilmy had previously told him “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his Christian faith, although he had not been threatened. Another testified the couple received threats by phone before their disappearance. SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19. In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, who disappeared in 2017, initiated civil action against the government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.

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

No law specifically prohibits torture; however, laws that prohibit “committing grievous hurt” encompass torture. More than 60 offenses are subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, and judges routinely mandated caning as punishment for crimes, including kidnapping, rape, and robbery, and nonviolent offenses, such as narcotics possession, criminal breach of trust, migrant smuggling, immigration offenses, and others.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Police abuse of suspects in custody and a lack of accountability for such offenses remained a serious problem.

In August the Perikatan Nasional administration withdrew a bill the Pakatan Harapan government had introduced in July 2019 to create an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission with the power to discipline police misconduct and instead introduced a bill for an Independent Police Conduct Commission lacking enforcement powers. The NGO Transparency International Malaysia described the new proposal as a watered-down version of the original, “with no bite.”

According to SUHAKAM, 15 persons died in police lockups and prison from 2019 through September, while more than 55 individuals died in immigration detention centers. The government claimed that deaths caused by police were rare, but civil-society activists disputed this claim.

Civil and criminal law exempt men older than 50, unless convicted of rape, and all women from caning. Male children between the ages of 10 and 18 may receive a maximum of 10 strokes of a “light cane” in a public courtroom.

Some states’ sharia provisions, which govern family issues and certain crimes under Islam and apply to all Muslims, also prescribe caning for certain offenses. Women are not exempt from caning under sharia, and national courts have not resolved conflicts between the constitution, the penal code, and sharia.

Kelantan and Terengganu states allow courts to sentence individuals to public caning for certain civil offenses, although there were no reports of such punishment.

In February, Jasnih Ali, an auxiliary police officer at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, accused police of torturing him for two weeks while in custody following his arrest in 2018 for trafficking in illegal immigrants. His lawyer said police assaulted Ali to elicit a confession, and that the abuse stopped only after Ali agreed to give a “cautioned statement” mentioning the facts on which he intended to rely for his defense at trial. Ali said authorities hit him on the face, head and body, kicked him in the stomach and back, spat into his mouth, shoved a mop into his mouth, and applied electricity to his feet, all done while his eyes were blindfolded, his hands handcuffed behind his back, and his pants pulled down to his knees.

In July a high court judge set aside a lower-court decision adding caning to a jail sentence for 27 Rohingya men, six of them teenagers, for arriving in the country without valid permits. The judge declared that because the defendants were not habitual offenders and had not committed any acts of violence, it was “inhumane” to impose caning and that their refugee status afforded them international protection from persecution. Earlier, human rights groups had called on the court to drop the caning sentence, calling the punishment cruel and inhumane.

In October the Malaysian Insight internet news site, citing accounts from former inmates and watchdogs, reported that “torture by prison staff is rampant” in jails and that prisoners are subjected to sexual attacks. “It’s not like you are punished for some mistake. They will beat you for no reason…they will use batons and their favorite spots are at the stomach, feet, and back,” a former prisoner told media. A transgender former prisoner termed her community the most vulnerable group inside the prison system, forced to provide sex to prison guards in return for safety: “Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. They will ask you to perform all sorts of sex acts. Sometimes it happens three times a day. If we go out and lodge a report, who will believe our stories?” Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the human rights NGO Suaram, declared that the government must take such complaints more seriously and allow independent investigators from SUHAKAM and the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission to conduct immediate investigations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention centers could be harsh and life threatening.

The government as part of its restrictions on movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cracked down on migrants, particularly Rohingya, who were put into detention centers for “quarantine.” In May media and human rights groups reported mass arrests and rising numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the centers.

In August, Suaram reported that custodial deaths in immigration detention “remained serious,” increasing from 24 in 2018 to 55 in 2019.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in prisons and immigration detention centers, particularly in facilities near major cities, remained a serious problem. According to the Home Ministry, 20 of the country’s 37 prisons were overcrowded. In Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, and Kelantan, prisons were overcrowded by 45 to 50 percent. According to World Prison Brief, as of December 2019 the country had 75,000 inmates in 52 prisons designed to hold only 52,000.

On May 29, Suaram listed a “notably higher number” of deaths in immigration detention facilities, with most deaths reported to be attributable to health and medical reasons.

As of October, 8 percent of Malaysia’s COVID-19 positive cases were prison inmates and prison staff. Former deputy defense minister Liew Chin Tong stated that the COVID-19 outbreak was turning prisons into “death traps” exacerbated by overcrowding problems. A Sabah state prison recorded more than 60 percent of inmates testing positive for COVID-19.

Administration: The law allows for investigations into allegations of mistreatment; however, this did not always function in practice. Officers found responsible for deaths in custody did not generally face punishment.

Authorities restricted rights to religious observance for members of all non-Sunni practices of Islam, which the government bans as “deviant.”

Independent Monitoring: Authorities generally did not permit NGOs and media to monitor prison conditions; the law allows judges to visit prisons to examine conditions and ask prisoners and prison officials about conditions. The government’s Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and SUHAKAM monitored prisons on a case-by-case basis.

In August the new government abandoned a 2019 bill to establish an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission, and instead submitted a much weaker bill. Civil society organizations viewed this as a sign the government was not serious about an independent commission.

The new government did not grant the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to detention facilities where migrant laborers and refugees were being held.

Improvements: Police announced in January a pilot project establishing custodial medical units in five detention facilities as part of an effort to prevent deaths in custody.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Police may use certain preventive detention laws to detain persons suspected of terrorism, organized crime, gang activity, and trafficking in drugs or persons without a warrant or judicial review for two-year terms, renewable indefinitely. Within seven days of the initial detention, however, police must present the case for detention to a public prosecutor. If the prosecutor agrees “sufficient evidence exists to justify” continued detention and further investigation, a fact-finding inquiry officer appointed by the minister of home affairs must report within 59 days to a detention board appointed by the king. The board may renew the detention order or impose an order to restrict, for a maximum of five years, a suspect’s place of residence, travel, access to communications facilities, and use of the internet. In other cases the law allows investigative detention for up to 28 days to prevent a criminal suspect from fleeing or destroying evidence during an investigation. In August, Suaram reported that 1,032 individuals were detained without trial under security laws.

In November, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin reported to parliament that 756 children were detained in immigration detention centers. Of these children, 405 were being held without guardians, including 326 children of Burmese nationality. Lawyers for Liberty coordinator Zaid Malek decried the continued detention of children as “inhumane,” stating it was “unfathomable as to why the authorities deem it fit and proper to detain hundreds of migrant and refugee children…in overcrowded detention centers during a worldwide health pandemic.” Immigration law allows authorities to arrest and detain noncitizens for 30 days, pending a deportation decision.

In November student activist Wong Yan Ke was arrested for “obstructing the police from carrying out their duties” by recording a Facebook live video of a raid on the residence of a Universiti Malaya student, in connection with a sedition investigation into a statement made by a student group questioning the role of the king. After being held overnight in a police lockup, Wong was transferred to a detention center and released that day. Wong criticized police for his “arbitrary arrest and detention.” The NGO Lawyers for Liberty expressed concern about the arrest, contending that the law “must not be used as a blanket provision to simply arrest anyone who records police conduct.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of one month’s jail, a fine, or both. A court date was set for February 2021.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law permits police to arrest and detain individuals for some offenses without a warrant, even outside situations of a crime in progress or other urgent circumstances. To facilitate investigations, police can hold a suspect for 24 hours, which can be extended for a maximum of 14 days by court order under general criminal law provisions. NGOs reported a police practice of releasing suspects and then quickly rearresting them to continue investigative custody without seeking judicial authorization.

Some NGOs asserted that a police approach of “arrest first, investigate later” was prevalent, particularly in cases involving allegations of terrorism. By law a person must be informed of the grounds for arrest by the arresting officer.

Bail is usually available for persons accused of crimes not punishable by life imprisonment or death. The amount and availability of bail is at the judge’s discretion. Persons granted bail usually must surrender their passports to the court.

Police must inform detainees of the rights to contact family members and consult a lawyer of their choice. Nonetheless, police often denied detainees’ access to legal counsel and questioned suspects without allowing a lawyer to be present. Police justified this practice as necessary to prevent interference in investigations in progress, and the courts generally upheld the practice.

While authorities generally treated attorney-client communications as privileged, Malaysian Anticorruption Commission officials may question lawyers who accompanied their clients to nonjudicial commission hearings about their interaction with their clients and the content of their discussions.

Police sometimes did not allow detainees prompt access to family members or other visitors.

The law allows the detention of a material witness in a criminal case if that person is likely to flee.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities sometimes used their powers to intimidate and punish opponents of the government. Activists and government critics were often subjected to late-night arrests, long hours of questioning, and lengthy remand periods, even if they were not ultimately charged with an offense. In July, according to the NGO Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), police carried out a late-night arrest of anticorruption and social activist K. Sudhagaran Stanley at his home, which C4 labelled a “chilling” action “aimed at instilling fear and silencing voices that are critical of the administration of this country.”

Pretrial Detention: The International Center for Prison Studies reported that pretrial detainees comprised approximately 27 percent of the prison population in 2018. Crowded and understaffed courts often resulted in lengthy pretrial detention, sometimes lasting several years.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Three constitutional articles provide the basis for an independent judiciary; however, other constitutional provisions, legislation restricting judicial review, and executive influence over judicial appointments limited judicial independence and strengthened executive influence over the judiciary. The judiciary frequently deferred to police or executive authority in cases those parties deemed as affecting their interests.

Members of the Malaysian Bar Council, NGO representatives, and other observers expressed serious concern about significant limitations on judicial independence, citing a number of high-profile instances of arbitrary verdicts, selective prosecution, and preferential treatment of some litigants and lawyers. Representatives of these groups argued that the lines between the executive, the judiciary, and the state were very blurred and that the judiciary needed to exert more independence and objectivity.

In August, Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat issued a show-cause notice to court of appeal judge Hamid Sultan Abu Backer requiring that he explain an affidavit he filed in February 2019 as part of a lawsuit against then chief justice Richard Malanjum. In the affidavit Hamid alleged government interference in previous judicial decisions and complicity by judges in sham cases designed to reward government supporters with large settlements. Hamid’s request for an open hearing was rejected, which caused Suaram to further question the independence of the judiciary; the hearing has been postponed due to COVID-19 measures.

Many viewed the July 28 conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak, whose government reportedly misappropriated at least $4.5 billion of the country’s state investment fund, in the first of his corruption trials as a victory (see section 4.). NGO leaders stated, however, that the verdict could not be seen as a positive sign of judicial independence. Suaram asserted, “The High Court is the worst place to determine judicial independence as there are very different extremes of judges and everything can be dismantled upon appeal.”

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. The civil law system is based on British common law and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of the charges against them, to a timely trial, and to be present at their trial. Defendants have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice or to have counsel appointed at public expense if they face charges that carry the death penalty. Defendants also may apply for a public defender in certain other cases.

According to the Malaysian Bar Council, defendants generally had adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense if they had the means to engage private counsel. Otherwise, defendants must rely on legal aid and the amount of time to prepare for trial is at the discretion of the judge. Authorities provide defendants free interpretation in Mandarin, Tamil, and some other commonly used dialects from the moment charged through all appeals. The right to confront witnesses is limited by provisions allowing the identity of prosecution witnesses to be kept secret from the defense before a trial, which inhibits cross-examination of those witnesses. Defendants may present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. Limited pretrial discovery in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Strict rules of evidence apply in court. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt.

Defendants may appeal court decisions to higher courts, but only if the appeal raises a question of law or if material circumstances raise a reasonable doubt regarding conviction or sentencing. The Malaysian Bar Council claimed these restrictions were excessive.

In cases related to terrorism or national security, the law allows police to hold persons, even after acquittal, against the possibility of appeal by the prosecution.

Many NGOs complained women did not receive fair treatment from sharia courts, especially in divorce and child custody cases (see section 6).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals or organizations may sue the government and officials in court for alleged violations of human rights; however, a large case backlog often resulted in delays in civil actions, to the disadvantage of plaintiffs. The courts have increasingly encouraged the use of mediation and arbitration to speed settlements.

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

Laws prohibit such actions; nevertheless, authorities sometimes infringed on citizens’ privacy. Under national security laws, police may enter and search the homes of persons suspected of threatening national security without a warrant. The government monitored the internet and threatened to detain anyone sending or posting content the government deemed a threat to public order or security (see section 2.a.).

Islamic authorities may enter private premises without a warrant to apprehend Muslims suspected of engaging in offenses such as gambling, consumption of alcohol, and sexual relations outside marriage.

The government does not recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considers children born of such unions illegitimate.

In February the Federal Court held that the National Registration Department was not bound by an edict issued by the National Fatwa Committee, a government body responsible for issuing fatwas on issues of national interest, regarding a case in the state of Johor, as that state had not yet gazetted (published) the national fatwa forbidding registration of the father’s last name for a Muslim child born or conceived less than six months after the parents’ marriage. The Federal Court also held that in this instance the department could decide not to record a surname instead of using the last names “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” names commonly applied to children declared to be illegitimate, removing a longstanding source of social stigma.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution allows restrictions on the freedom of expression “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The government regularly restricted freedom of expression for members of the public, media, and civil society, citing reasons such as upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protecting national security, maintaining public order, and preserving friendly relations with other countries. The new ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition has shown a propensity to curb freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits sedition and public comment on issues defined as sensitive, including racial and religious matters or criticism of the king or ruling sultans. The law prohibits speech “with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person.”

In June police questioned anticorruption activist Cynthia Gabriel while investigating a letter she and her NGO C4 published in an online media outlet criticizing the ruling coalition government. Gabriel told media that the policy action was “harassment and intimidation,” adding, “they are trying to keep us from expressing critical views as politicians focus on grabbing power.” In June police also called in lawyer and human rights activist Siti Kassim for questioning after she posted a Facebook comment critical of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, part of the ruling coalition, a post police said was “intended to disrupt peace.” Also in June a sessions court charged Malaysian Crime Watch Task Force (MyWatch) chairperson R. Sri Sanjeevan with “spreading false information about the police on social media with the intent to annoy.”

In July the Department of Immigration detained a Bangladeshi national, Md Rayhan Kabir, after he spoke in an al-Jazeera documentary about the treatment of illegal immigrants by the authorities during implementation of the movement control order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Rayhan was deported in August. The immigration authorities investigated six of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera’s Malaysia-based reporters and staff for alleged sedition and defamation, subsequently declining to renew the visas of reporters Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson, both Australian nationals.

The new government imposed limits on public gatherings, which slowed the spread of COVID-19, garnering some public support, but it also prevented protests and minimized opportunities for opponents to mobilize against it. While there was backlash against the government’s tight controls from opposition parties, civil society groups, and members of the public, the government’s successful handling of the epidemic and its curbs on criticism largely silenced those voices.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Political parties and individuals linked to the ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all English and Malay language print and broadcast media, many of which were overtly progovernment. Online media outlets were more independent but were often the target of legal action and harassment.

The previous Pakatan Harapan coalition had opened the space for dissenting views, and journalists and bloggers expressed views and reported stories critical of the government without reprisal. With the change to the Perikatan Nasional government, however, there was a sharp decline in press freedom. One reporter said a communications officer from the prime minister’s office regularly convened journalists in Putrajaya to align messaging and “make the government look as good as possible.”

The government maintained and at times exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media. The government banned, restricted, or limited circulation of publications it considered a threat to public order, morality, or national security. The government has the power to suspend publication for these reasons and retained effective control over the licensing process.

The government used the COVID-19 pandemic to clamp down on media freedom and freedom of expression. On April 11, the National Security Council instructed police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (communications commission) “to take stern action on news portals that broadcast and publish confusing, inaccurate news,” purportedly to stop the spread of misinformation about the virus. In response the International Federation of Journalists stated: “The government’s ‘stern action’ will hinder the media’s oversight of the government and decrease transparency, ultimately endangering society amid the global [COVID-19] pandemic.”

In June, Attorney General Idrus Harun initiated contempt of court proceedings against online media outlet Malaysiakini and its editor in chief, Steven Gan, because of readers’ comments posted to a June 9 Malaysiakini article. The attorney general stated Malaysiakini facilitated the publication of comments that wrongfully alleged “the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice, and compromised its integrity.” Gan went on trial July 13 facing a possible jail term and fine set at the discretion of the courts. Judgment on the case was deferred to an unspecified date.

In a June 3 news release, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had seen a further tightening of censorship in Malaysia, along with reported arrests for spreading discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media. The press release cited the investigation of Tashny Sukumaran, the Kuala Lumpur correspondent for the South China Morning Post, “for alleged improper use of network facilities or services and alleged intentional insult with the intent to provoke a breach of peace for reporting on the detention of undocumented migrants, reportedly despite Ministerial instructions not to act against the correspondent.” The release added that according to official estimates, the communications commission had opened “at least 265 investigation papers in connection with the dissemination of alleged fake news on COVID-19, with 29 individuals reportedly charged in court.”

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation. In response to a documentary on the government’s mistreatment of undocumented migrants during the COVID-19 lockdown, al-Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur offices were raided and their computers were seized. The government also announced it was investigating the outlet for sedition, defamation, and other violations of the law.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government maintained the ability to censor media. The law requires a permit to own a printing press, and printers often were reluctant to print publications critical of the government due to fear of reprisal. Such policies, together with antidefamation laws, inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in self-censorship in the print and broadcast media.

The new ruling coalition rolled back progress in press freedoms. One commentary in ASEAN Today concluded in August, “The recent crackdown on prominent journalists and media outlets is meant to send a clear message to others in the field: fall in line or face the consequences.”

The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, newspapers, and news programming, most often due to sexual content.

Government restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, and the electronic media predominantly supported the government. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.

The government generally restricted publications it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of more than 1,700 banned publications as of November. In May the ministry banned the book Rebirth: Reform, Resistance, and Hope in New Malaysia for purportedly insulting the national coat of arms. The cover of the book bore artwork that resembled the national coat of arms but which displayed a naked child, two human-faced tigers, and a crocodile at the bottom in place of the national motto.

In February the court of appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books by the Islamic Renaissance Front, an organization promoting Islamic reform. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017, a decision the high court upheld in 2019.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law includes sections on civil and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by a maximum two years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. True statements can be considered defamatory if they contravene the “public good.” The government and its supporters used these laws, along with provisions against sedition, to punish and suppress publication of material critical of government officials and policies.

In May police probed former minister Xavier Jayakumar over a video clip of his assertion that the one-day parliamentary sitting in May was “worthless” and “rubbish” as it was “a charade being played by a bunch of traitors and pirates” to safeguard the government’s interest. In July social activist Heidy Quah was investigated for defamation over a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers. Neither investigation resulted in criminal charges. Also in July a retiree was fined for posting “insulting” comments about the health minister on social media, even though the court noted that the criticism “was not overboard or malicious in nature.”

National Security: Authorities often cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. The government used the COVID-19 pandemic to further this practice.

Nongovernmental Impact: NGOs sympathetic to the current government sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Such NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations.

In August, the NGO Gagasan Pulau Pinang (Penang Ideas) filed police reports alleging contempt of court against opposition leaders Tony Pua and Liew Chin Tong over their remarks, quoted by an online news portal, on a corruption case involving former finance minister Lim Guan Eng. In September several NGO leaders lodged a police report against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for claiming the Perikatan Nasional government had fallen after losing majority support from members of parliament. Mohamad Riduwan Md Amin of Penggerak Komuniti Negara Kota Melaka (Malacca Community Movers) said Anwar’s claims were seditious in nature and could instigate disharmony and political instability in the country.

Internet Freedom

The government restricted access to the internet. Curtailing internet freedom to combat dissenting political views online, authorities blocked some websites and monitored the internet for messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.

The government warned internet users to avoid offensive or indecent content and sensitive matters such as religion and race, and it aggressively pursued charges against those criticizing Islam, the country’s royalty, or its political leaders. In March federal police arrested at least three individuals for separate social media posts insulting the king.

In June federal police questioned parliamentarian and former deputy minister of women, family, and community development Hannah Yeoh for a post on Twitter questioning the prospects for the national roadmap to fight child marriage under her successor from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. Commenting on police action against her, Yeoh posted, “Nowadays even asking questions is not allowed …during the Parliament sitting in May we were also not allowed to ask questions.”

Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to self-censorship by local internet content sources, including bloggers, news providers, and NGO activists.

The law requires internet and other network service providers to obtain a license and permits punishment of the owner of a website or blog for allowing offensive racial, religious, or political content. The government regards those who post content as publishers, thereby placing the burden of proof on the poster. NGOs and members of the public criticized the law, noting it could cause self-censorship due to liability concerns.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government placed some restrictions on academic freedom, particularly the expression of unapproved political views, and enforced restrictions on teachers and students who expressed dissenting views. The government requires all civil servants, university faculty, and students to sign a pledge of loyalty to the king and government. Some politicians and human rights activists claimed the government used the loyalty pledge to restrain political activity among these groups. Although faculty members sometimes publicly criticized the government, public university academics whose career advancement and funding depended on the government practiced self-censorship. Self-censorship took place among academics at private institutions as well, spurred by fear the government might revoke the licenses of their institutions. The law imposes limitations on student associations and on student and faculty political activity. Students remain prohibited from “expressing support or sympathy” for an unlawful society or organization.

The authorities arrested two student leaders of the Universiti Malaya Association of New Youth for sedition and misuse of network facilities regarding a post on social media discussing the scope of the king’s powers. Police orchestrated a raid on the home of the student group’s president and summoned six committee members to police headquarters for further questioning. According to the lawyer representing the student leaders, police also questioned the background, organizational structure, and operations of the student group as a student body of University Malaya. Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia Katrina Maliamauy commented, “It is a violation of their right to freedom of expression, especially considering that the Facebook post they made was intended to be part of an academic debate.”

The government censored films for certain political and religious content, not allowing, for example, screening of films in Hebrew or Yiddish, or from Israel. Although the government allowed foreign films at local film festivals, it sometimes censored content by physically blocking screens until the objectionable scene was over. Media censorship rules forbid movies and songs that promote acceptance of gay persons (see section 6). In February the National Art Gallery, under government orders, responded to public criticism and reinstated artworks previously pulled from Ahmad Fuad Osman’s At the End of The Day Even Art Is Not Important exhibition that featured nudity and political content. The National Art Gallery maintained its right to take down works that touch on the “dignity of any individual, religion, politics, race, culture, and country.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association but allows restrictions deemed necessary or expedient in the interest of security, public order, or (in the case of association) morality. Abiding by the government’s restrictions did not protect some protesters from harassment or arrest.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides citizens “the right to assemble peaceably and without arms”; however, several laws restricted this right. Although the law does not require groups to obtain a permit for assemblies, police frequently placed time, location, and other restrictions on the right to assemble. Authorities banned street protests, and police sometimes confronted civil society and opposition demonstrations with mass arrests.

