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Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.

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

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

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

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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

There were reports that persons were detained without judicial authorization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

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

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

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

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

Trial Procedures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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

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

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

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

Property Restitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and selectively enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies without giving room for critical voices.

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

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

Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in protest.

The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.

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

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

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

By law, the government may close a publication–printed or online–after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Regulations also give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report for defamation.

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.

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

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

Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”

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

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

Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information.

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

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

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.

Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as principals.

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

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups.

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

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

The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Association

All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.

Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.

The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity.

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

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

The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. Following the presidential election, the government increased restrictions on the ability of Belarusians to return home from abroad.

In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity, and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.

The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.

Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.

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

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

Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, particularly after the August 9 election. Some others were in self-imposed exile or were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.

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

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

Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a process for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but are unable to return to their countries of origin.

All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. The government made an exception for one Russian citizen who sought asylum for religious reasons.

Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status as asylum seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.

Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.

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

Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

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

Permanently resident stateless persons were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement bodies that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR, stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.

There is a path to citizenship for the stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

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

Elections and Political Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

In general, corruption prosecutions remained selective and nontransparent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

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

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

The law on crime prevention establishes a separate definition of domestic violence and provides for implementation of protective orders, which are from three to 30 days in duration. The law requires authorities to provide victims and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition the code on administrative offenses prescribes a substantial fine or detention for up to 15 days for violating protective orders, battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

According to a number of women’s rights NGOs, protective orders and crisis rooms remained ineffective and provided limited protection of victims’ rights. Efforts to prosecute offenders and ensure legal and other remedies to correct their behavior were also lacking. NGO experts continued to note the lack of state-supported designated shelters and specialists that work with victims, children, and aggressors.

According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, from January-March officers registered 655 offenses related to household and domestic violence crimes, which was reportedly down by 18 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Of those, 58 cases included causing severe bodily harm, 27 deaths caused by family members, and 225 cases of death threats and causing severe bodily harm. Police reported they prosecuted 186 individuals on charges of abusing family members. Police issued 1,903 protective orders from January-March.

According to press reports, on May 14, a 38-year-old man in the town of Cherikau severely beat his 39-year-old wife. The woman did not make a police report or seek medical attention until two days later, when she was hospitalized and died of her injuries the same day. The man was detained and charged with battery.

A Ministry of Internal Affairs representative was reachable once a month through July on a NGO-run nationwide hotline for victims of domestic violence. In August the NGO running the hotline stopped working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs representative following the government’s crackdown on demonstrators. As of June the shelter and hotline providers had not seen an increase in requests for help in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, although this may have been associated with the lack of a government-imposed countrywide lockdown or self-isolation requirements. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Labor and Social Protection, and Healthcare and NGOs continued a campaign, “Home without Violence.” The campaign was shifted online during the pandemic but was covered by government media.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment reportedly was widespread, but no specific laws, other than those against physical assault, address the problem. Victims of sexual harassment did not have access to criminal or civil remedies for sexual harassment that occurred in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception was widely available. Government policy does not bar access to contraception, but some religious groups may oppose it on religious grounds. Although there were no barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, and skilled postpartum care was widely available, there were fewer professionals with the skills to assist with difficult pregnancies outside of Minsk. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: In prior years, women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. While there are no indications that the practice has changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to property ownership and inheritance, family law, equal pay for equal work (although women were often paid less), and in the judicial system, and the law was generally respected. Although women have the same legal status as men, they experienced discrimination in employment as well as discrimination in the workplace (see section 7.d.).

During the year Lukashenka made multiple disparaging comments regarding female political opposition leaders that reflected a discriminatory attitude against women participating in the political arena (see section 3).

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived either by birth within the country or from one’s parents. A child of a citizen is a citizen regardless of place of birth, even if one parent is not a citizen. Births were generally registered immediately.

Child Abuse: Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of a person older than 18 engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 carry is a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children was common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted to beating their children. In a number of resonant cases of child abuse and assault, at least one parent, who committed a crime against the child, suffered from alcohol addiction, and the other was reluctant to report the crime. For example, a court in the town of Zelva convicted and sentenced a male resident to 25 years in prison for continuously abusing his minor daughters, one of whom suffered severe injuries and died. Authorities generally intervened to prevent child abuse stemming from domestic violence and identified families in vulnerable conditions and provided foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government continued to prosecute child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate, lacking effective capabilities to detect violence and refer victims for proper assistance in a timely manner. The government instituted a comprehensive national plan for 2017-21 to improve childcare and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, but it acknowledged its inefficiency in executing certain protective measures absent assistance from international organizations and NGOs.

With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities employed procedures for on-the-record, one-time interviewing of child-abuse victims in the framework of investigations or criminal cases at specialized facilities under the direct supervision of psychologists. Courts often used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child-abuse victims for hearings, but experts continued to raise concerns that in some cases, judges summoned child-abuse victims to testify at hearings. More experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and interests of minors.

As of January the Ministry of Education ran 138 social-educational centers nationwide for minor victims of any type of violence or minors in vulnerable and dangerous conditions, but independent observers questioned the quality of services. General health-care institutions provided a wide range of medical aid to child abuse victims free of charge.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18, although girls as young as 14 may marry with parental consent. There were reports of early marriage in which girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 married with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Prostitution of children was a problem, and the government took some steps to address it. From January through September, the government identified 354 minors as victims of child sexual abuse and 24 minors exploited for pornography. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for conviction of production or distribution of pornographic materials depicting a minor. The government generally enforced the law. The government claimed that the law did not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 27 minor trafficking and trafficking-related victims. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods like sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January adopted a separate 2020-22 plan of action to protect minors from sexual abuse and exploitation. There were no reports on the implementation of the plan as of December.

Institutionalized Children: There was no system for monitoring child abuse in orphanages or other specialized institutions. Authorities did not report any child-abuse incidents in institutions. There have been allegations of abuse in foster families; the government opened or continued investigations into some of these cases.

According to a 2018 UNICEF study, more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either physical or psychological violence. Approximately one in four children participating in the survey reported exposure to physical violence at institutions. The children living in institutions appeared significantly more vulnerable compared with children living in families: they had two to three times more exposure to violence than children from secondary schools. Children from special closed-type educational institutions and penitentiary institutions reported greater exposure to violence both at home and in the institutions.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews lived in the country.

There were reports of isolated anti-Semitic incidents after the August 9 election, including cases of anti-Semitic violence by state actors during detentions. For example, according to press reports, police in Minsk detained Aleksandr Fruman while detaining protesters. Fruman reported that, upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him while shouting anti-Semitic insults, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” Jewish community leaders did not express concerns that their community members who participated in protests had been targeted for their ethnicity or religious group when detained by police.

Many memorials to victims of the Holocaust, built in Soviet times as well as more recently, do not distinguish Jewish victims from other victims of Nazi atrocities. The Jewish community continued to work with foreign donors and local authorities to erect monuments to commemorate Jewish victims specifically.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, and discrimination was common.

On September 14, a regional court in Smarhon dismissed a case filed by a local children’s music school teacher with physical disabilities, who was seeking to restore a number of his rights, which he argued were abused based on his disability and discriminatory attitudes toward him. For example, although he had worked at the school since 1996, the building was not fully accessible and the administration held teachers’ conferences on a floor the teacher could not reach, limiting his ability to share information related to his work. The teacher also cited discriminatory and derogatory language used by the school’s principals and fellow teachers as well as the principal’s refusal to provide extra days off for the teacher, who was in a risk group for COVID-19. The school reportedly addressed the teacher’s working schedule and improved accessibility to the building prior to the court ruling, which allowed the court to dismiss the case.

The law mandates that transport, residences, and businesses be accessible to persons with disabilities, but few public areas were wheelchair accessible or accessible for persons with hearing and vision disabilities. The National Association of Disabled Wheelchair Users estimated that more than 90 percent of persons with physical disabilities were unable to leave their places of residence without assistance and stated their residences were not suitable to accommodate persons with physical disabilities. While authorities claimed that 30 percent of the country’s total infrastructure was accessible, disability rights organizations considered this figure inflated, although the situation continued to improve during the year. NGOs reported that the government was growing increasingly aware of these problems, but progress was slow.

The country’s lack of independent living opportunities left many persons with disabilities no choice but to live in state-run institutions. According to the Ministry of Labor, approximately 89 such institutions across the country housed approximately 21,500 persons. Disability rights organizations reported that the quality of care in these facilities was low. Instances of harassment and mistreatment were reported, such as cases of physical and psychological abuse, lack of medical care for other non-disability-related conditions, and underfunded facilities and infrastructure. Authorities continued the practice of placing persons with physical and mental disabilities in the same facilities and did not provide either group with specialized care. Approximately 15,000 persons with disabilities who lived in “psychoneurological” institutions were deprived of legal rights, and courts designated directors of these institutions as their legal guardians.

Public transportation was free to persons with disabilities, but the majority of subway stations in Minsk as well as the bus system were not wheelchair accessible. In 2017 the most recent year for which information was available, experts of the NGO ACT released a monitoring report indicating that 3.3 percent of all educational institutions across the country were accessible to persons with disabilities, including with vision and hearing disabilities, and most of these facilities were recently constructed.

Persons with disabilities, especially those with vision and hearing disabilities, often encountered problems with access to courts and obtaining court interpreters. Women with disabilities often faced discrimination, including employment discrimination, claims they were unable to care for their children, and received worse medical services and care compared to the general population–especially in provincial medical institutions. Women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. Pregnant women with disabilities face accessibility barriers at maternity clinics and hospitals.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies continued to arbitrarily detain, investigate, profile, and harass Roma, including by forcing fingerprinting, mistreating them in detention, and subjecting them to ethnic insults.

