Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
The constitution provides for the rights to life and personal liberty. There were numerous reports, however, that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Law enforcement raids occurred throughout the year, primarily to counter terrorist activity, drugs, and illegal firearms. Suspicious deaths occurred during some raids, arrests, and other law enforcement operations. Security forces frequently accounted for such deaths by claiming–when they took a suspect in custody to a crime scene to recover weapons or identify coconspirators–accomplices fired on police and killed the suspect. The government usually described these deaths as “crossfire killings,” “gunfights,” or “encounter killings.” The media also used these terms to describe legitimate uses of police force. Human rights organizations and media outlets claimed many of these crossfire incidents actually constituted extrajudicial killings. Human rights organizations claimed in some cases law enforcement units detained, interrogated, and tortured suspects, brought them back to the scene of the original arrest, executed them, and ascribed the death to lawful self-defense in response to violent attacks.
Police policy requires automatic internal investigations of all significant uses of force by police, including actions that resulted in serious physical injury or death, usually by a professional standards unit that reports directly to the Inspector General of Police. The government, however, neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Human rights groups expressed skepticism over the independence and professional standards of the units conducting these assessments. In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received administrative punishment.
Domestic human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) reported 196 incidents of alleged extrajudicial killings between January and July 28. According to ASK, many of these killings involved the Rapid Action Battalion–a paramilitary police force–the conventional police force, and Border Guards Bangladesh. In 2019 ASK reported a total of 388 incidents of alleged extrajudicial executions, down from 466 incidents in 2018. Human rights organizations and civil society expressed concern over the alleged extrajudicial killings and arrests, claiming many of the victims were innocent.
In September, Amnesty International said more than 100 Rohingya refugees were victims of extrajudicial killings in the country since 2017. In Cox’s Bazar, the site of Rohingya refugee camps, Rohingya comprised a disproportionate percentage of reported “crossfire” killings. The press reported in July that security forces killed 22 individuals, suspected mostly of conducting drug deals, in reported gunfights with police. At least 10 were Rohingya. In response to these reports, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan refuted characterizations of the Rohingya as “victims” of extrajudicial killings and said they were “armed narcotics smugglers” crossing Myanmar into Bangladesh. After speaking with family members of the deceased, Amnesty International reported several of the killed Rohingya were picked up from their homes by the police and then found dead.
On July 31, police in Cox’s Bazar shot and killed “Sinha” Md Rashed Khan, a retired army major at a police vehicle checkpoint. Police reported Sinha “brandished” a gun, while eyewitnesses said Sinha had left the firearm in the car when he was asked by police to exit the vehicle. Sinha’s killing generated intense public discussion on police, extrajudicial killings, and law enforcement excesses. In August the Ministry of Home Affairs convened a senior investigation committee in response to the killing, suspending 21 police officers and charging nine police officers in connection with Sinha’s death.
Also in August a news outlet released a Facebook video showing the senior police officer arrested, Pradeep Das, openly admitting to killing drug suspects in “crossfires.” In 2019 Das received the highest police award after boasting of his involvement in extrajudicial killings. In September the police administration transferred almost all 1,500 police officers in Cox’s Bazar to other posts. While the police called the transfer an “administrative move,” the media called this action “unprecedented” and observers cited in the report said the action was made as part of a “corrective campaign” in connection with public outcry following Sinha’s death. In October media reported September was the first month since 2009 without a report of an extrajudicial killing.
Human rights groups and media reported disappearances and kidnappings continued, allegedly committed by security services. The government made limited efforts to prevent or investigate such acts. Civil society organizations reported victims of enforced disappearance were mostly opposition leaders, activists, and dissidents. Following alleged disappearances, security forces released some individuals without charge, arrested others, found some dead, and never found others. In a 2019 report discussing enforced disappearances, the Paris-based organization International Federation of Human Rights concluded enforced disappearances followed a pattern that included disappeared individuals previously targeted by authorities; witnesses observed similar law enforcement tactics when detaining individuals who later disappeared, and following the disappearance, authorities treated relatives either dismissively or with threats.
The government did not respond to a request from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.
On March 10, photojournalist and news editor Shafiqul Islam Kajol disappeared after leaving his house for work. The previous day a member of parliament filed a case against Kajol and 31 others, claiming a media story covering a crime syndicate involving drugs, money, and prostitution defamed the member of parliament. On May 3, police in the border town Benapole confirmed to the press that Kajol was “rescued” near the border with India border and detained him on trespassing charges. Kajol’s family told the press they believe Kajol was forcibly disappeared and held in government detention from March through May. Kajol spent 237 days in prison on defamation charges and was released on bail on December 25.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, local and international human rights organizations and media reported security forces, including intelligence services and police, employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. According to multiple organizations, including the UN Committee against Torture (CAT), security forces reportedly used torture to gather information from alleged militants and members of political opposition parties. Security forces reportedly used threats, beatings, kneecappings, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse. Numerous organizations also claimed security forces were involved in widespread and routine commission of torture–occasionally resulting in death–for the purpose of soliciting payment of bribes or obtaining confessions. According to these organizations, impunity for government actors committing torture was extensive. Politicization of crimes was a factor in impunity for custodial torture. During the government’s 2019 statement to the CAT, the Bangladesh government has a “zero tolerance” policy against custodial death; however, allegations of law enforcement committing torture and other forms of mistreatment were not investigated. In September a Dhaka court issued a verdict under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act for the first time and sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in prison over the 2014 custodial death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny. In 2019 the CAT expressed concerns with allegations of widespread use of torture and mistreatment by law enforcement officials to obtain confessions or to solicit the payment of bribes. The CAT report also cited the lack of publicly available information on abuse cases and the failure to ensure accountability for law enforcement agencies, particularly the Rapid Action Battalion.
In June media reported the police’s cruel treatment and extortion of university student Imran Hossain, who suffered kidney damage after an encounter with law enforcement. According to news reports, Hossain was returning home with a friend in June when police from Sajiali camp stopped them and demanded to search their bags. Hossain ran away, leading police to chase and beat him until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, police said he was arrested with cannabis in his possession. Police then released Hossain in exchange for a bribe of 6,000 taka ($71) and threatened to place him in interrogative custody if he told anyone about the incident. When Hossain returned home, his condition deteriorated and he was admitted to Queen’s Hospital in Jashore, where a kidney specialist reported Hossain’s kidneys had stopped working and that he would need regular dialysis. Following news reports of the incident, two Supreme Court lawyers submitted a writ petition to the High Court seeking the government take necessary action against the police responsible for torturing Hossain. In response to the High Court request, the Superintendent of Jashore police submitted an investigative report to the Court, saying three police officers had taken “unethical benefits” from Hossain’s father in exchange for releasing him from custody.
The law contains provisions allowing a magistrate to place a suspect in interrogative custody, known as remand, during which questioning of the suspect can take place without a lawyer present. Human rights organizations alleged many instances of torture occurred during remand.
In September the international organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the release of news editor and journalist Faridul Mostafa after an 11-month detention following news coverage of corruption in connection with local government authorities and drug trafficking. In stories published before his detention, Mostafa’s reporting alleged a connection between Teknaf police officer-in-charge Pradeep Das and local drug cartels. Mostafa was arrested on September 2019 and according to his wife, tortured in custody. When Mostafa appeared in court three days after his arrest, his wife said his hands and legs were broken, and the nails of his fingers and toes were pulled out. His eyesight had been badly affected by red chili powder rubbed in his eyes and he was forced to drink sewage water, causing severe diarrhea. The RSF said police planted drugs, firearms, and alcohol and pretended to discover them as grounds to keep Mostafa in jail. Mostafa was released in August, following the arrest of Das in connection with a retired army major’s killing (see section 1.a.).
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to severe overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and a lack of proper sanitation. There were no private detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: According to the Assistant Inspector General of Prisons, in March more than 89,000 prisoners occupied a system designed to hold 41,244 inmates. When the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the country in March, federal authorities instituted a policy requiring prison authorities to screen all incoming inmates for symptoms and keep them in a short quarantine. Superintendents at field prisons said they had no capacity to isolate inmates infected by COVID-19. Authorities often incarcerated pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners.
Officials reported only 11 prison doctors provide care to the 89,000 inmates, causing prisons to employ nurses or pharmacists to provide medical care to them.
Conditions in prisons, and often within the same prison complex, varied widely. Authorities lodged some prisoners in areas subject to high temperatures, poor ventilation, and overcrowding. The law allows individuals whom prison officials designated as “very important persons” (VIP) to access “Division A” prison facilities with improved living conditions and food, more frequent family visitation rights, and the provision of another prisoner without VIP status to serve as an aide in the cell.
While the law requires holding juveniles separately from adults, authorities incarcerated many juveniles with adults. Children were sometimes imprisoned (occasionally with their mothers) despite laws and court decisions prohibiting the imprisonment of minors. Authorities held female prisoners separately from men.
In August, three male youths died in a juvenile correction center in Jashore. Officials at the correction center said the boys were killed in a fight with other inmates; however, days after the incident, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association reported allegations of torture in the correction center and demanded a separate judicial inquiry into the death. A journalist reported juvenile centers made no effort to rehabilitate youths in custody, had appointed officials not trained to handle juvenile delinquency, and treated the youths as criminals as opposed to juveniles with special needs. The investigative report found “huge irregularities” in providing food, medicines, and other essentials and said the youths were tortured for protesting these irregularities. In at least one instance, inmates deemed “loyal” were used to torture defiant inmates.
Although Dhaka’s central jail had facilities for those with mental disabilities, not all detention facilities had such facilities, nor are they required by law. Judges may reduce punishments for persons with disabilities on humanitarian grounds. Jailors also may make special arrangements, for example, by transferring inmates with disabilities to a prison hospital.
Administration: Prisons had no ombudsperson to whom prisoners could submit complaints. Prisons lacked any formal process for offenders to submit grievances. The scope for retraining and rehabilitation programs was extremely limited.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits from governmental inspectors and nongovernmental observers who were aligned with the incumbent party. No reports on these inspections were released.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the law permits authorities to arrest and detain an individual without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual may constitute a threat to security and public order. The law also permits authorities to arrest and detain individuals without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual is involved with a “cognizable offense.” The constitution provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not generally observe these requirements. Media, civil society, and human rights organizations accused the government of conducting enforced disappearances not only against suspected militants but also against civil society and opposition party members. Authorities sometimes held detainees without divulging their whereabouts or circumstances to family or legal counsel, or without acknowledging having arrested them.
The constitution requires arrests and detentions be authorized by a warrant or occur as a result of observation of a crime in progress, but the law grants broad exceptions to these protections.
Under the constitution, detainees must be brought before a judicial officer to face charges within 24 hours, but this was not regularly enforced. The government or a district magistrate may order a person detained for 30 days to prevent the commission of an act that could threaten national security; however, authorities sometimes held detainees for longer periods with impunity.
There is a functioning bail system, but law enforcement routinely rearrested bailed individuals on other charges, despite a 2016 directive from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division prohibiting rearrest of persons in new cases without producing them in court when they are released on bail.
Authorities generally permitted defense lawyers to meet with their clients only after formal charges were filed in the courts, which in some cases occurred weeks or months after the initial arrest. Detainees are legally entitled to counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it, but the country lacked sufficient funds to provide this.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests occurred, often in conjunction with political demonstrations or as part of security force responses to terrorist activity, and the government held persons in detention without specific charges, sometimes in an attempt to collect information regarding other suspects. The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification for arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary, since it removes the requirement arrests be based on crimes that have occurred previously. Human rights activists claimed police falsely constructed cases to target opposition leaders, workers, and supporters, and that the government used the law enforcement agency to crack down on political rivals.
According to news reports, between July and September government authorities arrested at least 251 returning migrant workers from Southeast Asia and the Middle East with allegations of “tarnishing the image of [Bangladesh].” Amnesty International said the number of arrested workers was at least 370. In response to media queries, the police said the migrant workers’ destination countries had requested authorities to detain the workers once they returned to the country; however, human rights groups characterized these requests as specious and said while some of the returning workers were jailed abroad, they had all either completed their sentences or had their sentences commuted due to COVID-19. Prior to their detention in Bangladesh, several of the jailed returnee migrant workers said they were victims of human trafficking in their destination country. Approximately 80 detained migrant workers received bail in October, while the rest remained in prison. On October 8, the High Court directed a Dhaka police station to appear before the court to explain the legal reason for the migrants’ detention.
Pretrial Detention: Arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention continued due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, limited resources, lax enforcement of pretrial rules, and corruption. In some cases the length of pretrial detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and political interference compromised its independence.
Human rights observers maintained magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases, or courts ruled based on influence from or loyalty to political patronage networks. Observers claimed judges who made decisions unfavorable to the government risked transfer to other jurisdictions. Officials reportedly discouraged lawyers from representing defendants in certain cases.
Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and the granting of extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials.
In September the High Court ordered BRAC Bank to pay 1.5 million taka ($17,705) to Jahalam, a jute factory worker held for three years and repeatedly misidentified as another man accused of fraud and embezzlement, for his wrongful imprisonment since two of BRAC Bank’s officials supplied a photo of Jahalam instead of the real accused. In delivering the verdict, the High Court cautioned the Anti-Corruption Commission to be careful in investigating inquiries and in appointing investigating officers so that similar incidents did not occur in the future. The court also expressed appreciation to the two media outlets for publishing reports on Jahalam’s wrongful imprisonment.
The constitution provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not always protect this right due to corruption, partisanship, and weak human resources.
Defendants are presumed innocent, have the right to appeal, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. Defendants do not have the right to a timely trial. The accused are entitled to be present at their public trial. Indigent defendants have the right to a public defender. Trials are conducted in the Bengali language; the government does not provide free interpretation for defendants who cannot understand or speak Bengali. Defendants have the right to adequate time to prepare a defense.
Accused persons have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. They also have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt although defendants who do not confess are often kept in custody. The government frequently did not respect these rights.
Mobile courts headed by executive branch magistrates rendered immediate verdicts that often included prison terms to defendants who were not afforded the opportunity for legal representation. In June the High Court ruled mobile courts could not hold trials against children.
In March a mobile court accompanied by a group of law enforcement officers and magistrates in Kurigram district broke into the home of journalist Ariful Islam, beat him, took him to the deputy commissioner’s office, and sentenced him to one year in prison on charges of possessing narcotics. Within days, the minister for public administration said the deputy commissioner would be removed for “irregularities” in Islam’s case. Legal experts called the mobile court’s actions illegal because the court did not have the authority to break into Islam’s home and beat him. In September the same ministry established an official committee to investigate the incident related to the “illegal arrest, torture, and punishment” of Islam.
There were reports of political prisoners or detainees. Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats. Police jailed opposition party activists throughout the year for criticizing the government over its actions in managing COVID-19.
In February 2018 former prime minister of Bangladesh and chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on corruption and embezzlement charges, which were first filed in 2008 under a nonpartisan caretaker government. In October 2018 the High Court increased her sentence to 10 years. International and domestic legal experts commented on the lack of evidence to support the conviction, suggesting a political ploy to remove the leader of the opposition from the electoral process. The courts were generally slow in considering petitions for bail on her behalf. In March the government suspended Zia’s sentence for six months on humanitarian grounds, and suspended it again in September for another six months. In both instances the government restricted Zia’s travel, saying she would receive medical treatment in Dhaka and could not travel abroad.
On July 3, the court sentenced nine men to death and 25 men to life imprisonment for a 1994 attack on a train carrying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; at the time she was the leader of the opposition party. The convicted persons were all BNP members. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir condemned the verdict and said the case was “fake and fabricated,” alleging the Awami League had staged the attack.
Individuals and organizations may seek judicial remedies for human rights violations; however, lack of public faith in the court system deterred many from filing complaints. While the law has a provision for an ombudsperson, one had not been established.
In September a Dhaka court sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment and two others to seven years in prison over the 2014 custodial death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny. The convicted were also fined, funds payable to Jonny’s family. This was the first verdict under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013.
The government did not implement a 2001 act to accelerate the process of return of land to primarily Hindu individuals (see section 6). The act allows the government to confiscate property of anyone whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. It was often used to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups when they fled the country, particularly after the 1971 independence war.
Minority communities continued to report land ownership disputes that disproportionately displaced minorities, especially in areas near new roads or industrial development zones where land prices had increased. They also claimed local police, civil authorities, and political leaders were sometimes involved in evictions or shielded politically influential land grabbers from prosecution (see section 6). In 2016 the government amended a law which may allow for land restitution for indigenous persons living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), but the disputes have not been resolved (see section 2.d.).
The law does not prohibit arbitrary interference with private correspondence. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies may monitor private communications with the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs, but police rarely obtained such permission from the courts to monitor private correspondence. Human rights organizations alleged the police, the National Security Intelligence, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence employed informers to conduct surveillance and report on citizens perceived to be critical of the government.
Between March and September, the government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites and other electronic communications in order to scan public discussions on COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the virus. In March the Information Ministry announced the formation of a unit to monitor social media and television outlets for “rumors” related to COVID-19.
In September the High Court asserted citizens’ right to privacy and said the collection of call lists or conversations from public or private phone companies without formal approval and knowledge of the individual must stop. In its verdict the court stated, “It is our common experience that nowadays private communications among citizens, including their audios/videos, are often leaked and published in social media for different purposes.”
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Many journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years to life imprisonment.
The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad latitude to interpret it. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government widely used the DSA against persons questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. On April 16, the Department of Nursing and Midwifery banned nurses from speaking to the press after the media reported the health sector’s lack of preparation in managing COVID-19. On April 23, Health Minister Zahid Maleque banned all health officials from speaking with the media.
On October 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release said legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.
During the week of May 3, press outlets reported at least 19 journalists, activists, and other citizens were charged under the DSA with defamation, spreading rumors, and carrying out antigovernment activities. Media accounts of a police case report involving 11 accused individuals detailed Rapid Action Battalion search of mobile phones of two accused and found “antigovernment” chats with other accused individuals. According to the police, these “antigovernment” chats sufficed as evidence to charge and detain the individuals under the DSA.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government were pressured by the government.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge to the viewer. Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record.
On April 10, during the government instituted lockdown to control COVID-19 transmission, a police constable from Hazaribagh police station beat Nasir Uddin Rocky, a journalist with Daily Jugantar, and his brother Saifuddin Quraish, a health worker, even though both men had cards around their necks identifying themselves as essential workers. Officials relieved the constable of his duties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported the police had initiated an investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. In September a group of media experts, NGOs, and journalists said the downward trend of the rule of law and freedom for the media went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.
Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists received threats after publishing their stories.
According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. As of July, 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the Digital Security Act with more than 80 individuals arrested. Law referring to defamation of individuals and organizations was used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.
During June and July, the RSF reported a number of societal attacks against journalists, many in connection with anger over published reports with allegations of corruption and nepotism in the government’s COVID assistance response. According to the RSF, 10 men beat journalist Shariful Alam Chowdhury with steel bars, machetes, and hammers. During the beating, Chowdhury’s arms and legs were broken. Chowdhury’s family told the RSF they believed local village council authorities called for this attack.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government banned virtual private networks and voice over internet protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.
In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.
During the year the government restricted 3G and 4G mobile internet service in Rohingya refugee camps for “security reasons,” according to government officials, and ordered mobile service providers to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged regulating telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs.
Al-Jazeera remained blocked in the country; the government blocked it in March 2019, hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. In August, Amar Desh, a popular news outlet with views favoring the opposition party, started publishing online news through a United Kingdom “.uk” domain. The government had shut down Amar Desh in 2016. Less than 24 hours after Amar Desh began operating, the government blocked the website.
In early April the BRTC blocked Radio Free Asia affiliate BenarNews after the outlet covered a leaked UN memo warning two million Bangladeshis could die from COVID-19 absent appropriate government measures. While access was partially restored in May, observers note the BenarNews website was occasionally blocked up to year’s end.
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.
In June, Begum Rokeya University authorities filed a complaint under the Digital Security Act against Professor Sirajum Munira for a Facebook post the university authorities claimed mocked the late Mohammad Nasim, a former senior government official in the health ministry. Although Munira apologized and deleted the post, police used a screenshot of the deleted post as evidence to arrest her. Several days later a private attorney filed a police complaint under the Digital Security Act against Rajshahi University professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman for making “defamatory comments” regarding Nasim in two Facebook posts. Rahman was later arrested in connection with this complaint. Media reported both Begum Rokeya University and Rajshahi University suspended these professors following their arrests.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.
According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).
The law places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5).
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners and also restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees. While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces. See section 6, indigenous persons.
The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission recently estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.
Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 860,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country.
A National Task Force under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the army and border guards. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission provided coordination. While telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar were restored in August, the one-year restriction limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse, and sharing critical information related to the coronavirus.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.
International organizations reported gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.
Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.
In May the Bangladesh navy rescued Rohingya boat refugees stranded in the open waters and later brought 306 of these refugees to Bhasan Char, a Bangladeshi, remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had no means to travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members. Bhasan Char residents had no means to exit the island, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” Despite pleas from international human rights groups to move the refugees to the mainland, the government rejected the request and said the refugees lived better lives on the island than within the cramped living conditions in Cox’s Bazar.
Authorities have not yet agreed on terms of reference with the UN for an independent protection mission or terms of reference for a technical assessment of Bhasan Char. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups stated the Rohingya refugees relocated to the island as of September lacked medical access and proper sanitation, including supplies for safe menstrual hygiene. Those on the island state they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education. On September 21, several Rohingya refugees began a hunger strike to protest their continued stay on the island. International media, including the Guardian, reported security forces on the island have sexually assaulted Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported navy personnel beat them with rubber sticks and tree branches when they protested their stay on the island. Authorities have not investigated these reports.
International media, including The Guardian, reported authorities relocated an additional 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char in early December, and an additional 1,800 in late December. Future relocations are planned, and questions regarding the voluntariness of those refugees relocating remain.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country. Prior to 2017, the government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of more than 740,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s stance against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system.
Freedom of Movement: There were restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two official camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps; the government stated the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.
Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.
Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.
Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites which were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue hindering the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.
Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certify students have attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. In January the government endorsed an education sector pilot program to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum to 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. Implementation has been delayed due to COVID-19-related closures of refugee learning centers.
Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information on all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
g. Stateless Persons
The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party won a third consecutive five-year term in a December 2018 parliamentary election that observers considered neither free nor fair and was marred by irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With more than 80 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition BNP and its allies won only seven seats. Parliament conferred the official status of opposition on the Jatiya Party, a component of the AL-led governing coalition, which seated 22 members in parliament. During the campaign leading to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, or campaign freely.
During the 2018 national elections, the government did not grant credentials or issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the Election Commission to observe the domestic election.
Low voter turnout, intimidation, irregularities, and low-scale violence targeting opposition-nominated candidates during campaigns and voting marked several by-elections throughout the country during the year.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The government mobilized law enforcement resources to level civil and criminal charges against opposition party leaders. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was convicted and imprisoned in 2018 based on corruption charges filed under a nonpartisan caretaker government in 2008. Up to March, Zia was unable to take advantage of bail awarded in this case pending appeal due to more than two dozen other charges filed against her in recent years by the government. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, the government suspended Zia’s jail sentence for six months in consideration of her age and illness and, on March 25, released her on the condition she would not leave the country. In September the government extended this provision for six more months on the same condition after her family filed a petition seeking her “permanent release” and permission to go abroad for medical care. The BNP claimed police implicated thousands of BNP members in criminal charges prior to the 2018 national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.
Opposition activists faced criminal charges. Leaders and members of Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), the largest Islamist political party in the country, could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Jamaat was deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, and the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members were denied. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue, and practiced some self-censorship to avoid adverse actions by the government.
AL-affiliated organizations such as its student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups. On June 22, activists of the youth and student wings of the Awami League attacked a BNP relief team near Chuna bridge in Shyamnagar upazila of southwestern Satkhira District, leaving at least 10 individuals injured. Newspapers quoted BNP leaders and local residents as saying the BNP relief team was on its way to areas hit by hurricane Amphan.
On September 16, a Speedy Trial Tribunal in Dhaka indicted 25 ruling party student activists for the October 2019 killing of Abrar Fahad Rabbi, a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Rabbi was beaten to death over suspected involvement with the group Shibir, Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, and following several Facebook posts criticizing recent bilateral agreements with India.
The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in previous years remained unresolved; Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and throwing bombs.
In some instances, the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted broadcasting of opposition political events. Political parties, however, had limited outdoor activities this year as the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to go virtual or stay indoors.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In 2018 parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 additional years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women. These female parliamentarians are nominated by the 300 directly elected parliamentarians. The seats reserved for women are distributed among parties proportionately to their parliamentary representation. Political parties failed to meet a parliamentary rule to have women comprise 33 per cent of all committee members by the end of the year, leading the Electoral Commission to propose eliminating the rule altogether.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views.
Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers commented on the government’s strategy to reduce the effectiveness and inhibit operations of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for public criticism of government policies.
The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar, which in turn continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events.
The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced formal and informal governmental restrictions. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals.
The law restricts foreign funding of NGOs and includes punitive provisions for NGOs making “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (that is, government institutions and leaders).
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not respond to a UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances request to visit the country. The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in the country reported 15 other pending requests for UN special rapporteurs to visit the country, including the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association; and the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has seven members, including five honorary positions. The NHRC’s primary activities are to investigate human rights violations, address discrimination in law, educate the public on human rights, and advise the government on key human rights issues.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law only prohibits rape of girls and women by men and physical spousal abuse, but the law excludes marital rape if the girl or woman is older than 13. Rape can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Credible human rights organizations found rape remained a serious issue in the country, with reported rapes throughout the year roughly keeping pace with previous years. Domestic human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra reported at least 975 women were raped during the first nine months of the year. In comparison, Odhikar reported 1,080 women and children were raped between January and December 2019; among them 330 were women, and 737 were below the age of 18.
There were reports of sexual violence committed with impunity. In October a video of several men gang-raping a woman was released on social media. The video showed the men using sticks to torture the women and helping each other rape the woman. In the video the woman can be heard pleading, “I am calling you my father, my brother, please let me go! For the sake of Allah let me go!” Social outrage after the video was released online led to protests throughout the country. In response the government released an ordinance introducing the death penalty as the maximum punishment for rape, and on October 15 a court sentenced five men to death for the 2012 gang rape of a 15-year-old girl. Activists doubted the death penalty would deter future sexual assaults. Local lawyers cite the conviction rate for rape as less than 3 percent.
In September a newlywed couple visited a Sylhet college campus where they were accosted by a group of six men, all members of the ruling party’s student wing. The men forced both of them into a hostel on campus, tied up the husband, and gang-raped the wife. The husband immediately filed a complaint with the police. The incident triggered protests at the college with demonstrators alleging the accused “moved with impunity.” Demonstrators said college authorities kept the hostel–a dormitory controlled by the student political leaders–open during the pandemic, when other educational institutions had closed, “fully aware of various criminal activities” in the dormitories. Police later arrested all named suspects.
According to guidelines for handling rape cases, the officer in charge of a police station must record any information relating to rape or sexual assault irrespective of the place of occurrence. Chemical and DNA tests must be conducted within 48 hours from when the incident was reported. Guidelines also stipulate every police station must have a female police officer available to victims of rape or sexual assault during the recording of the case by the duty officer. The statements of the victim must be recorded in the presence of a lawyer, social worker, protection officer, or any other individual the victim deems appropriate. Victims with disabilities should be provided with government-supported interpretation services, if necessary, and the investigating officer along with a female police officer should escort the victim to a timely medical examination.
A collection of political, sociocultural, and human rights groups said incidents of rape continued to occur due to a culture of impunity. According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to produce witnesses. The burden is on the rape victim to prove a rape occurred, using medical evidence.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Some media and NGOs reported violence against women related to disputes over dowries, despite recent legal changes prohibiting dowry demands. Under law an individual demanding or giving a dowry can be imprisoned for up to five years, fined, or both. ASK found 66 incidents of wives killed over dowry disputes during the first nine months of the year.
In June, Fatema Jinnan Jotsnya, age 25, was admitted to the hospital after her husband hit her on the head with an iron rod. She later died of her injuries. According to the police statement, Jotsnya’s husband beat her every Saturday over unfulfilled dowry expectations. Following Jotsnya’s death, her brother filed a case against the husband, his mother, and three other accused. Police arrested the husband, who confessed to his involvement in Jotsnya’s death.
A Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling allows the use of fatwas (religious edicts) only to settle religious matters; fatwas may not be invoked to justify punishment, nor may they supersede secular law. Islamic tradition dictates only those religious scholars with expertise in Islamic law may declare a fatwa. Despite these restrictions, village religious leaders sometimes made such declarations. The declarations resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.
Incidents of vigilantism against women occurred, sometimes led by religious leaders enforcing fatwas. The incidents included whipping, beating, and other forms of physical violence.
Assailants threw acid in the faces of victims, usually women, leaving them disfigured and often blind. Acid attacks were frequently related to a woman’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal or were related to land or other money disputes. In November 2019 the Acid Survivor Foundation said acid attacks dropped from 494 incidents in 2002 to eight during the first six months of 2019.
Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment is prohibited by a 2009 High Court guideline, harassment, also known as “Eve teasing,” was common according to multiple NGOs. During the pandemic, Manusher Jonno foundation, a local human rights group, found multiple instances of women reporting sexual harassment while receiving food assistance.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. LGBTI groups reported lesbian and bisexual women lacked access to basic sexual and reproductive health care.
Civil society organizations reported that survivors of child marriage had less negotiating power to make family planning choices. According to the 2017-18 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS), three out of five girls marry by age 18, with an adolescent birth rate of 28 percent. UNICEF also found nearly five in 10 child brides gave birth before age 18 and eight in 10 child brides gave birth before age 20.
A full range of contraceptive methods, including long-acting reversible contraception and permanent methods, were available through government, NGO, and for-profit clinics and hospitals. Low-income families were more likely to rely on public family planning services offered free of cost. Religious beliefs and traditional family roles served as barriers to access. Government district hospitals had crisis management centers providing contraceptive care to survivors of sexual assault.
According to the World Bank’s most recent estimates, maternal mortality ratio declined from 2000 to 2017. During that timeframe, the ratio dropped from 434 to 173 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the 2017 BDHS, 12 percent of married women of reproductive age had unmet family planning needs. Weaknesses in the public health system, such as lack of trained providers and equipment in rural areas, resulted in inequitable access to information and services around the country.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The constitution declares all citizens equal before the law with entitlement to equal protection under the law. It also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to those of men “in all spheres of the state and of public life.” According to human rights NGOs, the government did not always enforce the constitution or the laws pertaining to gender equality effectively. Women do not enjoy the same legal status and rights as men in family, property, and inheritance law. Under traditional Islamic inheritance law, daughters inherit only half of what sons do. Under Hindu inheritance law, a widow’s rights to her deceased husband’s property are limited to her lifetime and revert to the male heirs upon her death. In September the High Court issued a ruling stating Hindu widows in the country were entitled to all properties of their deceased husbands–including agricultural property. Previously Hindu women were entitled only to their husband’s homestead properties.
Birth Registration: Individuals are born citizens if their parents were Bangladeshi citizens, if the nationality of the parents is unknown and the child is born in Bangladeshi territory, or if their fathers or grandfathers were born in the territories now part of the country. The government currently does not register births for Rohingya refugees born in Cox’s Bazar. If a person qualifies for citizenship through ancestry, the father or grandfather must have been a permanent resident of these territories in or after 1971. Birth registration is required to obtain a national identity card or passport.