Protests deemed acceptable by the government usually proceeded without interference. The government restricted the right to freedom of assembly due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, as well as temporarily closing businesses, schools, and other public places.

On March 1, the day after the appointment of Perikatan Nasional leader Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister, approximately 100 protesters defied police warnings and rallied against what they termed Muhyiddin’s “backdoor” government. Police were present but did not stop the protest. Activist lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said she was later “singled out” by police for posting a video of the protest and was being investigated for sedition and improper use of network facilities.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the right of association; however, the government placed significant restrictions on this right, and certain statutes limit it. By law only registered organizations of seven or more persons may legally function. The government often resisted registering organizations deemed particularly unfriendly to the government or imposed strict preconditions. The government may revoke registrations for violations of the law governing societies.

The government bans membership in unregistered political parties and organizations.

Many human rights and civil society organizations had difficulty obtaining government recognition as NGOs. As a result, many NGOs registered as companies, which created legal and bureaucratic obstacles to raising money to support their activities. Authorities frequently cited a lack of registration as grounds for action against organizations. Some NGOs also reported the government monitored their activities to intimidate them.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, but these rights were often restricted by federal and state government officials, particularly in eastern Sabah and Sarawak States.

In-country Movement: Sabah and Sarawak States controlled immigration into their areas and required foreigners and citizens from peninsular Malaysia to present passports or national identity cards for entry. State authorities continued to deny entry to certain national leaders to these states. Sarawak maintained its ban on Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher; Mandeep Karpal Singh, formerly of the fair-election NGO coalition Bersih; current Bersih chair Thomas Fann; former chairs Maria Chin and Ambiga Sreenevasan; Wong Chin Huat, an academic and Bersih resource chair; Jerald Joseph, a SUHAKAM commissioner; and activists Colin Nicholas and Jannie Lasimbang, among others. There were some restrictions on in-country movement by refugees and asylum seekers (see section 2.f.) and some internal travel restrictions related to COVID-19.

Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes.

In March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government placed restrictions on entering the country; citizens were required to quarantine upon returning, and there were restrictions on any foreigners entering the country.

In September the country implemented entry and movement restrictions on all foreign nationals from countries reporting more than 150,000 COVID-19 cases at that time through December 31 in response to the pandemic outbreak. Affected travelers include short-term visitors, permanent residents, students, foreign workers, and long-term residents. Foreign nationals were permitted to depart the country.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not Applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the general public. The government cooperated to a limited extent with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. As there is no legal framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the country, UNHCR conducted all activities related to protection, including registration and status determination.

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of August 31, there were 178,140 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in the country, of whom 153,430 were from Burma. Of those from Burma, 101,530 were Rohingyas. There were some 24,700 refugees and asylum seekers from 50 countries, including Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, Somalis, Afghans, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and others. There were some 46,500 children younger than age 18.

Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived on support from UNHCR, NGOs, community-based organizations, refugee support networks, or illegal or informal labor. The government held thousands of individuals in immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited.

Between April and July, with the rise in public hostility toward migrant foreigners, particularly Rohingyas, over fears they were a burden on public resources and a COVID-19 vector, the government arrested undocumented migrant workers, including children, and held thousands in confined and congested cells at immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited. NGOs called the crackdown an “appalling violation of human rights” and noted the mass detention could further spread COVID-19 cases within detention facilities, stressing also that the roundups could discourage many from coming forward voluntarily for testing or treatment. On May 27, the NGO Lawyers for Liberty stated: “Undocumented migrants are not ‘acceptable casualties’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.” In February, UNHCR said that since August 2019, authorities had disallowed visits by its staff to detention centers to meet refugees and asylum seekers, determine those in need of international protection, and advocate for their release.

NGOs and international organizations involved with these populations made credible allegations of overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, lack of regular access to clean water, poor medical care, improper sanitation, and lack of bedding in the immigration detention centers. In August the Indonesian civil society organization Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers accused Malaysian immigration officials of subjecting detained Indonesian migrant workers in Sabah to “systematic torture on an immense scale” in inhuman conditions and without adequate food and water. The group claimed detainees who disobeyed the guards were punched and kicked, then expected to say “thank you, teacher” to the officers; if they did not say thank you when they were hit, they would be hit again. They were also punished by being forced to squat on the floor all day long.

Local and international NGOs estimated most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers were at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or longer. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.

Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council strongly criticized the immigration courts in detention centers as facilitating a legal process where migrant workers were not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and were effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings, 15 to 20 migrants were often tried together, grouped by the offense with which they were charged. If found guilty, the cost of deportation generally fell to the detainee, which led to prolonged detention for those unable to pay.

The government on several occasions forcibly expelled boats with refugees and asylum seekers from a country where their lives or freedom could be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The NGO Fortify Rights reported that on April 16, the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 396 Rohingya from a boat that was adrift for weeks, sustaining up to 60 fatalities; earlier Malaysian authorities had forced it back out to sea. They also reported that on April 16, the Royal Malaysian Air Force and Royal Malaysian Navy forced another boat with more than 200 Rohingya back to sea. On June 8, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob reported that authorities had blocked the arrival of 22 boats with foreigners, excluding the boats carrying Rohingya refugees, since May 1.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons receive no government support. The government allows UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent.

As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both, and mandatory caning with a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration-law violations. In June, 40 Rohingya refugees were sentenced to seven months in jail for arriving in the country by boat without a valid permit. Of them, 27 men were also sentenced to three strokes with a cane. The high court later set aside the caning following an outcry from human rights defenders.

Freedom of Movement: The government generally tolerated the presence of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers but sometimes detained them for a variety of causes in police jails or immigration detention centers until they could be deported or UNHCR established their bona fides. Some refugees holding UNHCR identification cards nonetheless reported limited ability to move throughout the country because authorities sometimes did not recognize the UNHCR card.

Employment: Although the government does not authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, it typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring refugees. Refugees employed in the informal sector were paid lower wages than comparable employees and were vulnerable to exploitation.

Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate of 50 percent to UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to persons without UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated static and mobile clinics, but their number and access were limited. Refugees did not have access to the public education system. Access to education was limited to schools run by NGOs and ethnic communities, and UNHCR estimated no more than 40 percent of refugee children attended school. A lack of resources and qualified teachers limited opportunities for the majority of school-age refugee children. UNHCR staff members conducted numerous visits to prisons and immigration detention centers to provide counseling, support, and legal representation for refugees and asylum seekers.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, renewable residence permits to a group of Syrian refugees. The permit allows for legal residency and conveys work rights, but it must be renewed annually. The migrant rights NGO Tenaganita, however, said the Syrian refugees often were unable fully to access the rights awarded to them through this permit and experienced difficulty accessing health care and academic institutions.

g. Stateless Persons

The National Registration Department did not maintain records of stateless persons. In 2019 UNHCR estimated there were 12,400 stateless persons residing in peninsular Malaysia and 450,000 in Sabah. Baseline figures of stateless persons and persons “at risk” of statelessness in the eastern state of Sabah, where approximately 80,000 Filipino Muslim refugees reside, were unavailable.

Citizenship law and birth registration rules and procedures created a large class of stateless children in the migrant and refugee population. When mothers did not have valid proof of citizenship, authorities entered the child’s citizenship as “unknown” on the birth certificate. UNHCR deemed this a widespread problem.

Even if the father is a citizen, the marriage may be considered invalid and the children illegitimate if the mother lacks proof of citizenship; such children were also considered stateless.

Some observers indicated that children born to Muslim refugees and asylum seekers often had an easier time obtaining citizenship than non-Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. For refugees in Muslim marriages, the observers claimed authorities often accepted a UNHCR document or other documentation in lieu of a passport as proof of citizenship.

Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to access government services, such as reduced-cost health care, or own property. The federal government continued, however, to permit stateless children to enroll in public schools if parents were able to prove the child’s father was Malaysian. The minister of education stated there were 2,635 undocumented children in schools nationwide as of October 2019.

On August 5, the Home Ministry granted a prominent 20-year-old e-sports gamer, Muhammad Aiman Hafizi Ahmad, citizenship after taking three years to refuse the first application made on his behalf by his adoptive parents when he was 12 and taking three more years to consider a second application. Born in country to an Indonesian mother and unknown father, Aiman was legally adopted by a Malaysian couple, but his documents described him as stateless. While the constitution allows the government to register anyone younger than age 21 as a citizen, Aiman’s lawyer said the process is “opaque and takes a very long time…the government often rejects applications without reasons,” adding that there were many other stateless persons who were treated as “invisible” and that without publicity Aiman’s case would have been much more difficult.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In 2018 the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition unseated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in general elections, marking the first federal transition of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Prior to the 2018 elections, then opposition political parties were disadvantaged due to the Barisan Nasional government control over traditional media outlets and malapportionment of constituencies, among other issues.

While authorities generally recorded votes accurately, there were irregularities perpetrated by the former Barisan Nasional coalition government that affected the fairness of elections.

The constitution also provides for transfers of power without new legislative elections. This occurred in February when the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition collapsed, resulting in a transfer of power to the new Perikatan Nasional coalition. The king determined that Perikatan Nasional commanded a parliamentary majority and appointed Muhyiddin Yassin prime minister, in conformity with constitutional parameters. The new coalition sought no popular mandate through a general election during its first eight months in office, and convened three sessions of parliament–one session lasting less than a day in May, when the prime minister permitted no motions, including an attempted vote of no confidence, a second sitting in August focusing on adopting a COVID-19 economic stimulus package, and a third sitting in November and December to consider the budget.

The constitution fixes the number of seats in parliament assigned to each state to the advantage of rural states and regardless of population shifts over time. Moreover, it does not require equal populations in electoral constituencies in any given state. Each constituency elects one member of parliament. The Electoral Commission has established constituencies with widely varying populations, further to the advantage of rural populations. For example the rural district of Igan had 18,000 registered voters, while the urban district of Kapar had more than 144,000 registered voters. Local and municipal officials are appointed at the state or federal level.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country’s most recent general election was held in 2018 amid allegations of partisanship on the part of public institutions, in particular the Election Commission and the Registrar of Societies. A consortium of NGOs released a formal report later in 2018 detailing irregularities in the election, including vote buying, the use of public funds for partisan activity, and allegations of biased behavior by public officials. According to the NGOs, none of which were formally accredited to observe the polls, federal and state governments spent more than five billion ringgit (RM) ($1.2 billion) on “handouts” after legislatures had been dissolved and lawmakers were ostensibly prohibited from making new financial commitments. The report also alleged that one accredited election observer actively campaigned for the former Barisan Nasional government.

Despite strong objections by opposition political parties and civil society, in 2018 the former Barisan Nasional coalition government approved redrawn parliamentary districts that critics said unfairly advantaged Barisan Nasional through gerrymandering and malapportionment. By law the government was not allowed to redraw the electoral boundaries until 2026 unless members of parliament amended the federal constitution, a process which requires a two-thirds majority vote. Despite alleged electoral irregularities and systemic disadvantages for opposition groups, Barisan Nasional lost the election to Pakatan Harapan, the first transfer of power between coalitions since independence in 1957.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Many opposition candidates were unable to compete on equal terms with the then ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and were subject to restrictions and outside interference during the 2018 election campaign. Registering a new political party remained difficult because of government restrictions on the process.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation by women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. In parliament 33 women hold 14.8 percent of the seats, an increase from 10.8 percent in the previous election cycle. Eight out of 14 Federal Court judges are women. In March the number of non-Muslim judges serving on the Federal Court rose to four; the number was previously limited to two. In May, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat was appointed chief justice, the first woman to ascend to the highest judicial office of the country. In July, Dato’ Sri Azalina binti Othman Said was appointed as the first female deputy speaker of parliament.

The political environment was hostile towards women. Attacks on female politicians and women who were critical of the country’s politics were common, including sexist remarks in parliament against female members, threats of rape and murder via Facebook and other social media platforms, and stereotyping female political candidates. The advent of the new Perikatan Nasional administration saw reduced female influence in the highest echelons of government, including the position of deputy prime minister previously held by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Nine cabinet positions are held by women, compared with 10 held by women under the Pakatan Harapan administration. A significant portion of female leaders in state agencies were also replaced by men.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; prior to the February change of government, the government charged several former government officials with corruption, including the former prime minister, although there remained a broadly held perception of widespread corruption and cronyism in government institutions. Media outlets reported numerous cases of alleged official corruption.

The Malaysian Anticorruption Commission is responsible for investigating corruption in both private and public bodies but does not have prosecutorial authority. An auditor general is responsible, per the constitution, for auditing the accounts of the federal and state governments, government agencies, and other public authorities.

Corruption: In the first criminal trial in the country’s history involving a former prime minister, in July the high court convicted Najib Razak on all seven counts brought against him in the first of five corruption trials tied to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) investment fund scandal. Najib was charged with giving government guarantees on a loan from the country’s retirement fund to a subsidiary of the 1MDB, misappropriation of funds, and money laundering. Suits filed against Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor on 19 counts of money laundering and tax evasion remained underway.

In May a sessions court granted Riza Aziz, stepson to Najib, a discharge not amounting to acquittal in relation to five counts of laundering nearly $250 million from the 1MDB investment fund. As part of the agreement, Riza will return $108 million in assets. Former attorney general Tommy Thomas, who initiated the charges against Riza and Najib, called it “a sweetheart deal for Riza but terrible for Malaysia.” Many members of the legal community condemned the court’s decision.

In June the high court acquitted former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman on all 46 criminal charges of corruption and money laundering leveled against him, citing its failure to obtain key banking documents and the unavailability of several witnesses. Musa was charged in 2018 with 35 counts of accepting gratification amounting to RM 243 million ($63 million). In 2019 he was charged with 16 counts of money laundering involving RM 160 million ($38.4 million).

According to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, authorities arrested 867 public officials for corruption and bribery from January 2019 to September 2020.

Financial Disclosure: Cabinet members must declare their assets to the prime minister. Senior civil servants are required to declare their assets to the chief secretary of the government. Junior civil servants must declare their assets to the head of their department. The assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare are clearly defined and do not include the assets and incomes of spouses and dependent children, except in the case of members of parliament. Public officials must declare their assets annually, but not upon entering or leaving office. Those who refuse or fail to declare their assets face disciplinary actions and are ineligible for promotion. Such declarations are made public.

In March, Prime Minister Muhyiddin announced that all elected representatives in the government must declare their assets within three months of the date they were sworn in. In July, the government released information on all declared assets publicly. As of August, 57 of the 70 officials in the Perikatan Nasional government had their monthly income and total asset value listed on the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission’s portal, which was accessible to the public.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups operated subject to varying levels of government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases; however, the government was not always cooperative or responsive to their views.

Outside the political and human rights fields, the government generally allowed NGOs to function independently, met with representatives from some NGOs, and responded to some NGO requests. The government, however, also took action against some NGOs.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The official human rights commission SUHAKAM is headed by a chairperson and commissioners appointed by the king on the recommendation of the prime minister. Observers generally considered SUHAKAM a credible human rights monitor. It conducted training, undertook investigations, issued reports, and made recommendations to the government. SUHAKAM may not investigate court cases in progress and must cease its inquiries if a case becomes the subject of judicial action. Representatives of SUHAKAM asserted that the Perikatan Nasional coalition was reluctant to engage with them, making implementation of reforms impossible.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men is a criminal offense, as are most forms of domestic violence. Rape is punishable by a maximum 20 years’ imprisonment and caning. The law does not recognize marital rape as a crime.

Women’s groups asserted the courts were inconsistent in punishing rapists. According to the latest statistics from the NGO Women’s Aid Organization, there were 1,582 recorded rape cases in 2017, and 5,421 recorded cases of gender-based violence in 2018. There was a lack of investigation into accusations of rape and gender-based violence, and little accountability. After the movement control order to combat COVID-19 was implemented in March, the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development experienced a 57 percent spike in calls from women in distress.

In April a police inspector was arrested and suspended for abducting and raping two Mongolian women in Petaling Jaya. He reportedly stopped their taxi at a COVID-19 movement control order roadblock and, finding that they had no valid travel documents, took them forcibly to a hotel where he raped them. He was charged with eight counts of rape, carrying a maximum term of 30 years’ imprisonment and caning. He was separately charged with trafficking in persons for the purpose of exploitation through the abuse of power, with a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine. Initially set for July hearings, both cases were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the government and NGOs maintained shelters and offered other assistance to victims of domestic violence, activists asserted that support mechanisms remained inadequate. Many government hospitals had crisis centers where victims of rape and domestic abuse could file reports without going to a police station. There is also a sexual investigations unit at each police headquarters to help victims of sexual crimes and abuse, and police sometimes assign psychologists or counselors to provide emotional support. NGOs reported that the government does not take action in cases of domestic violence; victims must keep evidence, gather witness testimony, and ensure their own safety.

The NGO Women’s Aid Organization reported that 9 percent of women who have ever been in a relationship experience domestic violence and that such violence was “symptomatic of a deeper problem: gender inequality.” In June the NGO stated that inquiries to its domestic-violence hotline had spiked to more than three times levels since February, before the COVID-19 movement control order was carried out. The NGO’s executive director, Sumitra Visvanathan, termed the sharp rise “extremely concerning,” noting that survivors in isolation with their abusers faced circumstances “where it is even easier for the abuser to exert control physically, emotionally, and socially.” In July, SUHAKAM cited the increased risk of violence faced by domestic workers, who were primarily migrant women, “exacerbated by restrictions on their travel and mobility, as well as by language barriers and xenophobia.”

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C, and it was a common practice. While recent data was very limited, a 2012 study by a professor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Malaya, found that more than 93 percent of approximately 1,000 Muslim women surveyed in three of the country’s 13 states had undergone the procedure. Ministry of Health guidelines allow the practice in general but only at government health-care facilities, which was not always the case. Advocates and the international medical community remained concerned that the Health Ministry endorsement legitimizes the harmful practice and contributes to the “medicalization” of FGM. Women’s rights groups said a 2009 fatwa by the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs declaring the practice obligatory made FGM/C more prevalent. According to an investigation published by local media in 2018, there are no standard procedures for the practice and “in some cases box cutters and stationery store blades are used.” Government officials defended the practice during a UN review in 2018, when a Ministry of Health official stated that the practice was performed only by medical professionals and compared it to immunization programs for female babies. The UN panel urged the country to abolish the practice.

Sisters in Islam reaffirmed its concern with a 2009 fatwa from the Malaysian Islamic Development Department requiring Muslim girls to be circumcised. In conjunction with the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation in February, Sisters in Islam stated: “Even though this fatwa was not gazetted, the reality is that in general, fatwas have a strong influence over individuals and communities in their personal decision-making.” Azrul Mohd Khalib of the Galen Center for Health and Social Policy called on the government to ban the practice. “We should prohibit and criminalize the act of female circumcision to protect our infant daughters and girls from harm,” he said.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits a person in authority from using his or her position to intimidate a subordinate by any conduct that is sexual in nature. The law classifies some types of workplace sexual harassment as criminal offenses (see section 7.d.). A government voluntary code of conduct provides a detailed definition of sexual harassment intended to raise public awareness of the problem. Observers noted that authorities took claims seriously, but victims were often reluctant to report sexual harassment because of the difficulty of proving the offense and the lengthy trial process.

Reproductive Rights: Married couples have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, but they did not always have the information and means to do so. Family planning services and programs were provided by the Ministry of Health, the National Population and Family Development Board under the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development, and the Federation of Reproduction Health Associations.

Sexual and reproductive health services were available at health ministry primary, secondary, and tertiary health care facilities, and included contraception, pregnancy tests, subfertility treatment, pap smears, screening and treatment for sexually transmittable diseases, HPV vaccination, and counseling. Government-run family planning clinics often did not provide contraceptive services to unmarried young people. Birth control pills were available at private pharmacies without prescription but at higher prices than at government clinics.

One-Stop Crisis Centers, an integrated multiagency service in the emergency department of most major public hospitals, provided support to victims of sexual violence.

Sexual health education remained a sensitive topic, with a majority of the population viewing abstinence as the only permissible form of contraception. Reproductive awareness activists and NGOs that provided sexual health education were frequently accused of encouraging sin and eliciting sexual behaviors.

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

Discrimination: The constitution prohibits discrimination against citizens based on gender and gives men and women equal property rights although sharia, which deviates from these principles in some areas, was sometimes applied. For instance, Islamic inheritance law generally favors male offspring and male relatives. Sharia also generally requires a husband’s consent for divorce, but a small and steadily increasing number of women obtained divorces under sharia without their husband’s consent. Non-Muslims are not subject to sharia. Civil law gives non-Muslim mothers and fathers equal parental rights, while sharia favors fathers. Nevertheless, four states–Johor, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang–extend equal parental rights to Muslim mothers.

The law requires equal pay for male and female workers for work of equal value. Nonetheless, NGOs reported continued discrimination against women in the workplace in terms of promotion and salary (see section 7.d.).

The law does not permit mothers to transmit citizenship automatically to children born overseas. Children born overseas can only be registered as citizens if the father of the child is a citizen.

Children

Birth Registration: A child born in the country obtains citizenship if one parent is a citizen or permanent resident at the time of birth and the parents are married. Parents must register a child within 14 days of birth. Parents applying for late registration must provide proof the child was born in the country. According to UNHCR, children born to citizen mothers outside the country may only acquire citizenship at the discretion of the federal government through registration at an overseas Malaysian consulate or at the National Registration Department in country. Authorities do not register children born to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. UNHCR registered children born to refugees (see section 2.d.).

Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through primary school (six years) for citizens and permanent residents, although there was no mechanism to enforce attendance. Public schools are not open to the children of illegal immigrants or refugees, whether registered with UNHCR or not.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is 18 for men and 16 for women. Muslim women younger than 16 may marry with the approval of a sharia court. Indigenous persons are governed by customary laws with no fixed minimum age for marriage. In some cases authorities treated early marriage as a solution to statutory rape. Advocates remained concerned that Rohingya refugee families were resorting to child marriage for their girls to cope with economic hardship.