Official and societal discrimination continued against the country’s 6,848 (according to the 2019 census) to 60,000 (according to Romani community estimates) Roma. The Romani community continued to experience marginalization, various forms of discrimination, high unemployment, low levels of education, and lack of access to social services. Roma generally held citizenship, but many lacked official identity documents and refused to obtain them.

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

There were reports that authorities threatened and condoned violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. For example, according to the LGBTI rights group Makeout, on September 26, police detained a transgender man, Yauheni Velko, at a protest. While in transport, police insulted him on the basis of his gender identity. At the police station, security officials conducted a strip search and targeted him with gender-focused harassment and threats, including rape and death threats. Officials at the detention facility told relatives who knew he was at the facility that there were no men detained at the location, and therefore he was not present. Velko spent two days in detention and was tried and fined on September 28. Officers also confiscated his rainbow flag.

Consensual same-sexual conduct between adults is not illegal, but LGBTI discrimination was widespread, and harassment occurred. The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.

Societal discrimination against LGBTI activists persisted with the tacit support of the government, which either failed to investigate crimes or did so without recognizing it as a hate crime. For example, in December 2019 a Minsk district court sentenced a local resident on charges of grave hooliganism to 18 months in jail and ordered him to pay 5,400 rubles ($2,210) in compensation to his victim Mikalai Kuprych. The perpetrator assaulted Kuprych, who suffered multiple facial injuries and bone fractures, after he reportedly saw Kuprych hugging friends. Although the perpetrator stated during the investigation that this was the prime motive for his attack, the court refused to recognize anti-LGBTI sentiments as a motive.

The government allows transgender persons to update their name and gender marker on national identification documents, but these documents retain old identification numbers that include a digit indicating the individual’s sex assigned at birth. Transgender persons reportedly were refused jobs when potential employers noted the “discrepancy” between an applicant’s identification number and gender marker. Banks also refused to open accounts for transgender persons on the same grounds. Transgender men were issued military identification that indicated they had “a severe mental illness.”

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, and the illness carried a heavy social stigma. According to local NGOs working with HIV and AIDS positive individuals and other groups at risk, HIV-infected individuals, especially drug users undergoing or having completed treatment, continued to face discrimination, especially at workplaces and during job interviews. For example, based on doctors’ clinical reports, schools reportedly refused to employ HIV-positive individuals even when they were applying for jobs that did not involve contact with children. For example, in May an individual was barred from a building maintenance job under Ministry of Health instructions that restricted HIV-positive individuals from working with children.

The government continued to broadcast and post public-service advertisements raising awareness concerning HIV/AIDS and calling for greater tolerance toward persons infected with the virus.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Although the law provides for the rights of workers, except state security and military personnel, to form and join independent unions and to strike, it places a number of serious restrictions on the exercise of these rights. The law provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively but does not protect against antiunion discrimination. Workers who say they are fired for union activity have no explicit right to reinstatement or to challenge their dismissal in court, according to trade union activists.

The law provides for civil penalties against employers in the form of fines for violations of the freedom of association or collective bargaining. Fines against employers were not commensurate with penalties for other crimes related to civil rights. The government did not enforce the law, in part because the government and state enterprises violated the legal right of freedom of association.

The government severely restricted independent unions. The government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) is the largest union federation, claiming more than four million members, to whom it provides benefits. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), with four constituent trade unions, made up of approximately 10,000 workers, was the largest union umbrella organization not affiliated with the government. The BKDP, however, did not represent the majority of workers at any of the country’s largest state employers. Tight government control over registration requirements and public demonstrations made it difficult for the BKDP to organize and operate, or conduct strikes.

The government did not respect freedom of association and collective bargaining. Prohibitive registration requirements, mandating that any new union unaffiliated with the government have a large membership and cooperation from state employers, continued to present significant obstacles to independent union formation. Trade unions may be deleted from the register by a decision of the registrar, without any court procedure. The registrar may remove a trade union from the register if, following the issuance of a written warning to the trade union that it is violating legislation or its own statutes, the violations are not corrected within a month. Authorities continued to resist attempts by workers to leave the official union and join the independent one, but workers reportedly increasingly left the FTUB without joining the BKDP for political reasons following the August 9 presidential election. The government restrictions on freedom of association made it difficult for independent trade unions to participate in collective bargaining. Authorities require a single labor union position ahead of bargaining, which at state enterprises where the BKDP is present requires both labor organizations to collaborate in collective bargaining. Labor activists reported, however, that this benefited the BKDP because agreements negotiated with the participation of independent unions were more favorable to workers than those agreements solely negotiated by the FTUB.

The requirements to conduct a legal strike are high. For example, strikes may only be held three or more months after dispute resolution between the union and employer has failed. The duration of the strike must be specified in advance. In addition a minimum number of workers must continue to work during the strike. Nevertheless, these requirements were largely irrelevant, since the unions that represented almost all workers remained under government control. Government authorities and managers of state-owned enterprises routinely interfered with union activities and hindered workers’ efforts to bargain collectively, in some instances arbitrarily suspending collective bargaining agreements. Management and local authorities blocked worker attempts to organize strikes on many occasions by declaring them illegal.

Some union members who participated in political protests, which authorities generally considered unauthorized mass events, were detained, and a smaller percentage of politically active workers lost their jobs. Despite government pressure, after the August 9 election, some workers protested and attempted to organize strikes, but a majority of workers did not because of the extreme pressures authorities put on them and potential strike leaders. Government pressure included making examples of strike leaders by putting them in jail, subjecting them to physical violence, firing them, detaining or fining workers who discussed conducting strikes, refusing to renew employment contracts of workers involved in strikes, and applying psychological pressure in the form of threatening workers with the removal of parental rights over their children and stressing the impact lost wages would have on their children and families. In August and September, the inability to convince a majority of workers to hold a general strike led significant minorities of workers at large state-owned factories to conduct work-to-rule action as a sign of protest.

Workers encountered politically related pressure. For example, on October 1, the state-owned enterprise Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ) informed an employee who had taken part in a spontaneous anti-Lukashenka rally at the factory in August that the company would not extend his employment contract upon its expiration on November 4. BMZ managers had reportedly previously promised that no one would be punished for participating in the political rally, but police afterward sentenced the worker and another colleague to 12 days in jail for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event. The worker had worked at BMZ for 20 years.

The Law on Mass Events also seriously limited demonstrations, rallies, and other public action, constraining the right of unions to organize. No foreign assistance may be offered to trade unions for holding seminars, meetings, strikes, pickets, etc., or for “propaganda activities” aimed at their own members, without authorities’ permission.

Government efforts to suppress independent unions included frequent refusals to extend employment contracts for members of unions unaffiliated with the government and refusals to register independent unions. According to BKDP leader Alyaksandr Yarashuk, the only registration of a nongovernment union since 1999 occurred in 2019 when authorities approved the third registration application of a branch of the independent trade union of miners, chemical, oil refinery, energy, transport, construction industries, and other workers in Salihorsk. The registration followed the restructuring of the state-owned potash fertilizer producer Belaruskali, which established a number of separate subsidiaries, and workers wanted to keep their membership in the BKDP’s labor unions. Authorities attempted to pressure or fire workers who were deemed protest or strike leaders, or became involved in opposition political activities.

During the year the BKDP-affiliated Radio and Electronics Trade Union chairman Genadz Fedynich and chief accountant Ihar Komlik remained under house arrest following their 2018 conviction for allegedly evading taxes and sentence to four years of house arrest. The court also banned the trade unionists from holding any administrative positions for five years. In 2018 the Minsk City Court dismissed their appeal. In May 2019 Fedynich’s house arrest was slightly eased, and a November 2019 presidential amnesty law reduced the sentences of both Fedynich and Komlik by a year to 2021.

Most contracts at state enterprises are one-year contracts. State employees, who constituted approximately 70 percent of the workforce, may have contracts with terms of up to five years, but most contracts expire after one year. The BKDP and NGOs alleged this practice gave the government, through state employers, the ability to fire state employees by declining to renew their contracts. Some state employees (including medical professionals) who protested against the government’s COVID-19 response or participated in protests against the government’s handling of the election reportedly were not rehired. Members of nongovernment-affiliated unions, political parties, and civil society groups lost their jobs due to one-year contracts lapsing. A government edict provides the possibility for employers to sign open-ended work contracts with an employee only after five years of good conduct and performance by the employee. Longer contracts, however, reportedly also restrict the ability of employees to leave for other jobs. Workers are generally protected during the terms of their contracts.

Opposition political party members and democratic activists sometimes had difficulty finding work at state-affiliated employers due to government pressure on these employers.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, with the exception of court rulings that may require work or services as part of a sentence, and which may include penal labor.

Parents who have had their parental rights stripped and are unemployed or are working but fail to compensate state child-care facilities for the maintenance of their children, may be subject to forced employment by court order. Individuals who refuse forced employment may be held criminally liable and face community service or corrective labor for a period of up to two years, imprisonment for up to three years, or other freedom restrictions, all involving compulsory labor and garnishment of 70 percent of their wages to compensate for expenses incurred by the government.

Minsk authorities required officially registered unemployed individuals to perform paid community service one day a month. Individuals who performed fewer than 12 working days of paid community service during a year were prohibited from receiving some unemployment benefits. Individuals with disabilities, single parents, and parents of three or more children, as well as parents of children with disabilities and younger than 18 were exempt.