Education: Education is free and compulsory through eighth grade by law, and the government offered subsidies to parents to keep girls in class through 10th grade. Teacher fees, books, and uniforms remained prohibitively costly for many families, despite free classes, and the government distributed hundreds of millions of free textbooks to increase access to education. Enrollments in primary schools showed gender parity, but completion rates fell in secondary school, with more boys than girls completing that level. Early and forced marriage was a factor in girls’ attrition from secondary school. Educational institutions closed in mid-March due to the pandemic and the government extended these closures until October, moving to a fully online curriculum. Numerous civil society organizations said many families of school-aged children struggled to find access to the internet in order to benefit from online schooling.
Child Abuse: Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread. Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace. The law prohibits child abuse and neglect with a penalty of up to five years, a fine, or both. According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the law was not fully implemented, and juvenile cases–like many other criminal cases–often lagged in the judicial system. The Department of Social Services, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, operated “Child Helpline–1098,” a free telephone service designed to help children facing violence, abuse, and exploitation. The hotline received approximately 80,000 calls a year on average and was accessible from anywhere in the country. The hotline center provided services such as rescue, referral, and counseling.
In 2019 the BSAF published a report on child rape, stating children as young as two were among the rape victims and cited a failure of the law and order situation in the country as reason for the increase in child rape. In September the domestic organization Human Rights Support Society found that in the first six months of the year, more than half the number of reported rapes were of children under the age of 16.
During the year former students detailed multiple allegations of sex abuse at the hands of teachers and older pupils in Islamic madrassahs. In September a father of a nine-year-old girl in Cox’s Bazar accused his daughter’s teacher of raping her inside a local madrassa. Many smaller schools had few teachers and no oversight from governing bodies.
Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems. Child labor and abuse at the workplace remained problems in certain industries, mostly in the informal sector, and child domestic workers were vulnerable to all forms of abuse at their informal workplaces.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. The law includes a provision for marriages of women and men at any age in “special circumstances.” The government did not implement the recommendations raised by child rights organizations, human rights organizations, and development partners concerning this provision.
In October, UNICEF reported 51 percent of women married before reaching 18, a decrease from its 2018 report where the organization estimated the figure at 59 percent.
In an effort to reduce early and forced marriages, the government offered stipends for girls’ school expenses beyond the compulsory fifth-grade level. The government and NGOs conducted workshops and public events to teach parents the importance of their daughters waiting until age 18 before marrying. Numerous civil society organizations drew correlations between the extended school closures due to the pandemic and an increased risk of school drop-outs and child marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penalty for sexual exploitation of children is 10 years’ to life imprisonment. Child pornography and selling or distributing such material is prohibited. In 2019 the NGO Terre des Hommes-Netherlands released a report stating street children were the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation but had little legal redress due to a lack of social and financial support and a lengthy criminal justice system. The report said although the government took “necessary legal and institutional measures to combat commercial sexual exploitation, children face multiple challenges in accessing justice.” The report found 75 percent of female children living on Dhaka streets were at risk of sexual exploitation. Underage girls working in brothels were able to produce notarized certificates stating they were older than age 18, and some NGOs claimed corrupt government and law enforcement officials condoned or facilitated these practices. Traffickers lured girls from all over the country into commercial sexual exploitation in legal and illegal brothels and private hotels.
Displaced Children: See section 2.d.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no Jewish community in the country. Politicians and imams reportedly used anti-Semitic statements to gain support from their constituencies.
Trafficking in Persons
See the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for persons with disabilities, and the government took measures to enforce these provisions more effectively. NGOs reported the government took cases of violence based on discrimination against disabled persons seriously, and official action was taken to investigate and punish those responsible for violence and abuses against those with disabilities. Nonetheless, a May academic study found 2.2 million criminal cases against persons with disabilities pending. The study determined that persons with disabilities were “the most vulnerable among the vulnerable.”
Although the law requires physical structures be made accessible to those with disabilities, the government did not implement the law effectively. For example, government buildings had no accommodations for disabled individuals. The law calls for the establishment of local committees to expedite implementation of the law, but most committees had not been activated. In many cases local authorities were not aware of their responsibilities under this law.
The law requires persons with disabilities to register for identity cards to track their enrollment in educational institutions and access to jobs. This registration allows them to be included in voter lists, to cast votes, and to participate in elections. It states no person, organization, authority, or corporation shall discriminate against persons with disabilities and allows for fines or three years’ imprisonment for giving unequal treatment for school, work, or inheritance based on disability, although implementation of the law was uneven. A 27-member National Coordination Committee is charged with coordinating relevant activities among all government organizations and private bodies to fulfill the objectives of the law. Implementation of the law was slow, delaying the formation and functioning of Disability Rights and Protection Committees required by the legislation.
According to the NGO Action against Disability, some children with disabilities did not attend public school due to lack of special accommodation, but data was not readily available. The government trained teachers on inclusive education and recruited disability specialists at the district level. The government also allocated stipends for students with disabilities. A peer-reviewed study released in July found many families with children with disabilities lacked knowledge and access to government programs and benefits. Many organizations reported visually disabled persons experienced difficulties accessing technology, depriving them of equal access to education, information, health, and other basic human rights.
The law affords persons with disabilities the same access to information rights as nondisabled persons, but family and community dynamics often influenced whether these rights were exercised.
The law identifies persons with disabilities as a priority group for government-sponsored legal services. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Department of Social Services, and National Foundation for the Development of the Disabled are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.
The government took official action to investigate those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.
Government facilities for treating persons with mental disabilities were inadequate. The Ministry of Health established child development centers in all public medical colleges to assess neurological disabilities. Several private initiatives existed for medical and vocational rehabilitation as well as for employment of persons with disabilities. National and international NGOs provided services and advocated for persons with disabilities. The government operates 103 disability information and service centers in all 64 districts, where local authorities provided free rehabilitation services and assistive devices. The government also promoted autism research and awareness. The government inaugurated an electronic system to disburse social welfare payments, including disability allowances.
Government inaction limited the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in civic life, including accessibility during elections.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
There were no major attacks on religious minorities motivated by transnational violent extremism. There were, however, reports of attacks on Hindu and Buddhist property and temples for economic and political reasons, and some of these faith groups said attacks on religious structures increased during the pandemic.
NGOs reported national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) suffered from restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment.
The estimated 300,000 Urdu-speaking population (known as Biharis, originally Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to then-East Pakistan before the Bangladesh Liberation War) were formerly stateless, but members from this community said their requests to obtain passports were rejected by immigration officers due to their address. The overwhelming majority of this population still resided in refugee-like camps established by the International Community of the Red Cross in the 1970s, when many believed they would return to Pakistan following the 1971 war.
The CHT indigenous community experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education. These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which has not been fully implemented–specifically the portions of the accord empowering a CHT-specific special administrative system composed of the three Hill District Councils and the Regional Council. Indigenous persons from the CHT were unable to participate effectively in decisions affecting their lands due to disagreements regarding land dispute resolution procedures under the Land Commission Act.
In April during the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple NGOs reported severe food insecurity owing to the abrupt job loss by indigenous persons outside CHT. Since many indigenous persons most in need of assistance lived in remote areas difficult to access by vehicles, many indigenous communities reported receiving no government assistance. In October a group of indigenous tribal leaders presented a memorandum to the government stating a significant portion of the food security needs of marginalized communities in CHT remained unmet.
In addition to food insecurity, an August study found land confiscations, livelihood risks, and violence against indigenous women increased during the coronavirus pandemic. While the country had a 20 percent poverty rate, poverty in the plains where some indigenous persons lived was over 80 percent and over 65 percent in CHT. The study also found a lack of health care for indigenous persons. Other organizations corroborated health care available to indigenous persons was well below the standard available to nonindigenous persons in the country.
Indigenous communities in areas other than the CHT reported the loss of land to Bengali Muslims, and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups reported deforestation to support Rohingya refugee camps and other commercial pursuits caused severe environmental degradation in their land, adversely affecting their livelihoods. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In September an indigenous persons organization reported Bengali settlers destroying indigenous land in Bandarban district in order to construct brick kilns. According to the organization, the environmental degradation put the locals’ health at risk.
The central government retained authority over land use. The land commission, designed to investigate and return all illegally acquired land, did not resolve any disputes during the year. According to one organization, Naika Mardi, an indigenous person and Liberation War fighter, was unable to register 0.04 acres of land to his name, even after trying for 10 years. Madi had been living on this land since before independence in 1971.
The Chakma and Marma indigenous communities, organized under different political groups, engaged in intraindigenous community violence. The factional clashes between and within the United Peoples’ Democratic Forum (UPDF) and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti resulted mostly from the desire to establish supremacy in particular geographic areas. Media reported many leaders of these factions were engaged in extortion and smuggling of money, drugs, and arms. Meanwhile, the deaths and violence remained unresolved. During the year NGOs and indigenous persons themselves warned intraparty violence in CHT had sharply risen.
In 2019 UPDF leader and indigenous rights activist Michael Chakma disappeared after he left his house for an organizational event. Human rights groups and activists pressed the government to investigate his disappearance and claimed Chakma’s criticisms of government activities played a direct factor in his disappearance. Despite a May 2019 High Court order to the Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary for a report on Chakma’s disappearance, no investigation had begun at year’s end. Police said only that they could not find anyone named “Michael Chakma” in the country. Many observers compared this case with the 1996 disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, another indigenous rights activist and dissident. Despite 39 officers investigating the 1996 case, police in 2018 said they found only “initial proof” of her abduction, while admitting an overall failure to identify the culprit, and concluded the chances of recovering Kalpana Chakma remained unlikely.
Reports of sexual assaults on indigenous women and children by Bengali neighbors or security personnel remain unresolved. In September an organization reported two military personnel raped a ninth-grade indigenous girl from the Kulaura Cameli Duncan Foundation School.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Members of LGBTI communities received threatening messages via telephone, text, and social media, and some were harassed by police.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. LGBTI groups reported official discrimination in employment and occupation, housing, and access to government services.
Organizations specifically assisting lesbians continued to be rare. Strong social stigma based on sexual orientation was common and prevented open discussion of the subject.
The government took positive steps to increase LGBTI inclusion. On September 16, the Director General of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics announced the 2021 national census would include hijra as a “third gender” category.
Social stigma against HIV and AIDS and against higher-risk populations could be a barrier for accessing health services, especially for the transgender community and men who have sex with men.
Vigilante killings occurred, but fell from the high totals in 2019 when human rights groups reported 54 individuals lynched, 44 in July 2019 alone. In September police charged 15 suspects with the killing of housewife Taslima Begum, who was publicly lynched in July 2019 after a mob wrongly suspected her of child abduction. Begum and her four-year-old daughter were en route to a government primary school to inquire regarding admitting her girl to school when she was killed. The issuance of illegal fatwas and village arbitration, which a prominent local NGO defined as rulings given by community leaders rather than religious scholars, also occurred.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although labor rights organizations said cumbersome requirements for union registration remained. The law requires a minimum of 20 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to agree to be members before the Ministry of Labor and Employment may grant approval for registration of a union. The ministry may request a court to dissolve the union if membership falls below 20 percent. Generally the law allows only wall-to-wall (entire factory) bargaining units. NGOs reported the Registrar of Trade Unions regularly abused its discretion and denies applications for no reason, for reasons not recognized in law or regulation, or by fabricating shortcomings in the application. One union representative explained she had completed all paperwork to form a union and had support from 30 percent of workers, but the union registration was rejected by the Directorate of Labor because the factory claimed it had hundreds of additional employees. Organizers’ names were shared with the factory owner and all were fired.
The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Firefighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants are not entitled to join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions.
The law continued to ban trade unions and severely restricted the right to organize and bargain collectively for the nearly 500,000 workers in export processing zones (EPZs). Worker welfare associations (WWAs), dominated by the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), continue to replace the function of independent, democratically elected unions in EPZs. The law strictly limits the right to strike, giving BEPZA’s chairperson discretion to ban any strike viewed as prejudicial to the public interest. The law provides for EPZ labor tribunals, appellate tribunals, and conciliators, but those institutions were not established. Instead, eight labor courts and one appellate labor court heard EPZ cases. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. With the exception of limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, the labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but reinstatement was rarely awarded.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment may deregister unions for other reasons with the approval of a labor court. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the cases of dissolution or denial of registration. Unfair labor practices, including antiunion discrimination, were expressly prohibited, but 2018 amendments to labor law halved penalties for both employers and workers. Workers were often charged with unfair labor practices; employers rarely were. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. The law provides for the right to conduct legal strikes but with many limitations. For example the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor.
The law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has the authority to mediate wage-related disputes, but its decisions are not binding. The government reported nine complaints were filed for unfair labor practices; three were resolved according to the law and standard operating procedures, six remained open, and no employers were penalized. Trade union federations reported they have stopped filing unfair labor cases due to the enormous backlog of existing cases in labor courts.
The law establishes that workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, however, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously. Work stoppages, strikes, and workplace actions were prevalent during the year in several sectors, and generally concerned past-due wages, improper or illegal shutdowns, layoffs, terminations and discrimination. In one example, the manager of Ettade Jeans Ltd. filed a criminal case against 65 to 75 workers who, protesting an announced six-month delay to their holiday bonus, vandalized the factory, severely injured and robbed a man in management, and threatened other workers.
According to Solidarity Center, union registration applications and approvals have declined significantly since 2013, and workers face significant challenges registering unions. Despite the adoption of standard operating procedures for union registration in 2017, Solidarity Center reported the process routinely takes longer than the 60-day maximum time, and nearly half of all union applications are arbitrarily denied. Through August, Solidarity Center’s partners assisted nine unions with their registration, and five were approved. The government reported receiving 231 total valid applications in 2020 and approving 145, with 68 still to be reviewed in September.
Workers in the ready-made garment sector reported particular resistance when seeking to establish unions and engage in collective bargaining. In a 2018 survey, the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a local think tank, collected data from 3,856 ready-made garment factories employing 3.6 million workers, and found 97.5 percent of them had no union. During the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the ready-made garment sector had 909 active trade unions and 1,609 participation committees. Labor leaders asserted while there are perhaps 80 to 90 active unions, only 30 to 40 actually negotiate because intimidation, corruption, and violence continue to constrain union organizing. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. The tea sector had one union–the largest in the country–representing 95,000 to 100,000 workers.
Labor rights groups reported workers routinely faced retaliation and violence for asserting their rights under the law, including organizing unions, raising concerns, or even attending union information sessions. For example in June, management at Romana Fashion of East West Industrial Park fired 122 workers including seven union leaders when they pointed out union members were being transferred to different floors and divisions. After thousands protested the prime minister’s decision to close 26 state-owned jute mills and force 50,000 into early retirement, two labor leaders were taken from their homes on July 5 by unidentified, armed men, then appeared in police custody 30 hours later under charges stemming from a 2019 protest. When workers protested the closure of Viyellatex Limited, police beat and filed false cases against them, and factory management blacklisted 95 workers for their alleged misconduct and posted a list of their names on the factory wall. Individuals harassed and blocked Solidarity Center staff from approaching the factory, threatening sexual violence against female staff who tried to meet with workers.
Additionally, workers in unions have been subjected to police violence, mass dismissals, and arrests of union leaders for asserting their rights to protest. Police intimidated unions in the ready-made garment industry by frequently visiting their meetings and offices, photographing or recording meetings, and monitoring NGOs supporting trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted major discrepancies in labor legislation that do not align with the standards of the International Labor Organization and emphasized concerns regarding police crackdowns on workers protesting wages. ITUC also called for more measures to restrain interference in union elections.
According to labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a participation committee (PC). The law states there shall not be any participation committee if any registered trade union exists in a factory. Employers often selected or appointed workers for the PC instead of permitting worker elections to determine those positions. Employers also failed to comply with laws and regulations to ensure the effectiveness and independence of PCs.
Workers from several factories also reported that since August 2018, BGMEA and factory owners have allegedly used a database of ready-made garment workers to blacklist those who brought demands to management or tried to form unions. Although created after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in order to have a record of workers (and potential victims of future disasters), the database now serves to track known union organizers or anyone who has brought a complaint to management to prevent these staff from finding employment at any other factory. Labor organizations also cited examples of factory owners willing to pay up to $12,000 to the Department of Labor to dismiss a union registration application, or to share the names of organizers.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. Inspection mechanisms that enforce laws against forced labor did not function effectively. Resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were inadequate. The law also provides that victims of forced labor have access to shelter and other protective services afforded to trafficking victims.
Over the past year, law enforcement conducted fewer investigations and denied credible reports of official complicity in hundreds of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation cases. The government does not provide sufficient victim protective services, nor does it consistently follow victim identification procedures. There are no government-owned shelters for adult male victims.
Some individuals recruited to work overseas with fraudulent employment offers subsequently were exploited abroad under conditions of forced labor or debt bondage. Many migrant workers assumed debt to pay high recruitment fees imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies, and illegally by unlicensed subagents.
Children and adults were also forced into domestic servitude and bonded labor that involved restricted movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse (see section 7.c.).
Traffickers exploited workers in forced labor through debt-based coercion and bonded labor in the shrimp and fish processing industries, aluminum and garment factories, brick kilns, dry fish production, and shipbreaking. NGOs reported officials permit traffickers to recruit and operate at India-Bangladesh border crossings and maritime embarkation points.
The over 860,000 undocumented Rohingya men, women, and children in refugee camps, who do not have access to formal schooling or work, are vulnerable to forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, particularly by local criminal networks. International organizations report that officials take bribes from traffickers to access refugee camps.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law regulates child employment, and the regulations depend on the type of work and the child’s age. The law establishes the minimum age for work as 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work as 18, with no exceptions. Minors may work up to five hours per day and 30 hours per week in factories and mines or up to seven hours per day and 42 hours per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through eighth grade.
The government continued to fund and participate in programs to eliminate or prevent child labor, including building schools and a $35 million government-funded three-year project that began in 2018 and removed approximately 90,000 children from hazardous jobs. In 2019 the program reintegrated 1,254 children into schools and provided rehabilitation for 3,501 children as well as livelihood support for their parents.
The Labor and Employment Ministry’s enforcement mechanisms were insufficient for the large, urban informal sector, and authorities rarely enforced child labor laws outside the export-garment and shrimp-processing sectors. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. DIFE enforces child labor laws in 42 sectors, and in the 2019-20 fiscal year it targeted four hazardous sectors in which to eliminate child labor completely: engineering, bakery, plastic, and hotels. Labor inspectors were not authorized to assess penalties–they have the power only to send legal notices and file cases in court. Even when courts imposed fines, however, they were too low to deter child labor violations.
Agriculture and other informal sectors that had no government oversight employed large numbers of children. The government found children working eight to 10 hours per day in restaurants, engineering workshops, local transportation, and domestic work. The government also reported underage children are found in almost all sectors except the export-oriented ready-made garment (RMG) and shrimp sectors.
Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor in the production of bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes), footwear, furniture and steel, glass, matches, poultry, salt, shrimp, soap, textiles, and jute, including forced child labor in the production of dried fish and bricks. Children also performed dangerous tasks in the production of garments and leather goods bound for the local market, where the Bangladesh Labor Foundation reported 58 percent of workers are under 18, and 18 percent are under the age of 15.
According to a 2016 Overseas Development Institute report based on a survey of 2,700 households in Dhaka’s slums, 15 percent of six- to 14-year-old children were out of school and engaged in full-time work. These children were working well beyond the 42-hour limit set by national legislation. In a survey conducted by an international organization, more than 400,000 children were found engaged in domestic work. Children engaged in forced labor in the leather industry and in criminal activities, such as begging and the production and transport of drugs. In begging rings, traffickers abused children to increase earnings.
Rohingya children residing in refugee camps were vulnerable to forced labor. Rohingya girls were trafficked from the camps to Dhaka or foreign countries for domestic servitude. Rohingya children recruited to work outside the refugee camps were reported to be underpaid or unpaid, subjected to excessive working hours, or in bonded labor as shop hands, domestic workers, fishermen, and rickshaw pullers.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The labor law prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex or disability, but it does not prohibit other discrimination based on sex, disability, social status, caste, sexual orientation, or similar factors. The constitution prohibits adverse discrimination by the state on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth and expressly extends that prohibition to government employment; it allows affirmative action programs for the benefit of disadvantaged populations. The law does not describe a penalty for discrimination. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes.
The garment sector traditionally offered greater employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment-sector workers this year, making up more than 50 percent of the total ready-made garment workforce, according to official statistics, although statistics varied widely due to a lack of data. Despite representing a majority of total workers, women were generally underrepresented in supervisory and management positions and generally earned less than their male counterparts, even when performing similar functions. A 2017 Oxford University and Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education Economics Institute study found women earned lower wages in export-oriented garment factories, even after controlling for worker productivity. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of the wage gap remained even after controlling for skills, which the study attributed to higher mobility for male workers. Women were also subjected to abuse in factories, including sexual harassment. Solidarity Center partners reported there were no functioning antiharassment committees in garment factories, but the Garment Exporters’ Association announced it had visited more than 1,100 factories to confirm the committees had been established.
In the tea industry, female workers faced discrimination. Male workers received rice rations for their female spouses, but female tea workers’ male spouses were not given rice rations, as they were not considered dependents.
Some religious, ethnic, and other minorities reported discrimination, particularly in the private sector (see section 6).
The laws prohibiting adolescents from participating in dangerous work specify that women are equal to adolescents and are, therefore, prohibited from working with hazardous machinery, cleaning machinery in motion, working between moving parts, or working underground or underwater.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The National Minimum Wage Board established minimum monthly wages on a sector-by-sector basis. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation, but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers, but many were above the poverty level. Failure to pay the specified minimum wage is punishable by a jail term up to one year, a fine, or both, and the employer should have to pay owed wages.
By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours, but it may be extended to 60 hours, subject to the payment of an overtime allowance that is double the basic wage. Overtime cannot be compulsory. Workers must have one hour of rest if they work for more than six hours a day or a half-hour of rest for more than five hours’ work a day. The law states that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year, fixed by the employer in consultation with the collective bargaining agent (CBA), if any. Factory workers are supposed to receive one day off every week. Shop workers receive one and one-half days off per week. The labor law did not specify a penalty for forced overtime or failing to pay overtime wages.
The law establishes occupational health and safety standards, and amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The labor law specified sanctions when failure to comply caused harm; for loss of life, violators are subject to a four-year jail term, a fine, or both; for serious injury, a two-year jail term, a fine, or both; and for injury or danger violators face a six-month jail term, a fine, or both. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.
Labor law implementing rules outline the process for forming occupational safety and health committees in factories, and the government reported approximately 2,175 safety committees had been formed as of July 2018. The committees include both management and workers nominated by the CBA or, in absence of CBA, workers representatives of the factory’s worker participation committee. Where there is no union or worker participation committee, DIFE arranges an election among the workers for their representatives.
DIFE’s resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. Labor inspectors only have the authority to make unannounced inspections in non-EPZ factories. They do not have the authority to initiate sanctions; they may notify establishments of violations in writing and lodge complaints in labor courts. DIFE regularly filed cases in the labor courts against employers for administrative violations of the law, such as not maintaining documents. MOLE reported DIFE has filed cases against some factories for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime during the year, but labor organizations had not seen any cases. There were also criticisms regarding DIFE’s complaint mechanism. In the current system, a worker must enter his or her name, position, and identity number in DIFE’s complaint form. Once received, DIFE issues a letter to factory management with reference to the complaint form. This provides inadequate protections to workers and raises doubts on the efficacy of the mechanism for filing complaints.
Although increased focus on the garment industry improved safety compliance in some garment factories, resources, inspections, and remediation were generally not adequate across sectors. Many ready-made garment employers failed to adequately train workers on safety and hazardous materials, provide required equipment, or ensure functioning safety committees, all required by law. Legal limits on hours of work were violated routinely and a labor rights NGO found 95 percent of factories did not comply with overtime limits. Employers often required workers, including pregnant women, to labor 12 hours a day or more to meet quotas and export deadlines, but they did not always properly compensate workers for their time. According to Solidarity Center, workers often willingly worked overtime in excess of the legal limit. Employers in many cases delayed workers’ pay or denied full leave benefits.
After international garment brands cancelled orders due to a decrease in demand following COVID-19, the government and employers’ associations asked employers not to terminate workers and to ensure continuous payment of salaries, allowances, and other dues of all industries, factories, and tea estate workers. Local news media and labor organizations, however, reported dozens of factories terminated or laid off tens of thousands of workers without paying severance or following the proper procedures for notifying the government as requested. After a one-month lockdown, factories slowly reopened with widely varying procedures and hygiene facilities to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19.
In April hundreds of garment workers in 11 factories in Savar protested unpaid wages from the previous month. Some officials of the small factories went into hiding, while others dispersed protestors by assuring them that wages would be paid shortly.
In the first half of the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported 16 major industrial accidents in which 11 persons were seriously injured and 18 were killed. The incidents took place in rice and steel mills, the ship breaking sector, and stone quarries. The two Western brand-led initiatives that formed to address widespread structural, fire, and electrical safety issues in the garment sector after the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse both ceased their operations in the country during the year. The High Court had ordered Nirapon (the organization continuing the work of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and representing most North American clothing brands) to suspend its audit and training activities after a factory reopened an old case against the Alliance to sue Nirapon. Also under a court-ordered memorandum of understanding, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord,” consisting mostly of European brands), handed over its operations, staff, and relationships with garment sector factories producing for Accord brands to the newly-established Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council, whose board includes representation by industry, brands, and trade unions.
Revisions to the building code were published that failed to meet basic international fire safety standards and government oversight of building safety outside of the garment export sector remained limited. Although the brand-led Accord and Alliance improved structural, fire, and electrical safety conditions in 2,300 RMG factories manufacturing for Western brands, safety auditors reported fire detection and suppression systems in these factories often did not work following installation because they were not maintained properly. Several hundred additional RMG factories producing for domestic sale or for export to foreign markets fell under the government’s National Initiative, which had not made much progress on safety remediation since its establishment in 2017. DIFE is developing an Industrial Safety Unit to launch by December 2021 to oversee the National Initiative factories and, eventually, the safety of industries.
Few reliable labor statistics were available on the large informal sector that employed most workers, and it was difficult to enforce labor laws in the sector. The Bureau of Statistics reported 51.3 million workers in the informal labor sector in 2016, which was 86.2 percent of the total labor force.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and insurgents.
Military courts are primarily responsible for investigating killings by security forces and paramilitary forces.
Reports of custodial death cases, in which prisoners or detainees were killed or died in police and judicial custody, continued. In June the National Campaign against Torture reported the deaths of 125 persons in police custody in 2019. The report stated 74 percent of the deaths were due to alleged torture or foul play, while 19 percent occurred under suspicious circumstances. Of the 125 deaths in police custody, Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number at 14, followed by Tamil Nadu and Punjab with 11 deaths each. The 125 deaths in police custody documented by the National Campaign against Torture in 2019 included 13 victims from Dalit and tribal communities and 15 Muslims.
On June 23, Ponraj Jeyaraj and his son, Beniks Jeyaraj, died while in police custody in Tamil Nadu. The two men were arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations by keeping their shop open after lockdown hours. Police beat them while in custody, and they subsequently died from their injuries while in a medical facility for prisoners. State law enforcement officials arrested 10 officers involved in the detention. The Tamil Nadu state government announced it would provide two million rupees ($27,000) in financial compensation to the victims’ family. The case remained under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the state government’s human rights commission. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs such as Amnesty International India (AII) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the high numbers of custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu, the second highest number in the country according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), and have called for accountability and investigation into these cases.
In August the NCRB released the Prison Statistics of India (PSI) 2019 report, which documented 1,775 inmate deaths under judicial custody in 2019.
During the COVID-19 national lockdown from March 25 to April 30, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) compiled a list of 15 fatalities that included deaths from excessive police action such as canings and beatings.
Killings by government and nongovernment forces, including insurgents and terrorists, were reported in Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states, and Maoist-affected areas of the country (see section 1.g.). The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) reported the deaths of 63 civilians, 89 security force members, and 284 insurgents countrywide as a result of terrorism or insurgency attacks. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) reported 229 killings in 107 incidents in the first six months of the year. JKCCS also reported 32 extrajudicial killings in the first half of the year in Jammu and Kashmir.
Formal charges have yet to be filed in the 2018 killing of Rising Kashmir editor in chief Shujaat Bukhari and his two police bodyguards. A police investigation alleged that terrorists belonging to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba targeted Bukhari in retaliation for his support of a government-backed peace effort. While a police special investigation team arrested three persons in 2019 “for their alleged role in arranging the logistics,” the perpetrators were still at large, and the case remained open.
In 2019 the CBI filed charges against 10 Manipur police personnel for their alleged involvement in the death of a criminal suspect in 2009. In June the CBI filed charges in 14 additional cases but closed the investigation in seven cases. Families of the victims challenged the dismissal in five of the closed cases.
On July 29, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) directed the Telangana government to pay 500,000 rupees ($6,800) as compensation to the families of five Muslims killed by police forces in 2015 after facing accusations of various terrorism charges. The order followed the failure of the state government to comply with a 2018 directive to provide compensation to families of the victims.
Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the central government may designate a state or union territory as a “disturbed area,” authorizing security forces in the state to use deadly force to “maintain law and order” and to arrest any person “against whom reasonable suspicion exists” without informing the detainee of the grounds for arrest. The law also provides security forces immunity from civilian prosecution for acts committed in regions under the AFSPA. In 2016 the Supreme Court stated that every death caused by the armed forces in a disturbed area, whether of a civilian or a terrorist suspect, should be investigated.
The AFSPA remained in effect in Nagaland, parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Assam, and a version of the law was in effect in Jammu and Kashmir. The AFSPA was renewed through January 2021 in Nagaland, which had been under the AFSPA for nearly six decades. Human rights organizations asserted the law is in violation of Article 21 of the constitution and continued to call for its repeal, citing numerous alleged human rights violations.
Nongovernmental forces, including organized insurgents and terrorists, committed numerous killings. Maoists in Jharkhand and Bihar continued to attack security forces and infrastructure facilities, including roads, railways, and communication towers. The SATP reported terrorist attacks resulted in the death of 99 civilians, 106 security force members, and 383 terrorists or insurgents during the year; this was the lowest numbers of civilians killed since the SATP began reporting this data in 2000. As of July terrorists killed six political party leaders in Jammu and Kashmir.
There were allegations police failed to file required arrest reports for detained persons, resulting in hundreds of unresolved disappearances. Police and government officials denied these claims. The central government reported state government screening committees informed families about the status of detainees. There were reports, however, that prison guards sometimes required bribes from families to confirm the detention of their relatives.
Disappearances attributed to government forces, paramilitary forces, and insurgents occurred in areas of conflict during the year (see section 1.g.).
In February the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances identified seven cases under its standard procedures concerning individuals who were arrested, detained, or otherwise deprived of rights. The Working Group had not received permission to visit the country since it first submitted a request to the government in 2010.
There were allegations of enforced disappearance by the Jammu and Kashmir police. Although authorities denied these charges and claimed no enforced disappearances had occurred since 2015, the International Federation for Human Rights reported that cases of enforced disappearances continued through 2019. The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission ordered an investigation of enforced disappearances in 2018.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture, but there were reports that police forces allegedly employed such practices.
Police beatings of prisoners resulted in custodial deaths (see section 1.a.).
In August 2019 CHRI’s Inside Haryana Prisons publication reported more than 47 percent of inmates were victims of torture and inhuman treatment during police remand.
On August 28, AII alleged that members of the Delhi police committed human rights violations during February riots in Delhi. The report documented complicity with violence, torture of arrested protesters while in custody, and excessive use of force. The report alleged Delhi police were negligent in their duty to protect citizens and did not respond to repeated requests for assistance.