The federal government launched a national five-year roadmap in January targeting the issue of child marriage. The plan outlined policies to increase access to education and attendance in schools, increase access to health education, address stigma and social norms on child marriage, and ensure laws and guidelines on child marriages are in line with government policies guarding the well-being of children.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law outlaws child pornography and states that a child is considered a victim of sexual abuse if he or she has taken part as a participant or an observer in any activity that is sexual in nature for the purposes of a photograph, recording, film, videotape, or performance. Federal police reported approximately 20,000 internet addresses in the country uploading and downloading child pornography. Under the law the minimum age for consensual, noncommercial sex is 16 for both boys and girls. The involvement in making or producing child pornography carries a penalty of up to 30 years’ imprisonment and not less than six strokes of a cane; conviction for accessing or possessing child pornography carries a punishment of five years’ imprisonment or a fine; conviction for trafficking in persons involving a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation carries a punishment of three to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine.

There is a special court for sexual crimes against children, established to speed up trials that often took years to conclude. Child prostitution existed, and a local NGO estimated in 2015, the last year with reported data, that 5,000 children were involved in sex work in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas. Authorities, however, often treated children engaged in prostitution as offenders or undocumented immigrants rather than as victims.

The government focused on preventing sexual exploitation of children, including commercial sexual exploitation.

The law provides for six to 20 years’ imprisonment and caning for persons convicted of incest.

As of October federal police recorded 1,721 sexual crime cases involving children, while 813 cases were with the special court handling sexual crimes against children.

A child’s testimony is acceptable only if there is corroborating evidence, which posed special problems for molestation cases in which the child victim was the only witness.

Displaced Children: Street children were most prevalent in Sabah. Estimates of the street-child population ranged from a few thousand to 15,000, many of whom were born in the country to illegal immigrant parents. Authorities deported some of these parents, leaving their children without guardians. Lacking citizenship, access to schooling, or other government-provided support, these children often resorted to menial labor, criminal activities, and prostitution to survive; those living on the streets were vulnerable to forced labor, including forced 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.

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish population was estimated at between 100 and 200 persons, consisting mostly of expatriates and foreigners. Anti-Semitism was a serious problem across the political spectrum and attracted wide support among segments of the population.

A 2015 Anti-Defamation League survey found 61 percent of citizens held anti-Jewish attitudes. A newspaper reported in April 2019 the statement in parliament of the then home minister that the number of Israelis entering Malaysia for business and technology-related events dwindled from 33 in 2016 to only three in 2019. Former prime minister Mahathir defended his right to be anti-Semitic in interviews. Restrictions on Israeli citizens from entering Malaysia remain.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law affords persons with disabilities the right to equal access and use of public facilities, amenities, services, and buildings open or provided to the public. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development is responsible for safeguarding the rights of persons with disabilities.

New government buildings generally had a full range of facilities for persons with disabilities. The government, however, did not mandate accessibility to transportation for persons with disabilities, and authorities retrofitted few older public facilities to provide access to persons with disabilities. Recognizing public transportation was not “disabled friendly,” the government maintained its 50 percent reduction of excise duty on locally made cars and motorcycles adapted for persons with disabilities.

Employment discrimination occurred against persons with disabilities (see section 7.d.).

Students with disabilities attended mainstream schools, but accessibility remained a serious problem. Separate education facilities also existed but were insufficient to meet the needs of all students with disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The constitution gives ethnic Malays and indigenous groups, collectively known as bumiputra, a “special position” in the country. Government regulations and policies provided extensive preferential programs to boost the economic position of bumiputra, who constituted a majority of the population. Such programs limited opportunities for non-bumiputra (primarily ethnic Chinese and Indians) in higher education and government employment. Many industries were subject to race-based requirements that mandated bumiputra ownership levels. Government procurement and licensing policies favored bumiputra-owned businesses. The government claimed these policies were necessary to attain ethnic harmony and political stability.

Indigenous People

The constitution provides indigenous and nonindigenous people with the same civil and political rights, but the government did not effectively protect these rights.

Indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia, known as Orang Asli, who number approximately 200,000, constitute the poorest group in the country and had very little ability to participate in decisions that affected them. A constitutional provision provides for “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak” but does not refer specifically to the Orang Asli. This ambiguity over the community’s status in the constitution led to selective interpretation by different public institutions.

The courts have ruled that the Orang Asli have rights to their customary lands under the constitution, but NGOs said the government failed to recognize these judicial pronouncements. The government can seize this land if it provides compensation. There were confrontations between indigenous communities and logging companies over land, and uncertainty over their land tenure made indigenous persons vulnerable to exploitation.

In June, two Orang Asli communities set up blockades at the entrances to their villages in Kelantan and Perak States to protest logging activities in the area. In a police report, villagers claimed their village had been “pawned away” by the Kelantan government.

In September the Federal Court ordered the Johor state government to pay RM 5.2 million ($1.2 million) to the residents of Orang Laut Seletar village as compensation for their ancestral land, after villagers were forced to relocate in 1993 to make way for development. The court also ordered that a separate land area which the villagers now occupied be registered as an Orang Asli settlement. Lawyer Tan Poh Lai, representing the villagers, termed the settlement a “great victory” for the Orang Asli, stating, “This is a recognition that the land they were made to move from was indeed native customary land. This result is an encouragement for all Orang Asli in Malaysia.”

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

All same-sex sexual conduct is illegal. The law states that sodomy and oral sex acts are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” In November 2019 the Selangor State sharia court sentenced five men to six to seven months in jail, six strokes of the cane, and a fine for “attempting to have intercourse against the order of nature.” Numan Afifi, an activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights told media the ruling was “a gross injustice” and would cause a “culture of fear.” Religious and cultural taboos against same-sex sexual conduct were widespread (see section 2.a.).

Authorities often charged transgender persons with “indecent behavior” and “importuning for immoral purposes” in public. Those convicted of a first offense face a token fine and a maximum sentence of 14 days in jail. The sentences for subsequent convictions are fines and up to three months in jail. Local advocates contended that imprisoned transgender women served their sentences in prisons designated for men and that police and inmates often abused them verbally and sexually.

In February, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, then the minister for Islamic affairs in the Pakatan Harapan government, said he would ask the communications commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself on pilgrimage in Mecca. The minister called Nur Sajat’s actions an “offense” that could compromise bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. Noting that photos and videos of Nur Sajat wearing women’s garments in Mecca had gone viral on social media, causing “discomfort among Muslims,” Mujahid told media he would take “firm steps.” The communications commission said it would study the matter but did not announce any action. Images of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents, however, spread on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety.

A 2018 survey by a local transgender rights group reported more than two-thirds of transgender women experienced some form of physical or emotional abuse. The local rock band Bunkface released a song in February with the lyric “LGBT can go and die.” Facing public criticism, the band defended the line, stating it did not target specific individuals but was responding to the growing LGBTI movement in the country.

State religious authorities reportedly forced LGBTI persons to participate in “treatment” or “rehabilitation” programs to “cure” them of their sexuality. In July, Minister of Religious Affairs Zulkifli Mohamad announced he had given “full license” to Islamic authorities to arrest and “educate” transgender persons to ensure they came “back to the right path.”

LGBTI persons reported discrimination in employment, housing, and access to some government services because of their sexuality.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for limited freedom of association and for certain categories of workers to form and join trade unions, subject to a variety of legal and practical restrictions. The law provides for the right to strike and to bargain collectively, but both were severely restricted. The law prohibits employers from interfering with trade union activities, including union formation. It prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for legal union activities and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law prohibits defense and police officials, retired or dismissed workers from joining a union. The law also restricts the formation of unions of workers in similar trades, occupations, or industries. Foreign workers may join a trade union but cannot hold union office unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Human Resources. In view of the absence of a direct employment relationship with owners of a workplace, contract workers may not form a union and cannot negotiate or benefit from collective bargaining agreements.

The director general of trade unions and the minister of human resources may refuse to register or withdraw registration from some unions without judicial oversight. The time needed for a union to be recognized remained long and unpredictable. Union officials expressed frustration about delays in the settlement of union recognition disputes; such applications were often refused. If a union’s recognition request was approved, the employer sometimes challenged the decision in court, leading to multiyear delays in recognizing unions.

Most private-sector workers have the right to bargain collectively, although these negotiations cannot include issues of transfer, promotion, appointments, dismissal, or reinstatement. The law restricts collective bargaining in “pioneer” industries the government has identified as growth priorities, including various high-technology fields. Trade unions in companies granted pioneer status may not negotiate terms and conditions that are more favorable than the provisions stipulated in labor law unless approved by the minister of human resources. Public-sector workers have some collective bargaining rights, although some could only express opinions on wages and working conditions instead of actively negotiating. Long delays continued in the treatment of union claims to obtain recognition for collective bargaining purposes. The government also had the right to compel arbitration in the case of failed collective bargaining negotiations.

Private-sector strikes are severely restricted. The law provides for penal sanctions for peaceful strikes. The law prohibits general strikes, and trade unions may not strike over disputes related to trade-union registration or illegal dismissals. Workers may not strike in a broad range of industries deemed “essential,” nor may they hold strikes when a dispute is under consideration by the Industrial Court. Union officials claimed legal requirements for strikes were almost impossible to meet; the last major strike occurred in 1962.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting employers from seeking retribution for legal union activities and requiring reinstatement of workers fired for trade union activity. Penalties included fines but were seldom assessed and are not commensurate with those of other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

In June, five members of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services were arrested while conducting a peaceful protest against their employer’s alleged union-busting tactics. Union officials claimed the company prevented employees from testing for COVID-19, failed to provide proper personal protective equipment, and withheld the monthly special government allowance worth RM 600 ($140) for frontline workers. Union officials further accused the company of forbidding union-related discussions between union worksite committees and workers, intimidation, and arbitrary change of working schedules and locations of union workers to decrease their earnings. The five arrested activists were released the following day. In October the magistrate’s court dropped the charges against the activists for defying the conditional movement control order by gathering in front of the employer’s premises “for social purposes.”

Freedom of association and collective bargaining were not fully respected. National-level unions are prohibited; the government allows three regional territorial federations of unions–peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak–to operate. They exercised many of the responsibilities of national-level labor unions, although they could not bargain on behalf of local unions. The Malaysian Trade Unions Congress is a registered “society” of trade unions in both the private and government sectors that does not have the right to bargain collectively or strike but may provide technical support to affiliated members. Some workers’ organizations were independent of government, political parties, and employers, but employer-dominated or “yellow” unions were reportedly a concern.

The inability of unions to provide more than limited protection for workers, particularly foreign workers who continued to face the threat of deportation, restrictions on the right to strike, and the prevalence of antiunion discrimination created a disincentive to unionize. In some instances companies reportedly harassed leaders of unions that sought recognition. Some trade unions reported the government detained or restricted the movement of some union members under laws allowing temporary detention without charging the detainee with a crime. Trade unions asserted some workers had wages withheld or were terminated because of union-related activity.

In October the court of appeal overturned a high court decision that the dismissal of a trade union leader for issuing a statement highlighting the plight of workers and calling for the CEO’s resignation had been illegal. The court of appeal set aside the award to the trade union leader for wrongful termination of RM 210,000 ($50,300) and instead ordered the trade union leader to pay RM5,000 ($1,200) to the employer MAS Airlines in costs.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Five agencies, including the Department of Labor of the Ministry of Human Resources, have enforcement powers under the law, but their officers performed a variety of functions and did not always actively search for indications of forced labor. NGOs continued to criticize the lack of resources dedicated to enforcement of the law.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting forced labor in some cases, and large fines as penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

In 2018 the government established an Independent Committee on Foreign Workers to provide comprehensive reform plans to the government regarding foreign-worker management and labor policy. The committee presented its final report to cabinet in July 2019 with 40 recommendations on streamlining policies related to foreign workers, but the report was not made public. On June 23, former minister of human resources M. Kulasegaran stated that “vested interests” had hijacked government policies on the matter as “not a single recommendation has been implemented to date.”

A variety of sources reported occurrences of forced labor or conditions indicative of forced labor in plantation agriculture, electronics factories, garment production, rubber-product industries, and domestic service among both adults and children (also see section 7.c.).

Employers, employment agents, and labor recruiters subjected some migrants to forced labor or debt bondage. Many companies hired foreign workers using recruiting or outsourcing companies, creating uncertainty about the legal relationship between the worker, the outsourcing company, and the owner of the workplace, making workers more vulnerable to exploitation and complicating dispute resolution. Labor union representatives noted that recruiting agents in the countries of origin and in Malaysia sometimes imposed high fees, making migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage.

In July a nonprofit organization filed a formal complaint with a foreign government urging it to ban imports of products from Sime Darby Berhad, a palm oil company, due to reports of forced labor at Sime Darby plantations. Another petition filed in August 2019 accused palm oil company FGV Holdings of forced labor abuse, including deception, physical and sexual violence, intimidation, and the keeping of worker’s identity documents. FGV subsequently finalized their action plan on enhancing labor practices in April. NGOs maintained the action plan, however, failed to prove FGV’s product was not the result of forced labor.

In July a foreign government discontinued imports of disposable medical gloves made by the world’s largest medical glove maker, Top Glove Corp Bhd, in response to findings of forced labor in their manufacturing facilities. In November more than 5,000 Top Glove workers contracted COVID-19 resulting from substandard and overcrowded working and living conditions.

The trial of former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi for his role in a fraudulent scheme involving hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers seeking jobs in the country continued as of September. Private companies linked to the then deputy prime minister’s brother and brother-in-law reportedly charged Nepali workers more than RM185 million ($46.3 million) for medical tests and to submit visa applications during the prior five years. These medical and visa-processing services increased the cost tenfold without offering additional protections or benefits. Zahid denied involvement in or knowledge of the scam, but the Malaysian Anticorruption Commission charged him in 2018 with 45 counts of corruption, bribery, and money laundering, three of which concern RM three million ($750,000) he allegedly received in bribes from a company that ran a visa center for Nepali workers. Critics of the former government had long characterized the foreign-worker recruitment system as corrupt.

Nonpayment of wages remained a concern. Passport confiscation by employers increased migrant workers’ vulnerability to forced labor; the practice was illegal but widespread and generally went unpunished. Migrant workers without access to their passports were more vulnerable to harsh working conditions, lower wages than promised, unexpected wage deductions, and poor housing. NGOs reported that agents or employers in some cases drafted contracts that included a provision for employees to sign over the right to hold their passports to the employer or an agent. Some employers and migrant workers reported that workers sometimes requested employers keep their passports, since replacing lost or stolen passports could cost several months’ wages and leave foreign workers open to questions about their legal status.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 14 but permits some exceptions, such as light work in a family enterprise, work in public entertainment, work performed for the government in a school or in training institutions, or work as an approved apprentice. There is no minimum age for engaging in light work. For children between the ages of 14 and 18, there was no list clarifying specific occupations or sectors considered hazardous and therefore prohibited.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor. Those found contravening child labor laws faced penalties that were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Child labor occurred in some family businesses. Child labor in urban areas was common in the informal economy, including family food businesses and night markets, and in small-scale industry. Child labor was also evident among migrant domestic workers.

NGOs reported that stateless children in Sabah were especially vulnerable to labor exploitation in palm oil production, forced begging, and work in service industries, including restaurants. Although the National Union of Plantation Workers reported it was rare to find children involved in plantation work in peninsular Malaysia, others reported instances of child labor on palm oil plantations across the country. Commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred (see section 6, Children).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status or refugee status in employment and hiring; the director general of labor may investigate discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment for both foreign and local employees. The law prohibits women from working underground, such as in mines, and restricts employers from requiring female employees to work in industrial or agricultural work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. or to commence work for the day without having 11 consecutive hours of rest since the end of the last work period.

The director general may issue necessary directives to an employer to resolve allegations of discrimination in employment, although there were no penalties under the law for such discrimination and thus penalties were not commensurate to laws related to penalties for civil rights, such as election interference.

Employers are obligated to inquire into most sexual harassment complaints in a prescribed manner. Advocacy groups such as the Association of Women Lawyers stated these provisions were not comprehensive enough to provide adequate help to victims. In June the industrial court upheld the dismissal of a manager for nonphysical sexual harassment, including using a term of endearment, giving of personal gifts, and excessive unwanted attention.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women; members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities; and persons with disabilities. A code of practice guides all government agencies, employers, employee associations, employees, and others with respect to placement of persons with disabilities in private-sector jobs. Disability-rights NGOs reported that employers were reluctant to hire persons with disabilities. A regulation reserves 1 percent of public-sector jobs for persons with disabilities.

Migrant workers must undergo mandatory testing for more than 16 illnesses as well as pregnancy. Employers may immediately deport pregnant or ill workers. Migrant workers also faced employment discrimination (see sections 7.b. and 7.e.). Employers were unilaterally able to terminate work permits, subjecting migrant workers to immediate deportation.

Women experienced some economic discrimination in access to employment. Employers routinely asked women their marital status during job interviews. The Association of Women Lawyers advocated for passage of a separate sexual harassment bill making it compulsory for employers to formulate sexual harassment policies.

The government reserved large quotas for the bumiputra majority for positions in the federal civil service as well as for vocational permits and licenses in a wide range of industries, which greatly reduced economic opportunity for minority groups (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage applied to both citizen and foreign workers in most sectors, with the exception of domestic service (see below). The minimum wage rates were less than Ministry of Finance-published poverty income levels in Sabah and Sarawak.

Working hours may not exceed eight per day or 48 per week, unless workers receive overtime pay. The law specifies limits on overtime, which vary by sector, but it allows for exceptions.

The law protects foreign domestic workers only with regard to wages and contract termination. The law excludes them from provisions that stipulate one rest day per week, an eight-hour workday, and a 48-hour workweek. Instead, bilateral agreements or memoranda of understanding between the government and some source countries for migrant workers include provisions for rest periods, compensation, and other conditions of employment for migrant domestic workers, including prohibitions on passport retention.

The Department of Labor of the Ministry of Human Resources enforces wage, working condition, and occupational safety and health standards. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of labor enforcement officers was insufficient to enforce compliance. Department of Labor officials reported they sought to conduct labor inspections as frequently as possible. Nevertheless, many businesses could operate for years without an inspection.

Penalties for employers who fail to follow the law begin with a fine assessed per employee and can rise to imprisonment. Employers can be required to pay back wages plus the fine. If they refuse to comply, employers face additional fines per day that wages are not paid. Employers or employees who violate occupational health and safety laws are subject to fines, imprisonment, or both. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.

Employers did not respect laws on wages and working hours. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress reported that 12-, 14-, and 18-hour days were common in food and other service industries.

The Ministry of Human Resources began enforcing amendments to the Worker’s Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act on September 1. The measure aimed to provide foreign workers with better accommodation and employee facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers and centralized accommodation providers must provide every worker with a single bed measuring not less than 18 square feet, a mattress at least 3.9 inches thick, a pillow, blanket, and a locked cupboard. In addition employers must ensure water, electricity, and basic furniture are supplied, and that amenities, including a bathroom to employee ratio, are observed in the accommodations. Although the punishment for employers was not directly stated in the regulations, Minister of Human Resources M. Saravanan on August 27 stated that employers who failed to comply with the standards could face a significant fine for each offense.

Migrant workers often worked in sectors where violations were common, performed hazardous duties, and had no meaningful access to legal counsel in cases of contract violations and abuse. Some workers alleged their employers subjected them to inhuman living conditions and physically assaulted them. Employers of domestic workers sometimes failed to honor the terms of employment and subjected workers to abuse. Employers reportedly restricted workers’ movement and use of mobile telephones; provided substandard food; did not provide sufficient time off; sexually assaulted workers; and harassed and threatened workers, including with deportation.

While the government mandated that all workers in businesses permitted to stay in operation must be tested for COVID-19, there were concerns for the labor conditions under which migrant workers were forced to work during the pandemic or risk losing their jobs. The Timber Employees Union of Peninsular Malaysia declared that migrant workers now felt “they’re being made to choose between COVID-19 or starvation.” The Malaysian Trade Union Congress claimed to have received more than 500 complaints against employers who continued operations despite the movement control order, with some reportedly threatening to terminate employees who refused to come to work, and not providing personal protection equipment.

Occupational health and safety laws cover all sectors of the economy except the maritime sector and the armed forces. The law requires workers to use safety equipment and cooperate with employers to create a safe, healthy workplace, but it does not specify a right to remove oneself from a hazardous or dangerous situation without penalty. Laws on worker’s compensation cover both local and migrant workers but provide no protection for migrant domestic workers.

The National Occupational Safety and Health Council–composed of workers, employers, and government representatives–creates and coordinates implementation of occupational health and safety measures. It requires employers to identify risks and take precautions, including providing safety training to workers, and compels companies with more than 40 workers to establish joint management-employee safety committees.

According to Department of Occupational Safety and Health statistics, as of October, 174 workers died, 5,705 acquired a nonpermanent disability, and 226 acquired permanent disability in work-related incidents.

Philippines

Executive Summary

The Philippines is a multiparty, constitutional republic with a bicameral legislature. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, elected in May 2016, began his constitutionally limited six-year term in June 2016. Midterm elections in May 2019 for 12 (of 24 total) senators, all congressional representatives, and local government leaders were seen as generally free and fair, despite reports of violence and vote buying. The ruling party and allies won all 12 Senate seats and maintained an approximately two-thirds majority in the 306-seat House of Representatives. Barangay (village) and youth council elections originally scheduled for 2021 were rescheduled for December 5, 2022, so that local and national elections would occur in the same year.

The Philippine National Police is charged with maintaining internal security in most of the country and reports to the Department of the Interior. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (armed forces), which reports to the Department of National Defense, is responsible for external security but also carries out domestic security functions in regions with a high incidence of conflict, particularly the Mindanao region. The two agencies share responsibility for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. The national police Special Action Force is responsible for urban counterterrorism operations. Governors, mayors, and other local officials have considerable influence over local police units, including appointment of top departmental and municipal police officers and the provision of resources. The government continued to support and arm civilian militias. The armed forces controlled Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units, while Civilian Volunteer Organizations fell under national police command. These paramilitary units often received minimal training and were poorly monitored and regulated. Some political families and clan leaders, particularly in Mindanao, maintained private armies and, at times, recruited Civilian Volunteer Organization and Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit members into those armies. Civilian control over security forces was not fully effective. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; reports of forced disappearance by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; torture by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by and on behalf of the government and nonstate actors; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by terrorists and groups in rebellion against the government; serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the use of criminal libel laws to punish journalists; and corruption.