Regulations against forced labor were seldom enforced, and resources and inspections dedicated to preventing forced and compulsory labor were minimal. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

Belarus largely served as a source country for labor trafficking. Aside from border restrictions enacted during COVID-19, Belarusians were able to freely travel to and work in Russia, reportedly the largest destination country. Compared to NGOs, the government rarely identified victims of labor trafficking, and prosecution of those responsible for forced labor remained minimal. NGOs in 2019 identified 59 labor trafficking victims, compared with the government’s three. Authorities reportedly did not recognize claims by Belarusians who returned from Russia and complained they had endured forced labor there. Government efforts to prevent and eliminate labor trafficking did not improve during the year.

There were no reported examples of government reprisals identified against individuals who abstained from community activities during the year (commonly called “subbotniks”). According to a media report, however, workers at a state-run hospital expressed fear of reprisals in the form of withholding wages if they failed to participate.

Former inmates stated their monthly wages were as low as three to four rubles ($1.50 to $2.00). Senior officials with the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Internal Affairs Ministry stated in 2015 that at least 97 percent of all work-capable inmates worked in prison as required by law, excluding retirees and persons with disabilities, and that labor in prison was important and useful for rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for employment is 16. Children as young as 14 may conclude a labor contract with the written consent of one parent or a legal guardian. The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for enforcement of the law. Persons younger than 18 are allowed to work in nonhazardous jobs but are not allowed to work overtime, on weekends, or on government holidays. Work may not be harmful to children’s health or hinder their education.

The government generally enforced these laws and penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

There is no penalty for discrimination in general. The Labor Code prohibits employer discrimination only when employers refuse to hire a person who was referred by the government Labor, Employment, and Social Welfare agency as part of a quota system. In these cases the government may charge the employer with a civil penalty if the discrimination was on the basis of the person’s race, age, gender, language, political or religious beliefs, membership in a trade union, social status, or place of residence. The government did not effectively enforce this law.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to ethnicity, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and HIV-positive status (see section 6). In addition some members of the Romani community complained that employers often discriminated against them and either refused to employ them or did not provide fulltime jobs. The government did not take any action during the year to prevent or eliminate employment discrimination. Employment discrimination happened across most economic sectors and in both private and public workplaces.

The law requiring equal pay for equal work was not regularly enforced, and in July 2019 the country’s National Statistics Committee reported that average salaries for women were 27.3 percent less than salaries for men.

The government maintained a list of 181 “physically demanding” jobs “in hazardous or dangerous conditions” that women are not permitted to occupy. Women are also unable to work in all the same employment sectors as men. Very few women were in the upper ranks of management or government, and most women were concentrated in the lower-paid public sector. Although the law grants women the right to three years of maternity leave with assurance of a job upon return, employers often circumvented employment protections by using short-term contracts, then refusing to renew a woman’s contract when she became pregnant.

A government prohibition against workdays longer than seven hours for persons with disabilities reportedly made companies reluctant to hire them. Local NGOs reported that up to 85 percent of persons with disabilities were unemployed. Authorities provided minimal welfare benefits for persons with disabilities. Pension calculations should consider disability status under the law, however, authorities were not always willing to provide higher pensions warranted by disability status. Members of the country’s Paralympic teams received half the salaries and prize money of athletes without disabilities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

As of October 1, the national minimum monthly wage exceeded the poverty line.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 40 hours and provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The law provides for mandatory overtime and nine days of holiday pay and restricts overtime to 10 hours a week, with a maximum of 180 hours of overtime each year.

The government did effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes. In June, Labor and Social Protection Minister Iryna Kastevich noted that the ministry was monitoring companies and organizations for compliance with employee dismissal regulations during COVID-19. Kastevich reported the volume of total working hours fell since the start of the pandemic, as employers attempted to keep workers employed by shortening working hours or placing persons on leave. Government COVID-19 support reportedly largely went to state enterprises, who received financial support such as loans, rather than workers or the private sector.

The State Labor Inspection Department at the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry was responsible for enforcement of wages, overtime, workplace safety, and worker health. The law establishes minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health, but employers did not always follow these standards or require workers to wear minimal safety gear. The state labor inspectorate lacked authority to enforce employer compliance and often ignored violations. Although inspectors could make unannounced inspections, the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Penalties for occupational safety and health violations were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. According to the State Labor Inspection Department of the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry, employees have the right to refuse to perform work if they are not provided with personal protective equipment that directly ensures labor safety. The list of required personal protective equipment was approved by the ministry. In order to refuse to perform assigned work due to a lack of equipment, an employee must inform the employer or an authorized official of the reasons for refusal in writing.

According to the latest data, authorities reported 2,042 workplace injuries and 141 deaths in 2019, compared with 2,115 injuries and 144 deaths in 2018.

The State Labor Inspection Department maintained labor hotlines for each region and also provided separate contact details for matters associated with labor inspections, labor protection, and labor violations. The department also maintained a hotline for problems involving the illegal dismissal of workers.

Between June 7 and September 2, the State Labor Inspection Department released information highlighting typical violations of labor protection requirements in four areas: automotive and heavy machinery operation, electric and gas wielding equipment, earthworks and ground-level construction, and above-ground construction.

Independent experts reported the informal economy constitutes up to 30 percent of the total economy, which has a workforce of 4.5 million persons. The labor law does not cover informal workers.

Cuba

Executive Summary

Cuba is an authoritarian state with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, the highest political entity of the state by law, and Miguel Diaz-Canel serving as president of the republic. A new constitution ratified in February 2019 codifies that Cuba remains a one-party system in which the Communist Party is the only legal political party. Elections were neither free nor fair nor competitive.

The Ministry of Interior controls police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police are the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. Freedom of the press functionally did not exist. Criminal libel laws were used against persons who criticized government leadership. The government engaged in censorship and internet site blocking, and there were severe limitations on academic and cultural freedom. There were severe restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations. There were severe restrictions on religious freedom. There were restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement. Citizens were unable to change their government through free and fair elections. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party. There was official corruption; trafficking in persons, including compulsory labor; and outlawing of independent trade unions.

Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses. As a matter of policy, officials failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed these abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.

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

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

On June 24, police killed Hansel Hernandez Galiano, an unarmed Afro-Cuban man, in Havana. State media initially refused to acknowledge the case, but news circulated quickly across social media. On June 25, the supposedly independent but in fact state-controlled blog Guerrero Cubano issued a detailed story about how Hansel was killed. Other official media outlets followed suit the morning of June 27 when the Ministry of Interior issued a press release with the same account of events related by Guerrero Cubano that was reprinted across official state media.

The official version of Hernandez Galiano’s death was that in the course of a regular patrol, two members of the National Revolutionary Police discovered and chased a suspected thief. Official media stated the suspect ran from police but then confronted them and threw large rocks, some of which hit the officers. The government stated that as the suspect was throwing rocks, one officer fired two warning shots and then a final killing shot. The press release concluded by lamenting Hansel’s death but denigrated his character, claiming Hansel had been found guilty of threatening persons, “lascivious abuse,” and robbery with violence, for which he served a prison term and was on probation.

Outside observers identified a number of reasons to doubt the accuracy of the government’s account. Photographs of the body circulated on social media by Hernandez Galiano’s family members showed a single bullet wound, entering via Hansel’s back and emerging from his chest, indicating he was running from the officers, not actively confronting them. The photographs also showed bruising to his face and sutures closing a cut to the head (possibly post mortem). Members of his family said his body was reportedly quickly cremated, after pressure from the government. Activists criticized the press release’s emphasis on Hansel’s alleged criminal record, with one lawyer saying it “demonstrates their desire to treat him as a defendant and not as a victim.” Authorities stated they would investigate the death but as of December had not publicly released results of an investigation.

At least eight prisoners died in custody in a variety of suspicious circumstances. Roberto Jimenez del Sol, a manager in an army-owned shoe store, died in military custody after spending one month in solitary confinement as part of an investigation into missing funds. Although authorities told his family he died of natural causes, his body displayed signs of abuse. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cuba Archive documented at least six other prisoners who died in suspicious circumstances. None of these deaths was reported by official media.

b. Disappearance

There were confirmed reports of long-term disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were multiple reports of detained activists whose whereabouts were unknown for days or weeks because the government did not register these detentions, many of which occurred at unregistered sites.

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

There were recurring reports that members of the security forces and their agents harassed, intimidated, and physically assaulted human rights and prodemocracy advocates, political dissidents, and peaceful demonstrators, and that they did so with impunity. Some detainees and prisoners endured physical abuse by prison officials or other inmates at the instigation of guards. Although the law prohibits coercion during investigative interrogations, police and security forces at times used aggressive and physically abusive tactics, threats, and harassment during questioning. Detainees reported officers intimidated them with threats of long-term detention, loss of child-custody rights, denial of permission to depart the country, and other punishments.

State security officials frequently deployed to countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, where they trained and supported other organizations in their use of repressive tactics and human rights abuses and sometimes participated in the abuses directly. For instance, Cuban security force members were embedded in the Maduro regime’s security and intelligence services in Venezuela and were instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) from a small organization focused on external threats to a much larger organization focused on surveilling Venezuelans and suppressing dissent. UN reports accused the DGCIM of torture, and many former Venezuelan prisoners said that Cubans, identified by their distinctive accents, supervised while DGCIM personnel tortured prisoners.

A December 2019 report from the Casla Institute, a Czech Republic-based NGO focused on governance in Latin America, stated the Cuban ambassador in Venezuela was personally involved in organizing this training. The Casla Institute report also stated, “Cubans constantly instruct members of the FANB [Venezuelan armed forces] and intelligence in techniques of repression, intimidation, and monitoring, so that they carry out investigation work and spy on their own colleagues and their families and political and social leaders, and directly intervene in social unrest.”