On July 7, the state government of Gujarat suspended six police officials in Vadodara charged with torturing and killing 62-year-old Babu Shaikh while in police custody and destroying evidence of the crime. Shaikh was reported missing after being taken into police custody in December 2019.
The law does not permit authorities to admit coerced confessions into evidence, but NGOs and citizens alleged authorities used torture to coerce confessions. Authorities allegedly also used torture as a means to extort money or as summary punishment.
There were reports of abuse in prisons at the hands of guards and inmates, as well as reports that police raped female and male detainees.
In July the state Crime Branch in Odisha dismissed and subsequently arrested the inspector in charge of the Biramitrapur police station for the gang rape of a minor girl inside the police station. Five other persons were under investigation in connection with the crime.
The government authorized the NHRC to investigate rape cases involving police officers. By law the NHRC may also request information about cases involving the army and paramilitary forces, but it has no mandate to investigate those cases. NGOs claimed NHRC statistics undercounted the number of rapes committed in police custody. Some rape victims were unwilling to report crimes due to social stigma and fear of retribution if the perpetrator was a police officer or official. There were reports police officials refused to register rape cases.
In March a Delhi court sentenced Uttar Pradesh state lawmaker Kuldeep Sengar to life imprisonment for culpable homicide and criminal conspiracy in the death of a rape victim’s father and ordered him to pay 2.5 million rupees ($35,000) in compensation. Sengar’s brother allegedly tortured the victim’s father after she came forward with a rape allegation against him in 2017, and the victim’s father died in police custody. In 2019 the victim was critically injured in a head-on road collision, which the victim’s family alleged Sengar orchestrated to kill her. In 2019 the Supreme Court directed the state government to pay compensation to the victim and transferred all related litigation to courts in Delhi.
There were reports of security forces acting with impunity although members were also held accountable for illegal actions. In December the Indian Army indicted an officer and two others of extrajudicial killings in Jammu and Kashmir. Also, Jammu and Kashmir Police filed local charges against the accused. Additionally, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) may request information about cases involving the army and paramilitary forces.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were frequently life threatening, most notably due to inadequate sanitary conditions, lack of medical care, and extreme overcrowding.
Physical Conditions: Prisons were often severely overcrowded, and food, medical care, sanitation, and environmental conditions frequently were inadequate. Potable water was not universally available. Prisons and detention centers remained underfunded and understaffed, and lacked sufficient infrastructure. Prisoners were sometimes physically mistreated.
According to the PSI 2019 report released in August, there were 1,350 prisons in the country with a total authorized capacity of 403,739 persons. The actual incarcerated population was 478,600. Persons awaiting trial accounted for approximately 70 percent of the prison population. The law requires detention of juveniles in rehabilitative facilities, although at times authorities detained juveniles in adult prisons, especially in rural areas. Authorities often held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. The NCRB’s PSI 2019 report acknowledged overcrowding as “one of the biggest problems faced by prison inmates.” Prisons in Uttar Pradesh reported the highest overcrowding in the country with an occupancy rate of 168 percent, followed by Uttarakhand at 159 percent, and Meghalaya at 157 percent.
In official documents presented to the Karnataka High Court on February 27, the Karnataka government reported 4,916 prisoners diagnosed with mental health conditions and 237 diagnosed with severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The court ordered the government to submit reports on mental health treatment provided to prisoners.
Since 2009, 30 persons had died at various immigration detention centers in Assam. A 2019 report by the Assam state assembly noted that ethnic minorities constituted a majority of these deaths: 26 were Bengali speakers, while two each belonged to the Adivasi and Koch-Rajbongshi communities.
On March 23, during the national COVID-19 lockdown, the Supreme Court ordered states and union territories to release certain prisoners on parole or interim bail. The state governments of Goa, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra separately ordered prison systems to parole or furlough inmates to reduce prison overcrowding.
Administration: Authorities permitted prisoners to register complaints with state and national human rights commissions, but the authority of the commissions extended only to recommending that authorities redress grievances. Government officials reportedly often failed to comply with a Supreme Court order instructing the central government and local authorities to conduct regular checks on police stations to monitor custodial violence.
Authorities permitted visitors limited access to prisoners, although some family members claimed authorities denied access to relatives, particularly in restive areas, including Jammu and Kashmir.
Independent Monitoring: The NHRC received and investigated prisoner complaints of human rights violations throughout the year, but civil society representatives believed few prisoners filed complaints due to fear of retribution from prison guards or officials.
In many states the NHRC made unannounced visits to monitor state prisons, including training workshops and seminars for officials, but NHRC jurisdiction does not extend to military detention centers. An NHRC special rapporteur visited state prisons to verify that authorities provided medical care to all inmates. The rapporteur visited prisons on a regular basis throughout the year but did not release a report to the public or the press.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both occurred during the year. Police also used special security laws to postpone judicial reviews of arrests. Pretrial detention was arbitrary and lengthy, sometimes exceeding the duration of the sentence given to those convicted.
According to human rights NGOs, police used torture, mistreatment, and arbitrary detention to obtain forced or false confessions. In some cases police reportedly held suspects without registering their arrests and denied detainees sufficient food and water.
Following the central government’s August 2019 abrogation of a special constitutional provision that provided autonomous status for Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used a public safety law to detain local politicians without trial. Most detainees were released during the year. Media reports indicated those released were required to sign bonds agreeing not to engage in political activity.
In December 2019 Mohammed Faisal, a member of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations, was assaulted by Uttar Pradesh police and spent 14 days in jail. The Muslim lawyer attended protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to offer emergency legal and other support services. NGO activists in Uttar Pradesh alleged instances of persecution of human rights lawyers for defending their clients and challenging unlawful conduct.
In cases other than those involving security risks, terrorism, or insurgency, police may detain an individual without charge for up to 30 days, although an arrested person must be brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest. Lengthy arbitrary detention remained a significant problem due to overburdened and underresourced court systems and a lack of legal safeguards.
Arraignment of detainees must occur within 24 hours unless authorities hold the suspect under a preventive detention law. The law allows police to summon individuals for questioning, but it does not grant police prearrest investigative detention authority. There were incidents in which authorities allegedly detained suspects beyond legal limits. By law authorities must allow family member access to detainees, but this was not always observed.
Due to delays in completion of repatriation procedures, foreign nationals often remained incarcerated beyond the expiration of their sentences. The PSI 2019 revealed there were 765 prisoners belonging to the “other” category. According to experts these were most likely prisoners who completed their sentence but were yet to be released. This included approximately 250 Rohingya arrested for illegal entry, of whom 150 had reportedly completed their sentences. The government reportedly impeded access of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to these individuals, which prevented adjudication of their asylum claims. Right-to-information requests from 26 states indicated there were approximately 3,900 foreign nationals in prisons across the country. Of these, 1,647 were undergoing trials, 1,377 were convicts, and 871 were awaiting repatriation.
In August, Monu died after allegedly being tortured in police custody in Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli district. Media reports said he was detained along with four others for theft of a motorcycle. The district police chief (DPC) admitted that Monu was illegally detained for more than two days without being produced before a magistrate. The DPC subsequently suspended the head of the police station.
The law requires every arrested person to be produced before a judicial magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. Other than in Jammu and Kashmir, the National Security Act allows police to detain persons considered security risks without charge or trial for as long as one year. The law allows family members and lawyers to visit national security detainees and requires authorities to inform a detainee of the grounds for detention within five days, or 10 to 15 days in exceptional circumstances. Nonetheless, rights activists noted provisions allowing detainees to meet family or lawyers were not followed in practice, especially in the states of Odisha, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra.
The Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Jammu and Kashmir, permits authorities to detain persons without charge or judicial review for up to two years without visitation from family members. After extending her detention by three months during the year, authorities released former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti, who had been detained under the PSA. According to the JKCCS, 662 individuals were arrested under the PSA in 2019, of whom 412 remained under detention as of August. The government released most political activists from detention, although several Kashmiri politicians were reportedly detained in the period prior to the district development council elections in December.
Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir allowed detainees access to a lawyer during interrogation, but human rights groups documented that police routinely employed arbitrary detention and denied detainees further access to lawyers and medical attention.
Authorities must promptly inform persons detained on criminal charges of the charges against them and of their right to legal counsel. By law a magistrate may authorize the detention of an accused person for a period of no more than 90 days prior to filing charges. Under standard criminal procedure, authorities must release the accused on bail after 90 days if charges are not filed. NCRB data released in January showed most individuals awaiting trial spent more than three months in jail before they could secure bail, and more than 63 percent spent between three months and five years before being released on bail.
The law also permits authorities to hold a detainee in judicial custody without charge for up to 180 days (including the 30 days in police custody). The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which gives authorities the ability to detain persons for up to 180 days without charge in cases related to insurgency or terrorism, makes no bail provisions for foreign nationals, and allows courts to deny bail in the case of detained citizens. The UAPA presumes the accused to be guilty if the prosecution can produce evidence of the possession of firearms or explosives or the presence of fingerprints at a crime scene, regardless of whether authorities demonstrate criminal intent. State governments also reportedly held persons without bail for extended periods before filing formal charges under the UAPA. The 2018 PSI report released in January revealed that 5,102 UAPA cases were pending investigation and trial.
In August 2019 parliament passed an amendment to the UAPA that allows the government to designate individuals as terrorists and provides new authorities to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to seize properties acquired from proceeds of terrorism. According to the Center for Law and Policy Research, the number of cases filed under the UAPA rose from 976 cases in 2014 to 1,182 cases in 2018. States and union territories with insurgent activity, including Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir, also saw an increase in the application of the UAPA. On April 10, authorities arrested pregnant student leader Safoora Zargar under the UAPA for allegedly conspiring to incite the Delhi riots. The Delhi High Court released her on June 23 after the central government did not object to her release. On September 13, former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Umar Khalid was arrested under the UAPA for making a speech during anti-CAA protests.
The CAA along with a plan to implement a nationwide counting of residents (the National Population Register) triggered widespread protests in several parts of the country in December 2019 and January, especially because of rumors of the government’s interest to subsequently conduct a National Register of Citizens nationwide to count citizens, similar to the process in Assam. According to media reports, student-led protests occurred in at least 29 major universities and colleges. The government undertook a large security response, including at three major universities: Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, and JNU.
In December 2019 police forcefully entered the Jamia Millia Islamia campus and beat protesters, including students and teachers. They also used tear gas and rubber bullets. On January 5, masked individuals beat teachers and students in JNU. Civil society activists stated that legitimate and peaceful protests were being portrayed as terrorist activities. Activists also alleged Delhi police selectively pursued cases against Muslims and anti-CAA protesters in the months after the riots.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, but in some cases police reportedly continued to arrest citizens arbitrarily. There were reports of police detaining individuals for custodial interrogation without identifying themselves or providing arrest warrants.
Pretrial Detention: NCRB data reported 330,487 prisoners were awaiting trial at the end of 2019, comprising 69 percent of the country’s prison population. Media reported the high numbers of pretrial detainees contributed to prison overcrowding.
The government continued efforts to reduce lengthy detentions and alleviate prison overcrowding by using “fast track” courts, which specified trial deadlines, provided directions for case management, and encouraged the use of bail. In December 2019 the Ministry of Law and Justice released the Scheme on Fast Track Special Courts for Expeditious Disposal of Cases of Rape and Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The act aims to set up 1,023 fast track courts across the country to dispose of the 166,882 rape and POSCO Act cases that were pending trial in various courts. Some NGOs criticized these courts for failing to uphold due process and requiring detainees unable to afford bail to remain in detention.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence, but the judicial system was plagued by delays, capacity challenges, and corruption.
The judicial system remained seriously overburdened and lacked modern case management systems, often delaying or denying justice. According to Department of Justice statistics released in September, there were 398 judicial vacancies in the 1,079 judicial positions on the country’s 25 high courts.
In April, Mohammed Yasin Malik, leader of the proindependence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was arrested and charged with murder in the death of four Air Force officials in 1990. Malik was denied the right to be physically present in court. Human rights groups in Kashmir, including the JKCCS, expressed concern regarding whether Malik was receiving a fair trial.
In March 2019 the Ministry of Home Affairs declared the JKLF an unlawful organization for five years under the UAPA. A ministry statement accused Malik and the JKLF of participating in the “genocide” of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits in 1989, as well as the murder of air force personnel, kidnappings, and funding terrorism. Malik and the JKLF were involved in violence in the early 1990s until Malik renounced violent separatism in 1994 and declared a ceasefire.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, except in proceedings that involve official secrets or state security. Defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence, except as described under UAPA conditions, and may choose their counsel. The constitution specifies the state should provide free legal counsel to defendants who cannot afford it to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen, but circumstances often limited access to competent counsel. An overburdened justice system resulted in lengthy delays in court cases, with disposition sometimes taking more than a decade.
There were reported cases in which police denied suspects the right to meet with legal counsel as well as cases in which police unlawfully monitored suspects’ conversations and violated their confidentiality rights.
While defendants have the right to confront accusers and present their own witnesses and evidence, defendants sometimes did not exercise this right due to lack of proper legal representation. Defendants have the right not to testify or confess guilt. Courts must announce sentences publicly, and there are effective channels for appeal at most levels of the judicial system.
There were reports of political prisoners and detainees. NGOs reported the central government held political prisoners and temporarily detained individuals in Jammu and Kashmir under the PSA. On September 15, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed parliament that 223 political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir, who had been detained after August 2019, remained in detention but added “no person is under house arrest.”
Individuals, or NGOs on behalf of individuals or groups, may file public-interest litigation petitions in any high court or directly to the Supreme Court to seek judicial redress of public injury. Grievances may include a breach of public duty by a government agent or a violation of a constitutional provision. NGOs credited public-interest litigation petitions with making government officials accountable to civil society organizations in cases involving allegations of corruption and partiality.
While the constitution does not contain an explicit right to privacy, the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that privacy is a “fundamental right.”
The law, with some exceptions, prohibits arbitrary interference. The government generally respected this provision, although at times authorities infringed upon the privacy rights of citizens. The law requires police to obtain warrants to conduct searches and seizures, except for cases in which such actions would cause undue delay. Police must justify warrantless searches in writing to the nearest magistrate with jurisdiction over the offense.
Both the central and state governments intercepted communications under legal authority. A Group of Experts on Privacy convened in 2018 by the central government under Justice Srikrishna noted the country lacked a comprehensive consumer data-protection framework to “protect individuals against such harm.”
In addition the UAPA also allows use of evidence obtained from intercepted communications in terrorist cases. In Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and Manipur, security officials have special authorities to search and arrest without a warrant.
The country’s armed forces, the security forces of individual states, and paramilitary forces engaged with insurgent groups in several northeastern states, and with Maoist insurgents in the northern, central, and eastern parts of the country. The intensity of these conflicts continued to decline. The army and security forces remained stationed in conflict areas in the Northeast, Jharkhand, and Bihar. The armed forces and police also engaged with separatist insurgents and terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir.
The use of force by all parties resulted in deaths and injuries to both conflict participants and civilians. There were reports government security forces committed extrajudicial killings, including staging encounter killings. Human rights groups claimed police refused to release bodies in cases of alleged “encounters.” Authorities did not require the armed forces to report custodial deaths to the NHRC.
There were few investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations or abuses arising from internal conflicts. Authorities arrested and tried insurgents under terrorism-related legislation.
On August 14, HRW called for an impartial investigation into the July 18 killing of three men by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. The army claimed the men were militants killed in retaliatory gunfire in Shopian District. The family members identified the bodies from photographs circulated on social media and claimed they were laborers. The army instituted a court of inquiry into the killings, and on September 18, army officials stated the troops “exceeded powers vested under AFSPA.” The army initiated disciplinary proceedings against those involved in the incident.
Killings: Various domestic and international human rights organizations continued to express serious concern at the use of pellet guns by security forces for crowd-control purposes in Jammu and Kashmir. In March the Jammu and Kashmir High Court dismissed the public interest litigation petition seeking a ban on the use of pellet guns on protesters, asserting that police have the right to administer force in self-defense when facing violent protests. Ministry of Home Affairs data and Srinagar hospital records showed that at least 18 individuals died from pellet gun injuries between July 2016 and February 2019.
In Maoist-affected areas, there were reports of abuses by insurgents and security forces. On March 21, more than 250 Maoist (Naxal) insurgents ambushed security personnel, killing 17 and injuring at least 14 police and security personnel in the state of Chhattisgarh.
On July 29, armed militants in Manipur killed three soldiers and injured at least six of the Assam Rifles, a counterinsurgency unit. The ambush happened near the border with Burma as soldiers came under attack while returning to their bases. The Manipur Naga People’s Front, the Revolutionary People’s Front, and the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent jointly claimed responsibility for the attack.
Abductions: Human rights groups maintained that paramilitary and insurgent forces abducted persons in Manipur, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and Maoist-affected areas.
On January 22, supporters of the Pathalgadi movement, which promotes a tribal custom of stone plaques with inscriptions asserting community rights and prohibiting entry of outsiders, reportedly kidnapped seven villagers and later killed them in Jharkhand. According to police, the villagers were abducted and killed because they opposed the Pathalgadi movement.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: There were reports government security forces tortured, raped, and mistreated insurgents and alleged terrorists in custody and injured demonstrators. Human rights activists alleged some prisoners were tortured or killed during detention.
A May 2019 report by the JKCCS and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons alleged that police, military, and paramilitary forces in Jammu and Kashmir used torture against civilians and opposition over the past four decades. The report documented 432 testimonies from individuals who claimed to have been tortured. There were continued allegations of physical abuse and torture following the government’s enhanced security measures in Jammu and Kashmir after the August 2019 move to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution.
On August 30, there were violent clashes between security personnel and Shia Muslim marchers in Jammu and Kashmir during Muharram processions. Approximately 200 to 250 individuals and 30 to 40 police personnel were injured, according to several media reports.
Child Soldiers: No information was available on how many persons younger than 18 were serving in the armed forces.
Insurgent groups reportedly used children to attack government entities. In June the annual UN Children and Armed Conflict report outlined allegations that at least five children were recruited by, and joined, militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir, and at least two of these children were killed in encounters with security forces. NGOs estimated at least 2,500 children were associated with insurgent armed groups in Maoist-affected areas as well as insurgent groups in Jammu and Kashmir.
The UN report also found that children continued to be affected by violence between armed groups and the government, particularly in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Jammu and Kashmir. It noted security force operations, terrorist activity, or shelling across the line of control resulted in the killing of eight and maiming of seven children. The report, which covered 2019, noted police forces rescued 10 children in the state of Jharkhand from Maoist insurgency groups who had abducted them and used them in combat capacities.
According to the United Nations, 68 children between the ages of nine and 17 were detained by security services in Jammu and Kashmir on national security-related charges, including one for actual or alleged association with armed groups. Nonstate armed groups reportedly forced children to serve as spies, couriers, and soldiers in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Odisha and as soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir. According to government sources, Maoist groups sometimes used children as human shields in confrontations with security forces.
Although the United Nations was not able to verify all allegations of child soldiers, NGO observers reported children as young as 12 were members of Maoist youth groups and allied militia. The children handled weapons and improvised explosive devices, according to these reports. Maoists reportedly held children against their will and threatened severe reprisals, including the killing of family members, if the children attempted to escape. The government claimed, based on statements of several women formerly associated with Maoist groups, that sexual violence, including rape and other forms of abuse, was a practice in some Maoist camps.
Attacks on schools by Maoists continued to affect children’s access to education in affected areas. There were continued reports on the use of schools as military barracks and bases. The deployment of government security forces near schools remained a concern. There were reports nonstate armed groups recruited children from schools in Chhattisgarh.
In January 2019 the Observer Research Foundation reported militant groups in Kashmir recruited juveniles. The foundation highlighted the conditions that encouraged minors in Jammu and Kashmir to join such groups. The report discussed the involvement of children in acts of violence, such as stone pelting and arson, which was then followed by a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces. It stated that, in the absence of a juvenile justice mechanism, the law-and-order apparatus failed to differentiate between children and adults, in turn provoking an ever greater degree of anger among the populace.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: On March 17, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed parliament’s lower house there were approximately 65,000 registered Kashmiri migrant families across the country. Tens of thousands of Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits, fled the Kashmir Valley after 1990 because of conflict and violent intimidation, including destruction of houses of worship, sexual abuse, and theft of property, by Kashmiri separatists.
The Prime Minister’s Development Package, announced in 2015, outlined a reconstruction plan for Jammu and Kashmir and included the creation of 3,000 state government jobs for Kashmiri migrants. On March 18, the minister of state for home affairs informed the upper house of parliament that the selection process had concluded for 1,781 posts and that 604 of the positions had been filled as of February 22.
In the central and eastern areas, armed conflicts between Maoist insurgents and government security forces over land and mineral resources in tribal forest areas continued. According to the SATP’s existing-conflict map, Maoist-affected states included Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Assam. Human rights advocates alleged the government’s operations sought not only to suppress the Maoists but also to force tribal populations from their land, allowing for its purchase by the private sector.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to the HRW World Report 2020, sedition and criminal defamation laws were sometimes used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or state policies. In certain cases local authorities arrested or filed cases against individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. The harassment and detainment of journalists critical of the government in their reporting or social media messaging continued.
On August 14, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court convicted prominent lawyer Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt of court for two tweets that criticized the chief justice and the role played by the Supreme Court in the past six years. Bhushan was also facing contempt charges on another case relating to his comments in 2009 alleging judicial corruption. He was required to pay a symbolic fine of one rupee and express contrition before the court. According to media, more than 3,000 retired judges, lawyers, and eminent persons supported Bhushan and sent a petition to the Supreme Court stating that Bhushan’s tweets did not amount to contempt.
AII’s report Jammu and Kashmir After One year of Abrogation of Article 370 documented 14 instances of detention, police interrogations, and assaults on journalists. The government also introduced a new media regulation policy in Jammu and Kashmir empowering local administration to determine “fake and antinational news” and to initiate related action against journalists.
On February 15, Karnataka police arrested three engineering students of Kashmiri origin on sedition charges. According to police records, Basit Ashiq Ali, Talib Majeed, and Ameer Mohiuddin Wani recorded a video of themselves chanting slogans supporting Pakistan and posted the video on social media. They were arrested after college officials reported them to police. On June 10, the students were released on bail.
On February 20, Karnataka police booked student activist Amulya Leona on sedition charges for shouting pro-Pakistan slogans in her speech at a rally in Bengaluru protesting the CAA. A local court granted her bail on June 11.
On April 1, a complaint was filed against the founding editor of the news website The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, for his tweet referencing a report that the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, had insisted a religious gathering be held during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although a correction was issued, the complaint was filed under Sections 66D and 67 of Information Technology Act 2000, Sections 188 and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 54 of Disaster Management Act 2005 and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act 1897. Varadarajan was granted bail on May 15. On May 11, Gujarat state police detained the editor and owner of Gujarati news website Face the Nation, Dhaval Patel, for publishing a report suggesting Gujarat’s chief minister might be replaced due to criticism over rising COVID-19 cases. Patel was charged with sedition and with spreading false panic. Patel was granted bail on May 27.
On May 19, the West Bengal government temporarily stopped the broadcast of Bengali news channel Calcutta News, which questioned the state government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including allegations of underreporting coronavirus infection rates and death numbers and severe mismanagement of hospitals.
On May 20, Srinagar Police summoned The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah for covering an encounter between militants and security forces. Shah alleged police claimed his stories “maligned” police and subjected him to five hours of questioning. The Srinagar police summoned Shah again on July 9 and October 4 on the same matter.
NGOs reported the arrest and detention of political and human rights activists who criticized the policies of Manipur’s state government. While some faced charges of sedition, promoting communal disharmony, public mischief, and criminal conspiracy, others were booked under the National Disaster Management Act. United NGOs Mission Manipur reported that on April 12, the Manipur state government arrested Robin Rongmei, a social activist, under the act for posting a video on Facebook that showed shortages of essential items for children in a shelter home during the lockdown.
On May 25, Kolkata police summoned Anirban Chattopadhyay, editor of the leading Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, for interrogation. Police summoned him because his newspaper reported on the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for the staff of a hospital handling COVID-19 cases. On May 31, Chattopadhyay resigned his post as editor under pressure and to ease tensions with the government.
On June 5, Bengaluru police registered a case against former AII executive director Aakar Patel for a message he posted on Twitter that encouraged minority communities to emulate the racial justice protests abroad. Police booked Patel with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot, and abetting commission of an offense by the public. Patel’s Twitter account was temporarily removed but remained visible outside the country following registration of the charge.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, digital media platforms, and publication or distribution of books.
According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, at both the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement.
The Reporters without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index identified press freedom violations by police, political activists, criminal groups, and corrupt local officials. Physical attacks and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” against journalists were cited as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for female journalists. Journalists working in Jammu and Kashmir continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions. According to the report, pressure on media to amplify government perspectives increased following the May 2019 national elections. Criminal prosecutions were often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, including the use of a section of the penal code that includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.
In February the Kashmir Press Club stated security agencies had routinely deployed intimidation tactics such as threats, summonses, and physical attacks on journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. On February 8, journalists Naseer Ganai and Haroon Nabi were summoned to the police facility, where they were questioned for reporting on a statement by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
In June the Jammu and Kashmir government released the Media Policy-–2020, which authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations to “examine” the content of print, electronic, and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or antinational activities” in the name of law and order. Under the new media policy, government action could range from legal proceedings against journalists for “indulging in fake news, unethical or antinational activities, or plagiarism” to withholding advertisements to any media that “incite or tends to incite violence, question sovereignty and the integrity of India, or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behavior.”
On June 13, Uttar Pradesh authorities charged Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a news report critical of the COVID-19 lockdown under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as well as under sections of the penal code regarding printing defamatory matter and negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. Police also named the Mumbai-based editor in chief of Scroll.in in the first information report (FIR). On August 26, the Allahabad High Court granted Sharma protection from immediate arrest in the case but allowed the investigation to continue.
On July 1, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay called for authorities to end “gunpoint censorship” and prosecute those responsible for the killing of Shubham Mani Tripathi, a journalist for the newspaper Kampu Mail. Tripathi died on June 19 when he was shot six times by two gunmen while on his way home in Uttar Pradesh. His killing was allegedly in retaliation for his investigative reports into connections between illegal sand mining and corruption allegations. The two assailants, along with a third individual, were arrested.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books that contained material government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
On March 6, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting placed a 48-hour ban on two Malayalam news channels for broadcasting footage of the February riots in New Delhi, allegedly in violation of the Cable Network Television Network Act. Hours after the ban was imposed, the ministry revoked its order and restored the transmission of both channels.
On April 24, Tamil Nadu police arrested Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, the owner of a news platform, for reporting on alleged government corruption. A complaint was filed by a local government official who claimed the website was spreading false reports against the state government. A local court granted the media owner bail on April 28.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations reportedly being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported at least 79 journalists had been killed between 1992 and 2020. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, at least four journalists were killed in connection with their work as of December.
On March 3, unidentified assailants attacked Tamil Nadu-based journalist M. Karthi with an iron rod. In his police complaint, Karthi claimed the attack was related to his reporting on a dispute between two ruling party politicians in the region. On March 4, police detained two suspects for questioning in relation to the attack, including an official in Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party.
On August 11, Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh, and a third unidentified female–all journalists for The Caravan magazine–were attacked by a mob while reporting in New Delhi. Tantray reported that after identifying him as a Muslim, “the mob beat [him], punched on [his] neck and back, and tried to strangle [him] with the camera strap.” The Caravan stated the female journalist was sexually harassed. Police did not file a FIR or make arrests.
In September, Parashar Biswas, a journalist from the daily newspaper Syandan Patrika in Tripura, was beaten by unidentified individuals after he criticized Chief Minister Biplab Deb’s comments made against media outlets for publishing stories of alleged state mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. The Tripura Assembly of Journalists condemned the attack and demanded the chief minister not further threaten reporters or media houses.
Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
On July 3, journalist Rana Ayyub shared screenshots of several death and rape threats received on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram after she spoke out against the killing of a 65-year-old Srinagar resident. In one screenshot the social media user asked Ayyub to recall Gauri Lankesh, a journalist shot and killed in 2017.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.
In February 2019 the minister of state in the Ministry of Communications told members of parliament the government had ordered the Department of Telecommunications to block 17,444 sites during the previous three years on the basis of recommendations of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, courts of law, and several other organizations.
On June 18, Uttar Pradesh filed a FIR against Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a report on the adverse effects of the COVID-19 lockdown in Varanasi. Police acted on a complaint filed by an individual Sharma interviewed about the lockdown, who alleged that Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity. Scroll.in denied the charges against Sharma and stood by her reporting. The media outlet alleged the FIR was an “attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism.” Local human rights activist Harsh Mander noted the FIR was part of a recent trend targeting journalists with legal actions. On June 18, Reporters without Borders said the charges were a “blatant attempt to intimidate one of India’s most resilient reporters.” According to reports, at least 55 journalists and editors were arrested or booked for reporting on the COVID-19 lockdown.
In 2018 the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology revealed that 14,221 websites had been blocked since 2010. Between January and October 2019, the ministry issued blocking orders for an additional 20 websites.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.
On January 31, Karnataka police arrested the director of the Shaheen Primary and High School and a student’s mother for sedition after a school play was alleged to be critical of the CAA and “disrespectful” of Prime Minister Modi. On February 15, a district court released the two women on bail.
On April 18, police in Kashmir booked photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the UAPA for indulging in “antinational activities” on social media. In a statement police accused Zahra of “uploading antinational posts with criminal intention, uploading posts that glorify antinational activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.” Zahra maintained she was sharing archival images that had already been published in different local and international social media platforms. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On April 23, the Jammu and Kashmir cyber police filed a FIR against Kashmiri author and journalist Gowhar Geelani for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir” through social media posts. The police statement said Geelani was “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platforms which [were] prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”
On May 18, Andhra Pradesh police arrested 66-year-old Ranganayaki Poonthota, following her Facebook post in which she questioned the government’s handling and police investigation of a styrene gas leak that killed at least 11 persons. She was arrested for making statements that create or promote enmity, indulging in wanton vilification, disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant, and criminal conspiracy. The NGO Human Rights Forum described the case as a “brazen attack on free speech” and demanded withdrawal of the case.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. The government banned more than 200 Chinese mobile apps because they were “prejudicial” to the sovereignty and security of the country.
There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, censorship of online content, and reports the government occasionally monitored users of digital media, such as chat rooms and person-to-person communications. The law permits the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive. Both central and state governments have the power to issue directives for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.
In January the Supreme Court declared access to the internet a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of the information technology law that restricted content published on social media but upheld the government’s authority to block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign states or public order” without court approval. In 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced measures allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.” According to the measures, an order for suspension could be made by a “competent authority” at either the federal or the state level.
According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 106 times in 2019 and 76 times as of December 21. The center reported the longest shutdown occurred between August 4, 2019, and March 4 in Jammu and Kashmir. Authorities restored mobile 2G services in April and landline internet in August. Mobile 3G and 4G connections remained blocked as of December, although intermittent access was restored in certain districts.
AII documented 67 instances of government-enforced internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir between January 14 and August 4. NGOs and professionals from the education and medical fields reported that frequent internet shutdown and denial of access to 4G internet presented problems to online education and COVID-19 mitigation measures.
In January the Supreme Court ruled that the indefinite shutdown of the internet in Jammu and Kashmir was illegal.
In December 2019, in response to protests concerning the passage of the CAA, internet shutdowns were implemented throughout the country. NGOs maintained that local officials often used a section of the code of criminal procedure relating to riots and civil disturbances as the legal basis for internet shutdowns.