The government investigated a limited number of reported human rights abuses, including abuses by its own forces, paramilitaries, and insurgent and terrorist groups. Concerns about police impunity continued following the increase in killings by police in 2016. Significant concerns also persisted about impunity for other security forces, civilian national and local government officials, and powerful business and commercial figures. Slow judicial processes remained an obstacle to bringing government officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses to justice.

Muslim separatists, communist insurgents, and terrorist groups continued to attack government security forces and civilians, causing displacement of civilians and resulting in the deaths of security force members and civilians. Terrorist organizations engaged in kidnappings for ransom, bombings of civilian targets, beheadings, and the use of child soldiers in combat or auxiliary roles.

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

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

There were numerous reports that government security agencies and their informal allies committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in connection with the government-directed campaign against illegal drugs. Various government bodies conducted investigations into whether security force killings were justifiable, such as the national police Internal Affairs Service, the armed forces Human Rights Office, and the National Bureau of Investigation. Impunity remained a problem, however. Killings of activists, judicial officials, local government leaders, and journalists by government allies, antigovernment insurgents, and unknown assailants also continued. In August peace activist Randall “Randy” Echanis was tortured and killed by unknown individuals who broke into his Quezon City residence. Tensions later escalated when police seized Echanis’ remains from a funeral home.

Approximately 20,000 antidrug operations were conducted from January to August 2020, according to government data. In a House committee hearing in September, the new Philippine National Police (PNP) chief General Camilo Cascolan reported 623 suspects killed and 50,429 arrested during drug operations conducted from January to August. Human Rights Watch, based on Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency figures, observed that from April to July, 155 drug suspects were killed–a 50 percent increase from the number of suspects killed from December to March before the COVID-19 community quarantine.

The reported number of extrajudicial killings varied widely, as the government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) used different definitions. The Commission on Human Rights, an independent government agency responsible for investigating possible human rights violations, investigated 157 new complaints of alleged extrajudicial or politically motivated killings involving 178 victims as of August; of the cases, 81 involved drug-related extrajudicial killings with 93 victims. The commission suspected PNP or Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency involvement in 61 of these new complaints and armed forces or paramilitary personnel in seven cases.

Media reported continued attacks on human rights defenders. In August the human rights defender and former advocacy officer of the human rights NGO Karapatan, Zara Alvarez, was shot and killed in Bacolod City. Alvarez was included in a Department of Justice list of 600 individuals it intended to designate as terrorists. Karapatan said two other individuals on the list were also killed.

There was a widespread belief that police enjoyed impunity for killings, an accusation both the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Philippine Commission on Human Rights made in their reports in June and July, respectively. Many cases from previous years remained open. Of police officers involved in killings in the antidrug war since 2016, only three had been convicted of murder–all in 2018 for the 2017 murder of juvenile Kian delos Santos.

Civil society organizations accused police of planting evidence, tampering with crime scenes, unlawfully disposing of the bodies of drug suspects, and other actions to cover up extrajudicial killings. In June the National Bureau of Investigation charged two PNP members with planting evidence in the shooting of Winston Ragos, a former armed forces member suffering from mental illness, over an alleged COVID-19 quarantine violation. The officers claimed that Ragos had reached for a firearm in his bag and reported that Ragos was found to be in possession of a .38 caliber pistol; however, the bureau concluded the officers had planted the pistol during the altercation.

Police were accused of murdering nine unarmed Muslim men in Kabacan on August 30. According to the Commission on Human Rights, one victim, before dying in hospital, told his family that police were behind the killings, and another made a call saying police had stopped him before being shot. Some observers on social media alleged police committed the killings to avenge the murder of a nearby village’s police chief on August 24. Local police denied any involvement and initially suggested the incident was the result of a clan feud before a subsequent report alleged gunmen killed the victims after stopping them along the road. The government announced that a special task force would investigate in conjunction with the Commission on Human Rights.

President Duterte continued to maintain lists of persons he claimed were suspected drug criminals, including government, police, military, and judicial officials. At least two elected officials on Duterte’s list were assassinated in 2020: Sultan Sumagka mayor Abdul Wahab Sabal in February and Santo Nino mayor Pablo Matinong in July. As of May, then national police chief Archie Gamboa had ordered investigations of 709 police officers, including two police generals, named in the president’s lists. The national police reported four personnel were dismissed from service for actions related to their involvement in anti-illegal drug operations.

b. Disappearance

The armed forces Human Rights Office reported no cases of forced disappearance attributed to or implicating the forces from January to July. The Commission on Human Rights, however, reported three cases of abduction and forced disappearance from January to June, perpetrated by armed forces members in two instances and by national police members in the other. In June unidentified individuals in civilian clothing removed a woman from her home on Bantayan Island. According to the woman’s sister, who witnessed the event, they neither identified themselves nor said where they were taking the woman. When the abduction was reported to police, authorities said no police operations had been conducted that evening. The victim was an executive with an agricultural organization that the military had declared to be a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-New People’s Army (NPA) in March 2019. The Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation, which stalled because of the local government’s COVID-related travel restrictions.

Kidnappings during the year were common and predominantly for criminal purposes (i.e., ransom); in the past they were carried out for both pro- and antigovernment political motives as well. Terrorist groups were implicated in many Mindanao kidnappings.

The law allows family members of alleged victims of disappearances to compel government agencies to provide statements in court about what they know regarding the circumstances surrounding a disappearance (or extrajudicial killing) and the victim’s status. Evidence of a kidnapping or killing requires the filing of charges, but in many past cases evidence and documentation were unavailable or not collected. Investigative and judicial action on disappearance cases was insufficient; a small number of previously reported cases were prosecuted.

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

The law prohibits torture, and evidence obtained through its use is inadmissible in court. According to the Commission on Human Rights, however, members of the security forces and police were accused of routinely abusing and sometimes torturing suspects and detainees. Common forms of abuse during arrest and interrogation reportedly included electric shock, cigarette burns, and suffocation.

As of June the Commission on Human Rights had investigated 27 cases of alleged torture involving 34 victims; it suspected police involvement in 22 of the cases. The NGO Task Force Detainees of the Philippines monitored 16 torture cases from March to June, mostly for alleged COVID-19 quarantine violations. On March 20, the start of the COVID-19 community quarantine, a village chief in Santa Cruz, Laguna, threatened to shoot five arrested curfew violators if they did not agree to be locked inside a dog cage for 30 minutes. On March 24, photographs of arrested curfew violators sitting on chairs in the middle of a basketball court and under the sun went viral after a village official from San Isidro, Paranaque, who posted the photographs, put a caption “Everyone caught violating the curfew, we will place here.”

NGOs and media reported local governments used psychological abuse, including shaming, as punishment for community quarantine curfew violators. Under the torture statutes, the public parading or shaming of a person is illegal when used to undermine a person’s dignity and morale. In April village officials in Pandacaqui, Pampanga, detained three members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community for curfew violations. The officials told the detainees to dance provocatively and kiss each other on the lips while being streamed live on Facebook.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Human rights groups continued to express concern about abuses committed by the national police and other security forces and noted little progress in reforms aimed at improving investigations and prosecutions of suspected human rights violations. The armed forces Human Rights Office monitored and reviewed alleged human rights abuses involving members of the military. From January through October, no extrajudicial killings, murders, or forced disappearances were identified or investigated by the office.

Human rights groups continued to express concern about the contribution of corruption to abuses committed by the national police and other security forces and noted little progress in implementing and enforcing reforms aimed at improving investigations and prosecutions of suspected human rights violations.

The national police’s institutional deficiencies and the public perception that corruption in the police was endemic continued. The PNP’s Internal Affairs Service remained largely ineffective. In October the new PNP chief Cascolan reported 4,591 police officers were dismissed from service for serious violations, 7,888 were suspended, and 846 were demoted in rank, as part of the organization’s internal cleansing program. Although the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service claimed manpower and resource limitations hampered its investigations into deaths resulting from police operations, it asserted the majority of police operations were legitimate, lawful police actions. The PNP’s Counter-Intelligence Task Force also monitored police personnel suspected of illegal activities.

From January to August, complainants reported five cases of alleged military and law enforcement involvement in human rights abuses to the Office of the Ombudsman, including killings, injuries, unlawful arrest, and torture. A majority of the cases were against low-ranking officials. As of October all cases remained open pending additional investigation.

Efforts continued to reform and professionalize the national police through improved training, expanded community outreach, and salary increases. Human rights modules were included in all national police career courses, and the police Human Rights Affairs Office conducted routine training nationwide on human rights responsibilities in policing. Several NGOs suggested that national police training courses should have a follow-up mechanism to determine the effectiveness of each session.

The armed forces Human Rights Office monitored and reviewed alleged human rights abuses involving members of the military. From January through July, the office identified and investigated no extrajudicial killings or murders or forced disappearances.

The military routinely provided human rights training to its members, augmented by training from the Commission on Human Rights. Successful completion of these courses is required to complete basic training and for induction, promotion, reassignment, and selection for foreign schooling opportunities. According to armed force’s human rights office, internal human rights training is conducted from the general headquarters level down to battalion units, totaling hundreds of training exercise annually. From January to August, various military service units conducted human rights-related training programs, seminars, or workshops with the Commission on Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other NGOs.

The Congressional Commission on Appointments determines whether senior military officers selected for promotion have a history of human rights violations and solicits input from the Commission on Human Rights and other agencies through background investigations. The congressional commission may withhold a promotion indefinitely if it uncovers a record of abuses. Violations, however, do not preclude promotion.

Government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption in the security forces were poorly resourced and remained largely ineffective. Potential witnesses often were unable to obtain protection. The Commission on Human Rights operated a small witness protection program that was overburdened by witnesses to killings in the antidrug campaign. The loss of family income due to the relocation of a family member was also, in some cases, a barrier to witnesses’ testimony. The Office of the Ombudsman also reported that witnesses often failed to come forward or to cooperate in police abuse or corruption cases. This problem sometimes followed pressure on witnesses and their families or arose from an expectation of compensation for their cooperation.

Reports of rape and sexual abuse of women in police or protective custody continued. In March, two national police officers were charged with sexual assault of two women detained at the Marikina City police station on drug charges. The women claimed that the officers raped them during interrogation and that they reported the rape to the duty jailor upon return to their detention cell. In October the national police’s Women and Children Protection Center charged police Lieutenant Colonel Jigger Noceda with sexual assault for allegedly sexually assaulting former Ozamiz City vice mayor Nova Parojinog at least twice. Parojinog had been in police custody since 2017 on drug charges and was still awaiting a judgement in her case.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were often harsh and life threatening and included gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, physical abuse, and a chronic lack of resources including medical care and food.

NGOs reported abuse by prison guards and other inmates was common, but they stated that prisoners, fearing retaliation, generally declined to lodge formal complaints.

The juvenile justice law exempts minors from criminal liability. Drug syndicates often used minors as runners, traffickers, cultivators, or drug den employees. Rescued minors are turned over to the custody of Department of Social Welfare and Development (social welfare department). Police stations had youth relations officers to ensure that authorities treated minor suspects appropriately, but in some cases they ignored procedural safeguards and facilities were not child friendly. The law mandates that the social welfare department provide shelter, treatment, and rehabilitation services to these children. From January to July, the department assisted 1,418 children in conflict with the law (that is, alleged as, accused of, or judged as having committed an offense) in 15 regional youth rehabilitation centers nationwide. Additionally, several local governments established and managed youth centers that provided protection, care, training, and rehabilitation for these children and other at-risk youth.

Physical Conditions: The Bureau of Corrections, under the Department of Justice, administered seven prisons and penal farms nationwide for individuals sentenced to prison terms exceeding three years. Bureau of Corrections facilities operated at almost four times their operating capacity of 11,981, holding 49,701 prisoners.

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, under the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the national police, controlled 470 city, district, municipal, and provincial jails that held pretrial detainees, persons awaiting final judgment, and convicts serving sentences of three years or less. The bureau reported its jails operated at 456 percent over designated capacity. The San Mateo municipal jail in Quezon City was one of the most congested jails in the country with an official capacity of 23 inmates; as of July it held 705 detainees. The Commission on Audit annual report for 2019, released in August, noted that jail congestion remained the biggest problem in the justice system and highlighted the most overcrowded Bureau of Jail Management and Penalogy (BJMP) detention centers: those in Zamboanga Peninsula (821 percent over capacity), Metro Manila (645 percent), Central Visayas (611 percent), Calabarzon (513 percent), and Central Luzon (507 percent). The audit commission stressed that, aside from health and sanitation problems, the jail congestion led to increased gang affiliation among inmates.

Despite an early initiative to put detention facilities on lockdown, overcrowding led to the spread of COVID-19 among inmates. From March 17 to August 14, the government released 58,625 inmates to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the prison population, according to Supreme Court records. In July the Bureau of Corrections spokesperson reported 350 inmates and personnel had contracted the virus, of whom 200 recovered, 129 remained ill, and 21 died.

The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council, an agency supervised by the Department of Justice, reported conditions in its rehabilitation centers (called Bahay Pag-asa or Houses of Hope) were worse than in jails, citing the lack of furniture such as beds and cabinets in some centers. There were 85 Bahay Pag-asa centers in the country, 82 run by local government units and three by NGOs.

Prison authorities did not uniformly enforce regulations that require holding male and female inmates in separate facilities and, in national prisons, overseeing them with guards of the same sex. In some facilities authorities did not fully segregate juveniles from adults. The prison services reported insufficient custodial and escort personnel, especially in large jails, with a national average of about 55 prisoners assigned to each custodial staff member. In larger prisons the ratio was higher; for example, in the New Bilibid Prison, one prison guard oversaw 135 prisoners.

Poor sanitation, inadequate ventilation, poor access to natural lighting, and a lack of potable water were chronic problems in correctional facilities and contributed to health problems. From January to July, the prison services reported 1,069 total inmate deaths. The Bureau of Corrections attributed 31 of the 498 deaths in its facilities to COVID-19. Observers accused the Bureau of Corrections of using the virus to cover up the unlawful execution of inmates or inmate escapes.

Prison authorities reported that most deaths resulted from illness. Authorities provided Bureau of Corrections inmates with medical care; however, some medical services and treatments were not available. In such cases authorities referred inmates to an outside hospital. Inmates received a medicine allowance of 15 pesos ($0.28) per day.

Juveniles younger than 18 were typically released by court order or following a petition by the Public Attorney’s Office, the inmate’s private lawyer, or through NGO-led appeals. As of July juveniles made up less than 1 percent of the prison population.

The juvenile justice law exempts minors from criminal liability. Drug syndicates often used minors as runners, traffickers, cultivators, or drug den employees. Rescued minors are turned over to the custody of Department of Social Welfare and Development (social welfare department). Police stations had youth relations officers to ensure that authorities treated minor suspects appropriately, but in some cases they ignored procedural safeguards and facilities were not child friendly. The law mandates that the social welfare department provide shelter, treatment, and rehabilitation services to these children. From January to July, the department assisted 1,418 children in conflict with the law (that is, alleged as, accused of, or judged as having committed an offense) in 15 regional youth rehabilitation centers nationwide. Additionally, several local governments established and managed youth centers that provided protection, care, training, and rehabilitation for these children and other at-risk youth.

Opportunities for prisoner recreation, learning, and self-improvement remained scarce.

Administration: Prisoners, their families, and lawyers may submit complaints to constitutionally established independent government agencies, and the Commission on Human Rights referred complaints it received to the appropriate agency.

Authorities generally allowed prisoners and detainees to receive visitors, but local NGOs reported that authorities periodically restricted family visits for some detainees accused of insurgency-related crimes. Prison officials noted that security concerns and space limitations at times also restricted prisoner access to visitors. Beginning in March the prison services suspended visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Muslim officials reported that while Muslim detainees could observe their religion, Roman Catholic mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to prison populations of both Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic prisoners and detainees.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted international monitoring groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, free and timely access to jails and prisons. The constitution grants the Commission on Human Rights authority to visit jails, prisons, or detention facilities to monitor the government’s compliance with international treaty obligations. The commission reported some detention facilities lacked an understanding of its mandate and continued to deny their representatives access to detention facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements. As of August the Office of the Ombudsman, an independent agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting charges of public abuse and impropriety, did not receive any complaints of arbitrary detention committed by law enforcement agencies or the armed forces. There were, however, numerous credible allegations of arbitrary arrests and detentions by security forces.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by an authorized official are required for an arrest unless the suspect is observed attempting to commit, in the act of committing, or just after committing an offense; there is probable cause based on personal knowledge that the suspect just committed an offense; or the suspect is an escaped prisoner. Authorities are required to file charges within 12 to 36 hours for arrests made without warrants, depending on the seriousness of the crime. In terrorism cases the law permits warrantless arrests and detention without charges for up to 24 days, increased from three days with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act, signed into law in July.

Detainees have the right to bail, except when held for capital offenses or those punishable by a life sentence. The bail system largely functioned as intended, and suspects were allowed to appeal a judge’s decision to deny bail. The law provides an accused or detained person the right to choose a lawyer and, if the suspect cannot afford one, to have the state provide one. An underresourced Public Attorney’s Office, however, limited access of indigent persons to public defenders.

Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces continued to detain individuals, including juveniles, arbitrarily and without warrants on charges other than terrorism, especially in areas of armed conflict.

The Commission on Human Rights investigated 119 alleged illegal detention cases involving 306 victims from January to June. In a March case, police officers invited a human rights activist to their police station for a discussion. Upon arrival, officers photographed her with a piece of cardboard with a number and title, questioned her, and placed her in detention, where she remained as of October. The Commission on Human Rights visited the detained woman; however, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed further action.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem due largely to the slow and ineffectual justice system. Approximately 98 percent of prisoners in Bureau of Jail Management and Penology facilities were pretrial detainees; the balance were convicted criminals serving less than three-year sentences. Pending cases were not evenly distributed among the courts, which resulted in some severely overburdened courts. Large jails employed paralegals to monitor inmates’ cases, prevent detention beyond the maximum sentence, and assist with decongestion efforts. The BJMP helped expedite court cases to promote speedy disposition of inmates’ cases. Through this program authorities released 41,555 inmates from BJMP jails from January to July. Nonetheless, pretrial detention in excess of the possible maximum sentence was common, often extending over many years.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary; although the government generally respected judicial independence, pressure, threats, and intimidation directed at the judiciary from various sources were reported by NGOs during the year. Six lawyers were killed as of July. Corruption through nepotism, personal connections, and sometimes bribery continued to result in relative impunity for wealthy or influential offenders. Insufficient personnel, inefficient processes, and long procedural delays also hindered the judicial system. These factors contributed to widespread skepticism that the criminal justice system delivered due process and equal justice.

Trials took place as a series of separate hearings, often months apart, as witnesses and court time became available, contributing to lengthy delays. There was a widely recognized need for more prosecutors, judges, and courtrooms. As of June 30, approximately one-third of authorized bench positions (563 positions) were unfilled. Sharia (Islamic law) court positions continued to be particularly difficult to fill because applicants must be members of both the Sharia Bar and the Integrated Bar. The 56 authorized district and circuit Sharia courts do not have criminal jurisdiction. Training for sharia court prosecutors was brief and considered inadequate.

The Supreme Court continued efforts to provide speedier trials, reduce judicial malfeasance, increase judicial branch efficiency, and raise public confidence in the judiciary. It continued to implement guidelines to accelerate resolution of cases in which the maximum penalty would not exceed six years in prison.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a speedy, impartial, and public trial. Trials were generally public, but not timely, and judicial impartiality was widely questioned. The law requires that all persons accused of crimes be informed of the charges against them and grants rights to counsel, adequate time to prepare a defense, and a speedy and public trial before a judge. No criminal proceeding goes forward against a defendant without the presence of a lawyer. The law presumes defendants are innocent. They have the right to confront witnesses against them, be present at their trial, present evidence in their favor, appeal convictions, and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The court may appoint an interpreter if necessary. If the court’s interpreter makes serious mistakes, a party may challenge the interpretation. The government generally implemented these requirements, except for the right to a speedy trial.

Although the law provides that cases should be resolved within three months to two years, depending on the court, trials effectively had no time limits. Government officials estimated it took an average of five to six years to obtain a decision.

Authorities respected a defendant’s right to representation by a lawyer, but poverty often inhibited access to effective legal counsel. The Public Attorney’s Office, which reports to the Department of Justice, did not have the necessary resources to fulfill its constitutional mandate and used its limited resources to represent indigent defendants at trial rather than during arraignments or pretrial hearings. During pretrial hearings courts may appoint any lawyer present in the courtroom to provide on-the-spot counsel to the accused.

Sentencing decisions were not always consistent with legal guidelines, and judicial decisions sometimes appeared arbitrary.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

Under a 1945 law, the government defines political prisoners as those who may be accused of any crime against national security. Using this definition, the Bureau of Corrections reported 55 political prisoners in its facilities as of August. The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology does not track political prisoners and defines prisoners based only on security risk.

Various human rights NGOs maintained lists of incarcerated persons they considered political prisoners. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, an NGO, tracked political detainees, most of whom were in pretrial detention. The task force noted that in the majority of cases, authorities mixed political prisoners with the general inmate population, except in the New Bilibid Prison, where they held most political prisoners in maximum-security facilities.

Three years after her arrest, during which prosecutors used a variety of legal tactics to delay arraignment, including filing new and amending previous charges, opposition senator Leila de Lima remained in police detention on a charge of conspiracy to commit drug trading. In May her political party–the Liberal Party–called on police to allow de Lima to receive visitors and communicate with others, alleging that police held her incommunicado for a month using the threat of COVID-19 as a pretext. The Liberal Party added that the COVID-19 pandemic must not prevent her “right to information, vital health services, and communication.” By June in-person contact with her legal team, family, and spiritual advisers was restored. In July, one of her accusers, a prison gang leader named Jaybee Sebastian, died in prison, reportedly of COVID-19. He claimed that he provided more than $200,000 in drug money to support de Lima’s 2016 senatorial campaign. De Lima’s case began in 2016 after she opened hearings into killings related to the antidrug campaign. Although detained, de Lima had access to media and some visitors. Her case attracted widespread domestic and international attention, with many observers denouncing the charges as politically motivated.