Impunity was pervasive. There were no known cases of prosecution of government officials for any human rights abuses, including torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners. Prisons were overcrowded, and facilities, sanitation, and medical care were deficient.

The government did not publish official statistics on its prisons. In January, citing information from two senior Ministry of Interior officials, the Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders claimed more than 90,000 persons were in prison, with another 37,000 in other forms of custody such as labor camps, house arrest, or conditional parole.

Physical Conditions: The government provided no information regarding the number, location, or capacity of detention centers, including prisons, work camps, and other kinds of detention facilities. Cuban Prisoners Defenders claimed the government had more than 200 such facilities.

Prison and detention cells reportedly lacked adequate water, sanitation, light, ventilation, and temperature control. Although the government provided some food and medical care, many prisoners relied on their families to provide food and other basic supplies. Potable water was often unavailable. Prison cells were overcrowded. Women reported lack of access to feminine hygiene products and inadequate prenatal care.

In June political prisoner Walfrido Rodriguez Piloto told independent outlet CubaNet he was denied medical care in El Arco del Chico prison camp in Havana’s La Lisa municipality, where he said prisoners were fed less than two ounces of food per day. He said, “This is a concentration camp; I have been here for six days with nephritic colic and without any medical attention. Between the mosquitoes [which carry dengue], the bed bugs, and hunger, I’m going to die here.” He also complained that he was mistreated by fellow prisoners who did “the dirty work” of authorities in exchange for benefits.

Prisoners, family members, and NGOs reported inadequate health care in prisons, which led to or aggravated multiple maladies. Prisoners reported outbreaks of COVID-19, dengue fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and cholera. There were reports of prisoner deaths following official indifference to treatable medical conditions such as asthma, HIV, AIDS, and other chronic medical conditions as well as from suicide. Authorities rarely if ever supplied medicine. In May a member of the opposition group Eastern Democratic Alliance posted on Facebook that one of their members, Sandi Fernandez Ortiz, died in Mar Verde Prison in Santiago de Cuba of sepsis due to poor medical care.

Political prisoners were held jointly with the general prison population. Political prisoners who refused to wear standard prison uniforms were denied certain privileges, such as access to prison libraries, reductions in the severity of their sentence, or transfer from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison.

There were credible reports that prison officials assaulted inmates. Political prisoners also reported that fellow inmates, acting on orders from or with the permission of prison authorities, threatened, beat, intimidated, and harassed them.

In July the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution granting precautionary protection measures to Silverio Portal Contreras, who was arrested and beaten in March 2018 following a protest against unsafe housing in Havana. The IACHR resolution detailed complaints made on behalf of Contreras, including reports that following his July 2018 sentencing, prison authorities severely beat Portal on multiple occasions and placed him in an isolation cell, that he was losing his eyesight because of the beatings, that he was denied medical attention for his multiple chronic medical conditions, and that he was prohibited from contacting his family. In determining the gravity of risk to Portal, the IACHR cited the context faced by human rights defenders in Cuba, which it described as “generally characterized by a climate of hostility, abuse, and harassment, particularly with respect to those who have manifested opposition to the government.” On December 1, Portal was released in poor health.

Prisoners reported solitary confinement was a common punishment for failure to comply with prison regulations, and some prisoners were isolated for months at a time. Some prisoners were held incommunicado, without being able to contact friends or family until they were released.

The government subjected prisoners who criticized the government or engaged in hunger strikes and other forms of protest to extended solitary confinement, assaults, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.

Administration: There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners, but authorities did not investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. Prisoners reported government officials refused to accept or respond to complaints.

Prisoners and pretrial detainees had access to visitors, although several political prisoners’ relatives reported prison officials arbitrarily canceled scheduled visits or denied visits altogether.

Authorities allowed prisoners to practice their religion, but there were isolated reports authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious services, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits by clergy to a maximum of two or three times per year.

Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent international or domestic human rights groups to monitor prison conditions, and it denied access to detainees by international humanitarian organizations. Although the government pledged in previous years to allow a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, no visit occurred during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Although the 2019 constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not observe them, nor did the courts enforce them. The government denied a habeas corpus motion on behalf of political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees), the only time it was known to have been filed.

Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions increased and became a routine government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. The government frequently detained activists arbitrarily without informing them of any charges against them and often denied them the ability to communicate with their relatives.

The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. In December the NGO Human Rights Watch released a report documenting 34 cases in which authorities invoked rules concerning the COVID-19 pandemic to target government critics and others. Documented cases included Keilylli de la Mora Valle, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) political group, who was arrested on April 12 for lowering her mask to smoke a cigarette on the street. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison after protesting her treatment by police. In another incident, on November 26, authorities claiming to be medical personnel entered San Isidro Movement headquarters on the pretext of requiring a COVID-19 test of journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez who had arrived earlier in the year. They were followed by police wearing medical gowns, who proceeded to arrest the protesters, several of whom later stated they were beaten during the arrests. Officers told the dissidents that a criminal complaint had been filed against them for “spreading an epidemic.”

The law requires that police furnish suspects a signed “report of detention,” noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility and a registry of personal items seized during a police search. Authorities routinely ignored this requirement. Police routinely stopped and questioned citizens, requested identification, and carried out search-and-seizure operations directed at known activists. Police used legal provisions against public disorder, contempt, lack of respect, aggression, and failure to pay minimal or arbitrary fines as ways to detain, threaten, and arrest civil society activists. Police routinely conducted short-term detentions in order to interfere with individuals’ rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and at times assaulted detainees.

Police and security officials used short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days.

The law allows for “preventive detention” for up to four years of individuals not charged with an actual crime, based on a subjective determination of “precriminal dangerousness,” which is defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used such detentions to silence peaceful political opponents. Several of the more than 100 individuals considered to be political prisoners by domestic and international human rights organizations were imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Under criminal procedures, police have 24 hours after an arrest to present a criminal complaint to an investigative police official. Investigative police have 72 hours to investigate and prepare a report for the prosecutor, who in turn has 72 hours to recommend to the appropriate court whether to open a criminal investigation.

Within the initial 168-hour detention period, by law detainees must be informed of the basis for the arrest and criminal investigation and have access to legal representation. Those charged may be released on bail, placed in home detention, or held in continued investigative detention. Once the accused has an attorney, the defense has five days to respond to the prosecution’s charges, after which a court date usually is set. Prosecutors may demand summary trials “in extraordinary circumstances” and in cases involving crimes against state security. After the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in February, the Ministry of Justice regularly invoked “extraordinary circumstances” in order to conduct summary trials.

There were reports that defendants met with their attorneys for the first time only minutes before their trials and were not informed of the basis for their arrest within the required 168-hour period. In the case of summary trials for persons accused of “propagating an epidemic” for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, accused persons were tried and sentenced without representation from legal counsel or the opportunity to present any defense.

Reports suggested bail was available, although bail was typically not granted to persons arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial counted toward time served if convicted.

Detainees may be interrogated at any time during detention and have no right to request the presence of counsel during interrogation. Detainees have the right to remain silent, but officials do not have a legal obligation to inform them of that right.

By law investigators must complete criminal investigations within 60 days. Prosecutors may grant investigators two 60-day extensions upon request, for a total of 180 days of investigative time. The supervising court may waive this deadline in “extraordinary circumstances” and upon special request by the prosecutor. In the case of the “extraordinary circumstances” waiver, no additional legal requirement exists to complete an investigation and file criminal charges, and therefore authorities may detain a person without charge indefinitely.

Arbitrary Arrest: Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest. They detained suspects longer than the legally mandated period without informing them of the nature of the arrest, without allowing them to contact family members, and without making legal counsel available to them. Police and security officials continued to use short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. After being taken into custody, these suspects were typically fined and released. The record of the fines frequently lacked information about the law that was broken or the name of the official responsible for the fine, making the fines difficult to contest in court. Sometimes fines formed the basis for preventing persons from leaving the country.

In connection with a planned yearly march on September 8, several activists from UNPACU were arbitrarily detained on September 7. On September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested (see also section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights NGOs reported at least 70 arrests and arbitrary detentions linked to the September 8 “Sunflower Revolution,” a call for nonviolent protests against the regime.

Pretrial Detention: The government held some detainees for months or years in investigative detention, in both political and nonpolitical cases. In nonpolitical cases, delays were often due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and a lack of checks on police. The percentage of prisoners and detainees in pretrial detention was unknown.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the constitution recognizes the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is directly subordinate to the National Assembly and the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), which may remove or appoint judges at any time. Political considerations thoroughly dominated the judiciary, and there was no separation of powers between the judicial system, the PCC, and the Council of State.

Civilian courts exist at the municipal, provincial, and national levels. Special tribunals convene behind closed doors for political (“counterrevolutionary”) cases and other cases deemed “sensitive to state security.” Military tribunals may have jurisdiction over civilians if any of the defendants are active or former members of the military, police, or another law enforcement agency. The government denied admission to trials for observers on an arbitrary basis.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a public trial, but politically motivated trials were at times held in secret, with authorities citing exceptions for crimes involving “state security” or “extraordinary circumstances.” Many trials concluded quickly and were closed to the press. In April, on the basis of the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency, most trials were converted to summary trials, with many defendants accused of poorly defined claims of “propagating an epidemic” or a range of crimes referred to as “illicit economic activity,” such as hoarding scarce goods. According to state media, in summary trials neither prosecutors nor defense counsel need to be present, only a judge. This protocol, however, imposes a limit on the length of the sentence. If the potential sentence exceeds one year, defendants are to be assigned a lawyer. If persons hire a lawyer, they may bring one; however, few persons received legal representation.