Government requests for user data from internet companies increased dramatically. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 49,382 data requests in 2019, a 32 percent increase from 2018. Google reported a 69 percent increase in government requests for user data in its 2019 Transparency Report, receiving 19,438 disclosure requests. Twitter’s Transparency Report indicated 1,263 account information requests from the government in 2019, a 63 percent increase from 2018.
In its Freedom in the World 2020 report, Freedom House noted the central government and state governments repeatedly suspended mobile internet services to curb collective action by citizens. NGOs also asserted the legal threshold for internet shutdowns was low and shutdown regulations were applied unevenly by executive branch officials with little or no legislative or judicial oversight.
Press outlets frequently reported instances in which individuals and journalists were arrested or detained for online activity, although NGOs noted there was little information about the nature of the activity or if it involved criminal or legitimate speech. Police continued to arrest individuals under the Information Technology Act for legitimate online activity, despite a 2015 Supreme Court ruling striking down the statute as unconstitutional, and which experts claimed was an abuse of legal processes.
The National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), expected to begin functioning at year’s end, was proposed after the 11/26 terror attacks in Mumbai as a unified intelligence database to collect data and patterns of suspects from 21 organizations. NATGRID’s database was designed to link 11 national agencies with approximately 14,000 police stations throughout the country.
In July the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned 59 mobile applications owned by China-based companies or otherwise linked to China, including the social media and communications platforms TikTok, WeChat, and Helo, citing national security reasons. As of year’s end, the ministry had banned more than 200 Chinese applications.
The government occasionally applied restrictions on the travel and activities of visiting foreign experts and scholars. Academics continued to face threats and pressure for expressing controversial views. In August, Delhi police interrogated Delhi University academic and social activist Apoorvanand was interrogated by the Delhi police regarding his alleged association with the anti-CAA protests. Apoorvanand said in a public statement that, while an investigating agency was within its right to summon anyone for investigation, it should not lead to further harassment and victimization of protesters who asserted their democratic right to protest through constitutional means.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly occasionally detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest (see section 1.g.). During periods of civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.
Security forces, including local police, often disrupted demonstrations and reportedly used excessive force when attempting to disperse protesters. On August 28, AII stated that Delhi police committed serious human rights violations during the February communal riots in Delhi. AII claimed police personnel were “complicit and actively participating” in the violence that killed more than 50 persons, the majority of whom were Muslims.
There were some restrictions on the organization of international conferences. Authorities required NGOs to secure approval from the central government before organizing international conferences. Authorities routinely granted permission, although in some cases the approval process was lengthy. Some human rights groups claimed this practice provided the government tacit control over the work of NGOs and constituted a restriction on freedoms of assembly and association.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association. While the government generally respected this right, the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of NGOs that received foreign funding caused concern. In certain cases the government required “prior approval” for some NGOs to receive foreign funds, suspended foreign banking licenses, or froze accounts of NGOs that allegedly received foreign funding without the proper clearances or that mixed foreign and domestic funding. In other instances, the government canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations.
In September parliament passed amendments to the FCRA that placed additional limitations on the international funding of nongovernment organizations and would create significant operational barriers for the NGO community. Experts believed the new legislation would severely restrict the ability of smaller, regional organizations to raise funds and diminish collaboration between the government and civil society.
Some NGOs reported an increase in random FCRA compliance inspections by Ministry of Home Affairs officials who they said were purportedly under pressure to demonstrate strict enforcement of the law. FCRA licenses were also reportedly canceled periodically based on nonpublic investigations by the Intelligence Bureau.
Some NGOs stated they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” issues, such as human rights or environmental activism. In September, AII closed its offices after a two-year FCRA investigation resulted in the government freezing the NGO’s local bank accounts. AII asserted the Ministry of Finance’s Enforcement Directorate targeted their organization in retaliation for recent human rights reporting on the Delhi riots and Jammu and Kashmir. The Ministry of Home Affairs defended the actions noting “a significant amount of foreign money was also remitted to Amnesty (India) without the ministry’s approval under the FCRA. This mala fide rerouting of money was in contravention of extant legal provisions.” AII challenged the Enforcement’s Directorate’s actions in court. On December 16, the Karnataka High Court granted AII access to some of its funding from the frozen accounts and ordered the Enforcement Directorate to complete its investigation within 45 days.
In June 2019, acting on a Ministry of Home Affairs complaint, the CBI filed a FIR against Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover and the NGO Lawyers Collective, an organization run by Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising, alleging discrepancies in the utilization of foreign funds. On July 11, the CBI accused Grover and Jaising of violating FCRA provisions and raided their home and offices. On July 25, the Bombay High Court stated the CBI allegation against Lawyers Collective–mixing FCRA funds with domestic funding–was “vague and arbitrary,” and it directed the CBI not to take any coercive steps in relation to the FIR until August 19. Civil society groups, including HRW and the International Commission of Jurists, criticized the CBI action as “dubious” and politically motivated.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.
The country hosted a large refugee population, including more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees and approximately 95,230 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allowed UNHCR to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries and Burma. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased obstacles regularizing their status through long-term visas (LTVs) and residence permits. Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, 40,068 persons of concern were registered by UNHCR; however, they were not granted legal status by the government.
In-country Movement: The central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The Ministry of Home Affairs and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits upon arrival when traveling to certain restricted areas. In December 2019 the government extended the Inner Line Permit regime to Manipur, requiring all non-Manipuris to have the permit before they enter the state.
Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”
The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: In December 2019 parliament passed the CAA, which provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act makes no provision for Muslims and does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, wide-scale protests against its passage and exclusion of Muslims occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few instances.
Approximately 1.9 million residents of the state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, were left off the register of 32.9 million who applied for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam, leaving the nationality status of those excluded unclear pending the adjudication of these claims and objections. The government established procedures for appeals against the NRC decisions. The official notification required to initiate the procedures in Assam remained pending. On January 6, the government informed the Supreme Court that children would not be separated from their parents or sent to detention centers because of the NRC in Assam. On February 4, the government informed parliament that it had not taken any decision to prepare the NRC at the national level. On March 18, the Ministry of Home Affairs filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that preparation of the NRC was a “necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from noncitizens.” On December 23, 2019, Prime Minister Modi denied any intention by the central government to implement a nationwide NRC process outside of Assam, despite widespread speculation regarding the government’s intention to do so.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Authorities located settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country, including those containing groups displaced by internal armed conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir, Maoist-affected areas, the northeastern states (see section 1.g.), and Gujarat. In 2019 approximately 19,000 persons were displaced because of conflicts and violence, while natural disasters displaced more than five million persons.
Precise numbers of those displaced by conflict or violence was difficult because the government does not monitor the movements of displaced persons, and humanitarian and human rights agencies had limited access to camps and affected regions. While authorities registered residents of IDP camps, an unknown number of displaced persons resided outside the camps. Many IDPs lacked sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and health care (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse).
National policy or legislation did not address the issue of internal displacement resulting from armed conflict or from ethnic or communal violence. The welfare of IDPs was generally the purview of state governments and local authorities, allowing for gaps in services and poor accountability. The central government provided limited assistance to IDPs, but it had access to NGOs and human rights organizations, although neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.
In January the central government, along with the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram, signed an agreement with the leaders of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum that allowed Brus to settle permanently in Tripura. The Brus are a scheduled tribe living in relief camps in Tripura as IDPs since 1997, when they fled Mizoram in the wake of ethnic clashes with the Mizo community. The agreement was intended to allot land and cash assistance to more than 30,000 persons from the Bru tribes in Tripura.
f. Protection of Refugees
UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but supported it in refugee protection and response.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees as any other foreigner. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to detention, forced returns, and abuse. The country historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases coming before them.
The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution.
Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor and sex trafficking. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. According to NGOs, gender-based violence and sexual abuse were prevalent in the Sri Lankan refugee camps. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.
Rohingya migrants continued to be detained in Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. States such as Mizoram grappled with the detention of Rohingya migrants with little guidance from the central government on care and repatriation issues.
Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of Rohingya refugees, including potential trafficking victims, to Burma; at least four Rohingya, who were in detention, were returned to Burma in January. According to UNHCR, at least 26 non-Rohingya refugees had been deported since late 2016 out of an estimated 40,000.
The identity card issued by UNHCR was the only formal legal document available for Rohingya migrants in the country. As the expiration date for these cards approached, several Rohingya migrants abandoned their temporary shelter. Some relocated to other parts of India, while others fled the country.
In 2018 the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The ministry directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum-seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.
UNHCR continued to follow up on matters related to statelessness. UNHCR maintained an office in New Delhi where it registered refugees and asylum seekers from noncontiguous countries and Burma, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The office’s reach outside of New Delhi was limited. Nonetheless, the government permitted UNHCR staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Authorities did not permit UNHCR direct access to Sri Lankan refugee camps, Tibetan settlements, or asylum seekers in Mizoram, but they permitted asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Authorities did not grant UNHCR or other international agencies access to Rohingya detained in Kolkata or Aizawl (Mizoram), nor were they granted access to any refugees or asylum seekers in detention. Refugees outside New Delhi faced added expense and time to register their asylum claims.
The government generally permitted other NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.
After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government assisted UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily. The benefits provided to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by the state government of Tamil Nadu were applicable only within the state.
Employment: The government granted work authorization to many UNHCR-registered refugees, and others found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers. According to UNHCR, obtaining formal employment was difficult for refugees because they did not possess the necessary documents such as Aadhar (national identity) cards and long-term visas.
Access to Basic Services: Although the country generally allowed recognized refugees and asylum seekers access to housing, primary and secondary education, health care, and the courts, access varied by state and by population. Refugees were able to use public services, although access became more complicated during the year because many refugees were unable to acquire the digitized national identity card necessary to use some services. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR was able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access. After issuing more than 7,000 long-term visas, which were renewable on a yearly basis for up to five years and provided access to formal employment, health care, and higher education, the government halted the practice in 2017. As of the end of 2019, only 35 UNHCR-registered refugees held unexpired long-term visas. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.
According to the UNHCR India Factsheet from December 2019, the government directly provided assistance and protection to 203,235 refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet and 39,960 asylum seekers of other nationalities registered under UNHCR mandate. There were 341 Rohingya refugees living in the south: 254 in Karnataka, seven in Kerala, and 80 in Tamil Nadu. The Rohingya were employed in the informal economy, since they did not have legal work authorization from the government. Minor children had access to health services and education under the government’s “education for all” program. UNHCR was not aware of mistreatment or discrimination against Rohingya refugees; however, the agency said the state governments of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu were not providing adequate support.
Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during sensitive political times, such as elections, and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.
Government services, such as mother and child health programs, were available. Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.
The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.
Durable Solutions: UNHCR reported 196 individuals returned to Sri Lanka in March. At year’s end voluntary repatriations were suspended because there were no commercial flights available for the return of Sri Lankan refugees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
g. Stateless Persons
By law parents confer citizenship, and birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Any person born in the country on or after January 26, 1950, but before July 1, 1987, obtained Indian citizenship by birth. A child born in the country on or after July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship if either parent was an Indian citizen at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities consider those born in the country on or after December 3, 2004, citizens only if at least one parent was a citizen and the other was not illegally present in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities considered persons born outside the country on or after December 10, 1992, citizens if either parent was a citizen at the time of birth, but authorities do not consider those born outside the country after December 3, 2004, citizens unless their birth was registered at an Indian consulate within one year of the date of birth. Authorities may also confer citizenship through registration under specific categories and via naturalization after residing in the country for 12 years. Tibetans reportedly sometimes faced difficulty acquiring citizenship despite meeting the legal requirements.
According to UNHCR and NGOs, the country had a large population of stateless persons, but there were no reliable estimates. Stateless populations included Chakmas and Hajongs, who entered the country in the early 1960s from present-day Bangladesh, and groups affected by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.
Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received Indian birth certificates. While these certificates alone do not entitle refugees to Indian citizenship, refugees may present Indian birth certificates to the Sri Lankan High Commission to obtain a consular birth certificate, which entitles them to pursue Sri Lankan citizenship.
UNHCR and refugee advocacy groups estimated that between 25,000 and 28,000 of the approximately 95,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu were “hill country” Tamils. While Sri Lankan law allows “hill country” refugees to present affidavits to secure Sri Lankan citizenship, UNHCR believed that until the Sri Lankan government processes the paperwork, such refugees were at risk of becoming stateless.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The Election Commission is an independent constitutional body responsible for administering all elections at the central and state level throughout the country. In May 2019 voters re-elected the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the country’s general elections, which involved more than 600 million eligible voters. During the year elections occurred in Delhi and Bihar. Observers considered these elections free and fair.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides for universal voting rights for all citizens 18 and older. There are no restrictions placed on the formation of political parties or on individuals of any community from participating in the election process. The election law bans the use of government resources for political campaigning, and the Election Commission effectively enforced the law. The commission’s guidelines ban opinion polls 48 hours prior to an election, and exit poll results may not be released until completion of the last phase (in a multiphase election).
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 freely participated. The law reserves one-third of the seats in local councils for women. Religious, cultural, and traditional practices and ideas prevented women from proportional participation in political office. Nonetheless, women held many high-level political offices, including five positions as cabinet ministers. This represented a decline from the first Modi government when nine women served in the cabinet. The 2019 general election saw 78 women elected to the lower house of parliament, compared with 66 in the 2014 general election. West Bengal was the only state led by a female chief minister.
The constitution stipulates that, to protect historically marginalized groups and provide for representation in the lower house of parliament, each state must reserve seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population in the state. Only candidates belonging to these groups may contest elections in reserved constituencies. While some Christians and Muslims were identified as Dalits, the government limited reserved seats for Dalits to Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. Members of minority populations had previously served or currently served as prime minister, president, vice president, cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, members of parliament, and state chief ministers.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Most domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating, and publishing their findings on human rights cases. In some circumstances groups faced restrictions (see section 2.b, Freedom of Association). There were reportedly more than three million NGOs in the country, but definitive numbers were not available. The government generally met with domestic NGOs, responded to their inquiries, and took action in response to their reports or recommendations.
The NHRC worked cooperatively with numerous NGOs, and several NHRC committees had NGO representation. Some human rights monitors in Jammu and Kashmir were able to document human rights violations, but periodically security forces, police, and other law enforcement authorities reportedly restrained or harassed them. Representatives of certain international human rights NGOs sometimes faced difficulties obtaining visas and reported that occasional official harassment and restrictions limited their public distribution of materials.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to decline access by the United Nations to Jammu and Kashmir and limit access to the northeastern states and Maoist-controlled areas. In an August statement, UN human rights experts called on the government “to take urgent action to address the alarming human rights situation in the territory.” The UN special rapporteurs noted that since August 2019, “the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been in free fall,” and they were “particularly concerned that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many protesters are still in detention and internet restrictions remain in place.” The group appealed to the government “to schedule pending visits as a matter of urgency, particularly of the experts dealing with torture and disappearances.”
Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC is an independent and impartial investigatory and advisory body, established by the central government, with a dual mandate to investigate and remedy instances of human rights violations and to promote public awareness of human rights. It is directly accountable to parliament but works in close coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Justice. It has a mandate to address official violations of human rights or negligence in the prevention of violations, intervene in judicial proceedings involving allegations of human rights violations, and review any factors (including acts of terrorism) that infringe on human rights. The law authorizes the NHRC to issue summonses and compel testimony, produce documentation, and requisition public records. The NHRC also recommends appropriate remedies for abuses in the form of compensation to the victims of government killings or their families.
The NHRC has neither the authority to enforce the implementation of its recommendations nor the power to address allegations against military and paramilitary personnel. Human rights groups claimed these limitations hampered the work of the NHRC. Some human rights NGOs criticized the NHRC’s budgetary dependence on the government and its policy of not investigating abuses more than one year. Some claimed the NHRC did not register all complaints, dismissed cases arbitrarily, did not investigate cases thoroughly, rerouted complaints back to the alleged violator, and did not adequately protect complainants.
Of 28 states, 24 have human rights commissions, which operated independently under the auspices of the NHRC. Some human rights groups alleged local politics influenced state committees, which were less likely to offer fair judgments than the NHRC. The Human Rights Law Network, a nonprofit legal aid group, observed most state committees had few or no minority, civil society, or female representatives. The group claimed the committees were ineffective and at times hostile toward victims, hampered by political appointments, understaffed, and underfunded.
The government closed the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission in 2019 and ordered the NHRC to oversee human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. The NHRC has jurisdiction over all human rights violations, except in certain cases involving the military. The NHRC has authority to investigate cases of human rights violations committed by the Ministry of Home Affairs and paramilitary forces operating under the AFSPA in the northeast states.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape in most cases, although marital rape is not illegal when the woman is older than 15. According to legal experts, the law does not criminalize rape of adult men. Rape of minors is covered under the gender-neutral POCSO laws. Official statistics pointed to rape as one of the country’s fastest-growing crimes, prompted at least in part by the increasing willingness of victims to report rapes, although observers believed the number of rapes remained vastly underreported.
Law enforcement and legal recourse for rape victims were inadequate, and the judicial system was overtaxed and unable to address the problem effectively. Police sometimes worked to reconcile rape victims and their attackers; in some cases they encouraged female rape victims to marry their attackers. The NGO International Center for Research on Women noted low conviction rates in rape cases was one of the main reasons sexual violence continued unabated and at times unreported. The NGO Lawyers Collective observed the length of trials, lack of victim support, and inadequate protection of witnesses and victims remained major concerns and were more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incidents of rape continued to be a persistent problem, including gang rape, rape of minors, rape against lower-caste women or women from religious and nonreligious minority communities by upper-caste men, and rape by government officials.
The minimum mandatory punishment for rape is 10 years’ imprisonment. The minimum sentence for the rape of a girl younger than age 16 is between 20 years’ and life imprisonment; the minimum sentence of gang rape of a girl younger than 12 is punishable by either life imprisonment or the death penalty. An online analytic tool, the Investigation Tracking System for Sexual Offenses, exists for states and union territories to monitor and track time-bound investigation in sexual assault cases.
On March 20, the four men convicted of the high-profile 2012 gang rape of Nirbhaya were hanged. The victim is known as Nirbhaya, meaning the fearless one, because of the law forbidding the disclosure of rape victim names. Nirbhaya, a medical student at the time, was attacked on a bus by six men while traveling home with a friend. Her friend was beaten unconscious, and she was gang-raped and brutally tortured with an iron rod. Nirbhaya died two weeks later. Of the six arrested, one died in his jail cell and another, a minor at the time, was released after three years in a reform facility. The four remaining were sentenced to death and were hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail after the Supreme Court dismissed their final petitions.
On July 13, a woman who filed a complaint of gang rape in Bihar was arrested for misbehavior while recording her statement in court. The 22-year-old survivor was accompanied by two social workers, and the three were arrested on charges of disrupting court proceedings when the survivor, who was illiterate, refused to sign a written statement for the court and demanded it be read aloud by the social workers. Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a nonprofit organization, protested the arrests, asserting the survivor’s distressed state and noncompliance were caused by the trauma of the gang rape, the ordeal of narrating the incident during police investigation and court proceedings, and the lack of family and mental health support after the incident. As of July 15, the three women were being held in jail under judicial custody, and one of the five men accused of the gang rape was arrested. A group of 376 lawyers from across the country sent a letter to the Patna High Court (in Bihar) to express their concern regarding the local court’s handling of the case.
On September 28, CHRI released Barriers in Accessing Justice: The Experiences of 14 Rape Survivors in Uttar Pradesh, India, that detailed strong evidence of the barriers imposed by police on women survivors, including caste-based discrimination, discouragement to report the crime, and forceful acceptance of illegal compromises. The report noted legal remedies against police malpractice were difficult to pursue and often did not provide redress.
On September 30, Uttar Pradesh police cremated, without family consent, the body of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in her native village in Hathras, hours after she succumbed to injuries allegedly inflicted in a gang rape by four upper-caste men on September 14. Her death and subsequent cremation without the presence of family members sparked outrage among opposition parties and civil society. Police arrested all four accused, and the Uttar Pradesh state government assembled a three-member team to probe the incident.
On October 5, citing recent cases of alleged rape and murder, including in Hathras, the UN resident coordinator in the country expressed concern at the continuing cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
Women in conflict areas, such as in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, as well as vulnerable Dalit or tribal women, were often victims of rape or threats of rape. National crime statistics indicated Dalit women were disproportionately victimized compared with other caste affiliations.
The Kerala State Women’s Commission registered a rape case involving a 75-year-old Dalit woman suffering from dementia and other mental health issues. The woman was attacked and raped by a group of unidentified men on August 4 in Ernakulam District, Kerala State.
Domestic violence continued to be a problem. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown led to increased instances of domestic violence. Women and children were more vulnerable due to loss of livelihood of the perpetrator and the family being forced to remain indoors, where victims were locked in with their abusers with limited means to escape or access to resources. The Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi High Courts took note of the increased problem of domestic violence and directed national protection agencies to consider additional measures to address the rising instances of domestic violence.
Local authorities made efforts to address the safety of women. On August 10, the National Commission of Women (NCW) reported 2,914 complaints of crimes committed against women in July, including 660 cases of domestic violence. This represented the highest monthly level since November 2018. The data showed Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Delhi, and Punjab as the states with the highest levels of domestic violence against women. The latest available NCRB data estimated the conviction rate for crimes against women was 23 percent.
During the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, the NCW received 239 complaints of domestic violence–a significant increase from the 123 complaints it received in the month preceding the lockdown. To provide protection and assistance, the NCW launched a WhatsApp helpline for women.
Acid attacks against women continued to cause death and permanent disfigurement. On February 28, a family member attacked a 25-year-old pregnant woman and her sister-in-law with acid in Haryana. After being hospitalized for one month, the pregnant victim succumbed to the wounds.
On July 15, Telangana police launched the “CybHer” online awareness campaign to protect women and children in cyberspace. The Telangana police chief stated that cybercrimes went up by 70 percent in the state during the COVID-19 lockdown, and women and children were the specific targets. The campaign was launched on multiple social media platforms.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, between 70 and 90 percent of Dawoodi Bohras, a population of approximately one million concentrated in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Delhi, practiced FGM/C.
In July 2018 the Supreme Court heard a public interest case seeking to ban the practice of FGM/C. The government, represented by Attorney General K. K. Venugopal, told the court that it supported the petitioners’ plea that the practice be punishable under the provisions of the penal code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act. Days after a September 2018 meeting between the prime minister and the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who supports the practice of FGM/C, the government reversed its position, and the attorney general stated the matter should be referred to a five-member panel of the Supreme Court to decide on the issue of religious rights and freedom.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law forbids the acceptance of marriage dowry, but many families continued to offer and accept dowries, and dowry disputes remained a serious problem. NCRB data showed authorities arrested 20,545 persons for dowry deaths in 2016. Most states employed dowry prohibition officers. A 2010 Supreme Court ruling mandates all trial courts to charge defendants in dowry-death cases with murder.
So-called honor killings remained a problem, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana; they were usually attributable to the victim’s marrying against his or her family’s wishes. In April, three persons were arrested for the killing of a 19-year-old girl in Punjab. Family members allegedly poisoned the victim with sleeping pills, strangled her to death, and cremated her body. An honor killing of a 16-year-old girl was reported on May 2 in Rajasthan. She was strangled, burned, and buried allegedly by her mother and uncle because she eloped with a local boy of whom her family did not approve. The mother and uncle were arrested. On July 17 in Uttar Pradesh, a woman was shot and killed by her three brothers for marrying outside her caste two years previously. The accused also attacked the husband, leaving him grievously injured. Police arrested all three brothers.
On June 22, the Madras High Court acquitted B. Chinnasamy, who was accused in 2017 of hiring persons to kill his daughter’s husband because he belonged to a Scheduled Caste. The court also commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment for five previously convicted individuals. Several human rights activists described the verdicts as “a travesty of justice.”
There were reports women and girls in the devadasi system of symbolic marriages to Hindu deities (a form of so-called ritual prostitution) were victims of rape or sexual abuse at the hands of priests and temple patrons, including sex trafficking. NGOs suggested families exploited some girls from lower castes in sex trafficking in temples to mitigate household financial burdens and the prospect of marriage dowries. Some states have laws to curb sex trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls in temple service. Enforcement of these laws remained lax, and the problem was widespread. Some observers estimated that more than 450,000 women and girls were exploited in temple-related prostitution.
On August 13, Telangana Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission chairman E. Srinivas told media that he observed continuing prevalence of the banned Jogini system, under which Dalit girls are forced into sexual slavery in the name of dedicating them to a village deity. He encouraged village chiefs to be held responsible for informing police and other authorities if such practices continued. District authorities announced protection of agricultural lands given to the rehabilitated Jogini women by the government in 1989.
No federal law addresses accusations of witchcraft; however, authorities may use other legal provisions as an alternative for a victim accused of witchcraft. Most reports stated villagers and local councils usually banned those accused of witchcraft from the village. Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Assam, and Jharkhand have laws criminalizing those who accuse others of witchcraft.
On May 4, three women in Bihar were assaulted, tonsured, stripped seminaked, and forced to consume human urine and excreta by a mob that suspected them of witchcraft. Media sources reported that no bystanders came forward to help the women. Police acted after seeing a video of the incident, arresting nine persons. According to reports, the three women, all from the same family, were performing puja, a worship ritual, for a sick child at night when they were seen by villagers who suspected them of using black magic, after which they were targeted and abused the next morning.
On August 17, media reported family members beat 30-year-old Geeta Devi for allegedly practicing witchcraft in Jharkhand’s Giridih District. Geeta died before police could arrive. The deceased’s mother in-law filed a FIR with the Gawan police station to investigate the crime.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a serious problem. Authorities required all state departments and institutions with more than 50 employees to operate committees to prevent and address sexual harassment, often referred to as “eve teasing.” By law sexual harassment includes one or more unwelcome acts or behavior, such as physical contact, a request for sexual favors, making sexually suggestive remarks, or showing pornography.
In February media sources reported that female trainee clerks working at the Surat Municipal Corporation were subjected to gynecological finger tests in a mandatory fitness test by female doctors at the Surat Municipal Institute of Medical Education and Research, a state-run hospital. The corporation’s employees union lodged a complaint when approximately 100 employees reported the incident. The women confided that they felt their privacy was violated when they were asked to strip naked and stand in groups while undergoing the test and being asked intimate questions about their pregnancy history. The Surat municipal commissioner formed a committee to investigate the allegations.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.
The law prohibits the use of all technologies for the purpose of sex selection before or after conception. Nevertheless, although not widely enforced, policies and guidelines that penalized families with more than two children remained in place in various states. Certain states continued to maintain quotas for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children.
Many states promoted female sterilization as a family planning method, which has resulted in risky, substandard procedures and limited access to nonpermanent methods. The national government does not have the authority to regulate state public health policies. Some women, particularly poor and lower-caste women, were reportedly pressured to have tubal ligations, hysterectomies, or other forms of sterilization.
Almost all states implement “girl child promotion” programs, intended to counter prenatal sex selection. In 2015 the government launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao program to address a decline in the child sex ratio. According to government data, the sex ratio at birth improved from 918 girl-births for every 1,000 boy-births in 2014-2015 to 934 girl-births for every 1,000 boy-births in 2019-2020 due to the program.
The government recognized the role of health-care professionals in treating survivors of sexual violence and implemented protocols that meet the international standards for such medical care. Government directives instruct health facilities to ensure survivors of all forms of sexual violence receive immediate access to health care services, including emergency contraception, police protection, emergency shelter, forensic services, and referrals for legal aid and other services. Implementation of the guidelines was uneven, however, due to limited resources and social stigma.
For some populations, limited access to quality reproductive and maternal health care services–including prenatal care, skilled care at childbirth, and support in the weeks after childbirth–contributed to high maternal mortality. The government Office of the Registrar General Special Bulletin on Maternal Mortality in India 2016-18 estimated that the maternal mortality ratio declined to 113 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2016-2018 from 130 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014-2016.
Care received by women, especially those from marginalized and low-income groups, at public health facilities was often inadequate, contributing to a reluctance to seek treatment. Although government initiatives resulted in a significant increase in institutional births, there were reports that health facilities continued to be overburdened, underequipped, and undersupplied.
Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced and involuntary sterilization. The government promoted female sterilization as a form of family planning for decades. Some women, especially poor and lower-caste women, reportedly were pressured by their husbands and families to have tubal ligations or hysterectomies. The government provided monetary compensation for the wage loss, transportation costs, drugs and dressing, and follow-up visits to women accepting contraceptive methods, including voluntary sterilization. There were no formal restrictions on access to other forms of family planning; however, despite recent efforts to expand the range of contraceptive choices, voluntary sterilization remained the preferred method due to the costs and limited availability of alternative contraceptive choices.
Policies penalizing families with more than two children remained in place in seven states, but some authorities did not enforce them. There were reports these policies created pressure on women with more than two children to use contraception, including permanent methods such as sterilization, or even termination of subsequent pregnancies. Certain states maintained government reservations for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children and reduced subsidies and access to health care for those who have more than two.
To counter sex selection, almost all states introduced “girl child promotion” plans to promote the education and well-being of girls, some of which required a certificate of sterilization for the parents to collect benefits.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination in the workplace and requires equal pay for equal work, but employers reportedly often paid women less than men for the same job, discriminated against women in employment and credit applications, and promoted women less frequently than men.
Many tribal land systems, including in Bihar, deny tribal women the right to own land. Other laws or customs relating to the ownership of assets and land accord women little control over land use, retention, or sale.
In February, Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani told the lower house of parliament the sex ratio at birth was showing “improving trends” and increased from 918 to 931 per 1,000 live births at the national level between 2014 and 2019. Additionally, 395 of 640 districts, according to the 2011 census, showed improvements in the sex ratio during the same period.
According to media reports, the taboo and fear of giving birth to a girl child drove some women toward sex-selective abortion or attempts to sell the baby. Dowry, while illegal, carried a steep cost, sometimes bankrupting families. Women and girl children were ostracized in some tribal communities.
Birth Registration: The law establishes state government procedures for birth registration. UNICEF estimated authorities registered 58 percent of national births each year. Children lacking citizenship or registration may not be able to access public services, enroll in school, or obtain identification documents later in life.
Education: The constitution provides free education for all children from ages six to 14, with a compulsory education age through age 15, but the government did not always comply with this requirement. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Report revealed that enrollment rates for both male and female students dropped by nearly 30 percent between primary and secondary school. Additionally, the report found that, while girls had a slight lead in primary and secondary education enrollment rates, boys had greater educational attainment at all levels.
Data from NGO Pratham’s 2019 Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) noted in January that when there was a paucity of resources and parents had to choose which child to invest in, they chose to provide “better quality” education to sons in the family.
According to UNICEF, more than 60 percent of secondary-school-age children with disabilities did not attend school. Additionally, since the minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, children may be encouraged to leave school before the completion of compulsory education.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, but it does not recognize physical abuse by caregivers, neglect, or psychological abuse as punishable offenses. Although banned, teachers often used corporal punishment.
The India Child Protection Fund reported increased incidences of cyber or sexual abuse involving children (such as increased consumption of child pornography). With children spending more time indoors and online, often without supervision, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report expressed concern that children were more vulnerable to online sexual predators.
On June 28, Kerala police arrested 47 persons across the state as a result of a large-scale investigation into online child sexual exploitation. According to a senior police official, there was a 120 percent increase in child sexual exploitation cases during the national lockdown in Kerala.
In July child rights advocates released Rights of Children in the Time of COVID-19, which contained sector-specific recommendations for state action to protect the rights of children during the pandemic. The release of the report was attended by two recently retired justices of the Supreme Court and various government officers and child rights experts and endorsed by 212 individuals and organizations.