The government permitted regular access to political prisoners by international humanitarian organizations.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Most analysts regarded the judiciary as independent in civil matters. Complainants have access to local trial courts to seek civil damages for, or cessation of, human rights abuses. There are administrative as well as judicial remedies for civil complaints, although overburdened local courts often dismissed these cases. No regional human rights tribunals could hear an appeal from the country. Civil cases are subject to the same delays and corruption as criminal proceedings.

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

The government generally respected citizens’ privacy, although leaders of communist and leftist organizations and rural-based NGOs complained of routine surveillance and harassment. Authorities routinely relied on informant systems to obtain information on terrorist suspects and in the drug war. The reliability of information on illegal narcotics activities gained from these sources remained highly questionable. Although the government generally respected restrictions on search and seizure within private homes, searches without warrants continued. Judges generally declared evidence obtained illegally to be inadmissible.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution explicitly provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government sometimes respected this right. Government threats and actions against media outlets, journalists, and government critics continued, however, and polls suggested that most citizens considered it dangerous to publish information critical of the administration.

Freedom of Speech: On the surface individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest. Civil society organizations, however, stated that President Duterte’s public attacks on individuals and international bodies who criticized his policies continued to have a chilling effect on free speech and expression and that laws were increasingly misused against critics of his administration. Civil society organizations expressed concern that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, signed into law on July 3, could be used to suppress speech, including through broad provisions against inciting terrorism. The Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, signed on March 24, punishes individuals for creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information about COVID-19 on social media and other platforms. Public officials continued to file criminal libel and cyber libel complaints against private citizens.

The armed conflict between the government and the NPA, the armed wing of the CPP, is more than a half-century old. The practice of accusing groups and individuals of having ties to the CPP-NPA, or red-tagging, increased significantly after the peace talks broke down in 2017 and President Duterte labeled the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization. According to human rights groups, red-tagging often involves government officials labeling human rights advocates, unions, religious groups, academics, and media organizations as “legal fronts” of the insurgency, allegedly to silence criticism of the government or intimidate opponents in local disputes. Leftist and human rights activists continued to report harassment by persons whom they suspected to be military or government agents, and some red-tagged activists were killed.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media generally remained active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, including criticism of the government, despite critical and threatening comments from political leadership, including the president.

Two major media outfits, however, faced outright restrictions and legal challenges: online news website Rappler and broadcast giant ABS-CBN. The president publicly called out both organizations for alleged wrongdoing: Rappler for its supposed reporting bias and foreign ownership, and ABS-CBN for a number of alleged crimes, including failure to show Duterte’s political advertisements during the 2016 presidential elections, violations of labor laws, foreign ownership, and financial irregularities. Reporters without Borders reported a “grotesque judicial harassment campaign” against Rappler and “threats and intimidation by government agencies and institutions that support Duterte” against ABS-CBN.

Rappler continued to be a target of substantial pressure, including legal and administrative actions, which some observers attributed to its critical coverage of the government. In June, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of cyber libel over a 2012 Rappler story claiming the late Supreme Court justice Renato Corona used vehicles belonging to influential businessmen, including plaintiff Wilfredo Keng. Ressa and Santos posted bail and appealed the conviction. Keng filed a second cyber libel complaint against Ressa in February for her 2019 tweet of screenshots of a now deleted Philippine Star story linking the businessman to the murder of a former Manila councilor. The article at the heart of the original cyber libel complaint was published in May 2012. The cybercrime law was passed in September 2012, but the court concluded that the law still applied because Rappler updated the story in 2014 due to what Rappler claimed was a typographical error. The statute of limitations is also subject to contention (see Libel/Slander Laws below).

In July, in a nominally unrelated case, Ressa was arraigned on a tax evasion charge related to Rappler’s issuance of Philippine depository receipts.

ABS-CBN was forced to stop television broadcasting on May 7 following a cease-and-desist order from the National Telecommunications Commission after the network’s 25-year broadcast franchise license expired. The commission also issued two cease-and-desist orders against broadcasts on the media giant’s two other properties: ABS-CBN TV Plus and satellite service subsidiary Sky Direct. On July 10, a House of Representatives committee voted to deny ABS-CBN’s application for a new 25-year franchise. A special technical working group created by the committee said ABS-CBN’s license did not merit renewal because of the company’s supposed bias, failure to regularize employees, and the alleged dual citizenship of its chairman emeritus Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III. Several lawmakers filed resolutions seeking investigations into ABS-CBN, including the ownership of its 52,000-square-foot Manila headquarters, an alleged $32.5-million loan write-off from the Development Bank of the Philippines, and its block time agreement with Amcara Broadcasting Corporation. The network had reportedly laid off approximately 5,000 of its 11,000 employees by September due to the shutdown.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from politicians and government authorities critical of their reporting. A July survey from polling company Social Weather Stations showed that 51 percent of the country’s residents agreed with the statement that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”

As of October the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom NGO, reported that two journalists were killed during the year. On May 5, unidentified gunmen killed radio journalist Cornelio Pepino in Dumaguete City. Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo had sued Pepino for defamation, but the radio anchor was acquitted.

A December 2019 report by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network, a group of media NGOs and news organizations, also detailed the “unyielding reign of impunity” since President Duterte took office. It said online journalists were the most attacked media group, followed by radio, print, and then television.

In December 2019 a local court handed down a landmark ruling on the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which 32 journalists and 26 other persons died and which was dubbed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the single deadliest international event for journalists in history. After 10 years brothers Zaldy and Andal Ampatuan, Jr., along with 28 coaccused, were found guilty of 57 counts of murder. As accessories to the crime, 15 others were convicted. The government continued to pursue approximately 80 suspects who remained at large.

In July the Catanduanes provincial legislature declared local radio anchor Ramil Soliveres persona non grata for posting about an unnamed council member missing a health committee hearing. During a speech the local official branded him a “fake news” media worker and called him a “male prostitute” while handing out topless photographs taken from the journalist’s personal Facebook account.

On September 14, two unidentified motorcycle-riding gunmen shot and killed television commentator Jobert Bercasio in Sorsogon City. Bercasio had reported on deforestation and illegal mining in the region and posted a Facebook photograph an hour before his death allegedly showing illegal mining at a local quarry.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: News organizations generally were spared censorship attempts, but media watchdogs noted several instances of alleged government interference.

With the nonrenewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise, the network was forced to move most of its programs online and close down its provincial television and radio stations and its current affairs division; the latter produced political shows and documentaries. Although the president’s office repeatedly distanced the president from the ABS-CBN shutdown, in a July 13 speech to troops in Jolo, he called out ABS-CBN again for allegedly ruining him. His communications team edited the video of the speech to remove any mention of the network, but netizens and journalists discovered the edit. President Duterte also attacked ABS-CBN and its owners during his 2020 state of the nation address.

In March the journalists’ union denounced moves by the Presidential Communications Operations Office and its regional offices to require journalists to seek accreditation to cover the COVID-19 crisis even outside the Luzon quarantine area, calling it a “clear overstretch of the agency’s authority.”

In July police officers confiscated and destroyed thousands of copies of the Pinoy Weekly magazine in Bulacan, calling it “illegal” because it “teaches people to fight the government.” The journalists’ union characterized it as a “clear example of dangers the Filipino people face” from the “vague provisions” of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

Libel/Slander Laws: Laws stipulate criminal penalties for libel, which authorities used to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against journalists. The statute of limitations for libel in the revised penal code lapses after one year. In the case of Rappler, however, a local court and the Department of Justice stated the statute of limitations should be 12 years because it was “considered as a more serious offense” under the cyber libel law. Experts and legal groups such as the Concerned Lawyers Civil Liberties branded this ruling “unconstitutional.”

Internet Freedom

With the exception of mobile communications blocked during special events for security purposes, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet. While the government did not overtly censor online content, there were credible reports of government agencies and government-connected groups using coordinated, disguised online behavior to suppress speech critical of the government. On September 22, Facebook announced that it had dismantled several accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The fake accounts were allegedly operated by members of the military and police, with content largely revolving around criticism of the political opposition, activism, and communism. The military disputed at least one of the removals, claiming the site was a legitimate attempt to raise awareness of the communist movement’s recruiting tactics.

There were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, but student protesters received threats of physical harm and other online attacks from progovernment supporters.

The Bayanihan Act punishes “individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media or other platforms” that is “clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion.” Offenders face penalties of up to two months in prison or a substantial fine. Between March 9 and April 13, the PNP’s Anti-Cyber Crime Group recorded 24 cases of individuals allegedly sharing false information about the pandemic on social media. Legal groups expressed concern regarding local officials using vague provision on “fake news” in the emergency law. In April, Cebu artist Bambi Beltran was arrested without a warrant for posting a Facebook report about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Cebu City. Cebu mayor Edgar Labella labeled her post as “fake news.” A Cebu court dismissed Beltran’s case in August for lack of jurisdiction.

On July 16, the National Bureau of Investigation subpoenaed a college student for cyber libel for sharing an online post criticizing former Duterte aide and now senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go. Observers accused government officials of selectively using the cyber libel laws to suppress free expression.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no national government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events; however, the government continued to close schools for indigenous Lumad people on Mindanao (see section 6, Indigenous People).

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. Beginning in March, however, the government implemented restrictions on peaceful assembly in response to public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Under Enhanced Community Quarantine rules, mass gatherings were prohibited. Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine rules permitted gatherings of up to five for religious reasons.

On April 1, residents gathered along EDSA highway in Quezon City when rumors spread that food and financial aid were to be distributed. When aid was not delivered, the group began to call on the government to provide assistance. NGOs alleged that police violently dispersed the peaceful gathering, arresting 21 individuals and holding them for five days on charges including “unlawful assembly” and “noncooperation in a health emergency.”

On June 5, police arrested at least eight Anti-Terrorism Act protesters at the University of the Philippines Cebu under the provisions of the Law on Reporting of Communicable Diseases and the Public Assembly Act. On June 26, police dispersed an LGBT Pride protest against the Anti-Terrorism Act. Police arrested 20 demonstrators, charging them with offenses under same laws.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Beginning on March 16, however, the government imposed graduated quarantine measures restricting movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-Country Movement: The most severe level of lockdown, Enhanced Community Quarantine, remained in place for two months throughout much of Luzon, until May 15. This prohibited individuals from using public transportation or traveling outside their homes except to perform necessary activities, such as purchasing food, essential work duties, or to seek medical care.

Foreign Travel: Government limits on foreign travel were generally based on security or personal safety factors, such as when a citizen had a pending court case, or to discourage travel by vulnerable workers to countries where they could face personal security risks, including trafficking or other exploitation. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration manages departures for work abroad. It requires overseas workers to register and receive predeparture screening, training, and certification before traveling, and seeks to ensure that future overseas workers deal with legitimate, licensed recruitment agencies.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Decades of sectarian and political insurgency, sporadic interclan fighting, and natural disasters have generated significant internal displacement. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) was uncertain and fluctuated widely. Counterinsurgency campaigns against the Abu Sayyaf Group, primarily in Sulu and Basilan Provinces, and clashes with the NPA, concentrated in the most geographically remote provinces, caused sporadic and small-scale displacement. Most IDPs were women and children.

In Mindanao the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as of August, more than 343,322 persons were displaced and in need of durable solutions, most of whom were located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Of those, approximately 188,000 were displaced by natural disasters, 150,000 by armed conflict, 6,600 by clan feuds, 4,600 by crime or violence, and 60,000 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government agencies, often with support from UN agencies and other international donors, provided food (although NGOs noted food aid was sometimes delayed); constructed shelters and public infrastructure; repaired schools; built sanitation facilities; offered immunization, health, and social services; and provided cash assistance and skills training for IDPs. The government permitted humanitarian organizations access to IDP sites. Security forces sometimes carried out military operations near IDP sites, increasing the risk of casualties and damage and restricting freedom of movement. Impoverished IDPs were highly susceptible to human trafficking networks.

At times the government encouraged IDPs to return home, but they were often reluctant to do so for security or welfare reasons.

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.

Access to Asylum: No comprehensive legislation provides for granting refugee status or asylum. The Department of Justice’s Refugee and Stateless Persons Protections Unit determines which applicants qualify as refugees in accordance with an established, accessible system that appeared to provide basic due process.

g. Stateless Persons

The Department of Justice is responsible for statelessness determinations of persons born in the country and of newly arrived persons. After an applicant files for a determination of statelessness, deportation or exclusion proceedings against the applicant and dependents are suspended, and the applicant may be released from detention. As of July, nine stateless persons were in the country, three of whom were classified as refugees and one as an asylum seeker.

Stateless persons may be naturalized. There were no known cases of social discrimination against stateless persons or limits on their access to public services.

The Philippine and Indonesian governments continued to hold bilateral meetings regarding an agreement on registering persons of Indonesian descent at risk of statelessness in Southern Mindanao. Of those registered, 96 percent had their citizenship confirmed as of December 31, 2019.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government by secret ballot in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. Candidates, including for the presidency, frequently had their legal right to run for office challenged by political opponents based on alleged criminal history, citizenship, or other disqualifying conditions. These cases were sometimes pursued to the Supreme Court. Political candidates were allowed to substitute placeholders for themselves if unable to complete the registration process on time.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country conducted nationwide midterm elections in May 2019 for national and local officials. International and national observers viewed the elections as well organized and generally free and fair, but they noted vote buying continued to be widespread and that dynastic political families continued to monopolize elective offices. The PNP reported 60 incidents of election-related violence that led to 23 killings in the month leading up to the election and on election day, a 55 percent drop in violent incidents compared with the 2016 national elections. Election officials described the polls as relatively peaceful. International Alert, however, reported 144 election-related incidents in the Bangsamoro region alone, mostly fistfights and small-scale bombings. President Duterte’s release of his “narco-list” ahead of the 2019 midterms as a tool to defeat opposition candidates was of uncertain effect, as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency confirmed that 25 of 46 politicians on it won in the midterm polls.

Barangay and youth council elections were held in May 2018. On December 3, 2019, President Duterte signed into law a bill postponing the next barangay and youth council elections, previously scheduled for 2021, to December 2022 to align the schedule with national elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. At the national level, women constituted nearly 30 percent of the legislature. Participation by these groups did not change significantly compared with previous elections.

Men dominated the political scene, although the number of women holding elected positions in government rose after the 2019 elections. Media commentators expressed concern that political dynasties limited opportunities for female candidates not connected to political families.

There were no Muslim or indigenous Senate members, but there were 11 Muslim members of the House of Representatives, mostly from Muslim-majority provinces, and at least three members of indigenous descent. Muslims, indigenous groups, and others maintained that electing senators from a nationwide list favored established political figures from the Manila area.

The law provides for a party-list system, designed to ensure the representation of marginalized and underrepresented sectors of society, for 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, but the government did not implement these laws effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Prolonged delays in the justice system reinforced the perception of impunity for the security forces and for national, provincial, and local government actors accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

President Duterte spoke frequently about his desire to fight corruption and fired public officials, including political allies, over allegations of corruption. In his July 27 state of the nation address, Duterte noted that even government COVID-19 assistance was not spared from corruption.

Corruption: To combat corruption, the constitution established the independent Office of the Ombudsman, an appellate-level anticorruption court, and the Commission on Audit. All three organizations were consistently allocated budgets below what they requested, but they actively collaborated with the public and civil society and appeared to operate independently and use their limited resources effectively. Despite government efforts to file charges and obtain convictions in a number of cases, officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with relative impunity.

Between January and July, the Office of the Ombudsman won 179 convictions in 258 corruption cases. Although the total number of cases in this period was down by somewhat more than 50 percent, the conviction rate increased from 63 percent in the same period in 2019 to slightly more than 69 percent during the year.

In August a former Davao del Norte congressman was convicted and sentenced to six to eight years in prison for his role in an illegal land deal between his family business and the Bureau of Corrections. On August 27, former PhilHealth CEO Ricardo Morales resigned following investigations into widespread corruption in the agency. A whistleblower reported that PhilHealth executives perpetrated a 15-billion-peso ($308,000) fraud misusing public funds, prompting formal investigations by the Senate, the House of Representatives, and an interagency task force. On October 2, the National Bureau of Investigation charged Morales and eight other senior PhilHealth officials with graft, malversation of public funds or property, and violations of the National Internal Revenue Code.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all public officials and employees to file, under oath, a statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth and to disclose their personal business interests and financial connections as well as those of their spouses and unmarried children living in their households. Nondisclosure is punishable by imprisonment not exceeding five years, a modest fine, or both, and, at the discretion of the court, disqualification from holding public office. The Civil Service Commission implements and enforces the law, forwarding nondisclosure cases to the Office of the Ombudsman for prosecution.

A former municipal mayor in Maguindanao was charged with dishonesty, neglect of duty, and five counts of failing to make certain disclosures in his financial statement. The former mayor was also allegedly included in the president’s list of politicians involved in illegal drug activities.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were under pressure not to cooperate with or respond to the views of international human rights organizations. Local human rights activists continued to encounter occasional harassment, mainly from security forces or local officials from areas in which incidents under investigation occurred.

The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates reported that during a UN Human Rights Council session in May, the Philippine delegation presented a list of local organizations allegedly affiliated with leftist groups including iDefend, a human rights movement established by the alliance to campaign against the government’s war on drugs and continuing impunity.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Commission on Human Rights’ constitutional mandate is to protect and promote human rights; investigate all human rights violations, including those reported by NGOs; and monitor government compliance with international human rights treaty obligations. Approximately three-quarters of the country’s 42,000 villages had human rights action centers that coordinated with commission regional offices. Although the legislature doubled the commission’s budget in the last two to three years, despite the executive’s efforts to reduce it, the commission nonetheless lacked sufficient resources to investigate and follow up on all cases presented to its regional and subregional offices.

The Office of the Ombudsman is an independent agency that responds to complaints about public officials and employees. It has the authority to make administrative rulings and seek prosecutions.

The Presidential Human Rights Committee serves as a multiagency coordinating body on human rights problems. The committee’s responsibilities include compiling the government’s submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review. Many NGOs considered it independent but with limited ability to influence human rights policy. The committee also chairs the Inter-Agency Committee on Extra-Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture, and Other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of Persons, also known as the AO35 committee. This body determines the appropriate mechanisms to resolve cases of political violence. It inventories all cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and other grave violations and classifies cases as unresolved, under investigation, under preliminary investigation, or under trial.

The Regional Human Rights Commission is a constitutionally mandated body tasked with monitoring alleged human rights violations in Bangsamoro.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, with penalties ranging from 12 to 40 years’ imprisonment with pardon or parole possible only after 30 years’ imprisonment. Conviction can also result in a lifetime ban from political office. The law applies to both men and women. Penalties for forcible sexual assault range from six to 12 years’ imprisonment. The law criminalizes physical, sexual, and psychological harm or abuse to women (and children) committed by spouses, partners, or parents. Penalties depend on the severity of the crime and may include imprisonment or significant fines.

Authorities generally took reports of rape seriously. NGOs noted that in smaller localities perpetrators of abuse sometimes used personal relationships with local authorities to avoid prosecution.

Statistics were unavailable on prosecutions, convictions, and punishments for cases filed by the national police. Likewise, difficulty in obtaining rape convictions remained a challenge to effective enforcement. As of August the national police’s Women and Children Protection Center recorded 4,207 cases of rape during the year, four times the number recorded during the same period of 2019, involving female and child victims. Of these, 1,735 were referred to prosecutors, and 1,885 were filed in court. The rest were either dropped, settled out of court, or dismissed. The national police filed and investigated 2,464 rape cases during the COVID-19 community quarantine period from March 15 to July 31, a significant decrease in reported cases from the same period last year.

Domestic violence against women remained a serious and widespread problem. According to the national police, reported acts of domestic violence against women decreased from 10,976 in January to July 2019 versus 6,512 for the same period during the year. Of the total, 3,745 were filed during the community quarantine period from March 15 to July 31. Local and international organizations observed alarming rise of cases of abuse against women and children during the community quarantine.

NGOs reported that cultural and social stigma deterred many women from reporting rape or domestic violence. NGOs reported that rape and sexual abuse of women in police or protective custody continued.

The national police and the Social Welfare Department both maintained help desks to assist survivors of violence against women and to encourage reporting. The national police’s Women and Children Protection Center also operated a national hotline for reports of violence against women and children. In addition the social welfare department operated residential centers and community-based programs to assist women and children who were victims of rape, domestic violence, and other abuse. By the end of the second quarter, the department reported it had assisted 196 women and girls who were specifically victims of rape. With the assistance of NGOs, the Commission on Human Rights, and the Philippine Commission on Women, law enforcement officers continued to receive gender sensitivity training to deal with victims of sexual crimes and domestic violence. The national police maintained a women and children’s unit in approximately 1,800 police stations throughout the country with 2,167 help desks to deal with abuse cases. The national police assigned 5,482 officers to the desks nationwide, almost 98 percent of them women. The law provides 10 days of paid leave for domestic violence victims.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and violations are punishable by imprisonment from one to six months, a moderate fine, or both. Sexual harassment remained widespread and underreported, including in the workplace, due to victims’ fear of losing their jobs.

The July 2019 Safe Streets and Public Spaces Act is intended to prevent and punish acts of sexual harassment in public places, online workplaces, and educational institutions. Despite the president’s support for it, local organizations observed that on multiple occasions his rhetoric in fact promoted violence against women. In a March report by the Center for Women’s Resources, the organization recorded at least 30 misogynistic remarks made by President Duterte, which the center described as encouraging violence against women.

Reproductive Rights: Although the law requires that women in non-life-threatening situations secure spousal consent to obtain reproductive health care, the Supreme Court has ruled that the constitution upholds the basic right of couples and individuals to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence.

The law provides for universal access to methods of contraception, sexual education, and maternal care. The law, however, also allows health practitioners to deny reproductive health services based on personal or religious beliefs in nonemergency situations; requires spousal consent for women in non-life-threatening situations to obtain reproductive health care; requires minors in non-life-threatening situations to get parental consent before obtaining reproductive health care; and does not require private health-care facilities to provide access to family-planning methods. Many NGOs, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, asserted that these restrictions prevented the full implementation of the law. The law includes provisions on the “prevention of abortion and management of postabortion complications.” It stipulates that the government is responsible for providing postabortion care “in a humane, nonjudgmental and compassionate manner.”

Provision of health-care services is the responsibility of local governments, and disruptions in the supply chain, including procurement, allocation, and distribution of contraceptives, reduced their availability to the poor, although modern forms of contraception were available on the market in most areas.