Due process rights apply equally to citizens and foreigners, but courts regularly failed to protect or observe these rights. The law provides criminal defendants the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty, but authorities often ignored this, placing the burden on defendants to prove innocence.

The law requires that defendants be represented by an attorney, at public expense if necessary. Defendants’ attorneys may cross-examine government witnesses and present witnesses and evidence. Private attorneys are not licensed to practice in criminal courts, forcing defendants to rely on lawyers who work for the very government that is prosecuting them. These attorneys reportedly were often reluctant to defend individuals charged with political crimes or associated with human rights cases and in many cases did not appear to provide adequate counsel.

Criteria for admitting evidence were arbitrary and discriminatory. According to reports, prosecutors routinely introduced irrelevant or unreliable evidence to prove intent or they offered testimony about the defendant’s “revolutionary credentials,” which are demonstrations of loyalty to the PCC or lack thereof.

Defense attorneys have the right to review the investigation files of a defendant unless the charges involve “crimes against the security of the state.” In “state security” cases, defense attorneys were not allowed access to investigation files until charges were filed. Many detainees, especially political detainees, reported their attorneys had difficulties accessing case files due to administrative obstacles. Interpretation was sometimes provided during trials for non-Spanish speakers, but the government claimed limited resources prevented interpreters from always being available.

In trials where defendants are charged with “precriminal dangerousness,” the state must show only that the defendant has a “proclivity” for crime, so an actual criminal act need not have occurred. Penalties may be up to four years in prison. Authorities normally applied this provision to prostitutes, alcoholics, young persons who refused to report to work centers, repeat offenders of laws restricting change of domicile, and political activists who participated in public protests.

The law recognizes the right of appeal in municipal courts but limits the right of appeal in provincial courts to cases involving lengthy prison terms or the death penalty.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The government held political prisoners and detainees but denied it did so. It refused access to its prisons and detention centers by international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.

The NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders estimated there were 134 convicted political prisoners serving sentences as of December 1. Other groups reported different numbers, although figures consistently ranged near 100 or higher. The lack of governmental transparency, along with systemic abuse of due process rights, obscured the true nature of criminal charges, investigations, and prosecutions. This allowed government authorities to prosecute and sentence peaceful human rights activists for criminal violations or “precriminal dangerousness.” The government used the designation of “counterrevolutionary” for inmates deemed to be political opposition, but it did not publicize the number of these inmates. The government closely monitored organizations tracking political prisoner populations, and the organizations often faced harassment from state authorities.

Political prisoners reported the government held them in isolation for extended periods. They did not receive the same protections as other prisoners or detainees. The government frequently denied political prisoners access to home visits, prison classes, telephone calls, and, on occasion, family visits.

The justice system systematically subjected Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of UNPACU, to a wide range of abuses after he was arrested in October 2019 with several colleagues. While he was incarcerated, Ferrer was subjected to routine abuse from fellow prisoners who told him they were being rewarded with special privileges by prison authorities for beating him. During Ferrer’s detention, prison officials at times withheld food and medicine and gave Ferrer only unclean water to drink. Ferrer and his compatriots were convicted of spurious charges of lesiones (inflicting grievous bodily harm) and false imprisonment after a 13-hour trial on February 26 with numerous irregularities.

On the day of Ferrer’s trial, the Ministry of Justice tweeted that Ferrer would get a fair trial but in the same tweet called him “a common criminal” in violation of his right to the presumption of innocence. State media conducted a propaganda campaign against him before his trial that alleged Ferrer was a habitual domestic abuser (which was contradicted by past partners of his). Authorities tightly cordoned off the courthouse and did not allow international observers; most members of the audience were in fact members of the security services. Authorities allegedly attempted to intimidate several defense witnesses. The court ignored evidence (a recorded telephone conversation) from the alleged victim’s wife that suggested the injuries to the alleged victim were the result of a motorcycle accident rather than a beating. The court also ignored evidence that the victim was coerced to testify on behalf of the prosecution.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

It is possible to seek judicial remedies through civil courts for violations of administrative decisions, but independent legal experts noted general procedural and bureaucratic inefficiencies often delayed or undermined the enforcement of administrative decisions and civil court orders. Civil courts, like all other courts in the country, lacked independence, impartiality, and effective procedural guarantees. No courts allowed claimants to bring lawsuits seeking remedies for human rights violations. On December 20, the National Assembly postponed approval of the Law for the Claim of Constitutional Rights before the Courts, which would have allowed for lawsuits related to rights protected in the constitution.

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

The constitution provides for the protection of citizens’ privacy rights in their homes and correspondence, and the law requires police to have a warrant signed by a prosecutor or magistrate before entering or conducting a search. Officials, however, did not respect these protections. Reportedly, government officials routinely and systematically monitored correspondence and communications between citizens, tracked their movements, and entered homes without legal authority and with impunity.

Security forces conducted arbitrary stops and searches, especially in urban areas and at government-controlled checkpoints at the entrances to provinces and municipalities. Authorities used dubious pretenses to enter residences where they knew activists were meeting, such as “random” inspections of utilities or spurious reports of a disturbance. Authorities also used seemingly legitimate reasons–often health-related–such as fumigating homes as part of an antimosquito campaign or door-to-door COVID-19 checks as a pretext for illegal home searches.

On November 9, musician and activist Denis Solis was arrested for “contempt” after he posted a video of himself verbally sparring with a lone police officer who entered Solis’ home without permission and refused to produce a warrant. Criminal procedure requires that officers may enter persons’ residences only with another officer present, and also requires a warrant or exigent circumstances, neither of which appeared to exist in this case. Solis, who had previously been arrested twice for protesting restrictions on freedom of expression, was sentenced to eight months in prison.

The Ministry of Interior employed a system of informants and neighborhood committees, known as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, to monitor government opponents and report on their activities. Agents from the ministry’s General Directorate for State Security frequently subjected foreign journalists, visiting foreign officials, diplomats, academics, and businesspersons to surveillance, including electronic surveillance.

Family members of government employees who left international work missions or similar activities (such as medical missions, athletic competitions, and research presentations) without official permission at times faced government harassment or loss of employment, access to education, and other public benefits. Family members of human rights defenders, including their minor children, reportedly suffered reprisals related to the activities of their relatives. These reprisals included reduction of salary, termination of employment, denial of acceptance into university, expulsion from university, and other forms of harassment.

Arbitrary government surveillance of internet activity was pervasive and frequently resulted in criminal cases and reprisals for persons exercising their human rights. Internet users had to identify themselves and agree they would not use the internet for anything “that could be considered…damaging or harmful to public security.” User software developed by state universities gave the government access to users’ personal data and communications.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, on the condition that the expression “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” The law bans criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda, with penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.

Freedom of Speech: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs, and it limited public debate of topics considered politically sensitive. Several laws criminalize aspects of freedom of expression.

Rather than enforce these laws, police typically used other pretexts to harass and arrest persons exercising freedom of expression. Among the individuals who protested these restrictive laws was Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, an artist and a leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), an organization promoting cultural independence. Several MSI members, such as rapper Maykel Osorbo and Otero Alcantara’s partner Claudia Genlui, were arrested, beaten while in custody, blackmailed by state security, and fined during the year. While some of these arrests were in conjunction with political events or Otero Alcantara’s art, many arrests were arbitrary.

Otero Alcantara, arrested dozens of times in conjunction with his performance art, was charged once, for “defiling national symbols,” a case that was dropped after he spent 13 days incarcerated. He was arrested, among other times: on February 7, for walking around Havana wearing a hard hat in protest of several individuals killed when their state-owned house collapsed; on February 11, for protesting a state television decision to censor a kiss between two men; on September 8, moments after stepping outside his home holding a sign with a black and white sunflower, referencing the country’s patron saint; and on October 10, after gathering individuals to celebrate the anniversary of the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, the 1868 start of the country’s independence struggle).

Otero Alcantara was also arrested several times while demonstrating for the freedom of fellow MSI member Denis Solis, including on November 12 when Otero Alcantara and another activist attempted to present a writ of habeas corpus for Solis. Otero Alcantara was arrested on November 26 when authorities raided his house to break up a hunger strike of MSI members. At year’s end he remained on house arrest, despite the government’s not levying charges against him.

State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing matters deemed controversial. The organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear.

Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or for affiliating with independent organizations.

Alexander Raul Pupo Casas told independent media outlet CiberCuba that he was forced out of his residency program in neurosurgery at the Ernesto Che Guevara Hospital. His supervisor, Ponce de Leon Noriega, viewed Facebook posts from Pupo Casas that were critical of the government, including its low salaries for medical professionals. Noriega then publicly denounced Pupo Casas as “counterrevolutionary” and started proceedings to expel him from the hospital.

Religious groups reported increased restrictions on expressing their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, with authorities sometimes using COVID-19 restrictions to prevent persons from worshipping. Most members of the clergy exercised self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state-sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government or the PCC directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all government-controlled outlets. The government controlled all printing presses and nearly all publications. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government limited the importation of printed materials.

Foreign correspondents had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. Foreign correspondents struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. The government harassed and denied access to correspondents who reported stories deemed critical of the government. As a result of self-censorship and lack of access, foreign journalists rarely published stories on human rights violations while inside the country. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, journalists belonging to state media institutions who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred them from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations.