The government sponsored a toll-free 24-hour helpline for children in distress. From January through July, the national CHILDLINE hotline for children in distress received more than 39,490 calls from the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The CHILDLINE officials noted calls concerned shelter, medical aid, child marriage, and the abuse of children.
On February 25, the Madras High Court reversed a prior lower court judgment that exonerated two teachers from allegations of sexual harassment. The court sentenced G. Nagaraj and G. Gugazhenthi to prison for three and five years, respectively, for sexually harassing several female adolescent students.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law sets the legal age of marriage for women at 18 and men at 21, and it empowers courts to annul early and forced marriages. The law does not characterize a marriage between a girl younger than 18 and a boy younger than 21 as illegal, but it recognizes such unions as voidable. The law also sets penalties for persons who perform, arrange, or participate in child marriages. Authorities did not consistently enforce the law nor address girls who were raped being forced into marriage.
In June the government constituted a task force to review the increase of the minimum permissible age for marriage of girls from 18 to 21 years. Prime Minister Modi made a special announcement of the government’s review, and there was significant advocacy against the proposal by women and child rights advocates who believed the change would limit young adults’ autonomy. Additionally, critics believed the proposal did not address the core issues regarding child marriage, such as extreme poverty and lack of education.
The law establishes a full-time child-marriage prohibition officer in every state to prevent child marriage. These individuals have the power to intervene when a child marriage is taking place, document violations of the law, file charges against parents, remove children from dangerous situations, and deliver them to local child-protection authorities.
Although the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) State of World Population 2020 report showed a decline in child marriages over the past decade, UN demographers feared the COVID-19 pandemic would have adverse effects on this progress. According to media reports, West Bengal saw more than 500 cases of child marriage between March and June during the COVID-19 national lockdown. Officials reported that in most cases underage girls were forced to marry because of their family’s loss of earnings and financial distress caused by the lockdown.
Senior officials from Karnataka’s State Commission for Protection of Child Rights reported more than 100 child marriages were conducted in the state during the national lockdown. According to a commission senior official, there were more than 550 complaints of child marriages.
Media and children’s’ rights activists believed child marriages increased in Maharashtra during the pandemic. Santosh Shinde, a former member of Maharashtra’s State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told media more than 200 cases of child marriage were reported between March and June. Shinde said that 90 percent of these marriages were averted with the help of local authorities and vigilant local citizens. Other activists echoed the increased economic vulnerability of children due to the pandemic and the push for families to marry off their preteen daughters largely for economic benefits.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits child pornography and sets the legal age of consent at 18. It is illegal to pay for sex with a minor, to induce a minor into prostitution or any form of “illicit sexual intercourse,” or to sell or buy a minor for the purposes of prostitution. Violators are subject to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
The law provides for at least one special court dedicated to sexual offenses against children (POCSO courts) to be set up in each district, although implementation of this provision lagged. In a December 2019 judgment, the Supreme Court gave a 60-day deadline to set up such courts in all districts with more than 100 pending cases of child sexual abuse.
Civil society welcomed these improvements in prosecution of sexual crimes against children; however, critics raised concern regarding the law for the potential to criminalize adolescents engaging in consensual sexual behavior. NCRB data showed that the number of 16- to 18-year-old “victims” under the POCSO Act was higher than the number of child victims from all the other age groups. The result of this trend was that a number of adolescent boys entered the juvenile justice system charged with rape.
On March 13, the Ministry of Women and Child Development published new rules to protect children from sexual offenses. The rules provide for speedier compensation, increasing public awareness about CHILDLINE services, and providing legal aid assistance. In addition the rules provide a directive to state governments to enact a child protection policy to ensure the prohibition of violence against children. A new provision that directs immediate financial help to victims of child sexual abuse by the Child Welfare Committees was also introduced. NGOs noted the procedure was not being implemented in a regular fashion by the committees.
In June the Delhi High Court held it is mandatory to issue notice to a complainant to ensure their presence in every bail application filed by the accused in their case. This ensures the complainant is informed of the proceedings and gets an opportunity to argue against bail. Other high courts were following suit. For instance, in July the Orissa High Court issued similar directions to the POCSO courts operating under its jurisdiction.
In June the Delhi High Court held that under the POCSO Act, 2012, and the POCSO Rules, 2020, there is no bar on a victim applying for monetary compensation more than once if their circumstances required. This was significant, since legal cases typically last for years, and a victim’s needs may grow as time passes.
The West Bengal High Court criticized the state police for not completing investigations on time in POCSO cases, a practice that led to automatic bail for the accused persons. The court directed that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, investigations must be completed on time so that the accused persons do not benefit from a delay on the part of police. A similar problem was noted in other states as well, for instance in Bihar and Delhi.
The Kerala High Court observed police officials investigating POCSO cases lacked training and related sensitivity required to handle matters pertaining to cases of child sex abuse. Collection of evidence often did not consider the trauma that the victim suffered, further deteriorating the quality of the investigation process.
Media report instances of authorities not registering cases of child sexual abuse when they are first reported. In August a POCSO court in Kerala issued a notice to police for not registering a case against doctors who knew of a child sexual abuse case but did not report it to police.
There was a continued focus on providing speedy justice to victims of sexual abuse. A 2016 study by the NGO Counsel to Secure Justice highlighted a large number of child sexual abuse cases were pending trial or delayed in trial.
Displaced Children: Displaced children, including refugees, IDPs, and street children, faced restrictions on access to government services (see also section 2.d.).
Institutionalized Children: Lax law enforcement and a lack of safeguards encouraged an atmosphere of impunity in several group homes and orphanages.
In 2018 the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights estimated 1,300 of the country’s approximately 9,000 shelters for vulnerable individuals were not registered with the government and operated with little or no oversight. In several cases government-funded shelter homes continued to operate despite significant gaps in mandatory reporting and allegations of abuse, at times due to alleged political connections. Police documented at least 156 residents, including sex trafficking victims, missing from six shelters as of March; at least one shelter owner had reportedly sold some of the women and girls for prostitution.
In April the Supreme Court directed state governments to improve the handling of the COVID-19 crisis among institutionalized children. The states were asked to file detailed reports, and various guidelines were issued to different child-care institutions on how to deal with the pandemic-induced crisis.
On June 24, the All India Democratic Women’s Association submitted a memorandum to the NHRC regarding the COVID-19 outbreak in the government-run shelter home for girls in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Fifty-seven minor girls tested positive for the virus, five of whom were also found to be pregnant. The women’s association asserted poor handling of the first cases of COVID-19 in the shelter home, extreme overcrowding, and poor sanitary conditions exacerbated the spread of the virus and pointed to the neglect of the state government. The association, NHRC, and state commission for women demanded proper treatment for the girls and detailed reports regarding the case.
In January the Supreme Court revised the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 to prevent fewer children being tried as adults. The Supreme Court ruled that children can be tried as an adult only for “heinous” crimes that have a minimum punishment of seven years. In view of this judgment, the Juvenile Justice Board may conduct a preliminary assessment into a child’s mental and physical capacity to decide whether the child should be tried as an adult.
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.
Jewish groups from the 4,650-member Jewish community cited no reports of anti-Semitic acts during the year.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution does not explicitly mention disability. The law provides equal rights for persons with a variety of disabilities, and a 2016 law increased the number of recognized disabilities, including persons with Parkinson’s disease and victims of acid attacks. The law set a two-year deadline for the government to provide persons with disabilities with unrestricted free access to physical infrastructure and public transportation systems.
The law also reserves 3 percent of all educational places and 4 percent of government jobs for persons with disabilities. The government allocated funds to programs and NGOs to increase the number of jobs filled. In 2017 a government panel decided that private news networks must accompany public broadcasts with sign language interpretations and closed captions to accommodate persons with disabilities.
Despite these efforts, problems remained. Private-sector employment of persons with disabilities remained low, despite governmental incentives. Discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care was more pervasive in rural areas, and 45 percent of the country’s population of persons with disabilities were illiterate. There was limited accessibility to public buildings.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare estimated 25 percent of individuals with mental disabilities were homeless. Mainstream schools remained inadequately equipped with teachers trained in inclusive education, resource material, and appropriate curricula. Patients in some mental-health institutions faced food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of adequate medical care. HRW reported women and girls with disabilities occasionally were forced into mental hospitals against their will.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
The constitution prohibits caste discrimination. The registration of castes and tribes continued for the purpose of affirmative action programs, as the federal and state governments continued to implement programs for members of lower-caste groups to provide better-quality housing, quotas in schools, government jobs, and access to subsidized foods. The UN’s 2020 Multidimensional Poverty Index noted approximately 273 million individuals moved out of multidimensional poverty during the past 10 years. Previous reports showed Muslims, members of the Scheduled Tribes, and Dalits experienced the greatest reduction in poverty. Discrimination based on caste, however, remained prevalent, particularly in rural areas. Critics claimed many of the programs to assist the lower castes suffered from poor implementation, corruption, or both.
The term Dalit, derived from Sanskrit for “oppressed” or “crushed,” refers to members of what society regarded as the lowest of the Scheduled Castes. According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Caste members constituted 17 percent of the population (approximately 200 million persons).
Although the law protects Dalits, there were numerous reports of violence and significant discrimination in access to services, such as health care, education, access to justice, freedom of movement, access to institutions (such as temples), and marriage. Many Dalits were malnourished. Most bonded laborers were Dalits, and those who asserted their rights were often victims of attacks, especially in rural areas. As agricultural laborers for higher-caste landowners, Dalits reportedly often worked without monetary remuneration. Reports from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination described systematic abuse of Dalits, including extrajudicial killings and sexual violence against Dalit women. Crimes committed against Dalits reportedly often went unpunished, either because authorities failed to prosecute perpetrators or because victims did not report crimes due to fear of retaliation.
Several incidents of discrimination, atrocities, and insults against Dalits were reported in Andhra Pradesh during the year. On July 31, Kula Vivaksha Porata Samithi, an anticaste discrimination organization, alleged 150 such incidents occurred in the state during the previous four months.
On July 20, police in Andhra Pradesh summoned I. Vara Prasad, a 23-year-old Dalit, to the police station in connection with a dispute in his village and allegedly beat him and shaved his head and moustache, which are considered symbolic acts to insult Dalits. A subinspector and two constables were suspended and arrested under various sections of the penal code and Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities (Prevention) Act.
NGOs reported Dalit students were sometimes denied admission to certain schools because of their caste, required to present caste certification prior to admission, barred from morning prayers, asked to sit in the back of the class, or forced to clean school toilets while being denied access to the same facilities. There were also reports teachers refused to correct the homework of Dalit children, refused to provide midday meals to Dalit children, and asked Dalit children to sit separately from children of upper-caste families.
Manual scavenging–the removal of animal or human waste by Dalits–continued despite its legal prohibition. HRW reported that children of manual scavengers faced discrimination, humiliation, and segregation at village schools. Their occupation often exposed manual scavengers to infections that affected their skin, eyes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Health practitioners suggested children exposed to such bacteria were often unable to maintain a healthy body weight and suffered from stunted growth.
The constitution provides for the social, economic, and political rights of disadvantaged groups of indigenous persons. The law provides special status for indigenous individuals, but authorities often denied them their rights in practice.
In most of the northeastern states, where indigenous groups constituted the majority of the states’ populations, the law provides for tribal rights, although some local authorities disregarded these provisions. The law prohibits any nontribal person, including citizens from other states, from crossing a government-established inner boundary without a valid permit. No one may remove rubber, wax, ivory, or other forest products from protected areas without authorization. Tribal authorities must also approve the sale of land to nontribal persons.
In August the Chhattisgarh state government announced it would provide approximately $5,400 to the families of 32 tribe members who were killed by Maoist (Naxal) insurgents at a government relief camp in 2006. At that time local tribe members were forced into relief camps due to the conflict between the state-supported anti-Naxal vigilante group Salwa Judum and Maoists. The previous state government had granted assistance of approximately $1,300 to each victim’s family.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
NGO activists reported heightened discrimination and violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community in the eastern area of the country during the COVID-19 lockdown.
LGBTI persons faced physical attacks, rape, and blackmail. LGBTI groups reported they faced widespread societal discrimination and violence, particularly in rural areas. Activists reported that transgender persons continued to face difficulty obtaining medical treatment. Some police committed crimes against LGBTI persons and used the threat of arrest to coerce victims not to report the incidents. With the aid of NGOs, several states offered education and sensitivity training to police.
In December 2019 parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which prohibits discrimination towards transgender persons in education, health care, employment, accommodation, and other matters related to public facilities and services. According to media reports, activists viewed parts of the act as violating the right to choose gender and erecting barriers for transgender individuals to be recognized. The provisions include a requirement of transgender persons to register with the government and provide proof of having undergone gender confirmation surgery to be recognized under the act.
On May 12, five transgender individuals brought a public-interest litigation case to the Kerala High Court in protest of the living conditions of transgender communities in the state during the national lockdown. On June 8, the Kerala High Court directed the state government to provide free medicine and access to medical treatment, as well as identity and ration cards, to members of the transgender community.
On July 2, media reported the minister of state for social justice and empowerment noted the government has a responsibility to formulate programs to support the livelihood of transgender persons according to clauses in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act.
On August 24, the Orissa High Court ruled that same-sex partners have a right to live together, and by law the female partner has a right to seek protection in the case of separation. The court ruled this in a case of two women, one of whom exercised her right to “self-gender determination” under a 2014 Supreme Court verdict and preferred to be addressed as a male. The male partner filed a habeas corpus petition seeking restoration of his female partner, who had been confined by her family at home.
The number of new HIV cases decreased by 57 percent over the past decade. According to official government records, there were 191,493 newly diagnosed cases in 2017. The epidemic persisted among the most vulnerable and high-risk populations that include female sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, and persons who inject drugs. UNAIDS 2018 data indicated that new HIV infections were declining among sex workers and men who have sex with men, although stigma related to key populations continued to limit their access to HIV testing and treatment. The data showed 79 percent of individuals were aware of their HIV status and 71 percent with HIV were on HIV treatment.
From April 2017 to March 2018, Telangana registered a 19 percent decline in new cases of HIV, compared with April 2016 to March 2017. According to a Telangana government official, HIV prevalence in Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh was almost four times the national average.
According to the HIV Estimations 2017 report released by the National AIDS Control Organization, the eight states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, and West Bengal contributed almost two-thirds of annual HIV infections in the country.
The National AIDS Control Program prioritized HIV prevention, care, and treatment interventions for high-risk groups and advocated for the rights of persons with HIV. The National AIDS Control Organization worked actively with NGOs to train women’s HIV/AIDS self-help groups. Police engaged in programs to strengthen their role in protecting communities vulnerable to human rights violations and HIV.
In September 2018 the Ministry of Health announced the creation of rules to implement the 2017 HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill in response to a public interest litigation filed with the Delhi High Court. The bill was designed to prevent discrimination in health care, employment, education, housing, economic participation, and political representation for those with HIV and AIDS.
Societal violence based on religion and caste and by religiously associated groups continued to be a serious concern. Muslims and lower-caste Dalit groups continued to be the most vulnerable. Ministry of Home Affairs data for 2016-17 showed 703 incidents of communal (religious) violence occurred in which 86 persons were killed and 2,321 injured. According to the NHRC, there were 672 cases of discrimination and victimization against Scheduled Castes and 79 cases against minorities in 2018-19.
In April media reported state-run public Ahmedabad Civil Hospital set up segregated wards for Muslim and Hindu patients “as per [the] government decision” in a treatment facility for COVID-19 patients. Following media uproar and widespread criticism, the segregation of patients on the basis of faith was revoked, according to Muslim community sources.
In May the Rajasthan High Court granted bail to two of the four men accused in the 2018 attempted lynching of cattle trader Rakbar Khan, who later died in custody. Villagers reportedly assaulted Khan on suspicion of cow smuggling before authorities detained him. Police took four hours to transport Khan to a local hospital 2.5 miles away, reportedly stopping for tea along the way, according to media sources. Doctors declared Khan dead upon arrival.
On June 17, the Telangana High Court held the state police to account for arresting a “disproportionately high number of Muslims” for violating COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The court noted police often used excessive force when enforcing the lockdown rules. For example, the court cited the case of a Muslim volunteer, arrested while distributing food to migrants, who required 35 stiches on his face due to police brutality. The court asked the state principal secretary for home and the director general of police to submit documentary evidence in support of their claim that action had been taken against police officials who used excessive force.
On July 14, the Untouchability Eradication Front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued a report that identified 81 violent crimes against Dalits throughout Tamil Nadu, including rape and murder, during the national lockdown.
In November the Uttar Pradesh state government passed the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020, making forced religious conversion by marriage a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison and requiring individuals converting to another religion to notify authorities no later than 60 days prior. Opposition leaders, media, and civil society groups criticized the law as violating constitutional protections on freedom of religion and reinforcing derogatory stereotypes of Muslim men using marriage to coerce Hindu women into religious conversions, often referred to as “love jihad.” Media reports indicated the Uttar Pradesh state government filed several criminal cases against Muslim men after the passage of the law. In December the Madhya Pradesh state government passed similar legislation regulating interfaith couples and religious conversion.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right to form and join unions and to bargain collectively, although there is no legal obligation for employers to recognize a union or engage in collective bargaining. In the state of Sikkim, trade union registration was subject to prior permission from the state government. The law limits the organizing rights of federal and state government employees.
The law provides for the right to strike but places restrictions on this right for some workers. For instance, in export-processing zones (EPZs), a 45-day notice is required because of the EPZs’ designation as a “public utility.” The law also allows the government to ban strikes in government-owned enterprises and requires arbitration in specified “essential industries.” Definitions of essential industries vary from state to state. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and retribution for involvement in legal strikes and provides for reinstatement of employees fired for union activity. In January approximately 25 million workers across the country went on a day-long strike to protest against the economic policies of the federal government.
Enforcement of the law varied from state to state and from sector to sector. Enforcement was generally better in the larger, organized-sector industries. Authorities generally prosecuted and punished individuals responsible for intimidation or suppression of legitimate trade union activities in the industrial sector. Civil judicial procedures addressed abuses because the Trade Union Act does not specify penalties for such abuses. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Specialized labor courts adjudicate labor disputes, but there were long delays and a backlog of unresolved cases.
Employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively in the formal industrial sector but not in the larger, informal economy. Most union members worked in the formal sector, and trade unions represented a small number of agricultural and informal-sector workers. Membership-based organizations, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association, successfully organized informal-sector workers and helped them to gain higher payment for their work or products.
An estimated 80 percent of unionized workers were affiliated with one of the five major trade union federations. Unions were independent of the government, but four of the five major federations were associated with major political parties.
State and local authorities sometimes impeded registration of unions, repressed independent union activity, and used their power to declare strikes illegal and force adjudication. Labor groups reported that some employers continued to refuse to recognize established unions, and some instead established “workers’ committees” and employer-controlled unions to prevent independent unions from organizing. EPZs often employed workers on temporary contracts. Additionally, employee-only restrictions on entry to the EPZs limited union organizers’ access.
In September parliament passed a series of labor laws that exempt tens of thousands of small firms from labor protections. The new laws link social benefits to the size of companies and raise the threshold from 100 to 300 workers for firms that must comply with new limitations on firings and business closures. The new threshold rescinds the rights to strike or receive benefits for workers at smaller firms. The reforms replaced 44 labor laws with four labor codes that labor experts predicted would further expand the informal-sector workforce, which had more than 400 million workers, where workers do not have formal contracts and benefits.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but forced labor, including bonded labor for both adults and children (see section 7.c.), remained widespread.
Enforcement and compensation for victims is the responsibility of state and local governments and varied in effectiveness. The government generally did not effectively enforce laws related to bonded labor or labor-trafficking laws, such as the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. When inspectors referred violations for prosecution, court backlogs, inadequate preparation, and a lack of prioritization of the cases by prosecuting authorities sometimes resulted in acquittals. In addition, when authorities reported violations, they sometimes reported them to civil courts to assess fines and did not refer them to police for criminal investigation of labor trafficking.
Penalties under law varied based on the type of forced labor and included fines and prison terms; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. For example, bonded labor is specifically criminalized under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which prescribes sufficiently stringent penalties, and the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, which prescribes penalties that were not sufficiently stringent.
Authorities decreased investigations, prosecutions, and case convictions of traffickers and decreased victim identification efforts. NGOs estimated at least eight million trafficking victims in the country, mostly in bonded labor, and reported that police did not file reports in at least half of these cases. Authorities penalized some adult and child victims for crimes their traffickers compelled them to commit.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the federally funded, state-run Centrally Sponsored Scheme assisted 11,296 bonded laborers from June 2016 through February 2020. Some NGOs reported delays of more than one year in obtaining release certificates for rescued bonded laborers. Such certificates were required to certify that employers had held them in bondage and entitled them to compensation under the law. The NGOs also reported that in some instances they failed to obtain release certificates for bonded laborers. The distribution of initial rehabilitation funds was uneven across states. The majority of bonded labor victim compensation cases remained tied to a criminal conviction of bonded labor. Since authorities often registered bonded labor cases as civil salary violations, convictions of the traffickers and full compensation for victims remained rare.
Bonded labor continued to be a concern in many states; however, no reliable statistics were available on the number of bonded laborers in the country. Most bonded labor occurred in agriculture. Nonagricultural sectors with a high incidence of bonded labor were stone quarries, brick kilns, rice mills, construction, embroidery factories, and beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) production. Those from the most disadvantaged social strata were the most vulnerable to forced labor and labor trafficking.
On March 12, Karnataka law enforcement officials, in cooperation with the state’s human rights commission and a local NGO, rescued 50 bonded laborers from three plantations in Bengaluru. The rescued laborers were all from the Irular tribe (listed in the Schedule Castes and Tribes); at least 15 of those rescued were children. The owners of two plantations were arrested under laws prohibiting bonded labor and trafficking of persons.
In May, 67 bonded laborers were rescued from a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh with the assistance of the NHRC and NGO Justice Ventures International. The rescued workers included women and children and were returned to their villages in Bihar.
In June, 12 members of a vulnerable tribal group in Telangana received compensation of 150,000 rupees (more than $2,000) each under the bonded labor rehabilitation assistance of the central government. These were part of the 45 bonded laborers rescued from an irrigation project site in 2018.
The Sumangali or “Provident Funds” scheme remained common in Tamil Nadu’s spinning mill industry, in which employers offer a lump sum for young women’s education at the end of multiyear labor contracts, which often amounted to bonded labor.
News media and NGOs reported several instances of migrants and bonded labor abandoned at workplaces without work or financial assistance from their employers during the COVID-19 lockdown. On June 1, the Telangana High Court directed the state government to arrange for food, shelter, and transportation for an estimated 150,000 workers stranded in the 810 brick kilns across the state. The petitioner pointed out that owners were mandated under the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act to arrange for transportation of the migrant workers, but this was not done in the case of brick kiln workers.
Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe members lived and worked under traditional arrangements of servitude in many areas of the country. Although the central government had long abolished forced labor servitude, these social groups remained impoverished and vulnerable to forced exploitation, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.
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
All of the worst forms of child labor were prohibited. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 14. The law also prohibits the employment of children between 14 and 18 in hazardous work. Children are prohibited from using flammable substances, explosives, or other hazardous material, as defined by the law. In 2017 the Ministry of Labor and Employment added 16 industries and 59 processes to the list of hazardous industries where employment of children younger than 18 is prohibited and where children younger than 14 are prohibited from helping, including family enterprises.
Despite evidence that children worked in unsafe and unhealthy environments for long periods of time in spinning mills, garment production, carpet making, and domestic work, not all children younger than 18 are prohibited from working in occupations related to these sectors. The law, however, permits employment of children in family-owned enterprises involving nonhazardous activities after school hours. Nevertheless, child labor remained common.
Law enforcement agencies took actions to combat child labor. State governments enforced labor laws and employed labor inspectors, while the Ministry of Labor and Employment provided oversight and coordination. Nonetheless, gaps existed within the operations of the state government labor inspectorate that might have hindered adequate labor law enforcement. Violations remained common. The law establishes penalties that are not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, and authorities sporadically enforced them. The fines collected are deposited in a welfare fund for formerly employed children.
The International Labor Organization estimated there were 10 million child workers between ages five and 14 in the country. The majority of child labor occurred in agriculture and the informal economy, in particular in stone quarries, in the rolling of cigarettes, and in informal food service establishments. Children were also exploited in domestic service and in the sugarcane, construction, textile, cotton, and glass bangle industries in addition to begging.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). Nonstate armed groups recruited and used children as young as 12 to organize hostility against the government in Jammu and Kashmir, including Maoist and Naxalite groups. Nonstate armed groups sometimes forced children to handle weapons and explosive devices and used them as human shields, sexual slaves, informants, and spies.
Forced child labor, including bonded labor, also remained a serious problem. Employers engaged children in forced or indentured labor as domestic servants and beggars, as well as in quarrying, brick kilns, rice mills, silk-thread production, and textile embroidery.
In May, 900 children were rescued from bangle manufacturing factories in Jaipur by a local antitrafficking unit. Of the children, 25 were working as bonded laborers and the rest were engaged in child labor, all ages 10 to 13. They were malnourished and exhausted and alleged experiences of inhuman treatment and violence. In August, 47 child workers, including 13 girls, were rescued by the Jalandhar police from a rubber footwear factory. Most of the rescued children were migrants from other states and Nepal.
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
Provisions in the constitution and various laws and regulations prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status with respect to employment and occupation. A separate law prohibits discrimination against individuals suffering from HIV/AIDs. The law does not prohibit employment discrimination against individuals with communicable diseases or based on color, religion, political opinion, national origin, or citizenship.
The law prohibits women from working in jobs that are physically or morally harmful, specifically the Factories Act 1948, Sections 27, 66, and 87, and the Bombay Shops and Establishments Act of 1948, Section 34-A, although the latter only applies to four states.
The government effectively enforced the law and regulations within the formal sector; however, penalties were not sufficient to defer violations. The law and regulations do not protect informal-sector workers (industries and establishments that do not fall under the purview of the Factories Act), who made up an estimated 90 percent of the workforce.
Discrimination occurred in the informal sector with respect to Dalits, indigenous persons, and persons with disabilities. Gender discrimination with respect to wages was prevalent. Foreign migrant workers were largely undocumented and typically did not enjoy the legal protections available to workers who are nationals of the country. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women raised concerns regarding the continued presence of sexual harassment and violence against women and girls and the repercussions on school and labor participation.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Federal law sets safety and health standards, but state government laws set minimum wages, hours of work, and additional state-specific safety and health standards. The daily minimum wage varied but was more than the official estimate of poverty-level income. State governments set a separate minimum wage for agricultural workers. Laws on wages, hours, and occupational health and safety do not apply to the large informal sector.
The law mandates a maximum eight-hour workday and 48-hour workweek as well as safe working conditions, which include provisions for restrooms, cafeterias, medical facilities, and ventilation. The law mandates a minimum rest period of 30 minutes after every four hours of work and premium pay for overtime, but it does not mandate paid holidays. The law prohibits compulsory overtime and limits the amount of overtime a worker may perform. Occupational safety and health standards set by the government were generally up to date and covered the main industries in the country.
State governments are responsible for enforcing minimum wages, hours of work, and safety and health standards. The number of inspectors generally was insufficient to enforce labor law. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. State governments often did not effectively enforce the minimum wage law for agricultural workers. Enforcement of safety and health standards was poor, especially in the informal sector, but also in some formal-sector industries. Penalties for violation of occupational safety and health standards were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.
To boost the economy following the COVID-19-induced lockdown, many state governments relaxed labor laws to permit overtime work beyond legislated limits. The state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat passed executive orders to suspend enforcement of most labor laws for a period of up to three years to promote industrial production.
Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in the informal sector. Small, low-technology factories frequently exposed workers to hazardous working conditions. Undocumented foreign workers did not receive basic occupational health and safety protections. In many instances workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.
Several states amended labor laws during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow industries to overcome the losses suffered during the lockdown while also claiming to protect the interests of workers. On May 29, the Odisha cabinet amended the Factories Act, 1948, and Industrial Disputes Act, allowing companies with a worker strength of up to 300 to terminate employment or close the units without prior approval from the government. The earlier limit was 100 workers. The government also allowed women to work during night shift hours of 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., with prior consent from the worker.
According to Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union, more than 30 industrial accidents occurred in chemical plants, coal mines, steel factories, and boilers in power stations during May and June, claiming at least 75 lives. The organization stated “widespread use of contract workers, lack of safety inspections, inadequate penal action against safety violations and not fixing responsibility on the employer are some important factors contributing to the accidents.”
On May 7, a styrene gas leak from an LG Polymer chemical plant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, killed 11 persons and sickened more than 1,000. Preliminary investigations revealed the leak occurred due to a faulty gas valve. On July 7, state police arrested 12 individuals, including the company’s chief executive officer, after a probe determined poor safety protocols and a breakdown of emergency response procedures as reasons for the leak.
On July 2, four individuals died of asphyxiation in Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu, after entering a septic tank to remove clogged sewage. The homeowner who directed them to clean the tank was charged with negligence. A government survey in 2019 identified 206 deaths from cleaning sewers and septic tanks between 1993 and July 2019 in Tamil Nadu.
On August 1, a total of 11 workers died when a crane collapsed on them at a worksite in the government-owned Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam.
On August 21, nine workers, including seven employees of the state-owned power generation company, died in a fire accident in the Srisailam hydropower station in Telangana. A government committee assessed an electric short circuit caused the fire. Civil society activists alleged the accident was “a result of inadequate provisions in the design of the hydropower station building,” claiming “there is no evidence that the hydropower station was built to international standards.”
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings in connection with conflicts throughout the country (see section 1.g.). Government entities investigate whether security force killings were justifiable and whether to pursue prosecutions via an order either from the inspector general of police or through the National Human Rights Commission.
On August 13, Frontier Corps soldiers in Turbat, Balochistan, shot Karachi University student Hayat Baloch in what his family claimed was an extrajudicial killing. Local police launched an investigation and arrested a Frontier Corps soldier following protests in several cities of Balochistan and in Karachi. On July 13, a young man named Ahsanullah Bakhsh was found dead inside a police station in Kharan, Balochistan, where police had held him for interrogation in a murder case. Bakhsh’s family claimed police were responsible for the death, while police claimed Bakhsh committed suicide. Protests took place on July 15-16 outside the Press Club and Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Kharan, with protesters demanding a probe into the death of Bakhsh. The deputy commissioner promised to hold an impartial inquiry into the case, and six police officials were suspended for negligence.
Pakistan Tahafuz [Protection] Movement (PTM) activist Arif Wazir was shot by unidentified actors outside his home in South Waziristan on May 1 and died hours later in an Islamabad hospital. Wazir, a prominent tribal figure and Pashtun rights leader, had recently been released from jail for speeches critical of the Pakistani military establishment when he made a March visit to Afghanistan.
A cross-fire incident between Pakistani and Afghan forces on July 30 near the Chaman border crossing in Balochistan resulted in several civilian casualties, according to Afghan officials. In a July 31 statement, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated Pakistan’s military returned fire in self-defense after “Afghan forces opened unprovoked fire on innocent civilians gathered towards Pakistan’s side of the international border.” The crossfire incident followed violent protests on July 30, when the paramilitary Frontier Corps reportedly opened fire on protesters who had been trying to enter the recently reopened Chaman border crossing.
Physical abuse of criminal suspects in custody allegedly caused the death of some individuals. Lengthy trial delays and failure to discipline and prosecute those responsible for killings contributed to a culture of impunity.
There were numerous reports of fatal attacks against police and security forces. On February 18, at least one police officer was killed and two were wounded after an improvised explosive device (IED) hit a police vehicle en route to provide security to a polio vaccination team in the northwestern portion of the country. On May 18, unknown assailants targeted a Frontier Corps vehicle with IEDs, killing six army soldiers in Mach, Balochistan.