In May the NGO RTI International reported that two weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown of the Luzon group of islands, home to approximately half the country’s population, the government’s Commission on Population and Development issued guidance calling for cooperation among health facilities, local government units, and community volunteers to continue provision of family-planning and reproductive-health services and commodities because of the pandemic.

The government provided access to health services for survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence and protection for rape victims, operated rape crisis centers in every city and province, and appropriated support funds. The Department of Social Welfare and Development provided services to survivors of violence against women and children.

According to the 2020 UN Human Development Report, the maternal mortality ratio was 121 per 100,000 live births, and skilled attendants participated in 84.4 percent of births. In 2015 the UN Development Program attributed the high rate of maternal deaths to inadequate access to integrated reproductive health services. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that poverty, remote locations, and a lack of education exacerbated delays in seeking potentially life-saving maternal medical care; that midwives at times had little formal training; and that medical personnel routinely mistreated and denied proper care to women who sought assistance for complications from unsafe abortions.

In August preliminary findings by the Population Institute of the University of the Philippines and the UNFPA suggested that global disruptions to maternal and newborn health services caused by the pandemic might indirectly result in additional in-country maternal deaths and that the overwhelmed national and local health systems may already have diverted resources for women’s health to combat COVID-19.

According to a survey by the Commission on Population and Development in the last quarter of the year, 59 percent of adults thought the most important problem facing women was early teenage pregnancy, followed by physical violence and unexpected pregnancy. The World Bank reported the 2019 adolescent birth rate was 55 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. These problems were exacerbated by COVID-19 community lockdowns.

In conflict areas such as the Mindanao region, the government provided gender-responsive conflict management.

UNFPA in 2019 stated that it remained a challenge to reach displaced pregnant women in conflict and crisis-affected areas, particularly Mindanao, to provide critical health-related services.

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

Discrimination: In law but not always in practice, women have most of the rights and protections accorded to men, and the law seeks to eliminate discrimination against women. The law accords women the same property rights as men. In Muslim and indigenous communities, however, property ownership law or tradition grants men more property rights than women.

No law mandates nondiscrimination based on gender in hiring, although the law prohibits discrimination in employment based on sex. Nonetheless, women continued to face discrimination on the job as well as in hiring.

The law does not provide for divorce. Legal annulments and separation are possible, and courts generally recognized divorces obtained in other countries if one of the parties was a foreigner. These options, however, are costly, complex, and not readily available to the poor. The Office of the Solicitor General is required to oppose requests for annulment under the constitution. Informal separation is common but brings with it potential legal and financial problems. Muslims have the right to divorce under Muslim family law.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from birth to a citizen parent and, in certain circumstances, from birth within the country’s territory to alien parents. The government promoted birth registration, and authorities immediately registered births in health facilities. Births outside of facilities were less likely to be registered promptly, if at all. Updated estimates from the Philippine Statistics Authority on the number of unregistered children younger than age 14 were unavailable; however, NGOs continued to lobby Congress to make birth registration for children free. The lack of a birth certificate does not generally result in a denial of education or other services, but it may cause delays in some circumstances, for example if a minor becomes involved in the court system.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through age 18, but the quality of education was often poor and access difficult, especially in rural areas where substandard infrastructure makes traveling to school challenging. Supplemental costs, for supplies or uniforms, can in some cases be a barrier to students from poor families. The Department of Education continued to prioritize improving resources at and access to the most isolated schools, to include increasing the budget during the year for schools in the Bangsamoro, the region with the lowest rate of school attendance. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, the primary school enrollment rate for girls was equal to the rate for boys, while the rate for girls was significantly higher than the rate for boys in secondary and tertiary schools.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a problem. Through the second quarter of the year, the social welfare department served only 1,619 children in centers and residential care facilities nationwide, a small fraction of those in need. Several cities ran crisis centers for abused women and children.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage for both sexes is 18 years; anyone younger than 21 must have parental consent. Under Muslim personal law, Muslim boys may marry at 15, and girls may marry when they reach puberty.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial exploitation of children and child pornography and defines purchasing commercial sex acts from a child as a trafficking offense. The statutory rape law criminalizes sex with minors younger than 12 and sex with a child younger than 18 involving force, threat, or intimidation. The maximum penalty for child rape is 40 years in prison plus a lifetime ban from political office. The production, possession, and distribution of child pornography are illegal, and penalties range from one month to life in prison, plus significant fines, depending on the gravity of the offense.

While authorities endeavored to enforce the law, inadequate prosecutorial resources and capacity to analyze computer evidence were challenges to effective enforcement. The government made serious efforts to address these crimes and collaborated with foreign law enforcement, NGOs, and international organizations.

Despite the penalties, law enforcement agencies and NGOs reported that criminals and family members continued to use minors in the production of pornography and in cybersex activities.

Children continued to be victims of sex trafficking, and the country remained a destination for foreign and domestic child sex tourists. Additionally, the live internet broadcast of young girls, boys, and sibling groups performing sex acts for paying foreigners continued. The government continued to prosecute accused pedophiles and deport those who were foreigners and to stop the entry of identified convicted sex offenders. To reduce retraumatization of child victims and spare children from having to testify, the government increased its use of plea agreements in online child sexual exploitation cases, which significantly reduced the case disposition time.

In June the national police arrested a woman for the online sex trafficking of her adult deaf sister and six children ages two to 15, including the woman’s son and two nieces. Police rescued the victims from the trafficker and provided them with trauma therapy and shelter placement. In September a woman pled guilty to attempted trafficking. In a sting police caught the woman exploiting her two sisters and six-year-old daughter. The government used plea bargains and technology-based child-protective measures to prevent retraumatization.

The National Bureau of Investigation and the PNP worked closely with the Labor Department to target and close facilities suspected of sex trafficking of minors. Since the start of the COVID-19 community quarantine period from March to May, the Department of Justice’s Office of Cybercrime reported 279,166 cases of online sexual exploitation of children, a 265 percent increase from the same period in 2019.

Displaced Children: While there were no recent, reliable data, involved agencies and organizations agreed there were hundreds of thousands of street children in the country. The problem was endemic nationwide and encompassed local children and the children of IDPs, asylum seekers, and refugees. Many street children were involved in begging, garbage scavenging, and petty crime.

Service agencies, including the social welfare department, provided residential and community-based services to thousands of street children nationwide, including in a limited number of residential facilities and the growing Comprehensive Program for Street Children, Street Families, and Indigenous Peoples. This program included activity centers, education and livelihood aid, and community service programs.

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

Anti-Semitism

An estimated 2,000 persons of Jewish heritage, almost all foreign nationals, lived in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law aims to provide affordable and accessible mental health services and provide for equal access for persons with disabilities to all public buildings and establishments.

The National Council for Disability Affairs formulated policies and coordinated the activities of government agencies for the rehabilitation, self-development, and self-reliance of persons with disabilities and their integration into the mainstream of society.

The law was not effectively enforced, and many barriers remained for persons with disabilities. Advocates for persons with disabilities contended that equal access laws were ineffective due to weak implementing regulations, insufficient funding, and inadequately focused integrative government programs. The great majority of public buildings remained inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities. Many schools had architectural barriers that made attendance difficult for persons with disabilities. Government efforts to improve access to transportation for persons with disabilities were limited.

Persons with disabilities continued to face discrimination and other challenges in finding employment (see section 7.d.).

Some children with disabilities attended schools in mainstream or inclusive educational settings. The Department of Education’s 648 separate special education centers did not provide nationwide coverage, and the government lacked a clear system for informing parents of children with disabilities of their educational rights and did not have a well defined procedure for reporting discrimination in education.

From January to August, the social welfare department provided services to 1,306 persons with disabilities in assisted living centers and community-based vocational centers nationwide, a small fraction of the population in need. If a person with disabilities suffered violence, access to after-care services might be available through the social welfare department, crisis centers, and NGOs. Of local government units, 60 percent had a persons with disability office to assist in accessing services including health, rehabilitation, and education.

The constitution provides for the right of persons with physical disabilities to vote. The Commission on Elections determines the capacity of persons with mental disabilities to vote during the registration process, and citizens may appeal exclusions (and inclusions) in court. A federal act authorizes the commission to establish accessible voting centers exclusively for persons with disabilities and senior citizens.

Indigenous People

Although no specific laws discriminate against indigenous people, the geographical remoteness of the areas many inhabit and cultural bias prevented their full integration into society. Indigenous children often suffered from lack of health care, education, and other basic services. Government officials indicated approximately 80 percent of the country’s government units complied with the longstanding legal requirement that indigenous peoples be represented in policy-making bodies and local legislative councils.

Fifty-five schools for Lumad children that the Department of Education closed in 2019 for alleged deviations from the basic curriculum remained closed as of August. In that same period, the government closed 176 of the 216 tribal schools in the southern part of the country in what the Save Our Schools Network, a group of children’s rights NGOs, called “continuing attacks on tribal schools.”

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, a government agency staffed by tribal members, was responsible for implementing constitutional provisions to protect indigenous peoples. It has authority to award certificates identifying “ancestral domain lands” based on communal ownership, thereby stopping tribal leaders from selling the land. Indigenous rights activist groups criticized the indigenous peoples’ commission, noting that it approved projects on ancestral lands without the free, prior, and informed consent required by law.

Armed groups frequently recruited from indigenous populations. Indigenous peoples’ lands were also often the site of armed encounters related to resource extraction or intertribal disputes, which sometimes resulted in displacement or killings.

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

National laws neither criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct among adults nor prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Eighteen cities, six provinces, three barangays, and one municipality had enacted a version of an antidiscrimination ordinance that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender–but not intersex–rights.

Officials prohibit transgender individuals from obtaining passports that reflect their gender identity. Authorities print the gender at birth, as reported on the birth certificate, in the individual’s passport, which posed difficulty for transgender persons seeking to travel, such as instances of transgender individuals being denied boarding on aircraft.

NGOs reported incidents of discrimination and abuse against LGBTI persons, including in employment, education, health care, housing, and social services. In June, Manila police arrested 20 Pride protesters for violating health safety protocols during the nationwide community quarantine. Some of those arrested reported they experienced discrimination while in detention.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS, including in access to basic health and social services. Nevertheless, there was anecdotal evidence of discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients in the government’s provision of health care, housing, employment, and insurance services.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers, with the exception of the military, police, short-term contract employees, and some foreign workers, to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes; it prohibits antiunion discrimination. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights.

Laws and regulations provide for the right to organize and bargain collectively in both the private sector and corporations owned or controlled by the government. The law prohibits organizing by foreign national or migrant workers unless a reciprocity agreement exists with the workers’ countries of origin specifying that migrant workers from the Philippines are permitted to organize unions there. The law also bars temporary or outsourced workers and workers without employment contracts from joining a union. The law requires the participation of 20 percent of the employees in the bargaining unit where the union seeks to operate; the International Labor Organization (ILO) called this requirement excessive. The scope of collective bargaining in the public sector is limited to a list of terms and conditions of employment negotiable between management and public employees. These are items requiring appropriation of funds, including health care and retirement benefits; items involving the exercise of management prerogatives, including appointment, promotion, compensation structure, and disciplinary action, are nonnegotiable.

For a private-sector strike to be legal, unions must provide advance strike notice (30 days for issues associated with collective bargaining and 15 days for issues regarding unfair labor practices), respect mandatory cooling-off periods, and obtain approval from a majority of members. The Department of Labor and Employment’s National Conciliation and Mediation Board reported 199 mediation-conciliation cases from January to July. Of these, 148 cases were filed under preventive mediation, 47 under notices of strike or lockout, and four under actual strike or lockout. The National Conciliation and Mediation Board attributed the decrease of filed cases to the COVID-19 pandemic and community quarantine.

The law subjects all problems affecting labor and employment to mandatory mediation-conciliation for one month. The Labor Department provides mediation services through a board, which settles most unfair labor practice disputes. Through the National Conciliation and Mediation Board, the department also works to improve the functioning of labor-management councils in companies with unions.

If mediation fails, the union may issue a strike notice. Parties may bring any dispute to mediation, but strikes or lockouts must be related to acts of unfair labor practice, a gross violation of collective bargaining laws, or a collective bargaining deadlock. The law provides for a maximum prison sentence of three years for participation in an illegal strike, although there has never been such a conviction. The law also permits employers to dismiss union officers who knowingly participate in an illegal strike.

The law prohibits government workers from joining strikes under the threat of automatic dismissal. Government workers may file complaints with the Civil Service Commission, which handles administrative cases and arbitrates disputes. Government workers may also assemble and express their grievances on the work premises during nonworking hours.

The secretary of the Labor Department, and in certain cases the president, may intervene in labor disputes by assuming jurisdiction and mandating a settlement if either official determines that the strike-affected company is vital to the national interest. Vital sectors include hospitals, the electric power industry, water supply services (excluding small bottle suppliers), air traffic control, and other activities or industries as recommended by the National Tripartite Industrial Peace Council. Labor rights advocates continued to criticize the government for maintaining definitions of vital services that were broader than international standards.

By law antiunion discrimination, especially in hiring, is an unfair labor practice and may carry criminal or civil penalties that were not commensurate with analogous crimes (although generally civil penalties were favored over criminal penalties).

In most cases the government respected freedom of association and collective bargaining and enforced laws protecting these rights. The Department of Labor has general authority to enforce laws on freedom of association and collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Commission’s labor arbiter may also issue orders or writs of execution for reinstatement that go into effect immediately, requiring employers to reinstate the worker and report compliance to it. Allegations of intimidation and discrimination in connection with union activities are grounds for review by the quasi-judicial commission, as they may constitute possible unfair labor practices. If there is a definite preliminary finding that a termination may cause a serious labor dispute or mass layoff, the labor department secretary may suspend the termination and restore the status quo pending resolution of the case.

Penalties under the law for violations of freedom of association or collective bargaining laws were generally not commensurate with similar crimes. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

The tripartite industrial peace council serves as the main consultative and advisory mechanism on labor and employment for organized labor, employers, and government on the formulation and implementation of labor and employment policies. It also acts as the central entity for monitoring recommendations and ratifications of ILO conventions. The Labor Department, through the industrial peace council, is responsible for coordinating the investigation, prosecution, and resolution of cases alleging violence and harassment of labor leaders and trade union activists pending before the ILO.

Workers faced several challenges in exercising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Some employers reportedly chose to employ workers who could not legally organize, such as short-term contract and foreign national workers, to minimize unionization and avoid other rights accorded to “regular” workers. The nongovernmental Center for Trade Union and Human Rights contended that this practice led to a decline in the number of unions and workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. Employers also often abused contract labor provisions by rehiring employees shortly after the expiration of the previous contract. The Labor Department reported multiple cases of workers alleging employers refused to bargain.

Unions continued to claim that local political leaders and officials who governed the Special Economic Zones explicitly attempted to frustrate union organizing efforts by maintaining union-free or strike-free policies. Unions also claimed the government stationed security forces near industrial areas or Special Economic Zones to intimidate workers attempting to organize and alleged that companies in the zones used frivolous lawsuits to harass union leaders. Local zone directors claimed exclusive authority to conduct their own inspections as part of the zones’ privileges intended by the legislature. Employers controlled hiring through special zone labor centers. For these reasons, and in part due to organizers’ restricted access to the closely guarded zones and the propensity among zone establishments to adopt fixed term, casual, temporary, or seasonal employment contracts, unions had little success organizing in the Special Economic Zones. The Labor Department does not have data on compliance with labor standards in the zones.

Harassment of union members continued. In April workers at a Coca-Cola plant in Laguna said unidentified armed men threatened them, took them to a military camp, and forced them to admit they were members of the NPA. In August workers at an aluminum factory in Valenzuela claimed that soldiers entered the plant and demanded the name of their union head.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Although legal penalties are commensurate with similar crimes, the government did not effectively enforce the law.

The government continued awareness-raising activities, especially in the provinces, in an effort to prevent forced labor. The Labor Department’s efforts included an orientation program for recruits for commercial fishing vessels, who were among the workers most vulnerable to forced labor conditions.

Reports of forced labor by adults and children continued, mainly in fishing and other maritime industries, small-scale factories, gold mines, domestic service, agriculture, and other areas of the informal sector (see section 7.c.). According to NGOs and survivors, unscrupulous employers subjected women from rural communities and impoverished urban centers to domestic service, forced begging, and forced labor in small factories. They also subjected men to forced labor and debt bondage in agriculture, including on sugar cane plantations and in fishing and other maritime industries. Trade unions reported that continued poor compliance with the law was due in part to the government’s lack of capacity to inspect labor practices in the informal economy.

There were reports some persons who voluntarily surrendered to police and local government units in the violent antidrug campaign were forced to do manual labor or other activities that could amount to forced labor without charge, trial, or finding of guilt under law. Inmates are only allowed to perform manual labor within prisons at the inmates’ request.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits employing children younger than age 15, including for domestic service, except under the direct and sole responsibility of parents or guardians, and sets the maximum number of working hours for them at four hours per day and no more than 20 hours per week. The law also prohibits the worst forms of child labor. Children between 15 and 17 are limited to eight working hours per day, up to a maximum of 40 hours per week. The law forbids the employment of persons younger than 18 in hazardous work. The minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, enticing some children to leave school before the completion of their compulsory education.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Although the government imposed fines and instituted criminal prosecutions for child labor law violations in the formal sector, for example in manufacturing, it did not do so effectively or consistently. Fines for child labor law violations were not commensurate with analogous crimes. From January to July, the Labor Department, through its Sagip Batang Manggagawa (Rescue Child Laborers) program (part of the Health, Education, Livelihood, and Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution, Monitoring and Evaluation Convergence Program), conducted four operations and removed five minors from hazardous and exploitative working conditions. As of July the department closed two establishments for violations of child labor laws. Operations under the Sagip Batang Manggagawa program are conducted and concluded separately from the standard labor inspection process.

The government, in coordination with domestic NGOs and international organizations, continued to implement programs to develop safer options for children, return them to school, and offer families viable economic alternatives to child labor. The Labor Department continued its efforts to reduce the worst forms of child labor and to remove children from hazardous work under the Convergence Program. Inspections as of October found eight establishments employing 39 minors. Four of the eight establishments were found to have violated the Anti-Child Labor Law; two were immediately corrected, and two were filed in courts.

Despite these efforts, child labor remained a widespread problem. Previous cases reported to the Labor Department focused on domestic services and agricultural sectors, notably in the fishing, palm oil, and sugar cane industries. Most child labor occurred in the informal economy, often in family settings. Child workers in those sectors and in activities such as gold mining, manufacturing (including of fireworks), domestic service, drug trafficking, and garbage scavenging faced exposure to hazardous working environments.

NGOs and government officials continued to report cases in which family members sold children to employers for domestic labor or sexual exploitation.

Online sexual exploitation of children and child soldiering also continued to be a problem (see sections 6 and 1.g., respectively).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on age, sex, race, creed, disability, HIV or tuberculosis or hepatitis B status, or marital status. The law does not prohibit employment discrimination with respect to color, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, other communicable disease status, or social origin. While some local antidiscrimination ordinances exist at the municipal or city levels that prohibit employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender–but not intersex–persons, there was no prohibition against such discrimination in national legislation.

The law requires most government agencies and government-owned corporations to reserve 1 percent of their positions for persons with disabilities; government agencies engaged in social development must reserve 5 percent. The law commits the government to providing “sheltered employment” to persons with disabilities, for example in workshops providing separate facilities. The Labor Department’s Bureau of Local Employment maintained registers of persons with disabilities that indicated their skills and abilities and promoted the establishment of cooperatives and self-employment projects for such persons.

Persons with disabilities nonetheless experienced discrimination in hiring and employment. The Labor Department estimated that only 10 percent of employable persons with disabilities were able to find work. Between January and July, no cases were filed to enforce the law. The government did not effectively monitor laws prohibiting employment discrimination or promoting the employment of persons with disabilities. Penalties were commensurate with other crimes.

The government had limited means to assist persons with disabilities in finding employment, and the cost of filing a lawsuit and lack of effective administrative means of redress limited the recourse of such persons when prospective employers violated their rights.

Discrimination in employment and occupation against LGBTI persons occurred; a number of LGBTI organizations submitted anecdotal reports of discriminatory practices that affected the employment of LGBTI persons. Discrimination cases included the enforcement of rules, policies, and regulations that disadvantaged LGBTI persons in the workplace.

Women faced discrimination both in hiring and on the job. Some labor unions claimed female employees suffered punitive action when they became pregnant. Although women faced workplace discrimination, they occupied positions at all levels of the workforce.

Women and men were subject to systematic age discrimination, most notably in hiring.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Official minimum wages were below the poverty line. By law the standard workweek is 48 hours for most categories of industrial workers and 40 hours for government workers, with an eight hour per day limit. The law mandates one day of rest each week. The government mandates an overtime rate of 125 percent of the hourly rate on ordinary days, 130 percent on special nonworking days, and 200 percent on regular holidays. There is no legal limit on the number of overtime hours that an employer may require.

The law did not cover many workers, since wage boards exempted some newly established companies and other employers from the rules because of factors such as business size, industry sector, export intensity, financial distress, and capitalization level.

Domestic workers worked under a separate wage and benefit system, which lays out minimum wage requirements and payments into social welfare programs, and mandates one day off a week. While there were no reliable recent data, informed observers believed two million or more persons were employed as domestic workers, with nearly 85 percent being women or girls as young as age 15.

Penalties for noncompliance with increases or adjustments in mandatory minimum wage rates are modest fines, imprisonment of one to two years, or both. In addition to fines, the government used administrative procedures and moral persuasion to encourage employers to rectify violations voluntarily. The penalties were commensurate with similar crimes. The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage laws. Violations of minimum wage standards were common. Many firms hired employees for less than minimum wage apprentice rates, even if there was no approved training in their work. Complaints about payment under the minimum wage and nonpayment of social security contributions and bonuses were particularly common at companies in the Special Economic Zones.

The law provides for a comprehensive set of appropriate occupational safety and health standards. Regulations for small-scale mining, for example, prohibit certain harmful practices, including the use of mercury and underwater, or compressor, mining. The law provides for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Most labor laws apply to foreign workers, who must obtain work permits and may not engage in certain occupations.