After Camila Acosta started working as an independent journalist in August 2019, she endured nearly constant state harassment and other abuses for her work. Since February she was forced to move at least six times (including several times during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak) due to police harassment of her landlords for “hosting a dissident.” She was arbitrarily arrested, detained, abused, fined, threatened, and interrogated at length on many occasions. For example, on July 31, she was waiting for friends in a park in Havana when two officers approached her, asked for her identity document, arrested her, and took her to a police station. Inside her bag they found several facemasks reading, “No to Decree 370,” a reference to legalized surveillance of electronic communication without a court order. The officers forced Acosta to strip and searched her further. Police fined her and threatened further prosecution for protesting the decree. On March 9, police arrested Acosta while she covered a demonstration for the freedom of artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (see section 2.a., Freedom of Speech). Police gave her a large fine and threatened her with “deportation” to her home province, Isla de la Juventud.

Violence and Harassment: The government did not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists frequently faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions were of independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad. On November 22, security forces allowed a progovernment mob to block registered foreign media teams from reporting on protests for the freedom of Denis Solis in Havana’s central park. Foreign media reported the mob “pushing, shoving, and punching one cameraman four or five times in the body.”

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers and magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.

The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character law to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons with the vague crime of “contempt of authority.”

Internet Freedom

The government restricted access to the internet, and the country had a low internet connectivity rate. All internet access was provided through state monopoly companies, and the government has unrestricted and unregulated legal authority to monitor citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small number of underground networks. The government used a combination of website blocking, pressure on website operators, arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and unrestricted surveillance to censor information critical of the regime and to silence its critics. Despite heavy restrictions, citizens circumvented government censorship through grassroots innovations. Access to blocked outlets was generally possible only through a virtual private network.

For most internet users, the cost of accessing non-Cuban sites remained higher than the cost of accessing domestic ones, most of which were controlled by the government. Some individuals could connect at low or no cost via state institutions where they worked or studied. The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers, as well as the backbone internet infrastructure, which was directly controlled by the government.

The government selectively granted censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors, and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.

During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots and increased mobile service that allowed persons greater access to the internet on their cell phones through the state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi. The cost of this improved service was far beyond the means of most citizens; the cost of basic internet packages exceeded the average monthly wage.

In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of blocked websites fluctuated. The government blocked approximately 20 websites on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CiberCuba, 14yMedio, CubaNet, ADNCuba, Tremenda Nota, Marti Noticias, and other websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government blocked access to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report. The government blocked internet tools and websites that the government considered contrary to its interests.

Public reports revealed that the government monitored citizens’ internet use and retaliated against them for their speech. The government selectively blocked the communications of government critics to prevent them from communicating with one another, sharing content, or reporting on government harassment. This occurred, for example, when activists attempted to gather in protest of the killing of Hansel Hernandez on June 30 (see section b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). At least 20 activists and journalists had their connectivity to the internet severed by the state that day.

Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. ETECSA frequently disconnected the telecommunication service of human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities. For example, artist and activist Tania Bruguera reported that her internet access was blocked for at least 45 days after she participated in protests on November 27 and was subsequently illegally confined to house arrest.

Human rights activists reported government employees (“trolls”) tracked the social media accounts of activists. Activists also reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.

The government frequently targeted users of SNet (abbreviated from Street Network), a grassroots system of user-owned and user-operated wireless networks that allowed persons to exchange information outside of state control. While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that provides uncensored internet access, and authorities restricted the use of networking equipment that was key to SNet. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment. After tolerating the growth of SNet for years, the government completed its expropriation of the system in 2019, and networks outside of government control essentially ceased to exist.

The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are also technically illegal, but information on enforcement of this restriction was not available. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure problems, a growing number of citizens maintained news sites and blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government with help from persons living outside the country, often expatriate Cubans. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, and other social networks to report independently, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention, physical abuse, and often the destruction or confiscation of their internet equipment and devices.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing PCC rule through “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval. Government monitors were sometimes present at these meetings. Those persons permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives in Cuba. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced out of their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.

Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. According to the digital magazine Tremenda Nota, academics and their students faced increased discrimination based on ideology and politics during the year.

On October 8, the NGO Observatory of Academic Freedom, founded in July by Cuban exiles, published the first of two reports on ideological discrimination in Cuban universities. In remarks accompanying the presentation, “Political Discrimination in Cuban Higher Education as a Violation of Academic Freedom,” several former Cuban academics described the censorship and punitive actions that led to their dismissals from university positions.

During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.

Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so carries a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, however, reported that in other cases the government harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house church congregations met. Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or PCC officials. Some reported they received warnings from agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued their activities.

Independent activists and political parties other than the PCC faced greater obstacles than religious groups. State security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrations or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.

The government routinely arrested individuals who attempted to assemble, by either placing them under house arrest or taking them into custody if they left their residences.

On November 27, a group of persons assembled outside the Ministry of Culture to demonstrate against the government’s efforts to suppress protests. This was the sole example of a protest successfully forming and being allowed to disperse peacefully. At this event, well known cultural figures protested the government’s treatment of the MSI and its members and demanded the “right to have rights.”

On June 24, police killed Hansel Hernandez Galiano, an unarmed Afro-Cuban man, in Havana (see section 1.a.). Prominent activists soon adopted a #Justice4Hansel campaign and called for protests on June 30 at Havana’s Yara Theater. On the eve of the planned protests, the government arrested scores of potential protesters and deployed a sophisticated media campaign modeled on the #BlueLivesMatter countermovement. Reportedly, no one actually arrived at the protest site because at least 35 individuals were arrested and another 33 were held under house arrest before the planned protest.

State communications monopoly ETECSA, part of the Ministry of Communications, cut off internet access for targeted activists and independent journalists. A state security official informed one activist he would not be allowed to leave his house on June 30 and that whoever tried to attend the protest for Hansel Hernandez Galiano would be arrested for “propagation of an epidemic.” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of UNPACU and the most prominent opposition leader, endorsed the calls to protest. On June 30, police locked the front door to his house from the outside, and when Ferrer and his 17-year-old son climbed out from the roof to join the protest, police arrested them both. Two activists, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and rapper Maykel Castillo, were also arrested and taken into custody. (Days earlier, Otero Alcantara and Castillo had associated themselves with the #Justice4Hansel movement.) Police subsequently violently abused them and prevented them from filing a complaint. Everyone arrested for the June 30 protest was released within two days, except for Diario de Cuba reporter Jorge Enrique Rodriguez, who was held for five days after filming police violence against two young persons.

On October 10, the anniversary of the Grito de Yara proclaiming Cuban independence from Spain, the regime arrested–sometimes violently–more than 20 artists and activists in a crackdown on a peaceful demonstration for political change organized by the San Isidro Movement in Havana. According to media reports, the majority of the activists were held for approximately seven hours by police.

On numerous occasions, the government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” by crowds organized to assault and disperse persons who assembled peacefully. Persons in these crowds arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those who had peacefully assembled. The persons targeted by this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims, and they did not respond to victims’ complaints. Instead, government security officials frequently orchestrated activities against protesters or took direct part in physical assaults.

Freedom of Association

The government routinely denied freedom of association to citizens and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings.

For example, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), an association of female political activists originally formed to protest the detention of their male relatives, was subjected to arbitrary arrest whenever it tried to meet, constant surveillance of the house that served as their headquarters, and harassment by state officials and local PCC members.

Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. Religious groups are under the supervision of the PCC’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities; it exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons and often limited freedom of movement for independent pastors.

Groups are required to register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities ignored applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups, women’s rights organizations, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights organizations. The lack of official recognition left group members open to potential charges of illegal association.

The government gave preferential treatment to persons who took an active part in PCC activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government. Preferential treatments included valued public benefits such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

There were increased restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting and expelling persons from Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred some citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that these visitors were critical of the government, had “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors, or had defected when they were abroad as athletes. The government prevented many Cubans who normally were residents in another country but who were caught in Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic from leaving the country.

When former government employees emigrated from the country, sometimes their family members lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a moderate fine for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart the country clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were less frequent than in previous years. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly under quarantine as a precaution against COVID-19. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.

Under the terms of the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally, assuming they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants in these circumstances, however, alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.

In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, establishing residence in Havana was restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization and send them back to their legally authorized residence. There were reports that authorities provided only limited social services to illegal Havana residents and at times restricted food purchases to a person’s official neighborhood of residence. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.

The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision, authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces, or that authorities detained and returned the dissidents to their homes, even though the dissidents had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.

Foreign Travel: The government continued to require persons from several professional and social categories to obtain permission to emigrate. The affected persons included highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists.

The government prohibited human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists from traveling outside the country to attend events related to human rights and democracy. The government used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad.

The government arbitrarily designated some persons as regulados (regulated persons), meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and officials denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse for an appeal. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression, because it was routinely applied when individuals attempted to travel to speak at conferences.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government allegedly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Information about the extent of that cooperation was not publicly available.

Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their principles or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism, however, to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance pending third-country resettlement. In addition the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved.

g. Stateless Persons

The government regularly rendered citizens de facto stateless persons when it withheld consular services from employees and their families as punishment for abandoning a foreign work mission. There were reports of Cubans residing abroad who were refused a passport or other proof of identity or citizenship, including for direct return to Cuba. Children born abroad to Cuban citizens in these circumstances were unable to obtain recognition of their Cuban citizenship and may not have citizenship in their country of birth. Cubans residing outside of Cuba for more than 24 months may lose full citizenship rights.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the PCC, disallowing political expression outside of that structure. The government suppressed attempts to form other parties. Candidates for office must be nominated by a PCC “mass organization” and approved by local party officials. These PCC-approved candidates win the vast majority of votes, since electors are limited to PCC representatives. Elections are neither free nor fair. Citizens do not have the ability to form political parties or run as candidates from political parties other than the PCC. The government forcefully and consistently retaliated against those who sought peaceful political change. The government orchestrated mass political mobilization on its behalf and favored citizens who actively participated.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The government selected candidates for the October 2019 election for president of the republic, president of the National Assembly, and membership in the Council of State. Only members of the National Assembly–all of whom were PCC members–were allowed to vote, and candidates ran for office uncontested. For the first time since 1959, on January 18, citizens “elected” provincial governors. All of these “elections” were shams, however, since only one candidate (chosen in theory by the president but in reality by the PCC) stood for each post, and the only persons allowed to vote were loyal party members chosen as delegates of the municipal assemblies in each province. The chosen candidates were not known to the public before the election, and each one received 93 percent or more of the ballots cast, with most receiving 99 percent of the votes.