Militants and terrorist groups killed hundreds and injured hundreds more with bombs, suicide attacks, and other violence. Casualties decreased compared with previous years (see section 1.g.).
On October 27, a bomb detonated at a seminary in Quetta, killing eight individuals, including six students, and injuring more than 100 others. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Kidnappings and forced disappearances of persons took place in nearly all areas of the country. Some officials from intelligence agencies, police, and other security forces reportedly held prisoners incommunicado and refused to disclose their location. The independent nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimated at least 2,100 political dissenters and rights activists were missing in the country, although the actual number may be higher.
On June 16, authorities acknowledged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa human rights defender Idris Khattak had been held incommunicado by law enforcement since November 2019. Khattak, whose work monitored human rights violations in and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), disappeared after his car was stopped by security agents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In June authorities admitted they had him in custody and planned to charge him under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, a British-era law that could result in a lengthy prison term or the death sentence.
Human rights organizations reported some authorities disappeared or arrested Pashtun, Sindhi, and Baloch human rights activists, as well as Sindhi and Baloch nationalists without cause or warrant. Some children were also detained in an effort to put pressure on their parents. Activists claimed 500 Sindhis were missing, with more than 60 disappearing in 2020 alone.
On August 10, unknown actors kidnapped Sarang Joyo, a university professor and Sindh human rights activist, from his home in Karachi. Joyo’s wife alleged that uniformed and plainclothes police officers were responsible for his enforced disappearance. Joyo reappeared after six days and was admitted to a hospital showing signs of torture. Journalists, lawyers, and other activists were similarly abducted by unknown actors and released within days of their abduction during the year, including journalists Matiullah Jan, Bilal Farooqi, and Ali Imran; former journalist Sajid Gondal; and lawyer Muhib Leghari. Civil society alleged security forces perpetrated the disappearances.
On June 17, Asif Husain Siddiqui, a worker of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-London, was found shot dead in Karachi, after being missing for several days.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the penal code has no specific section against torture. The penal code prohibits criminal use of force and assault; however, there were reports that security forces, including the intelligence services, tortured and abused individuals in custody.
Human rights organizations claimed that torture was perpetrated by police, military, and intelligence agency members, that they operated with impunity, and that the government lacked serious efforts to curb the abuse.
On June 24, a video of three police officers abusing and stripping a man naked at a police station in Peshawar went viral on social media. In January the inspector general of Sindh, Kaleem Imam, claimed some officers of the Counterterrorism Department (CTD) were involved in extortion and wrongful confinement. He claimed some senior CTD officials had encouraged these officers, rather than punishing them, for such abuses.
Media and civil society organizations reported cases of individuals dying in police custody allegedly due to torture. On July 9, the body of a prisoner, Peeral Khaskheli, was found in a police lock-up in Sanghar, Sindh. His family claimed police were responsible for the death, while police claimed the deceased committed suicide.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in February of sexual exploitation and abuse by a Pakistani peacekeeper deployed to the African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur, allegedly involving rape of an adult. As of October, the Pakistani government was investigating the allegation.
There were reports police personnel employed cruel and degrading treatment and punishment. The HRCP reported police committed “excesses” in at least 29 cases as of September 24, killing 14 persons and injuring 23. Multiple sources reported police abuse was often underreported.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces due to politicization, corruption, and a lack of effective mechanisms to investigate abuses. The government provided limited training to increase respect for human rights by security forces.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in some civilian prisons and military detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, and unsanitary conditions.
Physical Conditions: Prison conditions often were extremely poor. Overcrowding remained a serious problem, largely due to structural issues in the criminal justice system that led to a high rate of pretrial detention. According to prison authorities, as of August the total nationwide prison population stood at 82,139 in 116 prisons across the country. The designed capacity of these prisons is 64,099, putting the occupancy at 28 percent above capacity.
Inadequate food and medical care in prisons continued to cause chronic health problems. Malnutrition remained a problem, especially for inmates unable to supplement their diets with help from family or friends. In many facilities the sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate. Most prison facilities were antiquated and had no means to control indoor temperatures. A system existed for basic and emergency medical care, but bureaucratic procedures slowed access. Prisoners with disabilities usually lacked adequate care. Representatives of Christian and Ahmadi Muslim communities claimed prison inmates often subjected their members to abuse and violence in prison. Civil society organizations reported prison officials frequently subjected prisoners accused of blasphemy violations to poor prison conditions. NGOs reported many individuals accused of blasphemy remained in solitary confinement for extended periods, sometimes for more than a year. The government asserted this treatment was for the individual’s safety, in view of the likelihood that prisoners accused of blasphemy would face threats from the general prison population.
Authorities held female prisoners separately from men. Nevertheless, despite the passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018, which provides for separate places of confinement, NGOs reported prison officials held transgender women with men, and the men harassed the transgender women. Balochistan had no women’s prison, but authorities confined women in separate barracks from male convicts.
Due to lack of infrastructure, prison departments often did not segregate detainees from convicted criminals.
Prison officials kept juvenile offenders in barracks separate from adults. According to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, prisoners and prison staff subjected children to rape and other forms of violence.
Although the Islamabad High Court decided to release vulnerable, pretrial, or remand detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling on March 30, halting the detainees’ release.
Administration: An ombudsman for detainees maintained a central office in Islamabad and offices in each province. Inspectors general of prisons irregularly visited prisons and detention facilities to monitor conditions and handle complaints.
By law, prison authorities must permit prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions. There were reports, however, that prisoners refrained from submitting complaints to avoid retaliation from jail authorities. The law also provides for visitation privileges, but overcrowding and lack of adequate visitor facilities in some prisons restricted detainees’ ability to receive visits. In most cases authorities allowed prisoners to observe their religious traditions.
A total of 548 (519 Sindh, 29 Punjab) prisoners under trial detained for petty or minor offenses were released on the orders of two provincial high courts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Independent Monitoring: International organizations responsible for monitoring prisons reported difficulty accessing some detention sites, in particular those holding security-related detainees. Authorities did not allow international organizations access to detention centers in areas most affected by violence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former FATA, and Balochistan. Authorities at the local, provincial, and national levels permitted some human rights groups and journalists to monitor prison conditions of juveniles and female inmates.
Improvements: During the year Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s prison departments continued construction of their own prison academies, focusing on modern prison management techniques that promote human rights and counter violent extremism.
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, but authorities did not always observe these requirements. Corruption and impunity compounded this problem.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Actions (In Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance of 2019 gives the military authority to detain civilians indefinitely without charge in internment camps, occupy property, conduct operations, and convict detainees in the province solely using the testimony of one soldier. Both before and after the ordinance’s passage, the military was immune from prosecution in civilian courts for its actions in the province. The ordinance also provides that the military is not required to release the names of detainees to their families, who are therefore unable to challenge their detentions in a civilian court. The provincial high court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court suspended this ruling. The appeal remained with the Supreme Court at year’s end. Pending the outcome of this appeal, the military retains control of detention centers and law enforcement activities in much of the former FATA.
On July 20, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) violated the rights to fair trial and due process in the arrest of two opposition politicians, Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Salman Rafique, who were detained by the NAB for 15 months “without reasonable grounds.”
On March 12, the NAB arrested Mir Shakilur Rehman, the editor in chief and owner of the country’s largest media group, the Jang, in Lahore on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. The All Pakistan Newspapers Society condemned the arrest and called it an attempt by the government to silence independent media. In June the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention asked the government to provide detailed information on the legal grounds for the arrest and detention of Rehman, including why the charges were pressed 34 years after the alleged offense. Rehman was released on bail November 9.
In October 2019, Federal Investigation Agency officials detained Muhammad Ismail, father of rights activist and vocal critic of the country’s military, Gulalai Ismail. The agency stated it detained Muhammad Ismail for “hate speech and fake information against government institutions on Facebook and Twitter.” Ismail was released on bail one month later. Although a Peshawar antiterrorism court later dismissed terrorism finance charges against social media and human rights activist Gulalai Ismail and her parents on July 2 for lack of evidence, Gulalai’s father announced on October 2 that new charges were introduced against them.
A first information report (FIR) is the legal basis for any arrest, initiated when police receive information concerning the commission of a “cognizable” offense. A third party usually initiates a FIR, but police may file FIRs on their own initiative. An FIR allows police to detain a suspect for 24 hours, after which a magistrate may order detention for an additional 14 days if police show detention is necessary to obtain evidence material to the investigation. Some authorities did not observe these limits on detention. Authorities reportedly filed FIRs without supporting evidence in order to harass or intimidate detainees or did not file them when provided with adequate evidence unless the complainant paid a bribe. There were reports of persons arrested without judicial authorization and of individuals paying bribes to visit prisoners.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not routinely provide notification of the arrest of foreigners to embassies or consulates. The government requires that foreign missions request access to their arrested citizens 20 days in advance. Many foreign missions reported that requests for access to arrested citizens were unanswered for weeks or months, and, when answered, notification of access was often not sent until the day before or the day of the proposed visit. Foreign prisoners often remained in prison long after completion of their sentences because they were unable to pay for deportation to their home countries.
A functioning bail system exists. Human rights groups noted, however, that judges sometimes denied bail until payment of bribes. NGOs reported authorities sometimes denied bail in blasphemy cases because defendants who faced the death penalty if convicted were likely to flee or were at risk from public vigilantism. Officials often simultaneously charged defendants facing lower-order blasphemy charges with terrorism offenses, which are nonbailable. NGOs also reported that lawyers representing individuals accused of blasphemy often asked that their clients remain in custody pretrial to protect them from vigilante violence.
By law, detainees must be tried within 30 days of arrest. The law provides for exceptions: a district coordination officer has authority to recommend preventive detention on the grounds of “maintenance of public order” for up to 90 days and may–with approval of the Home Department–extend it for an additional 90 days.
The government provided state-funded legal counsel to prisoners accused of crimes for which conviction included the death penalty, but it did not regularly provide legal representation in other cases. The constitution recognizes the right of habeas corpus and allows the high courts to demand that a person accused of a crime be present in court. The law allows citizens to submit habeas corpus petitions to the courts. In many cases involving forced disappearances, authorities failed to present detainees according to judges’ orders.
In some instances police held detainees incommunicado.
Arbitrary Arrest: Reports found police arbitrarily detained individuals to extort bribes for their release or detained relatives of wanted individuals to compel suspects to surrender. Ethnic minorities and refugees in Karachi who lacked official identification documents reported arbitrary arrests and harassment by police authorities. There were also reports police, including officers from the Federal Investigation Agency (a border control, criminal investigation, counterintelligence and security agency) made arrests to extract bribes.
Pretrial Detention: According to provincial prison departments, as of August an estimated 68 percent of detainees were either awaiting or undergoing trial. Reports indicated prison authorities did not differentiate between pretrial detainees and prisoners being tried when collecting prison data. Police sometimes held persons in investigative detention without seeking a magistrate’s approval and often held detainees without charge until a court challenged the detention. Magistrates generally approved investigative detention at the request of police without requiring justification. When police did not produce sufficient evidence to try a suspect within the 14-day period, they generally requested that magistrates issue another judicial remand, thereby further extending the suspect’s detention.
Some individuals remained in pretrial detention for periods longer than the maximum sentence for the crime with which they were charged. Authorities seldom informed detainees promptly of charges against them.
Special rules apply to cases brought to court by the NAB, which investigates and prosecutes corruption cases. The NAB may detain suspects for 15 days without charge (renewable with judicial concurrence) and deny access to counsel prior to charging. Offenses under the NAB are not bailable, and only the NAB chairperson has the power to decide whether to release detainees.
Security forces may restrict the activities of terrorism suspects, seize their assets for up to 48 hours, and detain them for as long as one year without charges. Human rights and international organizations reported security forces held an unknown number of individuals allegedly affiliated with terrorist organizations indefinitely in preventive detention, where they were often allegedly tortured and abused. In many cases authorities held prisoners incommunicado, denying them prompt access to a lawyer of their choice. Family members often did not have prompt access to detainees.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There were reports of persons arrested or detained who were not allowed to challenge in court the legal basis or nature of their detention, obtain relief, or receive compensation.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but according to NGOs and legal experts, the judiciary often was subject to external influences, such as fear of reprisal from extremist elements in terrorism or blasphemy cases and public politicization of high-profile cases. Civil society organizations reported judges were reluctant to exonerate individuals accused of blasphemy, fearing vigilante violence. Media and the public generally considered the high courts and the Supreme Court more credible, but media discussed allegations of pressure from security agencies on judges of these courts.
Extensive case backlogs in the lower and superior courts undermined the right to effective remedy and to a fair and public hearing. Given the prevalence of pretrial detention, these delays often led defendants in criminal cases to be incarcerated for long periods as they waited for their trial to be heard. Antiquated procedural rules, unfilled judgeships, poor case management, and weak legal education caused delays in civil and criminal cases. According to the National Judicial Policy Making Committee, more than two million cases were pending in the court system.
According to the Ministry of Law and Justice, as of November there were 1.9 million backlogged civil dispute cases. In the past two years, the ministry cleared 450,000 cases through the Alternate Dispute Resolution system, most of which involved family law. A typical civil dispute case may take up to 10 years to settle, while the Alternative Dispute Resolution process may reduce this time to approximately three to five months.
Many lower courts remained corrupt, inefficient, and subject to pressure from wealthy persons and influential religious or political figures.
There were incidents of unknown persons threatening or killing witnesses, prosecutors, or investigating police officers in high-level cases.
The use of informal justice systems that lacked institutionalized legal protections continued, especially in rural areas, and often resulted in human rights abuses. Large landholders and other community leaders in Sindh and Punjab and tribal leaders in Pashtun and Baloch areas sometimes held local council meetings (panchayats or jirgas) outside the established legal system. Such councils settled feuds and imposed tribal penalties, including fines, imprisonment, and sometimes the death penalty. These councils often sentenced women to violent punishment or death for so-called honor-related crimes. In May the Punjab Assembly passed the Local Government Act and the Panchayat and Village Councils Act, which together formalized a two-tier system of a directly elected town council paired with panchayats composed of the town or neighborhood’s residents. The law authorizes panchayats to perform public services and any responsibilities delegated to them by the town council.
Despite the repeal of the FATA Interim Governance Regulation and the Frontier Crimes Regulations legal code in the former FATA, judgments by informal justice systems were a common practice. After the Supreme Court ruled that the way jirgas and panchayats operated was unconstitutional, the court restricted the use of these mechanisms to arbitration, mediation, negotiation, or reconciliation of consenting parties in a civil dispute. In April a jirga was formed to resolve a high-profile land dispute between two tribes on the boundary of Mohmand and Bajaur after the disputants refused to recognize a government commission on the issue.
The civil, criminal, and family court systems provide for a fair trial and due process, presumption of innocence, cross-examination, and appeal. The constitution protects defendants from self-incrimination. There are no trials by jury. Although defendants have the right to be present and consult with an attorney, courts must appoint attorneys for indigents only in capital cases. Defendants generally bear the cost of legal representation in lower courts, but a lawyer may be provided at a public expense in appellate courts. Defendants may confront or question prosecution witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. Due to the limited number of judges, a heavy backlog of cases, lengthy court procedures, frequent adjournment, and political pressure, cases routinely lasted for years, and defendants made frequent court appearances.
Police lacked training to properly handle child delinquency, and reports found cases of police brutality against juveniles. Many juveniles spent long periods behind bars because they could not afford bail. According to an NGO, juveniles are at risk for sexual and physical assault by police, adults, and other juveniles as soon as they enter the judicial system, including transportation to detention. Juveniles do not have separate facilities from adult detainees.
The law mandates the creation of juvenile courts and “juvenile justice committees,” intended to expedite the administration of justice for minors by resolving cases that involve minor offenses without resorting to formal judicial proceedings. Despite a directive that the government create these courts and committees within three months of the law’s passage in 2019, implementation has been slow. As of October the government had established three child courts in Lahore and three in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including one in the former FATA.
The law bans the application of the death penalty for minors, yet courts sentenced convicted children to death under the Antiterrorism Act. Furthermore, lack of reliable documentation made determining the ages of possible minors difficult.
There were instances of lack of transparency in court cases, particularly if the case involved high-profile or sensitive issues, such as blasphemy. NGOs reported the government often located such trials in jails due to concerns for the safety of defendants, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. Although these safety concerns were well founded, NGOs expressed concerns regarding transparency issues.
The Antiterrorism Act allows the government to use special, streamlined antiterrorism courts (ATCs) to try persons charged with terrorist activities and sectarian violence. In other courts, suspects must appear within seven working days of their arrest, but ATCs may extend that period. Human rights activists criticized this parallel system, claiming it was more vulnerable to political manipulation. Authorities continued to expedite high-profile cases by referring them to ATCs, even if they had no connection to terrorism. The frequent use of ATCs for cases not involving terrorism, including for blasphemy or other acts deemed to foment religious hatred, led to significant backlogs, and despite being comparatively faster than the regular court system, ATCs often failed to meet speedy trial standards.
The Federal Shariat Court (FSC) has exclusive appellate jurisdiction over all cases involving the application and interpretation of the Hudood Ordinances, enacted in 1979 by military leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to implement a strict interpretation of Islamic law by punishing extramarital sex, false accusations of extramarital sex, theft, and alcohol consumption. The FSC also has power to revise legislation it deems inconsistent with sharia law. Individuals may appeal FSC decisions to the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.
Civil society groups stated courts often failed to protect the rights of religious minorities against Muslim accusers. While the numerical majority of those imprisoned for blasphemy were Muslim, religious minorities were disproportionately affected, relative to their small percentage of the population. Lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, and most convicted persons spent years in jail before higher courts eventually overturned their convictions or ordered their release.
In some cases police arrested individuals after acts of vigilantism related to blasphemy or religious discrimination. In September police arrested seven persons in cases related to attacks on Hindu temples and properties after a Hindu teacher was accused of blasphemy in Ghotki, Sindh.
Also see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport.
NAB continued to press corruption charges against opposition figures. Similar corruption charges were rarely pursued against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party figures. On September 28, authorities arrested National Assembly opposition leader and Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) president Shehbaz Sharif on charges of accumulating assets beyond his means and money laundering.
On July 20, the Supreme Court issued a judgment criticizing the anticorruption agency NAB’s imprisonment of PML-N politician brothers Saad and Salman Rafique for 14 months without charges. More broadly, the court accused the NAB of violating the fundamental principle of innocence until proven guilty and interfering in politics by detaining opposition politicians without sufficient cause and sparing the government’s allies despite their own scams of “massive proportion.”
Some ethnic and religious groups claimed authorities detained their members based on political affiliation or beliefs. Under the 2009 Aghaz-e-Haqooq (“beginning of the rights”) Balochistan legislative package of reforms, the government announced a general amnesty for all Baloch political prisoners, leaders, and activists in exile as well as those allegedly involved in “antistate” activities. Despite the amnesty offers, illegal detention of Baloch leaders and the disappearance of private Baloch citizens continued. The federal Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan claimed 164 cases remained pending from 483 cases reported between March 2011 and March 2020. Nonetheless, human rights activists said the commission’s numbers were unreliable and that remaining cases were higher than reported. In June the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) quit Prime Minister Imran Khan’s parliamentary bloc over unfulfilled promises, including the government’s failure to recover Baloch missing persons. BNP-M claimed only 450 of 5,128 missing persons had been found since 2018, and a further 1,800 disappeared during this period. In Sindh, the NGO Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh claimed that 83 persons, mostly workers of nationalist political parties, remained in security agency custody due to political affiliations.
Journalists in exile in Europe reported targeted harassment and physical violence they believed was linked to their investigative work into the military’s actions and into human rights abuses. Unknown Urdu-speaking assailants attacked blogger Ahmed Waqas Goraya in the Netherlands in February.
Individuals may petition the courts to seek redress for various human rights violations, and courts often took such actions. Individuals may seek redress in civil courts against government officials, including on grounds of denial of human rights. Observers reported that civil courts seldom issued judgments in such cases, and most cases were settled out of court. Although there were no procedures for administrative redress, informal reparations were common. Individuals and organizations could not appeal adverse decisions to international human rights bodies, although some NGOs submitted human rights “shadow reports” to the United Nations and other international actors.
The law requires court-issued warrants for property searches. Police sometimes ignored this requirement and on occasion reportedly stole items during searches. Authorities seldom punished police for illegal entry. Police at times detained family members to induce a suspect to surrender. In cases pursued under the Antiterrorism Act, law enforcement agencies have additional powers, including of search and seizure without a warrant.
Several domestic intelligence services monitored politicians, political activists, suspected terrorists, NGOs, employees of foreign entities, and media professionals. These services included the Inter-Services Intelligence, Police Special Branch, the Intelligence Bureau, and Military Intelligence. Credible reports found that authorities routinely used wiretaps, monitored cell phone calls, intercepted electronic correspondence, and opened mail without court approval. There were credible reports the government used technology to arbitrarily or unlawfully surveil or interfere with the privacy of individuals. The government also used technologies and practices, including internet and social media controls, blocking or filtering of websites and social media platforms, censorship, and tracking methods.
The military and paramilitary organizations conducted multiple counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations to eradicate militant safe havens. The military’s Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, launched in 2017, continued throughout the year. Radd-ul-Fasaad is a nationwide counterterrorism campaign aimed at consolidating the gains of the 2014-17 Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which countered foreign and domestic terrorists in the former FATA. Law enforcement agencies also acted to weaken terrorist groups, arresting suspected terrorists and gang members who allegedly provided logistical support to militants. In raids throughout the country, police confiscated caches of weapons, suicide vests, and planning materials. Police expanded their presence into formerly ungoverned areas, particularly in Balochistan, where military operations had become normal, although such operations often were unreported in the press.
Poor security, intimidation by both security forces and militants, and control by government and security forces over limiting access to nonresidents to Balochistan and the former FATA impeded the efforts of human rights organizations to provide relief to victims of military abuses and of journalists to report on any such abuses.
Militants carried out numerous attacks on political party offices and candidates.
Political, sectarian, criminal, and ethnic violence in Karachi continued, although violence declined and gang wars were less prevalent than before security operations in the city. On August 14, Syed Mohammad Ali Rizvi, a traffic policeman from the Shia community, was killed in Karachi in an alleged sectarian attack. On July 22, police arrested five Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants, who allegedly planned to target police and other law enforcement officials in Karachi.
Killings: There were reports government security forces engaged in extrajudicial killings during operations against suspected militants throughout the country.
There were numerous media reports of police and security forces killing terrorist suspects in “police encounters.” The trial against Rao Anwar, accused of the extrajudicial killing of Naqibullah Mehsud in a staged counterterror operation in 2018, continued at year’s end.
Security forces in Balochistan continued to disappear pretrial terror suspects, along with human rights activists, politicians, and teachers. The Baloch Human Rights Organization noted 45 individuals had disappeared and that assailants had killed 15 persons in seven districts in July alone.
There were numerous reports of criminal suspects killed in exchanges with police and the military. For example, counterterrorism police raided a militant hideout in the eastern part of the country on July 31, resulting in a shootout that killed five members of separatist group Baloch Republican Army.
Militants and terrorist groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and the Islamic State Khorasan Province targeted civilians, journalists, community leaders, security forces, law enforcement officers, and schools, killing and injuring hundreds with bombs, suicide attacks, and other forms of violence. Throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the newly merged districts, there continued to be attacks by militant groups on security forces, tribal leaders, and civilians. Militant and terrorist groups often attacked religious minorities. On January 10, a suicide blast at a mosque in Quetta killed 15 individuals, including Deputy Superintendent of Police Haji Amanullah, and injured 21. On May 18, six Frontier Corps soldiers were killed in an IED blast in Mach, Balochistan. The United Baloch Army claimed responsibility for the May 18 attack. According to media reports, the Islamic State also claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 29, four members of the Baloch Liberation Army attacked the Stock Exchange in Karachi, killing two guards and a police officer and wounding seven others before being shot and killed. On August 10, Jamatuul Ahrar, a TTP splinter group, claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed five individuals and injured 20 by targeting a vehicle of the Antinarcotics Force in Chaman, Balochistan. A low-intensity separatist insurgency continued in Balochistan. Security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings in the fight against militant groups.
Child Soldiers: Nonstate militant groups recruited children as young as 12 to spy, fight, or die as suicide bombers. The militants sometimes offered parents money, often sexually and physically abused the children, and used psychological coercion to convince the children that the acts they committed were justified. The government operated a center in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to rehabilitate, educate, and reintegrate former child soldiers.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In January unidentified gunmen on motorcycles shot and killed two female polio immunization campaign workers in Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In February a bomb killed a police officer assigned to protect a team administering polio vaccine to children in Kolochi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The TTP particularly targeted girls’ schools to demonstrate its opposition to girls’ education but also destroyed boys’ schools. Militants closed key access roads and tunnels and attacked communications and energy networks, disrupting commerce and the distribution of food and water; military operations in response also created additional hardships for the local civilian population.
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 there were constitutional restrictions. In addition, threats, harassment, abductions, violence, and killings led journalists and editors to practice self-censorship. Government failure to investigate and prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for the right to free speech and the press, subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” or the “integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” The law permits citizens to criticize the government publicly or privately, but court decisions interpreted the constitution as prohibiting criticism of the military and judiciary. Such criticism may result in legal, political, or commercial reprisal. Blasphemy laws restrict individual rights to free speech concerning matters of religion and religious doctrine. According to the penal code, the punishments for conviction of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” The courts enforced the blasphemy laws, and although authorities had not executed any person for committing blasphemy, allegations of blasphemy often prompted vigilantism and mob lynching. The government restricted some language and symbolic speech based on hate speech and terrorism provisions.
On July 29, Tahir Naseem was shot and killed inside a Peshawar courtroom while on trial for blasphemy. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 persons spread across multiple rallies in Peshawar demonstrated on July 31 in support of the accused murderer of Tahir Naseem, juvenile Faisal Khan. Protesters called for his immediate release and condemned the government for prosecution. Weekend sermons warned worshippers “not to trust the judiciary after the Asia Bibi [blasphemy] case,” and “We need to take these [blasphemy] matters in our own hands.” Police officers, in a photograph widely circulated on social media, posed for a “selfie” with the accused killer. Naseem’s family alleged that he had a mental disability.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Threats, harassment, and violence against journalists who reported on sensitive issues such as civil-military tensions or abuses by security forces occurred with increasing frequency during the year. Both the military, through the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, and government oversight bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), enforced censorship. By law the government may restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest. During the year the government gained additional legislative authority to restrict information it deems “prejudicial” to the national interest. Authorities used these laws to prevent or punish media criticism of the government and armed forces. To publish within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, media owners had to obtain permission from the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, and journalists had to depend largely on information provided by the government and military. There were limitations on transmission of Indian media content. Journalists also protested their inability to report freely on rights violations and forced disappearances in Balochistan, the Pashtun movement’s activities and protests, and the military’s involvement in business enterprises. In January the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication approved the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules to regulate content on social media platforms. In October the government used those rules to briefly ban the TikTok application, lifting the ban once the application’s company agreed to block users who upload unlawful content. Rights activists reported the government contacted Twitter and asked them to take down accounts of activists deemed problematic.
Journalists alleged PEMRA issued editorial directives to television stations, and media outlets claimed the government pressured stations to halt broadcasting of interviews with opposition political party leaders. In March the Committee to Protect Journalists reported PEMRA contacted cable distributers throughout the country and ordered them to stop transmitting Geo TV or switch its broadcasts to higher channels that are harder for viewers to find. This action followed the arrest of parent company Jang Media Group’s CEO and editor in chief.
The Islamabad office of Radio Mashaal, the Pashto language service of Radio Free Europe, which the Interior Ministry closed in 2018, remained closed at the end of the year.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups subjected media outlets, journalists, and their families to threats and harassment. Female journalists in particular faced threats of sexual violence and harassment, including via social media, where they had a particularly strong presence. Security forces allegedly abducted journalists. Media outlets that reported on topics authorities viewed as sensitive were often the targets of retribution. Additionally, journalists working in remote and conflict-ridden areas lacked basic digital and traditional security skills, which increased pressure to self-censor or not cover a story.
According to observers, journalists were subjected to a variety of pressure tactics, including harassment and intimidation. Assailants killed journalists during the year, but it was unclear whether their journalism was the motive for the killings. On July 23, two gunmen in Balochistan’s Barkhan city shot and killed senior reporter Anwar Jan Khetran of the daily newspaper Naveed-e-Pakistan as he was on his way home. On February 17, Aziz Memon, a reporter for the Sindhi television channel KTN News and Sindhi-language Daily Kawash newspaper was found dead. Prior to his death, Memon reported threats against him by the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and local police. Police reported three of five suspects were in police custody as of February 26. In May a joint investigation team concluded that his death was premeditated murder. On June 16, unknown individuals stabbed and killed Muhammad Bilal Khan, an independent journalist who ran a YouTube channel.
Journalists were also subject to enforced disappearances and arrests. On July 21, a journalist and outspoken critic of the military establishment, Matiullah Jan, was kidnapped by heavily armed men in Islamabad and released 12 hours later. The abduction was caught on closed-circuit television cameras, images from which were shared widely on social media. The Committee to Protect Journalists said Jan was among the journalists the army accused of sharing antistate remarks on social media in 2018. On September 4, Sajid Gondal, a former journalist and a joint director of Pakistan’s Securities and Exchange Commission, disappeared after being “kidnapped by unidentified persons;” on September 8, Gondal tweeted that he had returned home safely. On September 12, police charged another journalist, Asad Ali Toor, with allegedly spreading “negative propaganda against the state, Pakistani institutions and the Pakistan Army,” citing the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act.
Journalists Saeed Ali Achakzai and Abdul Mateen Achakzai alleged, according to Committee to Protect Journalists reporting, that agents of the Balochistan Levies, a paramilitary gendarmerie that operates as a primary security agency in the province, detained them on June 19 without charges, held them for two days, and beat them. On June 8, the journalists had reported on poor conditions at a COVID-19 quarantine center.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media organizations generally engaged in self-censorship, especially in reporting news regarding the military, religious extremism, and abuse of blasphemy laws; journalists stated they were under increased pressure to report the predetermined narrative during the year, and PEMRA issued editorial directives to media outlets. For example, some stated they were pressured to publish or broadcast military statements or rebuttals of stories that reflected badly on government officials prominently in their newspapers and news bulletins.
Journalists reported regular denial of permission to visit conflict areas or being required to travel with a military escort while reporting on conditions in conflict areas. They reported pressure to produce articles with a military viewpoint. Other reporting tended to be relatively objective with a focus on facts rather than analysis, which journalists generally regarded as risky. Both local and foreign journalists complained of harassment and intimidation by government officials. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws restricted publication on certain topics. Government censors reviewed foreign books before they allowed reprinting. Imported movies, books, magazines, and newspapers were subject to censorship for objectionable sexual or religious content. Obscene literature, a category the government defined broadly, was subject to seizure. In September, 50,000 copies of well-known journalist Sohail Warraich’s collection of columns published in Jang were removed from book stalls.
The government fined private television channels for alleged violations of the “code of ethics” and for showing banned content. Authorities reportedly used PEMRA rules to silence broadcast media by either suspending licenses or threatening to do so, or by reassigning the cable channel number of a targeted outlet without notice so that its programming would be hard or impossible to find on most televisions. Many outlets resorted to self-censorship, particularly when reporting on religious or security issues. The Central Board of Film Censors previewed and censored sexual content and any content that glorified Indian heroes, leaders, or military figures in foreign and domestic films.