The Labor Department’s Bureau of Working Conditions monitors and inspects compliance with labor law in all sectors, including workers in the formal and informal sectors, nontraditional laborers, as well as inspects Special Economic Zones and businesses located there. The number of labor law compliance officers, who monitor and enforce the law, including by inspecting compliance with core labor and occupational safety standards and minimum wages, was insufficient for the workforce of 42 million, particularly in rural areas. The Labor Department prioritized increasing the number of officers while acknowledging that insufficient inspection funds continued to impede its ability to investigate labor law violations effectively, especially in the informal sector and in small and medium-size enterprises.

The Labor Department continued to implement its Labor Laws Compliance System for the private sector. The system included joint assessments, compliance visits, and occupational safety and health standards investigations. Labor department inspectors conducted joint assessments with employer and worker representatives; inspectors also conducted unannounced compliance visits and occupational safety and health standards investigations. The Labor Department and the ILO also continued to implement an information management system to capture and transmit data from the field in real time using mobile technology. Violations from January to July dropped significantly from the same period in 2019 because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, with 3,678 for general labor standards, 1,457 for violations of minimum wage rates, and 6,908 for occupational safety and health standards. Following a deficiency finding, the Labor Department may issue compliance orders that can include a fine or, if the deficiency poses a grave and imminent danger to workers, suspend operations. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes. The Labor Department’s Bureau of Working Conditions did not close any establishments during the year. Such closures require prior notification and hearings.

During the year various labor groups criticized the government’s enforcement efforts, in particular the Labor Department’s lax monitoring of occupational safety and health standards in workplaces. Between January and July, the Bureau of Working Conditions recorded 46 work-related accidents that caused 26 deaths and 2 injuries. Statistics on work-related accidents and illnesses were incomplete, as incidents were underreported, especially in agriculture.

A labor department order sets guidelines on the use of labor contracting and subcontracting. Some labor unions, however, criticized the order for not ending all forms of contractual work.

There were also gaps in the law, and the government enforced it inconsistently. Media reported, for example, problems in the implementation and enforcement of the domestic worker’s law, including a tedious registration process, an additional financial burden on employers, and difficulty in monitoring employer compliance.

The government and several NGOs worked to protect the rights of the country’s overseas citizens, most of whom were Philippine Overseas Employment Agency contract or temporary workers. Although the agency registered and supervised domestic recruiter practices, authorities often lacked sufficient resources to provide complete worker protection overseas. The Overseas Worker Welfare Administration provides support to overseas workers in filing grievances against employers via its legal assistance fund. The fund covers administrative costs that would otherwise prevent overseas workers from filing grievance complaints. Covered costs include fees for court typing and translation, visa cancellation, and contract termination.

The government continued to place financial sanctions on, and bring criminal charges against, domestic recruiting agencies found guilty of unfair labor practices.

Singapore

Executive Summary

Singapore is a parliamentary republic where the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959, dominates the political scene. The Elections Department declared Halimah Yacob president in 2017; she was the only candidate who qualified for the ballot, which was reserved that year for an ethnic Malay. Observers considered the general election held in July to be free and open; the People’s Action Party won 83 of 93 parliamentary seats with 61 percent of the vote. The president subsequently reappointed party leader Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister.

The Singapore Police Force, under the direction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, maintains internal security. The Singapore Armed Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, have trained for deployment alongside the Home Affairs Ministry for certain domestic security operations, including joint deterrence patrols with police in instances of heightened terrorism alerts. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces did not commit abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: preventive detention by the government under various laws that dispense with regular judicial due process; monitoring private electronic or telephone conversations without a warrant; serious restrictions on the press and internet, including criminal libel laws; substantial legal and regulatory limitations on the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; and existence of a law criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men, although not enforced.

The government prosecuted officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of impunity for such abuses as of November.

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

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

There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Killings by law enforcement officers and military personnel are investigated by the Special Investigation Section of the Singapore Police Force, prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Chambers, and tried in civilian courts. If the killing occurred overseas and the deceased was subject to military law or the offense was committed while the offender was on active service, the case is investigated by the Special Investigation Branch of the Singapore Armed Forces, prosecuted by the Military Prosecutor, and tried in a military court.

Two Singapore Civil Defense Force officers were convicted in September and sentenced to 10 weeks in prison for their involvement in the 2018 death of Corporal Kok Yuen Chin, who drowned when he was pushed into a pump well at a fire station during hazing celebrations. Three other officers were imprisoned in 2019 for their actions in the same incident.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.

The law mandates imprisonment and mandatory caning for approximately 30 offenses, such as certain cases of rape, robbery, and drug trafficking. Caning is discretionary for convictions on other charges involving the use of force, such as kidnapping or voluntarily causing grievous hurt. Caning also may be used as a punishment for legally defined offenses while in prison, if a review by the Institutional Discipline Advisory Committee deems it necessary and the commissioner of prisons approves. Women and girls, men older than 50 years and boys younger than 16, men sentenced to death whose sentences were not commuted, and persons determined medically unfit were exempt from punishment by caning.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. The government took active steps to investigate and file charges against members of the security services when it deemed their behavior inappropriate or illegal.

In September police Staff Sergeant Mahendran Selvaragoo was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment for seeking sexual favors in 2019 from two subjects of interrogation, as well as accessing the subjects’ personal devices for personal purposes without authority.

In November, Central Narcotics Bureau officer Vengedesh Raj Nainar Nagarajan went on trial for three counts of voluntarily causing hurt to extort a confession about drugs found in a suspect’s possession in 2017. The trial continued at year’s end.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

Administration: Prisoners may file complaints alleging mistreatment or misconduct with judicial authorities without censorship and may request investigation of credible allegations of problematic conditions. When called upon, the Provost Unit investigates complaints. Criminal charges may be brought against government officials.

The Board of Visiting Justices, composed of justices of the peace appointed by the home affairs minister, examines the prison system and has oversight of any investigations undertaken by the Provost Unit. The board conducts regular prison inspections to provide for prisoners’ basic welfare and adherence to prison regulations. It may also conduct random visits. All inmates have access to the visiting justices. Authorities documented the results of investigations in a publicly accessible manner. Members of the Board of Visiting Justices visited prisons at least once a month.

The Institutional Discipline Advisory Committee renders an opinion to the commissioner of prisons on whether an instance of corporal punishment (which is permitted) was excessive.

The status of the suspect or convict determined the frequency and type of permitted visits. In general authorities allowed family members and close relatives to visit inmates. Prison authorities must approve visits from nonrelatives.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed members of the press to visit the prisons with prior approval. The Ministry of Home Affairs also appointed a nongovernmental body composed of citizens to conduct regular prison inspections.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The law permits arrest without warrant and detention without trial in defined circumstances. Persons detained under these circumstances have a right to judicial review of their case but the scope is limited by specific legislation. The government generally observed the laws.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

In most instances, the law requires issuance of an authorized warrant for arrests, but some laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), provide for arrest without a warrant if the government determines the suspect acted in a manner prejudicial to the security of the country. The law specifies that some offenses, such as robbery or rape, do not require an arrest warrant.

Those arrested according to regular criminal procedure must appear before a magistrate within 48 hours or be released. Authorities expeditiously charged and brought to trial the majority of those arrested. A functioning bail system existed.

Persons who face criminal charges are allowed access to counsel within a “reasonable,” but undefined, period of time. Any person accused of a capital crime is entitled to free counsel assigned by the state. The government also funded a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme run by the Law Society that covers additional, but not all, criminal offenses.

Arbitrary Arrest: Some laws, such as the ISA and the Criminal Law (temporary provisions) Act (CLA), have provisions for arrest and detention without a warrant, trial, or full judicial due process in defined circumstances where there is evidence that a person is associated with any of the criminal activities listed in the law that pose a threat to public safety, peace, and good order. ISA cases are subject to review by the courts to provide for compliance with its procedural requirements. Authorities invoked the ISA primarily against persons suspected of posing a security threat and employed the CLA mostly against persons suspected of organized crime activity or drug trafficking.

Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was not excessively long. Some individuals, however, were in prolonged detention without trial and with minimal judicial due process under laws that allowed for such detention.

The ISA and the CLA permit preventive detention without trial for the protection of public security, safety, or the maintenance of public order.

The government used the CLA against serious criminal activities involving narcotics, loan sharks, or criminal organizations. The government revised the law in 2019 to specify the criminal activities for which individuals could be detained without trial or placed under police supervision. Before issuing a CLA detention for an initial period of one year, the home affairs minister must obtain consent of the public prosecutor. A Supreme Court judge chairs a committee that reviews all cases and conducts hearings at which detainees or their lawyers are present. The country’s president considers the committee’s recommendations when deciding whether to cancel, confirm, or amend the detention. The president may extend detention for unlimited additional periods of up to one year at a time. Each detention, however, is reviewed by a separate advisory committee on an annual basis. The CLA lapses unless parliament renews it every five years.

The CLA allows for supervision within the community through means such as curfews, residence limitations, requirements to report regularly to authorities, and limitations on travel.

The ISA authorizes the home affairs minister, with the consent of the cabinet and with formal endorsement from the president, to order detention without filing charges if the minister determines that a person poses a threat to national security. The initial detention may be for a maximum of two years, after which the minister may renew the detention indefinitely. ISA detainees are permitted legal counsel. An independent advisory board consisting of a Supreme Court judge and two other presidential appointees reviews each detainee’s case within three months of initial detention and at intervals of no longer than 12 months thereafter. If the advisory board recommends that the detainee be released but the minister disagrees, the president has discretion over the detainee’s continued detention.

As of September the government held 18 persons under ISA orders of detention for alleged involvement in terrorism-related activities.

In January authorities detained a minor, age 17, under the ISA for supporting the Islamic State, the youngest individual to be arrested under the act. He was first investigated in 2017 for posting an image of President Halimah Yacob on social media and calling for her beheading. Authorities stated that, despite receiving religious counseling, he remained supportive of the Islamic State and was subsequently detained.

In November authorities detained a 26-year-old construction worker from Bangladesh under the ISA for suspected terrorism-related activities. The worker was reportedly radicalized by online ISIS propaganda, donated funds to a Syria-based organization, shared terrorist propaganda on social media, and intended to undertake armed violence once he returned to Bangladesh, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Early in the year, three Indonesian women held under ISA detention orders in September 2019 for activities in support of the Islamic State were convicted of terrorism financing in normal criminal proceedings. In February, Retno Hernayani and Turmini (one name only) were imprisoned for 18 months and three years and nine months, respectively, while Anindia Afiyantari was sentenced in March to two years in prison. They were the first foreign domestic workers to be detained under the ISA and the first jailed for terrorist financing.

In addition to detention, the ISA allows for issuance of restriction orders that require an individual to seek official approval for a change of address or occupation, overseas travel, or participation in any public organization or activity. Individuals subject to restriction orders could be required to report regularly to authorities. As of September, 27 persons were subject to such restrictions. This number included both released ISA detainees and alleged terrorists whom authorities never detained.

In February the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that Abu Thalha bin Samad was released on a restriction order when his detention order expired in September 2019. Abu Thalha, a Singaporean, was deported to Singapore by a regional government in 2017 and detained for being an alleged member of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

There is also a category of restriction called “suspension direction” that replaces a suspended order of detention and may prohibit association with specified groups or individuals and overseas travel without prior written government approval. Suspension directions also include reporting conditions. As of September no individuals were subject to them for terrorism-related conduct.

The drug laws permit detention without judicial approval of drug addicts in an approved institution for treatment and rehabilitation. If a suspected drug abuser tests positive for an illegal drug or displays signs of drug withdrawal, the director of the Central Narcotics Bureau may commit the person to a drug rehabilitation center for a six-month period, which a review committee of the institution may extend for a maximum of three years. By law the bureau director may order treatment as long as six months of a person determined by blood test or medical examination to be an abuser of intoxicating substances. The detained individual has the right to file a complaint to a magistrate who can issue an order to release the individual from the institution.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution provides the right of habeas corpus in regular criminal law, although not in ISA or CLA cases.

Under the CLA, the minister for home affairs’ decision on a suspect’s engagement in criminal activities is final and not subject to appeal, as is the minister’s subsequent decision on whether detention is necessary for reasons of public safety, peace, and good order, once concurrence by the public prosecutor is secured. The courts can review the decision, but only based on the tests of illegality, irrationality, and procedural impropriety.

Persons detained under the CLA and remanded for trial may apply to the courts for a writ of habeas corpus. Persons detained without trial under the CLA may challenge the substantive basis for their detention only to the CLA advisory committee, which is chaired by a Supreme Court judge.

Under the ISA, detainees may challenge their detention in the judicial system only by seeking judicial review of whether their detention complied with procedural requirements of the ISA; they have no right to challenge the substantive basis for their detention through the courts. Detainees under the ISA have a right to legal counsel and to make representations to an advisory board chaired by a past or sitting judge of the Supreme Court. The ISA specifically excludes recourse to the normal judicial system for review of a detention order made under its authority.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence. Some civil society activists and government critics expressed concern about undue government influence in the judicial system. Laws limiting judicial review, moreover, permitted restrictions on individuals’ constitutional rights.

The ISA and CLA explicitly preclude normal judicial due process and empower the government to limit, on broadly defined national security grounds, other fundamental liberties provided for in the constitution.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for a fair and public trial, except for persons detained under the ISA, CLA, and similar legislation. The judiciary generally enforced this right when applicable. Some commentators observed a small number of exceptions in cases involving direct challenges to the government or the ruling party. The judicial system generally provided an efficient judicial process.

In most circumstances the criminal procedure code requires that when a defendant is first charged in court, the charges must be framed, read, and explained to the defendant. After the charges are filed in court, the accused may seek advice of counsel before deciding whether to plead guilty or request a trial. At a pretrial hearing no earlier than eight weeks after criminal charges have been made, a judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial and sets a court date.

Criminal defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence in most cases. Cases involving narcotics are an exception; the law stipulates that a person who possessed narcotics shall be assumed to be aware of the substance and places the burden on the defendant to prove otherwise. The law also stipulates that if the amount of the narcotic is above set limits, the defendant must prove he or she did not have the drug for trafficking purposes.

Trials are public and heard by a judge; there are no jury trials. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and to be represented by an attorney. The Law Society administered a legal aid plan for persons facing criminal charges who could not afford an attorney. The state did so for anyone facing a capital charge. Defense lawyers generally had sufficient time and facilities to prepare an adequate defense. Criminal defendants who do not speak or understand English, or who have limited proficiency, are provided with translation services at no cost. Defendants have the right to question prosecution witnesses and to provide witnesses and evidence on their own behalf.

Defendants enjoy the right of appeal, which must be filed within 14 days in most cases. The criminal procedure code provides for an automatic appeal process for all death sentence cases. Those sentenced to death may ask for resentencing under certain circumstances, and judges may impose life imprisonment instead. The courts may offer nonviolent offenders the option of probation or paying a fine in lieu of incarceration.

Persons detained under the ISA or CLA are not entitled to a public trial. Proceedings of the ISA and CLA advisory boards are not public.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Access to the courts is open, and citizens and residents have the right to sue for infringement of human rights.

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

The constitution does not address privacy rights; statutory or common law provide remedies for infringement of some aspects of privacy rights. Several laws safeguard privacy, regulate access to and processing of personal data, and criminalize unauthorized access to data. Public agencies, however, are exempted from data protection requirements, can intercept communications, and can surveil individuals if it is determined to be in the national interest or necessary for investigations or proceedings. The government generally respected the physical privacy of homes and families. Normally, police must have a warrant issued by a court to conduct a search but may search a person, home, or property without a warrant if they decide that such a search is necessary to preserve evidence or permissible according to discretionary powers of the ISA, CLA, and other laws.

Law enforcement authorities have broad powers to search electronic devices without judicial authorization, including while individuals are in custody. According to Privacy International, “Singapore has a well-established, centrally controlled technological surveillance system.” Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, had extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone, email, text messaging, or other digital communications intended to remain private. No court warrants are required for such operations and the law gives police access to computers and decryption information under defined circumstances.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression but allows parliament to impose such restrictions on freedom of speech as it “considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the country or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.”

Freedom of Speech: The government significantly restricted any public statements that it contended would undermine social or religious harmony, or that did not safeguard national or public interest. Government pressure to conform influenced some journalists and users of the internet. Freedom House reported that self-censorship occurred in media and among academics.

International and regional human rights organizations criticized the government’s use of the law to bring contempt of court charges as a means to curtail speech. In March activist Jolovan Wham refused to pay a fine of 5,000 Singapore dollars (S$) ($3,700) for a 2018 Facebook post claiming that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.” Instead Wham served a one-week jail sentence starting March 31.

Also in March police raided the offices of lawyer Ravi Madasamy and of Terry Xu, editor of alternative media website The Online Citizen Asia, after the website published a story questioning why the government extradited one of Madasamy’s clients to Malaysia. Authorities initiated an investigation for contempt of court against Madasamy, Xu, and two others. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

In July the high court found Li Shengwu, a nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, guilty of contempt and fined him S$15,000 ($11,000). Li paid the fine but he refused to admit guilt. He had posted private Facebook comments in 2017 criticizing the “litigious” nature of the government and claiming that it “has a pliant court system,” screenshots of which were later shared publicly.

The law gives the minister for home affairs discretion to authorize special police powers if a “serious incident” such as a terrorist attack is occurring or there is a threat of one. These powers allow the commissioner of police to prohibit anyone from taking or transmitting photographs or videos in a defined area, or from making text or audio messages about police operations if these actions could compromise the effectiveness and safety of the law enforcement operations. A breach of the order may lead to imprisonment for up to two years, a substantial fine, or both. Some civil society groups expressed concern that authorities could use the law to stop activists documenting the abuse of police powers, such as when authorities use force to break up a large but peaceful demonstration.

The law prohibits the public display of any foreign national emblems, including flags or symbols of political organizations or leaders. The law restricts the use of the coat of arms, flag, and national anthem.

The government-approved Speakers’ Corner was the only outdoor venue where citizens could give public speeches without a public entertainment license. Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, assemblies and processions, and citizens do not need a police permit to hold these events. All event organizers must, however, preregister online with the National Parks Board and must provide the topic of their event. Regulations state that the event should not be religious in nature or cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups. The commissioner of parks and recreation has the right to cancel or disallow any event or activity that he or she believes may endanger, cause discomfort to, or inconvenience other park users or the general public. Only citizens or permanent residents of the country are allowed to attend events at Speakers’ Corner.

Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to the ISA and other legislation, the government may restrict or place conditions on publications that incite violence, counsel disobedience to the law, have the potential to arouse tensions in the country’s diverse population, or threaten national interests, national security, or public order.

Government leaders openly urged news media to support the government’s goals and help maintain social and religious harmony. The government enforced strict defamation and press laws, including in cases it considered personal attacks on officials, likely resulting in journalists and editors moderating or limiting what they published. The government also strictly enforced laws protecting racial and religious harmony.

There were no legal bans on owning or operating private press outlets, although in practice government managerial and financial control strongly influenced all print and some electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited and Mediacorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Singapore Press Holdings is a publicly listed company with close ties to the government, which must approve (and may remove) the holders of management shares, who appoint or dismiss the firm’s management. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned Mediacorp. As a result, coverage of domestic events and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official policies and views.

Government-linked companies and organizations operated all domestic broadcast television channels and almost all radio stations. Only one radio station, the BBC’s World Service, was completely independent of the government. Residents could receive some Malaysian and Indonesian television and radio programming, but with a few exceptions, authorities prohibited satellite dishes. Cable television was widespread, and subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news and entertainment channels. The government did not censor international news channels but entertainment programs must meet the content codes of the state’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). Broadcasters often censored or edited content they anticipated would breach the IMDA code, such as content that normalized or positively portrayed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) relationships. Residents routinely accessed uncensored international radio and television content via the internet.

The government may limit broadcasts or the circulation of publications by “gazetting” (listing) them under the Broadcasting Act and may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications. The law empowers the minister for communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster it assesses to be reporting on domestic politics in a one-sided or inaccurate manner.

The government may require a gazetted broadcaster to obtain express permission from the minister to continue broadcasting in the country. The government may impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster’s programming and may impose a substantial fine on a broadcaster for failing to comply.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The IMDA, under the Ministry of Communications and Information, regulates broadcast, print, and other media, including movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Most banned publications were sexually oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. The IMDA develops censorship standards including age appropriate classification of media content with the help of various citizen advisory panels. The law allows the banning, seizure, censorship, or restriction of written, visual, or musical materials if authorities determine that such materials threaten the stability of the state, contravene moral norms, are pornographic, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorize or promote drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities. The law gives IMDA officers power to enter and search premises and seize evidence without a warrant for “serious offenses,” such as those involving films prohibited on public interest grounds or the unlicensed public exhibition of a film. The IMDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for transmitting what it believes to be inappropriate content. All content shown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. must be suitable for viewers of all ages.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, and may result in a maximum prison sentence of two years, a fine, or both. Critics charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism, coerce the press, and intimidate opposition politicians.

In December the district court charged lawyer Ravi Madasamy with criminal defamation of Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. In a Facebook post, Madasamy suggested that, according to a fellow lawyer, the minister “wields influence over the Chief Justice” and “calls the shot and controls.” At year’s end, the case continued.

The Online Citizen website editor Terry Xu went on trial in October on charges of criminal defamation lodged in 2018 for publishing a reader’s letter accusing the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.” The letter’s author, Daniel De Costa, also charged with criminal defamation, went on trial at the same time. In June a high court judge dismissed De Costa’s third constitutional challenge on the case. Both cases continued as of December.

Separately, in November the trial began in a 2019 civil defamation suit brought by Prime Minister Lee against Xu over his refusal to take down and apologize for an article about a dispute between Lee and his two siblings. In March the high court dismissed Xu’s application to obtain documents from Lee and during the November hearing, Xu announced that he would no longer seek to bring Lee’s siblings as third parties in the suit. The case continued as of December.

In October and November, the high court heard arguments in a 2018 civil defamation suit filed by the prime minister against financial advisor Leong Sze Hian after Leong shared a news article on his Facebook page that alleged a secret deal between Lee and former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. The article alleged local banks assisted in laundering money from 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Lee sought S$150,000 ($112,000) in damages and the case continued as of December.

Internet Freedom

The law permits government monitoring of internet use, and the government closely monitored internet activities, such as social media posts, blogs, and podcasts. The IMDA can direct service providers to block access to websites that, in the government’s view, undermine public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Political and religious websites must register with the IMDA.