Political Parties and Political Participation: As in previous national elections, government-run commissions nominated all candidates for office for the January election. No non-PCC candidates were allowed on the ballot. The government routinely used propaganda campaigns in the state-owned media to criticize its opponents. Numerous opposition candidates were physically prevented from presenting their candidacies or were otherwise intimidated from participating in the electoral process.

The new constitution, approved in February 2019, includes many sections that restrict citizens’ ability to participate fully in political processes by deeming the PCC as the state’s only legal political party and the “superior driving force of the society and the state.” For example, Article 4 states, “Citizens have the right to combat through any means, including armed combat when other means are not available, anyone who intends to overthrow the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” The article effectively empowers ordinary persons to attack violently those who publicly disagree with the party.

Citizens who live abroad without a registered place of abode in Cuba lose their right to vote.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s representation increased slightly from previous years in the most powerful decision-making bodies, but women held no senior leadership positions in the military or security services.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption. The government was highly sensitive to corruption allegations and often conducted anticorruption crackdowns.

Corruption: The law provides for three to eight years’ imprisonment for “illegal enrichment” by authorities or government employees. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of police and other official corruption in enforcement of economic restrictions and provision of government services. For example, employees frequently stole products from government stocks and sold them on the black market. Multiple persons reported that when searching homes and vehicles, police sometimes took the owners’ belongings or sought bribes in exchange for not imposing fines or arrests. Corruption by customs officers was also reportedly common.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require appointed and elected officials to disclose their assets.

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

The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several human rights organizations continued to function outside the law, including UNPACU, the Christian Liberation Movement, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, and the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. The government subjected domestic human rights advocates to intimidation, harassment, periodic short-term detention, and long-term imprisonment on questionable charges.

No officially recognized NGOs monitored human rights. The government refused to recognize or meet with NGOs that monitored or promoted human rights. There were reports of government harassment of individuals who met with unauthorized NGOs.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to deny international human rights organizations, including the United Nations, its affiliated organizations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, access to prisoners and detainees. The government continued to deny or ignore long-standing requests from the UN special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly to enter the country to monitor human rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women, including spousal rape, and separately criminalizes “lascivious abuse” against both genders. The government enforced both laws. Penalties for rape are at least four years’ imprisonment. Several reports from women’s rights advocacy groups, however, suggested that crimes against women were underreported and that the state failed to investigate many cases. The government recognized the high rate of femicide for the first time in a report released in 2019, but as of October officials had not responded to requests from human rights activists for a comprehensive law against gender-based violence, despite increasing reports of femicide during the pandemic. The online platform Yo Si Te Creo (I do believe you) documented at least 32 victims of femicide, including 29 Cuban women, two Canadian women, and three minors. Official media sources failed to report any of these killings.

The government specifically targeted activists organizing a campaign called the Red Femenina de Cuba (Cuban Women’s Network) that asked the state to update information on crimes against women, train officials to handle crimes against women, and define gender-based violence in the law. Police also targeted for harassment small groups of women assembling to discuss women’s rights and gender matters more broadly. The government opposed any non-state-sponsored programs that focused on gender violence.

Security officials often refused to take serious action on cases of sexual violence, including several cases where security officials were themselves implicated. In September several soldiers were caught raping a 13-year-old girl. Three men were arrested, but other suspects fled, and those who were arrested were freed the next day. The mother of the victim told the Red Femenina she went to police to protest and was told that police did not have resources to investigate the case and that trials were paused due to COVID-19 anyway. She said the officer warned her that bringing further attention to the case in the independent press or on social networks would be “counterrevolutionary” and could result in her arrest.

The law prohibits all threats and violence but does not recognize domestic violence as a distinct category of violence. Penalties for violence range from fines to prison sentences of varying lengths, depending on the severity of the offense.

Sexual Harassment: The law provides penalties for sexual harassment, with potential prison sentences of three months to five years. The government did not release any statistics on arrests, prosecutions, or convictions for offenses related to sexual harassment during the year.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. It is not clear whether individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health, or whether they had access to the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Many women, especially poor and young mothers, were required to spend their pregnancies in a state-run maternity home and could be involuntarily committed there if they were deemed noncompliant with a physician’s advice. These establishments provided steady nutrition and access to medical care; however, they could deprive expecting mothers of the support of their partners, families, and communities. (See Coercion in Population Control subsection.)

No legal, social, or cultural barriers affected access to contraception. The government, however, was the sole legal importer of all goods, which resulted in constant acute shortages of contraceptive products–particularly condoms. Nearly all births were attended by a skilled health worker, whom the law requires be employed by the state. It is illegal for private citizens–no matter their qualifications–to provide health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth.

By law the government provides access to sexual, psychosocial, and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence; in practice, however, the health care provided by the state was insufficient to meet survivors’ needs.

Coercion in Population Control: There were some reports of abortions performed by government health authorities without clear consent from the mother. For example, doctors were documented as having performed abortions or pressured mothers into having an abortion when ultrasound scans revealed fetal abnormalities because “otherwise it might raise the infant mortality rate.” Health authorities used abortions to improve infant mortality statistics artificially by preventing marginally riskier births in order to meet centrally fixed targets.

Discrimination: The law accords women and men equal rights, the same legal status, and the same responsibilities with regard to marriage, divorce, parental duties, home maintenance, and employment. No information was available on whether the government enforced the law effectively.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is normally derived by birth within the country’s territory, and births were generally registered promptly.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of consent for marriage is 18. Marriage for girls age 14 or older and for boys 16 or older is permitted with parental consent. According to UNICEF, 26 percent of girls were married before 18, with higher prevalence in the provinces of Oriente and Centro.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Prostitution is legal for individuals age 16 and older. There is no statutory rape law, although penalties for rape increase as the age of the victim decreases.

The law imposes seven to 15 years’ imprisonment for pornographic acts involving minors younger than 16. The punishment may increase to 20 to 30 years or death under aggravating circumstances. The law does not criminalize the possession of pornography, but it punishes the production or circulation of any kind of obscene graphic material with three months’ to one year’s imprisonment and a fine. The offer, provision, or sale of obscene or pornographic material to minors younger than 16 is punishable by two to five years in prison.

Child trafficking across international borders is punishable by seven to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The law does not establish an age of consent, but sexual relations with children younger than 16 may be prosecuted if there is a determination of rape. In such cases the law leaves room for consideration of possible consent and the age of the other person, especially if the other person is also a minor. Penalties vary based on the age of the victim, ranging from four to 10 years’ imprisonment if the victim is age 14 or 15, up to 15 to 30 years’ imprisonment or death if the victim is younger than 12.

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

Anti-Semitism

There were between 1,000 and 1,500 members of the Jewish community. There were several reports of anti-Semitic acts.

In December 2019 local officials ruled against a Jewish family in Nuevitas, Camaguey, who had fought to exercise their children’s right to wear religious headgear (a kippah) in school. The children’s father, Olaine Tejada, said that Mary Vidal, a local state prosecutor, forced him to sign a legal document acknowledging that if his children came to school wearing a kippah on January 6, he and his wife, Yeliney Lescaille, would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year prison sentence. This followed a long history of the children being threatened with expulsion and bullied by schoolmates because of their faith. Tejada said the family would appeal to higher authorities to reinstate their rights. No further developments were reported during the year.

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

No law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security oversees the Employment Program for Persons with Disabilities. The law recommends that buildings, communication facilities, air travel, and other transportation services accommodate persons with disabilities, but these facilities and services were rarely accessible to such persons.

A large number of persons with disabilities who depended on the state for their basic needs struggled to survive due to inattention and a lack of resources. Some persons with disabilities who opposed the government were denied membership in official organizations for persons with disabilities, such as the National Association for the Blind. As a result they were denied benefits and services, which included 400 minutes of telephone usage, training in the use of a white cane and in braille, and reduced fares on public transportation.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Afro-Cubans often suffered racial discrimination, and some were subject to racial epithets and beatings by security agents in response to political activity. Afro-Cubans also reported employment discrimination, particularly for positions of prominence within the tourism industry, media, and government. Employment advertisements were allowed to be openly sexist and racist. Police violence intensified during the year, disproportionately affecting Afro-Cubans. Police targeted Afro-Cubans for abuse during enforcement of laws requiring mask-wearing in public and against informal commercial activity. The economic crisis disproportionately affected Afro-Cubans, as seen in the scarce distribution of food and continuous water shortages affecting Havana’s Afro-Cuban neighborhoods. Although the regime’s defenders pointed to a few high-ranking Afro-Cuban officials, Afro-Cubans remained severely underrepresented in ministerial positions and the Politburo, and they were completely absent from the highest ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and Ministry of Interior–seen as the country’s true power centers.