The government continued to use network access as a tool to exert control over media outlets. Media outlets seen as supportive of the PML-N faced distribution disruptions.
The Jang/Geo media group, the country’s largest media house, also reportedly faced harassment and newspaper distribution blockages. Unidentified individuals reportedly pressured newspaper vendors not to distribute the Urdu-language Jang newspaper and its sister English language paper The News and discouraged advertisers from advertising with the Jang/Geo group’s outlets. Cable operators dropped the Geo news channel from their cable systems or repeatedly changed its assigned channel. PEMRA shut down Geo TV and 24 News, citing problems with their licenses. Both channels, which were critical of the government, were immediately reinstated by the courts. Journalists suspected a political motive behind the government’s actions. Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, owner and editor in chief of Jang/Geo News, spent eight months in legal custody over a 34-year-old property case before being granted bail on November 9. Many journalists considered Rehman’s charges as a deliberate government intimidation tactic.
Media outlets reported the government increasingly used the infrastructure of the media system, as well as government advertising, which makes up a large portion of media revenue, to suppress information deemed threatening. The economic constriction caused by COVID-19 decreased private revenue further, rendering outlets more dependent on government advertisement. A new policy that would allow media outlets to tap into subscription revenues was stalled in a Supreme Court battle. The government pressured distributors into restricting distribution or changing channels of outlets deemed problematic, incentivizing media companies to censor their content. Media houses also reportedly fired outspoken journalists deemed to be a threat to their revenues or continued ability to operate. In July the only Balochi television channel, Vash, was closed due to nonpayment of dues after its finances suffered because of federal and provincial authorities’ refusal to grant advertisements and associated revenue to the channel.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. Blasphemy is punishable ranging from a two-year imprisonment to death. In Peshawar, the Awami National Party chairman filed a civil case accusing a political rival and three newspapers of defamation in 2019. The case remained pending.
National Security: Some journalists asserted authorities cited laws protecting national security to censor and restrict media distribution of material that criticized government policies or military or public officials, or that described the country’s security situation in a negative light. The Electronic Media (Programs and Advertisements) Code of Conduct included a clause that restricted reporting in any area where a military operation was in progress.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nonstate actor violence against media workers decreased, but an environment where militant and criminal elements were known to kill, abduct, assault, and intimidate journalists and their families led journalists, particularly in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, to self-censor.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels.
The government uses a systematic, nationwide content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unlawful” content, including material it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society.
The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The PTA’s Web Analysis Division is ultimately responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content for removal, while the Federal Investigation Agency is responsible for possible criminal prosecution. The PTA closely coordinated with other ministries in its enforcement efforts. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence and that the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and observers believed the government often used vague criteria without due process.
Authorities, particularly in the military, increasingly sought to restrict online space to silence dissidents and curtail content deemed critical of the military. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom of the Net report, authorities disrupted telecommunication services during protests, elections, and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns.
In November the government published the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content Rules 2020–formerly referred to as the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules–that codifies standards and powers given to authorities to remove and block content that the government determines negatively impacts “the glory of Islam; the integrity, security and defense of Pakistan; public order; and decency and morality.” Industry observers contended these standards were poorly defined, opaque, and often arbitrarily used by the PTA or security services, particularly for content they believed critical of the government. Observers noted that proving defamation, for example, was based on clearly defined legal parameters, while the government often demanded removal of content critical of the government or key officials based on its own extrajudicial determination. Under the new regulations, social media and other internet companies must monitor, remove, and block unlawful content as determined by authorities.
The regulations require companies to comply with these demands within 24 hours, or within six hours in emergency cases determined by the PTA according to broad criteria. Furthermore, the regulations require social media companies to implement mechanisms to prevent uploading or live streaming of certain content and to publicize their community guidelines, which include provisions that prohibit users from uploading religiously, culturally, or politically sensitive content. Due to the lack of clarity, social media companies may feel obligated to remove content from their platforms fearing punishment, which includes sanctions and possible bans. The new regulations also require companies to provide law enforcement any data it deems relevant in unencrypted form. Technology firms resisted the requirement to establish a physical presence in Pakistan due to fear their employees could be used as leverage in potential content monitoring disputes.
By law, if an account is under suspicion, the social media company is bound to provide authorities account data. Many social media users were critical of the new law, describing it as “dictatorial” in nature.
The PTA also continued to try to control social media and video-streaming services such as YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. The PTA asked YouTube “to immediately block vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude, and hate speech content for viewing in Pakistan.” Although the PTA claimed its intentions were to stop the spread of pornography and vulgar content, users alleged it was actively targeting critics of government policies, especially those critical of the army. Internet service providers also claimed the PTA wanted to regulate political voices that spread what it deems indecent content. Online users continued to report they feared increasing censorship trends.
In October the PTA banned the Chinese video-sharing application TikTok for failing to monitor and regulate what certain citizens contended was immoral and indecent content. The PTA reinstated TikTok after the company agreed to add control measures to respond more quickly to public and government requests to remove content.
In September the PTA blocked access to five popular dating/live-streaming applications, including Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr, and SayHi, on the pretext they were streaming immoral and indecent content. The law prohibits homosexuality and extramarital relationships. The PTA noted the five companies failed to respond to its directive within the stipulated time frame, the duration of which was unclear. Despite continuing engagement with some of these dating websites, the bans remained in place under the pretense that the applications were only used to facilitate what authorities viewed as immoral activities.
In August and again in September, more than 150 female journalists and several of their male counterparts signed two petitions to raise awareness about the “vile and vicious attacks” by individuals affiliated with the government, political parties, and their social media followers. The statement lamented unfounded accusations by government officials and politicians from all parties that the journalists were peddling fake news. The journalists also noted they were routinely accused of serving political agendas and of being on the payroll of opposition parties. In particular they reported being harassed if they were critical of the government.
In their petitions the journalists alleged that online harassment and vilification campaigns had made it difficult for them to carry out their professional duties. Female journalists complained that frequent harassment was instigated by government officials and then amplified by Twitter accounts believed to be affiliated with the ruling party. The journalists also alleged they encountered coordinated social media campaigns to harass, discredit, and intimidate them. Male journalists whose reports raised questions about the government’s performance and the increasing role of security institutions in matters of state, corruption, and accountability were also subjected to online campaigns by trolls allegedly operated by political parties and powerful state institutions, including the army. Journalists continued to face online threats, organized vilification campaigns, and character assassination, and were commonly portrayed as “anti-Pakistan” or paid agents. In September, three journalists, including former PEMRA chairman Absar Alam, were charged with sedition for allegedly using derogatory language online against the prime minister and the armed forces.
Long-term communications shutdowns were imposed in rural areas of the former FATA as well as Balochistan, where several districts had reportedly had no mobile internet service since 2017. Others insisted connectivity was hampered by lack of infrastructure, poor internet, and slow service, often provided by the military-operated Special Communication Organization (SCO) in certain regions.
According to media reports, some residents of the former FATA did not understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic because internet shutdowns had limited relevant news distribution. Journalists claimed that some residents, as of mid-March, had never heard of the coronavirus.
On April 14, the Islamabad High Court ordered the PTA to immediately restore 3G/4G internet service in the former FATA. The decision followed days of protests where students, fearing they would miss online education, demanded providers restore 3G/4G access. Users alleged that despite court orders, SCO enjoyed a monopoly and failed to provide better internet in the area, violating their rights.
On April 24, Prime Minister Khan announced a “track and trace system” for coronavirus cases using a terrorist surveillance system managed through Inter-Services Intelligence, which rights activists worried could lead to increased use and operability of the surveillance system, which was often used to track dissidents. Some medical professionals, however, supported the system’s capacity to track the pandemic’s spread.
On June 8, the PTA issued a public notice requiring individuals to register their virtual private networks with the telecommunications authority. Civil society expressed fears that such registrations would increase authorities’ monitoring capabilities and limit personal privacy.
The government interfered with academic freedom by restricting, screening, and censoring certain cultural events with perceived antistate content. The government interfered with art exhibitions as well as musical and cultural activities. Holding such an event requires a government-issued permit, which the government frequently withheld.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and laws provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these freedoms were subject to restrictions.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the former FATA is now under the same legal framework as the rest of the country, civil and military authorities continued to impose collective punishment through the West Pakistan Maintenance of Peace Order and Section 144 of the criminal code. These statutes effectively allow authorities to continue the long-standing practice of suspending the right to assemble or speak in the newly merged areas. By law district authorities may prevent gatherings of more than four persons without police authorization. The law permits the government to ban all rallies and processions, except funeral processions, for security reasons.
Authorities generally prohibited Ahmadi Muslims from holding conferences or gatherings. Ahmadis cited the refusal of local authorities to reopen Ahmadi mosques damaged by anti-Ahmadi rioters in past years as evidence of the continuing severe conditions for the community.
During the year the PTM mobilized its predominantly ethnic Pashtun supporters to participate in sit-ins and demonstrations to demand justice and to protest abuses by government security forces. Following the government’s pledge to take a harder line against the PTM in 2019, the number of protests and rallies fell across the country. PTM activists continued to operate, although under much greater scrutiny after the arrest of most of the movement’s key leaders.
On February 10, police in Loralai, Balochistan, registered a case against 13 PTM activists for alleged hate speech. Police stated PTM activists chanted slogans against the security forces during a procession marking the first anniversary of the death of PTM activist Arman Loni in Loralai.
On January 26, police arrested Manzoor Pashteen, a PTM leader, on allegations of sedition. Pashteen was released on February 26.
On February 25, the Sukkur chapter of the religious party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) announced its intentions to disrupt Sukkur’s women’s freedom march on March 8. According to JUI-F, the march promoted vulgarity and was “against” Islamic values, the constitution, and local culture. Sindh police arrested assailants, including JUI-F’s leader, Maulana Abdul Majeed Hizravi, intending to disrupt the marches. According to authorities, the individual incited violence, leading some to pelt the marchers with stones. Many politicians, including those from mainstream parties, condemned women’s marches for being counter to Islam and traditions. The Karachi marchers called for equal opportunities and an end to violence against women, as well as transgender and nonbinary persons. In Sukkur marchers demanded an end to honor killings and the jirga tribal justice system.
On July 30-31, four individuals were killed and 28 wounded in clashes between security forces and protesters. The protesters had been calling on the government to reopen the Afghanistan border crossing, closed as a COVID-19 restriction, in Chaman. The crossing is central for trade, commerce, and the passage of daily wage-laborers in Balochistan.
On November 5, a Punjabi farmer died at a Lahore hospital due to injuries he received when police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters partially blocking traffic in southern Lahore two days earlier, media reported. Media sources indicated approximately 100 protesters participated in the November 3 protest, which was the latest in a series of smaller rallies triggered by the government’s inability to control wheat prices ahead of the planting season.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association subject to certain restrictions imposed by law. The government maintains a series of policies that steadily eroded the freedom of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and domestic NGOs to carry out their work and access the communities they serve. INGOs, UN organizations, and international missions generally must request government permission in the form of no-objection certificates (NOCs) before they may conduct most in-country travel, carry out certain project activities, or initiate projects. For some UN organizations implementing projects through the government, project NOCs are not required, although if they partner with local organizations, these entities must obtain project NOCs. Some UN organizations worked around NOCs by signing memoranda of understanding with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government departments for certain projects.
Slow government approvals of NOC requests, insecure financial sustainability, and operational uncertainty significantly constrained INGO activity. The onerous NOC requirements, frequent and arbitrary requests for information from the security apparatus, as well as periodic harassment, impeded project operations, particularly in areas that could greatly benefit from support, such as the newly merged districts.
INGOs faced additional barriers to fundraising, opening bank accounts, obtaining tax-exempt status from the Federal Board of Revenue as well as visa denials for international staff and consultants. The online registration protocol, adopted in 2015, made the process for obtaining registration more laborious, less transparent, and ultimately elusive for many INGOs. Registration requires extensive documentation, including financial statements, a detailed annual budget, and a letter outlining donor support, among many other requirements. Organizations were subject to constant investigation and harassment by the security apparatus and other government offices during and after the registration process. Organizations targeted often included those that focus on topics the government deems sensitive, such as democracy promotion, press freedom, religious freedom, and human rights.
In 2019 a total of 20 INGOs whose applications for registration were denied by the Ministry of Interior in 2018 appeared before an interagency committee to appeal those initial rejections. At the hearings the reasons for the original rejections were not disclosed, nor did the INGOs receive a clear explanation of actions they could take to restore their legal standing. In February the Interior Ministry invited nine INGOs, eight of which had previously been denied registration, to reapply. As of September the ministry had not announced final decisions on the appeals. As NOCs were difficult to obtain in certain provinces without an approved registration, this protracted process hindered implementation and monitoring of activities, even for INGOs that had initiated the new registration process.
INGOs without valid registration status, however, found it increasingly difficult to develop long-term strategies and plans and attract funding from international organizations, governments, and other funding partners. The lack of transparency and unpredictability of the registration process and operational constraints caused some INGOs to withdraw their registration applications and terminate operations. In cases where INGOs secured registration, they still faced staffing limitations and government interference in their programmatic activities and memoranda of understanding with local partners.
The government at both the federal and provincial levels similarly impeded foreign-funded local NGOs through a separate registration regime, NOCs, and other requirements. Authorities require domestic NGOs to obtain NOCs before accepting foreign funding, booking facilities or using university spaces for events, or working on “sensitive” human rights issues. Even when local NGOs receiving foreign funding were appropriately registered, the government often denied their requests for NOCs, and they faced regular government monitoring and harassment. In March the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Affairs Division, which oversees registration for domestic NGOs, eased requirements for registered domestic and international NGOs engaged in COVID-19 relief activities.
Under directives from federal institutions on security and financial oversight, the Sindh government introduced measures governing registration renewals of NGOs. In August a group of NGOs challenged the Sindh Charities Registration and Regulation Act of 2019 through a petition at the Sindh High Court. The petition argued the government was curbing freedom of association beyond what was permissible under the constitution. It further argued the purpose of the law was not to regulate NGOs but to incapacitate and debilitate them. NGO representatives reported increased government restrictions and harassment by security agencies resulted in major NGOs reducing staff and activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
In 2018, 2019, and 2020, the Department of State designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern under the 1998 International Freedom Act, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. 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 for uninhibited foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. On January 20, a Hazara Baloch lawyer and human rights activist, Jalila Haider, was detained by the Federal Investigation Agency at Lahore Airport and prevented from flying to the United Kingdom to attend a conference on feminism. According to Haider, her name was on the no-fly list because of her “antistate activities.”
In-country Movement: Government restrictions on access to certain areas of the former FATA and Balochistan, often due to security concerns, hindered freedom of movement. The government required an approved NOC for travel to areas of the country it designated “sensitive.”
Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel to Israel, and the country’s passports include a statement that they are “valid for all countries except Israel.”
Passport applicants must list their religious affiliation, and those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Muhammad is the final prophet and denounce the founder of the Ahmadi movement as a false prophet. Ahmadi representatives reported authorities wrote the word “Ahmadi” in their passports if they refused to sign the declaration.
According to policy, government employees and students must obtain no-objection certificates from the government before traveling abroad. Authorities rarely enforced this requirement for students, however.
The government prohibited persons on an exit control list from departing the country. The stated purpose of the list was to prevent departure from the country of “persons involved in antistate activities, terrorism, or related to proscribed organizations and those placed on the orders of superior courts,” but according to civil society, authorities also included human rights defenders and critics of the government and military on the list. Those on the list have the right to appeal to the courts to have their names removed.
Exile: The government refused to accept the return of some Pakistanis deported to Pakistan from other countries. The government refused these deportees entry to the country as “unverified” Pakistani citizens, alleging some passports issued by Pakistani embassies and consulates abroad were fraudulent.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Large population displacements have occurred since 2008 because of militant activity and military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former FATA. Returns continued amid improved security conditions. The government and UN agencies such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and UN World Food Program collaborated to assist and protect those affected by conflict, who generally resided with host families, in rented accommodations, or to a lesser extent, in camps. Several internally displaced persons (IDP) populations settled in informal settlements outside of major cities, such as Lahore and Karachi.
The government required humanitarian organizations assisting civilians displaced by military operations to request no-objection certificates to access all districts in the former FATA. According to humanitarian organizations and NGOs, the certificate application process was cumbersome, and projects faced significant delays. The government maintained IDP camps inside and near former FATA districts where military operations took place, despite access and security concerns raised by humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization workers providing assistance in the camps faced danger when travelling to and within the former FATA. UN agencies maintained access to the camps and the affected areas mainly through local NGOs.
There were no reports of involuntary returns. Many IDPs reportedly wanted to return home, despite the lack of local infrastructure, housing, and available service delivery and the strict control that security forces maintained over returnees’ movements through extensive checkpoints. Other IDP families delayed their return or chose some family members to remain in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where regular access to health care, education, and other social services was available. For IDPs who were unwilling or unable to return, the government coordinated support with the United Nations and other international organizations.
Despite large-scale recurring displacements of individuals due to natural disasters and disruptions caused by terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations, the government had not adopted specific legislation to tackle internal displacement problems. In addition, the National Disaster Management Act of 2010 does not provide any definition of IDPs or their rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to at least 1.4 million IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government provided temporary legal status to approximately 1.4 million Afghans formally registered and holding proof of registration (POR) cards through June. On June 30, the POR cards expired, and as of December, the PTI-led government declined to decide on the extension, despite its previous trend of granting longer-term extensions. The government issued a notice in June directing agencies and departments to ensure that no harassment or adverse action be taken against POR cardholders until the federal cabinet made a formal decision. The country also hosted approximately 878,000 Afghans with Afghan Citizen Cards but did not grant them refugee status. The government typically extended the validity of the Afghan Citizen Cards in short increments but allowed these cards to expire on June 30.
Due to COVID-19, there were significantly fewer arrests than in previous years, but there continued to be reports provincial authorities, police, and host communities harassed Afghan refugees. UNHCR reported that from January to August there were 370 arrests and detentions of refugees.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. The country lacks a legal and regulatory framework for the management of refugees and migration. The law does not exclude asylum seekers and refugees from provisions regarding illegal entry and stay. In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR conducted refugee status determination under its mandate, and the country generally accepted UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status and allowed asylum seekers who were undergoing the procedure, as well as recognized refugees, to remain in the country pending identification of a durable solution.
Employment: There is no formal document allowing refugees to work legally, but there is no law prohibiting refugees from working in the country. Many refugees worked as day laborers or in informal markets, and local employers often exploited refugees in the informal labor market with low or unpaid wages. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, accepting underpaid and undesirable work.
Access to Basic Services: One-third of registered Afghan refugees lived in one of 54 refugee villages, while the remaining two-thirds lived in host communities in rural and urban areas and sought to access basic services in those communities. Afghan refugees could avail themselves of the services of police and the courts, but some, particularly the poor, were afraid to do so. There were no reports of refugees denied access to health facilities because of their nationality. In 2019 the government permitted Afghan refugees to open bank accounts using their POR cards.
The constitution stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of five and 16, regardless of their nationality. Any refugee registered with both UNHCR and the government-run Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees was, in theory, admitted to public education facilities after filing the proper paperwork. Access to schools, however, was on a space-available basis as determined by the principal, and most registered Afghan refugees attended private Afghan schools or schools sponsored by the international community. For older students, particularly girls in refugee villages, access to education remained difficult. Afghan refugees were able to use POR cards to enroll in universities, although there were reports that some universities refused to enroll holders of the cards following their expiration in June 2020. Afghan students were eligible to seek admission to Pakistani public and private colleges and universities.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries and did not facilitate local integration. The government does not accord Pakistani citizenship to the children of Afghan refugees, but it established a parliamentary committee to evaluate the possibility of extending citizenship to Pakistani-born children of refugees and stateless persons.
g. Stateless Persons
Statelessness continued to be a problem. There is no national legislation on statelessness, and the government does not recognize the existence of stateless persons. International and national agencies estimated there were possibly thousands of stateless persons because of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the 1971 partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh. UNHCR estimated there were sizable populations of Rohingya, Bihari, and Bengalis living in the country, a large percentage of whom were likely stateless, although comprehensive data was lacking.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides the majority of citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Gilgit-Baltistan and the Azad Kashmir area have political systems that differ from the rest of the country, and neither have representation in the national parliament.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In July 2018 the country held direct elections that resulted in a PTI-majority national government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan. EU observers assessed voting was “well conducted and transparent” but noted “counting was sometimes problematic.” Civil society organizations and political parties raised concerns regarding pre-election interference, including restrictions on freedom of expression, allegedly creating an uneven electoral playing field.
In September 2018 the Electoral College (made up of the members of both houses of Parliament, and of the provincial assemblies) held presidential elections and selected PTI member Arif Alvi to succeed Mamnoon Hussain of the PML-N. Following the passage of the 25th amendment merging the former FATA with the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2019, the government held special elections that gave residents of the former FATA representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly for the first time in their history. Politically, the only remaining hurdle for full integration of the former FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is elections for local leaders.
On November 15, Gilgit-Baltistan held legislative assembly elections. according to unofficial results, the PTI won 10 of 24 total seats, a sufficient number for the party to form a government. The elections, originally scheduled for August, had been delayed several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition parties, PML-N and PPP, complained of alleged “rigging” of the election, although Free and Fair Election Network’s CEO described the elections as “free and fair.”
Political Parties and Political Participation: There were no reports of restrictions on political parties participating in elections, except for those prohibited due to terrorist affiliations.
On October 15, opposition parties alleged authorities arrested more than 400 party workers prior to a large demonstration in Gujranwala on October 16. Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan complained police and other security agencies arrested its workers by claiming it to be part of a verification process. In May the government banned Sindhi nationalist political party Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, Arisar. The NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other rights organizations expressed concern over the ban saying the government must distinguish between political parties and terrorist organizations before banning any of them. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-London alleged that security forces abducted its members and others expressing support for their founder, Altaf Hussain.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police charged local leaders of the opposition group Pakistan Democratic Movement with violating the province’s epidemic control law for their role in organizing the November 22 antigovernment rally in Peshawar after the district administration had denied the group’s district-level leaders permission for the rally over COVID-19 concerns.
Judges ordered media regulatory agencies to enforce constitutional bans on content critical of the military or judiciary, compelling media to censor politicians’ speeches and election-related coverage deemed “antijudiciary” or “antimilitary.” Organizations that monitor press freedom reported direct pressure on media outlets to avoid content regarding possible military influence over judicial proceedings against politicians and to refrain from reporting on PML-N leaders in a positive way. In most areas there was no interference with the right of political parties and candidates to organize campaigns, run for election, or seek votes. In Balochistan, however, there were reports that security agencies and separatist groups harassed local political organizations, such as the Balochistan National Party and the Baloch Students Organization.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: The Elections Act of 2017 stipulates special measures to enhance electoral participation of women, religious minorities, transgender persons, and persons with disabilities. By law women must constitute 5 percent of party tickets, and if less than 10 percent of women vote in any constituency, authorities may presume that the women’s vote was suppressed, and the results for that constituency or polling station may be nullified. The government enforced the law for the first time in Shangla, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when the Election Commission canceled the district’s 2018 general election results after women made up less than 10 percent of the vote.
Cultural and traditional barriers in tribal and rural areas impeded some women from voting. Authorities used quotas to assure a minimum level of participation of women in elected bodies. There are 60 seats in the National Assembly and 17 seats in the Senate reserved for women. Authorities apportioned these seats based on total votes secured by the candidates of each political party that contested the elections. Women and minorities also may contest directly elected seats, but both women and minorities struggled to be directly elected outside of the reserved seats. Authorities reserved for women 132 of the 779 seats in provincial assemblies and one-third of the seats on local councils. Women participated actively as political party members, but they were not always successful in securing leadership positions within parties, apart from women’s wings. Women served in the federal cabinet.
The law requires expedited issuance of identification cards (which also serve as voter identification cards) for non-Muslims, transgender persons, and persons with disabilities.
The government requires voters to indicate their religion when registering to vote. Ahmadis are required to either swear Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and denounce the Ahmadi movement’s founder, or declare themselves as non-Muslims, in order to vote. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, and many were unable to vote because they did not comply.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Some domestic and international human rights groups operated without significant government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government increasingly restricted the operating ability of NGOs, however, particularly those whose work revealed shortcomings or misdeeds of the government, military, or intelligence services, or that worked on issues related to conflict areas or advocacy. These groups faced numerous regulations regarding travel, visas, and registration that hampered their efforts to program and raise funds. International staff members of organizations, including those from the few successfully registered INGOs, continued to face delays or denials in the issuance of visas and no-objection certificates for in-country travel. The domestic NGO registration agreement with the government requires NGOs not to use terms the government finds controversial–such as countering violent extremism; peace and conflict resolution; IDPs; reproductive health; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons–in their annual reports or documents. The agreement also prohibits NGOs from employing individuals of Indian or Israeli nationality or origin. Few NGOs had access to certain parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former FATA, and certain areas in Balochistan.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The 2012 National Commission for Human Rights Bill authorized the establishment of an independent committee, the National Commission on Human Rights. The first commission’s term expired in June 2019, and authorities had not established a second commission as of September. A stand-alone Ministry of Human Rights was reconstituted in 2015. The Senate and National Assembly standing committees on law, justice, minorities, and human rights held hearings on a range of human rights problems.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, with punishment for conviction that ranges from a minimum of 10 to 25 years in prison and a fine, to the death penalty. The penalty for conviction of gang rape is death or life imprisonment. The law does not explicitly criminalize spousal rape and defines rape as a crime committed by a man against a woman. Although rape was frequent, prosecutions were rare. The law provides for collection of DNA evidence and includes nondisclosure of a rape victim’s name, the right to legal representation of rape victims, relaxed reporting requirements for female victims, and enhanced penalties for rape of victims with mental or physical disabilities.
The government did not effectively enforce the 2006 Women’s Protection Act, which brought the crime of rape under the jurisdiction of criminal rather than Islamic courts. The law prohibits police from arresting or holding a female victim overnight at a police station without a civil court judge’s consent. The law requires a victim to complain directly to a sessions court, which tries heinous offenses. After recording the victim’s statement, the sessions court judge files a complaint, after which police may make arrests. NGOs reported the procedure created barriers for rape victims who could not travel to or access the courts. NGOs continued to report that rape was a severely underreported crime.
The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act provides legal protections for domestic abuse victims, including judicial protective orders and access to a new network of district-level women’s shelters. Centers provide women a range of services including assistance with the completion of first information reports regarding the crimes committed against them, first aid, medical examinations, posttrauma rehabilitation, free legal services, and a shelter home. The Punjab government funds four women’s career centers in Punjab universities, 12 crisis centers that provide legal and psychological services to women, and emergency shelters for women and children. The Punjab government established 16 women’s hostel authority in 12 districts to assist women in finding safe, affordable, temporary lodging while looking for work. They also established 68 additional day-care centers, bringing the total to 137 by year’s end. The provincial government also launched other economic empowerment programs, including the Punjab Small Industry cooperation Development Bank and the Kisan Ki Beti project, which aim to improve living standards of rural women through skill development.
Lahore uses a special court designed to focus exclusively on gender-based violence (GBV) crimes. The Lahore Gender-Based Violence Court receives the most serious cases in the district, such as aggravated rape, and offers enhanced protections to women and girls.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa lacks a comprehensive law addressing domestic violence.
There were no reliable national, provincial, or local statistics on rape due to underreporting and no centralized law-enforcement data collection system.
Prosecutions of reported rapes were rare, although there were reports that prosecution rates increased in response to police capacity building programs and public campaigns to combat the lack of awareness regarding rape and GBV. Police and NGOs reported individuals involved in other types of disputes sometimes filed false rape charges, reducing the ability of police to identify legitimate cases and proceed with prosecution. NGOs reported police sometimes accepted bribes from perpetrators, abused or threatened victims, and demanded victims drop charges, especially when suspected perpetrators were influential community leaders. Some police demanded bribes from victims before registering rape charges, and investigations were often superficial. Furthermore, accusations of rape were often resolved using extrajudicial measures, with the victim frequently forced to marry her attacker. Women who reported or spoke up against violence against women often faced pushback and harassment, including by police officials, which, according to civil society, discouraged victims from coming forward.
In the early morning of September 9, two men broke into the vehicle of a woman who, with her two children, had stalled on the road outside of Lahore. The men robbed the family and then raped the woman in front of her children. The woman was initially blamed by a top police official, who, based on his comments, implied the victim had been out too late at night. Police later apprehended one of the suspects.
The use of rape medical testing increased, but medical personnel in many areas did not have sufficient training or equipment, which further complicated prosecutions. Most victims of rape, particularly in rural areas, did not have access to the full range of treatment services. There were a limited number of women’s treatment centers, funded by the federal government and international donors. These centers had partnerships with local service providers to create networks that delivered a full spectrum of essential services to rape victims.
No specific federal law prohibits domestic violence, which was widespread. Police may charge acts of domestic violence as crimes pursuant to the penal code’s general provisions against assault and bodily injury. Provincial laws also prohibit acts of domestic violence. Forms of domestic violence reportedly included beating, physical disfigurement, shaving of women’s eyebrows and hair, and–in extreme cases–homicide. Dowry and other family-related disputes sometimes resulted in death or disfigurement by burning or acid.
Women who tried to report abuse often faced serious challenges. Police and judges were sometimes reluctant to act in domestic violence cases, viewing them as family problems. Instead of filing charges, police often responded by encouraging the parties to reconcile. Authorities routinely returned abused women to their abusive family members. Government officials reported a 25 percent increase in domestic violence incidents during COVID-19 lockdowns in eastern Punjab.
To address societal norms that disapprove of victims who report GBV, the government established women’s police stations, staffed by female officers, to offer women a safe place to report complaints and file charges. There was an inadequate number of women’s police stations, and they faced financial shortfalls and appropriate staffing shortages.
The government continued to operate the Crisis Center for Women in Distress, which referred abused women to NGOs for assistance. Numerous government-funded Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Centers for Women across the country provided legal aid, medical treatment, and psychosocial counseling. These centers served women who were victims of exploitation and violence. Officials later referred victims to dar–ul–amans, shelter houses for abused women and children, of which there were several hundred around the country. The dar-ul-amans also provided access to medical treatment. According to NGOs, the shelters did not offer other assistance to women, such as legal aid or counseling, and often served as halfway homes for women awaiting trial for adultery, but who in fact were victims of rape or other abuse.
Government centers lacked sufficient space, staff, and resources. Many overcrowded dar-ul-amans did not meet international standards. Some shelters did not offer access to basic needs such as showers, laundry supplies, or feminine hygiene products. In some cases individuals reportedly abused women at the government-run shelters, and staff severely restricted women’s movements or pressured them to return to their abusers. There were reports of women exploited in prostitution and sex trafficking in shelters. Some shelter staff reportedly discriminated against the shelter residents, assuming that if a woman fled her home, it was because she was a woman of ill repute.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, many Dawoodi Bohra Muslims practiced various forms of FGM/C. Some Dawoodi Bohras spoke publicly and signed online petitions against the practice. Some other isolated tribes and communities in rural Sindh and Balochistan also reportedly practiced FGM/C.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Women were victims of various types of societal violence and abuse, including so-called honor killings, forced marriages and conversions, imposed isolation, and used as chattel to settle tribal disputes.
A 2004 law on honor killings, the 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Act, and the 2016 Criminal Law Amendment (Offenses in the Name or Pretext of Honor) Act criminalize acts committed against women in the name of traditional practices. Despite these laws, hundreds of women reportedly were victims of so-called honor killings, and many cases went unreported and unpunished. In many cases officials allowed the male involved in the alleged “crime of honor” to flee. Because these crimes generally occurred within families, many went unreported. Police and NGOs reported increased media coverage enabled law enforcement officers to take some action against these crimes.