Individuals and groups could express their views via the internet, including by email, and the internet is readily accessible. The government, however, subjected all internet content to similar rules and standards as traditional media, as defined by the IMDA’s Internet Code of Practice. Internet service providers are required to provide content that complies with the code. The IMDA licenses the internet service providers through which local users are required to route their internet connections. The IMDA investigates content that is potentially in breach of the code when it receives complaints from members of the public.

Since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) came into effect in October 2019, the government has invoked it 34 times and issued 76 orders against content the ministers deemed contained “falsehoods.” The law requires online platforms to publish corrections or remove online information that government ministers consider factually false or misleading, and which they deem likely to be prejudicial to the country, diminish public confidence in the government, incite feelings of ill will between persons, or influence an election. POFMA is not supposed to apply to opinions, criticisms, satire, or parody. Individuals in breach of the law may face a substantial fine and imprisonment for up to five years, with penalties doubled if the individual used bots. A platform that fails to remove false content may receive a much steeper fine and, in the case of a continuing offense, a fine for each additional day the offense continues after conviction.

As of October most POFMA orders directed individuals and internet platforms to publish corrections, but the government also issued orders disabling in-country users’ access to several Facebook pages and blocking access to the website for the Malaysia-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Lawyers for Liberty. The number of POFMA orders increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as the government sought to correct alleged falsehoods about the virus. News outlets like The Online Citizen website, Yahoo! Singapore, and Channel News Asia were required to publish correction notices on articles containing claims regarding the application of the death penalty in prisons, speculation over the annual salary of the prime minister’s wife as the head of quasi-sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, and criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by an opposition politician. No ministries withdrew their orders following appeals by recipients. Two recipients of orders, The Online Citizen and the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, filed appeals with the country’s highest court, the Court of Appeal, against their respective POFMA correction orders. They argued that the burden of proof that a statement is false should be on the government and that a correction order should be issued only if the statement-maker refuses to carry a government response. The hearings occurred in September and the cases continued at year’s end.

The Online News Licensing Scheme requires heavily visited internet sites focused on news about the country to obtain a license, submit a bond of S$50,000 ($38,000), and remove prohibited content within 24 hours of notification from the IMDA. Many citizens viewed this regulation as a way to censor online critics of the government. The IMDA cited the need to regulate commercial news sites and promote conformity with other forms of media such as print and television. All 11 major news sites operated with IMDA licenses; the most recent addition was the alternative media website The Online Citizen, which joined two other licensed non-state-linked publications.

Smaller news sites that cover political topics are required to register under the Broadcasting Act Class License so that registrants do not receive foreign funding.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Public institutions of higher education and political research had limited autonomy. Although faculty members were not technically government employees, they were potentially subject to government influence. Academics spoke, published widely, and engaged in debate on social and political problems, although public comment outside the classroom or in academic publications that ventured into prohibited fields could result in sanctions. Freedom House noted that self-censorship on topics related to the country occurred among academics, who can face legal and career consequences for critical speech. Publications by local academics and members of research institutions rarely deviated substantially from government views.

In October the Raffles Hall Association, an alumni group of former National University of Singapore students, replaced Hong Kong-based Singaporean academics Cherian George and Donald Low as guest speakers for a webinar on “Public Discourse: Truth and Trust” without an explanation or any notification to the speakers. Raffles Hall Association had previously promoted the event in a Facebook post, citing a new book by George and Low that advocated ruling PAP reforms, but later released a post with a new set of speakers. After the topic arose on social media, one of the replacement speakers withdrew from the event, explaining that the organizers had not fully briefed him on what had transpired. The university stated the association was an “autonomous alumni group” not governed by the university, but George told local media the organizers had informed him that the university wanted the event canceled.

The law authorizes the minister of communications and information to ban any film, whether political or not, that in his opinion is “contrary to the public interest.” The law does not apply to any film sponsored by the government and allows the ministry to exempt any film from the act.

Certain films barred from general release may be allowed limited showings, either censored or uncensored.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although the constitution provides citizens the right to peaceful assembly, parliament imposed restrictions in the interest of security, public order, or morality. Public assemblies, including political meetings and rallies, require police permission. It is a criminal offense to organize or participate in a public assembly without a police permit, and those convicted may be assessed a substantial fine. Repeat offenders face a steeper fine.

By law a public assembly may include events staged by a single person. Citizens do not need permits for indoor speaking events, unless they touch on “sensitive topics” such as race or religion, or for qualifying events held at Speakers’ Corner. The Commissioner of Police may decline to authorize any public assembly or procession that could be directed towards a political end and be organized by, or involve the participation of, a foreign entity or citizen. Police may also order a person to “move on” from a certain area and not return to the designated spot for 24 hours.

International human rights organizations criticized authorities’ use of the law and concerns about public order to harass human rights defenders and prevent peaceful protest.

In March police questioned, investigated, and issued “stern warnings” to two climate change activists for participating in a public assembly without a permit. In separate cases, Wong J-min, age 18, and Nguyen Nhat Minh, age 20 held up a placard in public to protest climate change, had photos taken of themselves, and posted those on social media.

As of December several illegal assembly cases were pending against activist Jolovan Wham. In November, Wham was charged with illegal assembly for two separate incidents when he held up signs in public and posted photos on social media. In one case, Wham in March held up a sign with a hand-drawn smiley face outside a police station to demonstrate support for two climate activists, an illegal one-person protest without a police permit. In August the Court of Appeal rejected Wham’s final appeal against his January conviction for organizing an indoor public assembly without a permit in 2016. Wham refused to pay the fine and instead served a 10-day jail sentence starting August 21. The event was entitled, “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements,” and included a Skype address by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.

Some civil society groups and members of parliament expressed concern that the government’s use of a law to maintain public order (see section 2.a.) conflated peaceful protests and terrorist violence. The law’s illustrations of “large-scale public disorder” included a peaceful sit-down demonstration that attracts a large group of sympathizers and starts to impede the flow of traffic, interfering with local business activities.

The government closely monitored political gatherings regardless of the number of persons present.

Spontaneous public gatherings or demonstrations were virtually unknown.

Freedom of Association

Most associations, societies, clubs, religious groups, and other organizations with more than 10 members are required to register with the government. The government could deny registration to or dissolve groups it believed were formed for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or public order, although it approved the majority of applications in recent years. The government has absolute discretion in applying criteria to register or dissolve societies.

The government prohibits organized political activities except by groups registered as political parties or political associations. These may not receive foreign donations but may receive funds from citizens and locally controlled entities. The ruling PAP was able to use nonpolitical organizations, such as residential committees and neighborhood groups, for political purposes far more extensively than could opposition parties. Due to laws regulating the formation of publicly active organizations, there were few NGOs apart from nonpolitical organizations, such as religious or environmental groups.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, although it limited them in certain circumstances.

In-country Movement: The ISA permits authorities to restrict a person’s movement, and they did so in the case of some former ISA detainees. Several dozen suspected terrorists were subject to such restrictions. Freedom of movement for migrant workers required to quarantine under temporary COVID-19 legislation was restricted for more than six months during the pandemic and remained significantly more limited and controlled than for the rest of the population (see section 7.e.).

Foreign Travel: The government may refuse to issue a passport; this was done primarily on security grounds.

Persons with national service reserve obligations (male citizens and permanent residents between ages 18 and 40 (for enlisted men) or 50 (for officers)) are required to advise the Ministry of Defense of plans to travel abroad. Men and boys age 13 and older who have not completed national service obligations are required to obtain exit permits for international travel if they intend to be away for three months or more.

The law allows the government to deprive naturalized citizens of citizenship if they have engaged in activities deemed harmful to public safety and order or resided outside of the country for more than five consecutive years and either did not register annually at a consulate or were believed by the government to have no intention of retaining citizenship.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government may, on a case-by-case basis, cooperate with organizations such as UN High Commissioner for Refugees to repatriate or send refugees to a third country.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status.

g. Stateless Persons

As of December 2019 there were 1,252 stateless persons living in the country. Many were reportedly born in the country before independence but did not or could not meet requirements for citizenship then in force. Others were permanent residents who lost their foreign citizenship, or were children born to foreign nationals who are not recognized as citizens in their home countries. Stateless persons may apply for citizenship.

Approximately 78 percent of stateless persons have obtained permanent residency, but those who have not may not buy or rent real estate, are not entitled to government health or education subsidies, and may have difficulty securing employment.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in open and free periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In five decades of continuous rule, however, the PAP has employed a variety of measures that effectively limited the ability of the opposition to mount a serious challenge to its hold on power. In recent years, the opposition won additional seats, although it still held a small fraction of seats in parliament.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The law provides for the popular election of the president to a six-year term from among candidates approved by two committees selected by the government. The constitution also requires multiracial representation in the presidency. The office of the president is reserved for a member of a specific racial community (Chinese, Malay, or Indian and other minority communities) if no person belonging to that community had held the office of the president for any of the last five terms of office. The 2017 presidential election was thus restricted to eligible Malay candidates. In 2017 former speaker of parliament Halimah Yacob became president without a vote because she was the only candidate; two other applicants were ruled ineligible according to criteria applicable to private sector candidates.

The parliamentary general election held in July was free and open. In addition to the governing PAP, 10 opposition parties participated in the election, and all seats were contested for the second time since independence. The general elections operate according to a first-past-the-post system and there are both single-member and group constituencies. The PAP won 61 percent of the popular vote, capturing 83 of 93 seats in parliament. The opposition Workers’ Party won 10 seats, the most seats won by the opposition since independence. Because a constitutional provision mandates at least 12 opposition members in parliament, two losing candidates from the newly founded Progress Singapore Party were also seated as nonconstituency members of parliament, chosen from the highest finishing runners-up in the general election.

In September the Elections Department filed a police report, prompting an investigation of sociopolitical media website New Naratif for breaching the law by running online content during the election campaign without prior authorization to conduct election activity. New Naratif and international human rights organizations condemned the investigation and criticized the government for selectively using broadly worded laws to target critics and alternative media. A police investigation continued at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The opposition criticized the PAP for its abuse of incumbency to restrict opposition parties. Some opposition parties and human rights groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights criticized temporary COVID-19 related voting and campaign regulations put in place for the July general election as further benefitting PAP incumbents. The PAP maintained its political dominance in part by circumscribing political discourse and action. For example, government-appointed and predominantly publicly funded Community Development Councils, which provide welfare and other services, strengthened the PAP’s position. The PAP also had an extensive grassroots system and a carefully selected, highly disciplined membership. The constitutional requirement that members of parliament resign if expelled from their party helped promote backbencher discipline.

The PAP controlled key positions in and out of government, influenced the press, and benefited from structural advantages such as the group constituency system and short campaign period that disadvantaged smaller opposition parties according to some human rights groups. While the PAP’s methods were consistent with the law and the prerogatives of parliamentary government in the country, the overall effect was to perpetuate PAP power. The government created the position of an official Leader of the Opposition in parliament following the July general election, which the Workers’ Party accepted.

Although political parties were legally free to organize, authorities imposed strict regulations on their constitutions, fundraising, and accountability, including a ban on receiving foreign donations and a requirement to report donations. There were 30 registered political parties, 13 of which were active.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Three of the 20 members of the new cabinet were women and seven were members of a minority group. The country’s female president was a minority-group member. Presidential elections may be reserved for certain racial communities. There are no other restrictions in law or practice against voting or political participation by members of minority groups; they were well represented throughout the government and civil service, except in some sensitive national security positions in the armed forces and intelligence community. The country’s group representation constituency system also requires at least one candidate from a racial minority group in each group constituency to provide representation in parliament.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government implemented these laws effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption.

Corruption: Among the 119 cases the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau investigated in 2019, 12 were public-sector related. Of the 147 individuals prosecuted in court for corruption in 2019, five were public-sector employees.

In July former senior Land Transport Authority officer Henry Foo Yung Thye was charged with 36 counts of corruption for accepting bribes amounting to S$1.24 million ($912,000). Six other individuals–both citizens and foreigners–and the China Railway Tunnel Group’s local branch were also charged in the case.

In July the high court heard both the government and Victor Wong Chee Meng appeal Wong’s sentence to 27 months’ imprisonment for receiving inducements from building and repair companies. Wong, the former general manager of the Ang Mo Kio town council, was charged in 2018 with 55 counts of corruption. The high court increased Wong’s jail sentence by 12 months to 39 months after hearing the appeals. The high court also set a new sentencing framework, taking into account the level of harm inflicted, the level of culpability involved, and the public-service rationale of the offender’s function, under the Prevention of Corruption Act for public-sector corruption involving agents.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires civil servants to declare their respective permanent secretaries their investments, properties, and indebtedness. According to the code of conduct for ministers, ministers make financial disclosures to the prime minister. Declarations are not made public. If evidence surfaces that a declaration is fraudulent, administrative “disciplinary measures” may be imposed. The salaries of ministers and senior officials were public information.

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

A variety of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government interference, but subject to close monitoring and legal restraints, and these organizations investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. NGOs were subject to registration according to the Societies Act or the Companies Act.

Some international human rights NGOs criticized the government’s policies in areas such as capital punishment, migrant workers’ rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and protection of the rights of LGBTI persons. They charged that the government generally ignored such criticisms or published rebuttals.

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

In January amendments to the Criminal Law Reform Act, the Penal Code, and the Protection from Harassment Act took effect and were welcomed by NGOs for increasing protections for victims of rape, abuse, and harassment. Under the amended laws, individuals convicted under the Penal Code for any offenses committed against vulnerable victims–children below the age of 14, persons with mental or physical disabilities, and domestic workers–are subject to up to twice the maximum penalty. This is also the case for individuals who repeatedly breach protection orders. The amended law also decriminalizes attempted suicide.

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Under the law rape is a crime, with maximum penalties of 20 years’ imprisonment and the possibility of caning. As of January the law abolished marital immunity for rape and expanded the definition of rape to make it gender neutral. For offenses affecting the human body committed by partners in a close or intimate relationship, even if unmarried, the law imposed up to twice the maximum penalty for these offenses outside such relationships. Domestic violence is a crime. Victims may obtain court orders restraining the respondent and barring a spouse or former spouse from the victim’s home until the court is satisfied the spouse has ceased aggressive behavior. The government enforced the laws on rape and domestic violence.

Identity protection orders are mandatory from the time a police report of a sexual crime (or child abuse) is lodged. Victims of sexual crimes may video-record their testimony instead of having to recount it in person. Victims may testify in closed-door hearings, with physical screens to shield them from the accused person. Lawyers may not ask questions about a victim’s sexual history, unless the court grants them permission to do so.

Several voluntary welfare organizations that assisted abused women noted that gender-based violence was underreported but the number of reported incidents was increasing, which they stated was the result of advocacy campaigns to address social stigma.

The women’s rights advocacy group AWARE reported a sharp increase in domestic violence and abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the two-month lockdown from April to June. In May the organization’s helpline received an all-time record 752 calls; 180 of these were related to family violence–a 137 percent year-on-year increase–and 150 to emotional and psychological distress–a 436 percent year-on-year increase. From April 7 to May 6, a total of 476 police reports were filed for domestic violence compared to a usual monthly average of 389. In response, the government set up a National Care Hotline to provide psychological and emotional support.

In June the high court sentenced serial sex predator Muhammad Anddy Faizul Mohamed Eskah to 22 years’ imprisonment and 24 strokes of the cane. The judge called his offenses against 19 young women, mostly minors, “one of the most shocking and horrifying” cases of sexual crimes to come before the court.

In July a court sentenced a university student to 12 days of detention and 80 hours of community service for strangling his former girlfriend until she lost consciousness. Women’s groups and members of parliament expressed dismay at the light punishment imposed by the court. Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam responded that it was not the courts but the legal policy framework that was at issue, and he committed to review the penalty framework for similar cases.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): Type I (a) (as classified by the World Health Organization) FGM/C was practiced among a portion of the Muslim population. There was no legislation banning FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: Harassment is a crime, and the law covers harassment within and outside the workplace, cyberbullying, and bullying of children. The law also prescribes mandatory caning and a minimum of two years’ imprisonment on conviction of any charge for “outraging modesty” that causes the victim to fear death or injury. The law also subjects to a fine persons convicted of using threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behavior. It also provides a range of self-help measures, civil remedies, and enhanced criminal sanctions to protect against harassment. Additionally, stalking is an offense punishable by a fine, imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both.

As of January the law introduced criminal offenses for technology-related crimes such as voyeurism and sexual exposure. The Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Act made doxing (publishing private information) an offense, improved judicial procedures for victims of online falsehood harassment, and enhanced protection for harassment victims.

According to police statistics, outrage of modesty incidents decreased by 7.1 percent in 2019 to 1,605. Media gave significant coverage to sexual harassment convictions throughout the year. The government ran awareness campaigns encouraging women to report molestation, and several members of parliament urged the government to address sexual harassment in the workplace more actively.

The National University of Singapore was the focus of several high-profile sexual harassment cases. In October the university filed a police report and dismissed a residential college fellow accused of sexual misconduct for behaving inappropriately toward two undergraduate students. Criticized for its handling of the case, the university pledged to be more transparent. The university announced in November that the former director of its East Asian Institute had behaved inappropriately toward a colleague in 2018 and issued him a written warning. In December the university filed a police report and dismissed a political science professor for sexually harassing a student.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, including civil liberties, employment, commercial activity, and education. Women were well represented in many professions (see section 7.d.).

Polygyny is permitted for Muslim men but is limited and strictly regulated by the Registry of Muslim Marriages, which oversees Muslim marriages and other family law matters. Polygynous marriages constituted 0.2 percent of Muslim marriages.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents as long as one parent is a citizen of the country and both parents are registered as legally married. The law requires that all births be registered within 14 days. Dual citizens born abroad to citizen parents must renounce their foreign citizenship after turning 21 to retain their citizenship.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes mistreatment of children, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The government enforced the law and provided support services for child abuse victims.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development investigated 1,088 child abuse cases in 2019, a 6.5 percent decrease from 2018.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law characterizes unmarried persons younger than age 21 as minors and persons younger than 14 as children. Individuals younger than 21 who wish to marry must obtain parental consent, and the couple must attend a mandatory marriage preparation program. Individuals younger than 18 also require a special license from the Ministry of Social and Family Development to wed or, if they are marrying under Muslim law, they require permission from the kadi (a Muslim judge appointed by the president), who would grant permission only under special conditions.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes human trafficking, including child sex trafficking, and authorities enforced the law.

The age of consent for noncommercial sex is age 16. Sexual intercourse with a person younger than 16 is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison, a fine, or both, and if the victim is younger than 14 it is punishable by as long as 40 years in prison and a fine or caning.

The law prohibits commercial sex provided by anyone below age 18. Authorities may detain (but generally do not prosecute) persons younger than 18 whom they believe to be engaged in prostitution. They prosecute those who organize or profit from prostitution, bring women or girls to the country for prostitution, or coerce or deceive women or girls into prostitution.

As of January the law increased the protection of minors from sexual exploitation and made a distinction between child pornography and other types of pornography. The law made it a separate offense to use or involve a child below age 16 in the production of child abuse material and criminalized every person involved in the supply and consumption of child abuse material. The law criminalized and introduced penalties for offenses, such as sexual intercourse, pornography, or sexual grooming, committed in the context of exploitative relationships when the victim was above age 16 but below age 18, even if the victim had consented.

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

Anti-Semitism

Although estimates varied widely, the government estimated there were approximately 2,500 members in the Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

There is no comprehensive legislation addressing equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in education or employment or preventing discrimination.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and coordinates implementation of the government’s 2017-21 policy plan for programs and services in the disability sector, which focuses on greater inclusiveness. In 2019, amendments to the Employment Act provided more grants, legal protection, and training to employers and persons with disabilities to provide better safeguards for employees, including persons with disabilities. In March the Ministry of Manpower announced additional training grants for persons with disabilities and allowed employers to offset up to S$400 ($230) of an employee’s monthly salary.

The government maintained a comprehensive code on barrier-free accessibility and standards for facilities for persons with physical disabilities in all new buildings, and mandated the progressive upgrading of older structures. The “SG Enable” program, established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, administered several assistance schemes for persons with disabilities, and provided a job training and placement program for them. The government reported that in 2019 companies hired more than 9,000 persons with disabilities through use of government-sponsored support programs, an increase of 4.7 percent from 2018.

The Disabled People’s Association (DPA), an advocacy group, stated that discrimination against persons with disabilities was underreported because affected individuals either did not file a complaint or were unaware of their rights and the available resources. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices received an average of one complaint per year of discrimination against persons with disabilities. DPA also reported private discrimination against persons with disabilities who were seeking employment.

The country provided a high level of educational support for children and minors with disabilities from preschool to university. Children with moderate to severe educational needs were required to participate in compulsory education until they reached age 15. Elementary and secondary levels both included mainstreaming programs and separate education schools. All primary schools and the majority of secondary schools had specialist support for students with mild disabilities. Mainstreaming programs catered primarily to children with physical disabilities. Separate education schools, which focused on children who required more intensive and specialized assistance, were operated by social service organizations and involved a means-tested payment of fees. The Special Educational Needs Support Offices, established in all publicly funded tertiary education institutions including universities, provided support for students. Informal provisions permitted university matriculation for those with visual, hearing, or physical disabilities through assistive technology devices and services such as note taking.

In October the government inaugurated a mandatory national disability insurance program providing policyholders with a monthly payout for life if the person suffers from a severe disability requiring long-term care.

The law allows voters who are unable to vote in the manner described by law to receive assistance from election officials, who are under oath to maintain voting secrecy. For the general election held in July, the government improved support for persons with disabilities. Voters with visual disabilities could cast their vote independently with stencils, wheelchair users could use a portable booth placed on their laps, and those with physical disabilities could instruct election officials to mark the ballot paper on their behalf. Polling stations were barrier-free with special drop-off points.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Ethnic Malays constituted approximately 15 percent of the population. The constitution recognizes them as the indigenous inhabitants of the country and charges the government to support and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social, cultural, and linguistic interests. The government took steps to encourage educational achievement among Malay students and upgrading of skills among Malay workers, including through subsidies for tertiary education fees for poorer Malays. Malay educational performance has improved, although ethnic Malays have not yet reached the educational or socioeconomic levels achieved by the ethnic Chinese majority, the ethnic Indian minority, or the Eurasian community. Malays remained underrepresented at senior corporate levels and, some asserted, in certain sectors of the government and the military. This reflected their historically lower educational and economic levels, but some argued it also was the result of employment discrimination.

The Presidential Council on Minority Rights examines all pending bills so they do not disadvantage any particular group. It also reports to the government on matters that affect any racial or religious community.

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