In May, three men killed two teenage sisters in North Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after a video showing them kissing a man circulated online. According to media reports, police arrested the victims’ father and brother for the crime and later apprehended a third suspect. They also arrested the 28-year-old man in the video, whose life was also in danger under tribal custom, on the grounds of “vulgarity.” Police conducted a swift investigation, over objections of tribal leadership and local elected officials. As of September the cases were pending with the trial court.
A Sindh police study publicized in February stated 769 persons, including 510 women, were victims of so-called honor killings in Sindh between 2014 and 2019. According to the report, police brought charges in 649 cases the courts awarded sentences in 19 cases, while the accused in 136 cases were acquitted; as of September, 494 cases were still pending trial. The conviction rate stood at 2 percent against the acquittal rate of 21 percent. On June 27, police found the mutilated body of a 24-year old woman named Wazeera Chacchar, who was stoned to death in a so-called honor killing case in Jamshoro, Sindh. Her post mortem report revealed she was gang raped before being killed and was pregnant at the time of the incident. Her father alleged her husband was behind the killing.
The law makes maiming or killing using a corrosive substance a crime and imposes stiff penalties against perpetrators. There were reports that the practice of disfigurement–including cutting off a woman’s nose or ears or throwing acid in their face, in connection with domestic disputes or so-called honor crimes–continued and that legal repercussions were rare.
The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codify the legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. The 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. Some activists claimed the latter provision weakens the government’s ability to protect against forced marriage and conversion. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act 2018 allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.
The 2011 Prevention of Antiwomen Practices Amendment Act criminalizes and punishes the giving of a woman in marriage to settle a civil or criminal dispute; depriving a woman of her rights to inherit movable or immovable property by deceitful or illegal means; coercing or in any manner compelling a woman to enter into marriage; and compelling, arranging, or facilitating the marriage of a woman with the Quran, including forcing her to take an oath on the Quran to remain unmarried or not to claim her share of an inheritance. Although prohibited by law, these practices continued in some areas.
The 2012 National Commission on the Status of Women Bill provides for the commission’s financial and administrative autonomy to investigate violations of women’s rights.
On October 8, the minister of religious affairs banned the use of dowry, with the exception of bridal clothing and bedsheets.
Sexual Harassment: Although several laws criminalize sexual harassment in the workplace and public sphere, the problem was reportedly widespread. The law requires all provinces to have provincial-level ombudsmen. All provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan had established ombudsmen. During the year the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly passed its provincial law for the prevention of the harassment of women.
Meesha Shafi and eight others accused pop singer Ali Zafar of sexual harassment in 2018. He denied the accusations and filed suit against the women. In September the accusers were charged with defamation; if convicted, they faced up to three years in prison.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children, but often lacked access to information and the means to make informed decisions. Couples and individuals did not have the ability to attain the highest standard of reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. The government provided regular access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. All sexual violence cases reported in a public facility are also reported to the police. Survivors of sexual violence are provided with a clinical exam and treatment; female survivors are offered emergency contraceptives. Other services provided to survivors of sexual violence vary by province. During the year the Lahore High Court declared virginity tests illegal and of no forensic value in cases of sexual violence.
Young girls and women were especially vulnerable to problems related to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and often lacked information and means to access care. Spousal opposition also contributed to the challenges women faced in obtaining contraception or delaying pregnancy. Women, particularly in rural areas, faced difficulty in accessing education on health and reproductive rights due to social constraints, which also complicated data collection.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly passed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Reproductive Healthcare Rights Bill in July 2020, requiring the provincial government to provide reproductive healthcare information, to provide quality family planning services including short-term, long-term, and permanent methods of contraception, and to enable local access to contraceptives. The Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Reproductive Healthcare Rights Bill in November 2019 to strengthen access to rural health centers and family planning resources, and to reduce the complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.
According to the most recent UN research, the maternal mortality ratio was 140 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017, a rate attributed to a lack of health information and services. Few women in rural areas had access to skilled attendants during childbirth, including essential obstetric and postpartum care. UNICEF estimated that direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 led to a 14.5 percent increase in child mortality and a 21.3 percent increase in maternal mortality in 2020.
According to the National Institute of Population Studies’ 2017-18 Demographic and Health Survey, 86 percent of women received prenatal care. UNICEF data stated that skilled healthcare providers delivered 71 percent of births in 2019. The World Health Organization, citing 2010-2018 data, reported an adolescent birth rate of 46 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women faced legal and economic discrimination. The law prohibits discrimination based on sex, but authorities did not enforce it. Women also faced discrimination in employment, family law, property law, and the judicial system. Family law provides protection for women in cases of divorce, including requirements for maintenance, and sets clear guidelines for custody of minor children and their maintenance. Many women were unaware of these legal protections or were unable to obtain legal counsel to enforce them. Divorced women often were left with no means of support, as their families ostracized them. Women are legally free to marry without family consent, but society frequently ostracized women who did so, or they risked becoming victims of honor crimes.
The law entitles female children to one-half the inheritance of male children. Wives inherit one-eighth of their husbands’ estates. Women often received far less than their legal entitlement. In addition, complicated family disputes and the costs and time of lengthy court procedures reportedly discouraged women from pursuing legal challenges to inheritance discrimination. During the year Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a law for the protection of women’s inheritance rights and appointed a female independent ombudsperson charged with hearing complaints, starting investigations, and making referrals for enforcement of inheritance rights.
Media reported that imams and other marriage registrars illegally meddled with nikah namas, Islamic marriage contracts that often detail divorce rights, to limit rights of women in marriage. In other instances, women signing the contracts were not fully informed of their contents.
During the year civil society actors reported that only 7 percent of women had access to financial inclusion services in Pakistan and that women had limited access to credit.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is generally derived by birth in the country, although children born abroad after 2000 may derive their citizenship by descent if either the mother or the father is a citizen and the child is registered with the proper authorities. Children of refugees and stateless persons do not derive citizenship by birth.
Education: The constitution mandates compulsory education, provided free of charge by the government, to all children between ages five and 16. Despite this provision, government schools often charged parents for books, uniforms, and other materials.
The most significant barrier to girls’ education was the lack of access. Public schools, particularly beyond the primary grades, were not available in many rural areas, and those that existed were often too far for a girl to travel unaccompanied. Despite cultural beliefs that boys and girls should be educated separately after primary school, the government often failed to take measures to provide separate restroom facilities or separate classrooms, and there were more government schools for boys than for girls. The attendance rates for girls in primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools were lower than for boys. Additionally certain tribal and cultural beliefs often prevented girls from attending schools.
Medical Care: Boys and girls had equal access to government facilities, although families were more likely to seek medical assistance for boys than for girls.
Child Abuse: In March the government passed the Zainab Alert Law, which criminalizes child abuse and mandates life imprisonment for individuals convicted of child abuse. Child abuse was widespread. Employers, who in some cases were relatives, abused young girls and boys working as domestic servants by beating them and forcing them to work long hours. In the first six months following its passage, 1,489 cases were registered under the new law; however, there were fewer than 20 prosecutions.
An employer and his wife confessed to beating an eight-year-old girl, their illegally employed domestic servant, on May 31. She died of her injuries the following day. The employer claimed they had beaten her for having released their pet parrots. The Rawat police station FIR recorded that the girl had injuries on her face, hands, legs, legs, thighs–indicating potential sexual assault–and below her rib cage.
Many such children were human trafficking victims. In some circumstances trafficked children were forced to beg to gain money for their employers.
Local authorities subjected children to harmful traditional practices, treating girls as chattel to settle disputes and debts.
In 2016 the government updated its definition of statutory rape and expanded the previous definition, which was sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16, to include boys.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Despite legal prohibitions, child marriages occurred. Federal law sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for men and 16 for women. According to UNICEF, 21 percent of girls were married by the age of 18. The 2014 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act sets 18 as the legal age of marriage for both girls and boys in Sindh Province. A 2017 amendment to the penal code substantially increased punishment for conviction of violating the law. A convicted individual may be imprisoned for up to 10 years and no less than five years (up from imprisonment of up to one month) and may also be fined up to one million Pakistani rupees ($6,430), up from 1,000 Pakistani rupees (six dollars). At times men would evade Sindh child marriage law by traveling to a different province for the marriage.
In 2014 the Council of Islamic Ideology declared child marriage laws to be un-Islamic and noted they were “unfair and there cannot be any legal age of marriage.” The council stated that Islam does not prohibit underage marriage since it allows the consummation of marriage after both partners reach puberty. Decisions of the council are nonbinding.
In rural areas, poor parents sometimes sold their daughters into marriage, in some cases to settle debts or disputes. Although forced marriage is a criminal offense, in many filed cases prosecution remained limited.
On January 15, Mehek Kumari, 15-year-old Hindu girl, went missing and later appeared in a video with Ali Raza, a Muslim man. In the video the couple claimed they had both willingly married and that Kumari had voluntarily converted to Islam. In February Kumari retracted her video statement, indicating Raza had forced her to convert, and requested to be returned to her family. In response to the retraction, some radical clerics called for the girl to face the death penalty. Later in the month a court in Jacobabad ruled that the marriage between Kumari and Raza was illegal under the 2013 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, which states children cannot marry until they reach 18.
A 13-year-old Christian girl from Karachi, identified as Arzoo Raja, was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to a 44-year-old man on October 13. The Sindh High Court, on October 27, upheld the validity of Raja’s marriage, citing the marriage certificate that indicated Raja was age 18 and ruling Raja had converted to Islam and married of her own free will. Following petitions by human rights groups to enforce the provisions of the 2013 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, which imposes restrictions on underage marriage, on November 2, the Sindh High Court ordered the arrest of the husband and ordered Raja to be placed in a shelter pending an investigation.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Various local laws exist to protect children from child pornography, sexual abuse, seduction, and cruelty, but federal laws do not prohibit using children for prostitution or pornographic performances, although child pornography is illegal under obscenity laws. Legal observers reported that authorities did not regularly enforce child protection laws. For example, according to media reports, a seminary teacher, Ghulam Abbas Sehto, was accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy at a mosque but granted bail after arrest. In a separate rape allegation against Sehto, no action was taken because no official complaint was made.
Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: Parents occasionally abandoned unwanted children, most of whom were girls. By law, anyone found to have abandoned an infant may be imprisoned for seven years, while anyone guilty of secretly burying a deceased child may be imprisoned for two years. Conviction of murder is punishable by life imprisonment, but authorities rarely prosecuted the crime of infanticide.
Displaced Children: According to civil society sources, it was difficult for children formerly displaced by military operations to access education or psychological support upon their return to former conflict areas. Nonetheless, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government reconstructed some of the 1,800 schools in the former FATA districts, where large numbers of internally displaced persons had returned. The government prioritized rehabilitating schools and enrolling children in these former conflict areas, and the overall number of out-of-school children decreased, according to international organizations.
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.
Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated. Anti-Semitic sentiments were widespread in the vernacular press. Hate speech used by some politicians and broadcast in some print media and through social media used derogatory terms such as “Jewish agent” to attack individuals and groups or referred to “Zionist conspiracies.”
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law provides for equal rights for persons with disabilities, and provincial special education and social welfare offices are responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities; nonetheless, authorities did not always implement its provisions. Each province has a department or office legally tasked with addressing the educational needs of persons with disabilities. Despite these provisions, most children with disabilities did not attend school, according to civil society sources.
Employment quotas at the federal and provincial levels require public and private organizations to reserve at least 2 percent of jobs for qualified persons with disabilities. Authorities only partially implemented this requirement due to lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms. Organizations that did not wish to hire persons with disabilities could instead pay a fine to a disability assistance fund. Authorities rarely enforced this obligation. The National Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled provided job placement and loan facilities as well as subsistence funding. Access to polling stations was challenging for persons with disabilities because of severe difficulties in obtaining transportation. The Elections Act 2017 allows for absentee voting for persons with disabilities. In order to register for an absentee ballot, however, persons with disabilities were required to obtain an identification card with a special physical disability symbol. According to disability rights activists, the multistep process for obtaining the special identification symbol was cumbersome and challenging.
In June the NGO HRCP condemned the government’s decision to abolish the 2 percent public and private company employment quota for persons with disabilities by deleting Section 459 of the Companies Act of 2017. The Ministry of Human Rights explained that the deletion of this section from the Companies Act would not jeopardize the job-quota guarantee. Disability rights groups criticized the hasty manner in which the ordinance was promulgated, without stakeholder feedback and parliamentary debate and oversight.
In July the Supreme Court ordered the federal and provincial governments to facilitate jobs, transport, housing, and access at public places for persons with disabilities. It also asked the government to advertise vacant posts for disability employment and ensure successful candidates were appointed against regional quotas. In another verdict in August, the Supreme Court ordered the federal and provincial governments to discontinue the use of words “disabled,” “physically handicapped,” and “mentally retarded” in official correspondence, since these words offend the dignity of persons with disabilities.
On March 17, Fayyaz ul Hassan, provincial minister of Punjab for information and culture, called persons with disabilities “punishment” for parents. He claimed that traders who unethically hoard coronavirus response equipment would be punished by having children with disabilities.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
Some Sindhi and Baloch nationalist groups claimed that authorities detained their members based on political affiliation or belief. Nationalist parties in Sindh further alleged that law enforcement and security agencies kidnapped and killed Sindhi political activists. Pashtuns accused security forces of committing extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other human rights abuses targeting Pashtuns.
On May 29, a mob in Quetta’s Hazara town killed a young Pashtun man and seriously injured two others. Accounts varied regarding the cause of the attack. According to one version, the Pashtun men were harassing Hazara women, while another attributed the violence to a monetary dispute. Authorities arrested 12 suspects for their alleged involvement in the attack.
Sectarian militants continued to target members of the Hazara ethnic minority, who are largely Shia Muslim, in Quetta, Balochistan. Hazaras also continued to face discrimination and threats of violence. According to press reports and other sources, Hazara were unable to move freely outside of Quetta’s two Hazara-populated enclaves. Community members complained that increased security measures had turned their neighborhoods into ghettos, resulting in economic exploitation. Consumer goods in those enclaves were available only at inflated prices, and Hazaras reported an inability to find employment or pursue higher education.
On March 25, the Balochistan chief secretary announced, that these two enclaves, Hazara-town and Marribad, were to be sealed off in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, alleging that residents of the enclaves had contracted the virus in greater numbers. Although no Hazara government employee had at the time tested positive for COVID-19, according to media sources, he further furloughed all Balochistan government “staff … belong(ing) to the Hazara tribe.” Hazaras, who are largely Shia, were harassed online by social media users who referred to the virus as the “Shia virus” and alleged that Hazara migrants from Iran had introduced the virus to the country.
Community members also alleged government agencies discriminated against Hazaras in issuing identification cards and passports. Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia religious processions but confined the public observances to the Hazara enclaves.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is a criminal offense. The penalty for conviction of same-sex relations is a fine, two years’ to life imprisonment, or both. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, male transgender, and intersex persons rarely revealed their sexual orientation or gender identity in the public sphere. There were communities of openly transgender women, but they were marginalized and were frequently the targets of violence and harassment.
Violence and discrimination continued against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. The crimes often went unreported, and police generally took little action when they did receive reports.
In 2019 the inspector general of police announced that the government would provide 0.5 percent of the office jobs in the Sindh police force to members of the transgender community. In May, Rawalpindi police launched a pilot project to protect transgender individuals. The project, called the Tahafuz Center, opened on May 12, and included the first transgender victim-support officer, also a member of the transgender community.
In July a video was shared online that depicted men in Rawalpindi assaulting a group of transgender women, who were held at gunpoint and raped after being forced to strip. A local NGO reported that prison officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa housed transgender prisoners separately and that the provincial government formed a jail oversight committee to improve the prison situation. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police stations began offering a dedicated intake desk for transgender persons along with addition of transgender rights education in police training courses. Local NGOs working in the Islamabad Capital Territory and Punjab conducted transgender sensitization training for police officers.
According to a wide range of LGBT NGOs and activists, society generally shunned transgender women, eunuchs, and intersex persons, who often lived together in slum communities and survived by begging and dancing at carnivals and weddings. Some also were prostitutes. Local authorities often denied transgender individuals their share of inherited property and admission to schools and hospitals. Property owners frequently refused to rent or sell property to transgender persons. The 2018 landmark Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act addresses many of these problems. The law accords the right of transgender individuals to be recognized according to their “self-perceived gender identity,” provides for basic rights, prohibits harassment of transgender persons, and outlaws discrimination against them in employment, housing, education, health care, and other services. No such law, however, protects the rights of lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals.
A 2012 Supreme Court ruling allows transgender individuals to obtain national identification cards listing a “third gender.” Because national identity cards also serve as voter registration, the ruling enabled transgender individuals to participate in elections, both as candidates and voters.
A concentrated HIV epidemic persisted among injecting drug users, while the estimated prevalence in the general population was less than 0.1 percent. The epidemic was concentrated among injecting drug users (21 percent). Stigma and discrimination by the general population and by health-care providers against persons with HIV in particular remained a significant barrier to treatment access. An estimated 14 percent of persons with HIV knew their status, and approximately one-tenth of them were on antiretroviral treatment, according to the 2018 Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS report. Transgender advocacy organizations and activists reported that HIV was particularly prevalent in their community, with little medical help.
Societal violence due to religious intolerance remained a serious problem. There were occasionally reports of mob violence against religious minorities, including Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and Hindus. Shia Muslim activists reported continuing instances of targeted killings and enforced disappearances in limited parts of the country.
Women’s rights groups faced threats of violence from religious groups. On February 25, the political party JUI-F threatened to disrupt the Sukkur’s women’s (Aurat) march on March 8, saying the march promotes vulgarity and is against Islamic values. The march was held amid strict government security, but many NGOs did not participate in the event after receiving direct threats. In Islamabad several individuals were injured after men hurled bricks and stones at the women during the march.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The vast majority of the labor force was under the jurisdiction of provincial labor laws. The 2010 18th constitutional amendment, which devolved responsibility for labor legislation and policies to the four provinces, stipulated that existing national laws would remain in force “until altered, repealed, or amended” by the provincial governments. Provinces implemented their own industrial relations acts in 2011. In 2012 Parliament passed an industrial relations act that took International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions into account but applied them only to the Islamabad Capital Territory and to trade federations that operated in more than one province.
The role of the federal government remained unclear in the wake of devolution. The only federal government body with any authority over labor issues was the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, whose role in domestic labor oversight was limited to compiling statistics to demonstrate compliance with ILO conventions. At the provincial level, laws providing for collective bargaining rights excluded banking- and financial-sector workers, forestry workers, hospital workers, self-employed farmers, and persons employed in an administrative or managerial capacity.
Without any federal government entity responsible for labor, the continued existence of the National Industrial Relations Commission remained in question. The 2012 Federal Industrial Relations Act stipulates that the commission may adjudicate and determine industrial disputes within the Islamabad Capital Territory to which a trade union or federation of trade unions is a party and any other industrial dispute determined by the government to be of national importance. This provision does not provide a forum specifically for interprovincial disputes but appears to allow for the possibility that the commission could resolve such a dispute. Worker organizations noted the limited capacity and funding for labor relations implementation at the provincial level.
The law prohibits state administrators, workers in state-owned enterprises, and export-processing zones, and public-sector workers from collective bargaining and striking. Nevertheless, state-owned enterprises planned for privatization faced continuous labor strikes. Provincial industrial relations acts also address and limit strikes and lockouts. For example, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Act specifies that when a “strike or lockout lasts for more than 30 days, the government may, by order in writing, prohibit the strike or lockout” and must refer the dispute to a labor court. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and the penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
Federal law defines illegal strikes, picketing, and other types of protests as “civil commotion,” which carries a penalty if convicted of up to life imprisonment. The law also states that gatherings of four or more persons may require police authorization, which is a provision authorities could use against trade union gatherings. Unions were able to organize large-scale strikes, but police often broke up the strikes, and employers used them to justify dismissals. On April 6, Balochistan police used physical force against protesters and arrested more than a dozen doctors in Quetta who were protesting the unavailability of personal protective equipment in provincial hospitals in wake of COVID-19. The protest came a day after 13 doctors tested positive for COVID-19 in the provincial capital. Marches and protests also occurred regularly, although police sometimes arrested union leaders.
Enforcement of labor laws remained weak, in large part due to lack of resources and political will. Most unions functioned independently of government and political party influence. Labor leaders raised concerns regarding employers sponsoring management-friendly or only-on-paper worker unions–so-called yellow unions–to prevent effective unionization.
There were no reported cases of the government dissolving a union without due process. Unions could be administratively “deregistered,” however, without judicial review.
Labor NGOs assisted workers by providing technical training and capacity-building workshops to strengthen labor unions and trade organizations. They also worked with established labor unions to organize workers in the informal sector and advocated policies and legislation to improve the rights, working conditions, and wellbeing of workers, including laborers in the informal sector. NGOs also collaborated with provincial governments to provide agricultural workers, brick kiln workers, and other vulnerable workers with national identification so they could connect to the country’s social safety net and access the benefits of citizenship (such as voting, health care, and education). The government announced a program to create as many as 60,000 jobs planting trees for workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, cancels all existing bonded labor debts, forbids lawsuits for the recovery of such debts, and establishes a district “vigilance committee” system to implement the law. The ILO raised concerns, however, that laws prohibiting some workers in essential services from leaving their employment without the consent of the employer allowed for criminal penalties that included prison labor.
The law defines trafficking in persons as recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining another person (or attempting to do so) through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of compelled labor or commercial sex. The penalty for conviction of trafficking in persons is sufficient to deter violations. With regard to sex trafficking, however, by allowing for a fine in lieu of imprisonment, these penalties were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. Lack of political will, the reported complicity of officials in labor trafficking, as well as federal and local government structural changes, contributed to the failure of authorities to enforce federal law relating to forced labor. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate.
The use of forced and bonded labor was widespread and common in several industries across the country. NGOs estimated that nearly two million persons were in bondage, primarily in Sindh and Punjab, but also in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A large proportion of bonded laborers were low-caste Hindus as well as Christians and Muslims with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Bonded labor was reportedly present in the agricultural sector, including the cotton, sugarcane, and wheat industries, and in the brick, coal, and carpet industries. Bonded laborers often were unable to determine when their debts were paid in full, in part, because contracts were rare, and employers could take advantage of bonded laborers’ illiteracy to alter debt amounts or the price laborers paid for goods they acquired from their employers. In some cases landowners restricted laborers’ movements with armed guards or sold laborers to other employers for the price of the laborers’ debts.
Ties among landowners, industry owners, and influential politicians hampered effective elimination of the problem. For example, some local police did not pursue landowners or brick kiln owners effectively because they believed higher-ranking police, pressured by politicians or the owners themselves, would not support their efforts to carry out legal investigations. Some bonded laborers returned to their former status after authorities freed them, due to a lack of alternative employment options. In Sindh, the landmark Bonded Labor Act of 2015 has no accompanying civil procedure to implement the law. Of the 29 district vigilance committees charged with overseeing bonded labor practices, only 11 had held meetings as of July, but lack of quorum and representation from government agencies and civil society organizations made them largely inoperative.
Boys and girls were bought, sold, rented, or kidnapped to work in illegal begging rings, as domestic servants, or as bonded laborers in agriculture and brickmaking (see section 7.c.). Illegal labor agents charged high fees to parents with false promises of decent work for their children and later exploited them by subjecting the children to forced labor in domestic servitude, unskilled labor, small shops, and other sectors.
The government of Punjab funded the Elimination of Child Labor and Bonded Labor Project, under which the Punjab Department of Labor worked to combat child and bonded labor in brick kilns. They did this by helping workers obtain national identity cards and interest-free loans and providing schools at brick kiln sites. On March 29, the Lahore High Court ordered the labor secretary to enact measures to pay the school fees of children working in brick kilns. On July 1, the Punjab government issued a notification that set brick kiln laborers’ wages, as well as conditions of overtime work and paid holidays. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh ministries of labor reportedly worked to register brick kilns and their workers in order to regulate the industry more effectively and provide workers access to labor courts and other services. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, kilns with fewer than 10 employees do not qualify as “factories,” so many employed fewer than 10 workers to avoid registration.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/ and 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 /.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The federal government prohibited child domestic labor and other hazardous labor via an amendment to the Child Employment Act 1991 on July 30, which covers the Islamabad Capital Territory but requires the same amendment be passed by each province to be adopted. No province had adopted similar legislation as of October 19. The constitution expressly prohibits the employment of children younger than age 14 in any factory, mine, or other hazardous site. The national law for the employment of children sets the minimum age for hazardous work at 14, which does not comply with international standards. Provincial laws in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh set the minimum age for hazardous work at 18, meeting international standards. Balochistan’s cabinet approved the Balochistan Employment of Children Prohibition and Regulation Bill 2020 in September, providing protections for children, setting the minimum age for hazardous work at 14 years, and setting the minimum age for coal mining at 15 years. In May the Punjab government announced the first phase of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act 2019, which prohibits hiring a child younger than 15 as a domestic worker. Despite these restrictions, there were nationwide reports of children working in areas the law defined as hazardous, such as leather manufacturing, brick making, and deep-sea fishing.
By law the minimum age for nonhazardous work is 14 in shops and establishments and 15 for work in factories and mines. The law does not extend the minimum age limit to informal employment. The law limits the workday to seven hours for children, including a one-hour break after three hours of labor, and sets permissible times of day for work and time off. The law does not allow children to work overtime or at night, and it specifies they should receive one day off per week. Additionally, the law requires employers to keep a register of child workers for labor inspection purposes. These national prohibitions and regulations do not apply to home-based businesses or brickmaking.
Federal law prohibits the exploitation of children younger than 18 and defines exploitative entertainment as all activities related to human sports or sexual practices and other abusive practices. Parents who exploit their children are legally liable.
Child labor remained pervasive, with many children working in agriculture and domestic work. There were also reports that small workshops employed a large number of child laborers, which complicated efforts to enforce child labor laws. Poor rural families sometimes sold their children into domestic servitude or other types of work, or they paid agents to arrange for such work, often believing their children would work under decent conditions. Some children sent to work for relatives or acquaintances in exchange for education or other opportunities ended in exploitative conditions or forced labor. Children also were kidnapped or sold into organized begging rings, domestic servitude, militant groups and gangs, and child sex trafficking. Media reported that due to COVID-19 effects, more children were dropping out of school and that many children turned to the workforce to lessen the economic burden their parents experienced due to the pandemic. The NGO Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child claimed that more than 12 million children were forced to practice child labor.
Coordination of responses to child labor problems at the national level remained ineffective. Labor inspection was the purview of provincial rather than national government, which contributed to uneven application of labor law. Enforcement efforts were not adequate to meet the scale of the problem. Inspectors had little training and insufficient resources and were susceptible to corruption. Authorities registered hundreds of child labor law violations, but they often did not impose penalties on violators; when they did, the penalties were not a significant deterrent. Authorities generally allowed NGOs to perform inspections without interference.
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
While regulations prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status, the government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on these factors persisted. Women constituted only 24 percent of the labor force despite representing 50 percent of the population. The Special Economic Zones Act of 2012 provides for limited protections, and the status of national laws dealing with labor rights, antidiscrimination, and harassment at the workplace remained ambiguous. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The 2010 passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution dissolved the federal Ministry of Labor and Manpower, resulting in the devolution of labor issues to the provinces. Some labor groups, international organizations, and NGOs remained critical of the devolution, contending that certain labor issues–including minimum wages, worker rights, national labor standards, and observance of international labor conventions–should remain within the purview of the federal government. Observers also raised concerns regarding the provinces’ varying capacity and commitment to adopt and enforce labor laws. Some international organizations, however, observed that giving authority to provincial authorities led to improvements in labor practices, including inspections, in some provinces.
The minimum wage as set by the government exceeded its definition of the poverty line income for an individual, which was 9,300 Pakistani rupees ($60) per month. The minimum wage was 17,500 ($106) rupees per month. The minimum wage was greater than the World Bank’s estimate for poverty level income. Authorities increased the minimum wage in the annual budget in 2019, and both federal and provincial governments implemented the increase. Minimum wage laws did not cover significant sectors of the labor force, including workers in the informal sector, domestic servants, and agricultural workers; enforcement of minimum wage laws was uneven.
The law provides for a maximum workweek of 48 hours (54 hours for seasonal factories) with rest periods during the workday and paid annual holidays. The labor code also requires time off on official government holidays, overtime pay, annual and sick leave, health care, education for workers’ children, social security, old-age benefits, and a workers’ welfare fund. Many workers, however, were employed as contract laborers with no benefits beyond basic wages and no long-term job security, even if they remained with the same employer for many years. Furthermore, these national regulations do not apply to agricultural workers, workers in establishments with fewer than 10 employees, or domestic workers. Workers in these types of employment also lacked the right to access labor courts to seek redress of grievances and were extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The industry-specific nature of many labor laws and the lack of government enforcement gave employers in many sectors relative impunity with regard to working conditions, treatment of employees, work hours, and pay.
Provincial governments have primary responsibility for enforcing national labor regulations. Enforcement was ineffective due to limited resources, corruption, and inadequate regulatory structures. The number of labor inspectors employed by the provincial governments is insufficient for the approximately 64 million persons in the workforce. Many workers, especially in the informal sector, remained unaware of their rights. Due to limited resources for labor inspections and corruption, inspections and penalties were insufficient to deter violations of labor laws. Minimum wages and labor law disputes are settled by internal dispute resolution mechanisms as opposed to being dealt with national courts, further contributing to corruption. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
The 2019 Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Bill recognizes the rights of women who work in farming, livestock, and fisheries. The law provides for minimum wages, sick and maternity leave, set working hours, written work contracts, the right to unionize, collective bargaining, and access to social security and credit, among other protections.
The comprehensive occupational health and safety law enacted by Sindh Province in 2017 had not been implemented by year’s end. In February the Sindh cabinet allowed the Labor Department to appoint inspectors under the law, but as of November no health and safety inspectors had been appointed. Similar legislation was absent in other provinces. In September the Punjab government enacted the Medical Teaching Institute (Reform) Ordinance, which amended several existing pieces of health-care legislation and instituted boards of governors composed of private sector professionals for state-run teaching hospitals.
On July 6, the Sindh government released a 26-page Joint Investigation Team report of the 2012 Baldia factory fire that claimed the lives of 260 workers. The team reported that the fire was an act of terrorism, not an accident. The investigators revealed in the report that the factory had been set aflame over nonpayment of an extortion scheme. Two persons were convicted in September.
Nationwide, health and safety standards were poor in multiple sectors. The country’s failure to meet international health and safety standards raised doubts abroad as to its reliability as a source for imports. There was a serious lack of adherence to mine safety and health protocols. Many mines had only one opening for entry, egress, and ventilation. Workers could not remove themselves from dangerous working conditions without risking loss of employment. Informal-sector employees, such as domestic and home-based workers, were particularly vulnerable to health and safety issues. There were no statistics on workplace fatalities and accidents during the year. Factory managers were often unable to ascertain the identity of fire or other work-related accident victims because these individuals were contract workers and generally did not appear in records.
On September 7, at least 24 workers were killed when a marble mine collapsed in Mohmand, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Labor rights activists observed that workers often had to work in dangerous conditions and that private-sector mining companies failed to provide workers with health and safety facilities. According to the Pakistan Mine Worker Federation’s statistics, 186 coal miners died across the country in 2019. On April 14, two coal miners were killed after a trolley hit them inside a coal mine in Harnai, Balochistan. On March 20, seven coal miners were killed and three others injured in a gas explosion in a mine in Degari, Balochistan. The government did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health laws; penalties for violations of such laws were not commensurate with those for crimes like negligence.