Journalist Abraham Jimenez Enoa, hired on June 15 as a regular contributor to a foreign newspaper’s opinion page, was put under house arrest after the newspaper published an article on June 29 regarding Hansel Hernandez Galiano’s death in which Jimenez said police violence in the country was racist. State media subsequently formally attacked the foreign newspaper in a coordinated print and television campaign, and security officials arrested Jimenez multiple times on charges that observers considered baseless.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, citizenship, education, and health care but does not extend the same protections to transgender or intersex individuals based on gender identity or gender expression.

The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several unrecognized NGOs that promoted LGBTI human rights faced government harassment, not for their promotion of such topics, but for their independence from official government institutions.

Despite a history of state-sanctioned events in support of the LGBTI community, the state-funded National Center for Sex Education was muted in its support for the LGBTI community after canceling its annual conga (gay pride march) against homophobia in 2019. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, a biologist and activist for environmental justice and LGBTI rights, alleged the government deliberately infected him with HIV while he was detained after a peaceful protest for gay rights in the wake of 2019’s cancelled pride march. He maintained that he always practiced safe sex and asserted that the government knowingly injected him with HIV when he was hospitalized during a hunger strike to discredit him because of the social stigma of HIV in the country.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The government operated four prisons exclusively for inmates with HIV or AIDS; some inmates were serving sentences for “propagating an epidemic.” Hospitals and clinics sometimes discriminated against patients with HIV.

Special diets and medications for patients with HIV were routinely unavailable, sometimes resulting in the patients’ deaths from neglect.

Political prisoner Maikel Herrera Bones, a person with HIV who was a member of UNPACU, said prison officials withheld HIV treatment from him to pressure him into silence. Herrera Bones was arrested on April 16 after arguing with a plainclothes police officer about blackouts in his Havana neighborhood. Accused of simple assault, Herrera Bones said he had not been tried in court by year’s end.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, including related regulations and statutes, severely restricts worker rights by recognizing only the PCC-controlled Central Union of Cuban Workers (CTC) as the paramount trade union confederation. To operate legally, a trade group must belong to the CTC.

The law does not provide for the right to strike. The law also does not provide for collective bargaining; instead it has a complicated process for reaching collective agreements. The International Labor Organization raised concerns regarding the trade union monopoly of the CTC, the prohibition on the right to strike, and restrictions on collective bargaining and agreements, including giving government authorities and CTC officials the final say on all such agreements.

The government prevented the formation of independent trade unions in all sectors. The PCC chose the CTC’s leaders. The CTC’s principal responsibility is to manage government relations with the workforce. The CTC does not bargain collectively, promote worker rights, or advocate for the right to strike. The de facto prohibition on independent trade unions virtually eliminated workers’ ability to organize independently and appeal against discriminatory dismissals. The government’s strong influence over the judiciary and lawyers limited effective recourse through the courts. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

During the year, as in the past several years, Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, general secretary of the Association of Independent Unions of Cuba, was harassed, beaten, detained, threatened, and fined. In January he was arrested, fined, and had his cell phone confiscated after he traveled to Havana from his home in Matanzas. A government security officer told Hernandez the government would continue these sorts of abuses if Hernandez tried to leave his town. The security officer implied the government would fabricate criminal charges against Hernandez as it did to UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 2.b.). After a representative of a foreign embassy visited him on February 11, Hernandez was arrested for questioning on February 12.

Several small, independent labor organizations operated without legal recognition, including the National Independent Workers’ Confederation of Cuba, National Independent Laborer Confederation of Cuba, and Unitarian Council of Workers of Cuba. Together they constituted the Independent Trade Union Association of Cuba. These organizations worked to advance the rights of workers by offering an alternative to the state-sponsored CTC and advocating for the rights of small-business owners and employees. Police reportedly harassed the independent unions, and government agents reportedly infiltrated them, limiting their capacity to represent workers effectively or work on their behalf.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not explicitly prohibit forced labor. It prohibits unlawful imprisonment, coercion, and extortion, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment, but there was no evidence these provisions were used to prosecute cases of forced labor. The use of minors in forced labor, drug trafficking, commercial sex, pornography, or the organ trade is punishable by seven to 15 years’ incarceration. When the government discovered the involvement of individuals or nongovernmental groups in these crimes, it enforced the law, and penalties were commensurate with those for analogous crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not enforce laws against forced labor in its own programs.

Compulsory military service of young men was occasionally fulfilled by assignment to an economic entity, such as a farm or company owned by the military or by assignment to other government services.

Foreign entities both inside the country and abroad contracted with state-run entities to employ citizens to provide labor, often highly skilled labor such as doctors, engineers, or merchant mariners. These employees received a small fraction of the salaries paid to the state-run company, usually 10-25 percent or less; the rest went into the government’s coffers. In some cases where workers were paid directly by their foreign employers, they were required to give a portion of their wages to the state.

Medical workers formed the largest sector of the government’s labor exports. The NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders collected testimony from 622 former medical workers that documented the country’s coercive and abusive labor practices within this sector. The workers described how they were forced to join the program and were prevented from leaving it, despite being overworked and not earning enough to support their families. Former participants described human trafficking indicators, including coercion, nonpayment of wages, withholding of their passports and academic credentials, and restriction on their movement. The government denied all of these allegations. Similar practices occurred in the tourism sector.

The government refused to improve the transparency of its medical missions program or address concerns about forced labor, despite persistent allegations from former participants, civil society organizations, and foreign governments.

Prisoners were subject to forced labor, often in strenuous farm work without sufficient food or water, or working in hazardous environments without protective equipment, such as working in production of industrial chemicals. Prisoners were punished if they refused to work and were forced to make goods for the Ministry of the Interior’s company (PROVARI or Empresa de Producciones Varias), which were exported or sold in state stores and the tourism sector. The government used high school students in rural areas to harvest crops (also see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum working age is 17, although the law permits the employment of children ages 15 and 16 to obtain training or fill labor shortages with parental permission and a special authorization from the municipal labor director. The law does not permit children ages 15 and 16 to work more than seven hours per day, 40 hours per week, or on holidays. Children ages 15 to 18 may not work in specified hazardous occupations, such as mining, or at night.

There were no known government programs to prevent child labor or to remove children from such labor. Antitruancy programs, however, aimed to keep children in school. Children were subject to commercial sexual exploitation, and the government did not report significant efforts to reduce the presence of child sexual exploitation by tourists. The government investigated and convicted one perpetrator of forced child labor during the year.

The government used some high school students in rural areas in the Escuela al Campo (school to countryside) plan to harvest crops on government farms during peak harvest time. Student participants were not paid but as compensation received school credit and favorable recommendations for university admission. Ministry of Education officials used the Escuela al Campo plan to make students ages 11 to 17 work in the agricultural sector with no pay. Students were expected to work 45 days during the first academic quarter. Failure to participate or obtain an excused absence reportedly could result in unfavorable grades or poor university recommendations, although students were reportedly able to participate in other activities (instead of the harvest) to support their application for university admission. Children who performed agricultural work under the Escuela al Campo plan were not given proper tools, clothing, footwear, or food. Deficient and unsanitary living conditions, coupled with poor infrastructure, exposed them to diseases such as dengue fever, zika, and chikungunya.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits workplace discrimination against persons based on skin color, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality, “or any other distinction harmful to human dignity,” but it does not explicitly protect political opinion (see section 7.a.), social origin, disability, age, language, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. No information was available on government enforcement of these provisions during the year.

The government continued to use politically motivated and discriminatory dismissals against those who criticized the government’s economic or political policies. The government deemed persons “unfit” to work because of their political beliefs, including their refusal to join an official union, and for trying to depart the country illegally. The government penalized professionals who expressed interest in emigrating by limiting their job opportunities or firing them. A determination that a worker is “unfit” to work can result in job loss and the denial of job opportunities. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Persons forced out of employment in the public sector for freely expressing themselves were often further harassed after entering the emerging but highly regulated self-employment sector.

For example, Jorge Felix Vazquez Acosta was dismissed from his job in the Hotel Packard when his superiors learned in May he was against socialism. The hotel was owned by a subsidiary of the army-owned conglomerate Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A. and operated by European company Iberostar. A letter signed by the hotel’s deputy director stated Vazquez Acosta was fired for comments “against our socialist system and the constitutional reform” as well as actions that “undermine the political-ideological state that should prevail in our workers.” In the military-controlled tourism sector, military intelligence officers were often embedded in companies’ staff to investigate the political loyalty of employees and fire individuals such as Vazquez Acosta when they were identified as holding views critical of the government.

Discrimination in employment occurred against members of the Afro-Cuban and LGBTI populations, especially in the state-owned but privately operated tourism sector. Leaders within the Afro-Cuban community noted some Afro-Cubans could not get jobs in better-paying sectors such as tourism and hospitality because they were “too dark.” Afro-Cubans experienced low job security and were underrepresented in the business and self-employed sector, frequently obtaining lower-paying jobs, including cleaning and garbage disposal, which had no interaction with tourists, a major source of hard currency.

Hiring practices in the private sector were racist, colorist, and sexist. A job posting for an accounting or finance position usually called for women with lighter or olive skin, blonde hair, and physically fit. Postings for bodyguards and security jobs normally sought male candidates of color, who were perceived as being stronger than other races.

There was no information available showing whether the government effectively enforced applicable law.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Authorities set a national minimum wage at a rate below the poverty line.

The standard workweek is 44 hours, with shorter workweeks in hazardous occupations such as mining. The law provides workers with a weekly minimum 24-hour rest period and one month of paid annual vacation per 11 months of effective work. These standards apply to state workers as well as to workers in the nonstate sector, but they were seldom enforced in the nonstate sector.

The law does not prohibit obligatory overtime, but it generally caps the number of overtime hours at 16 hours per week and 160 per year. The law provides few grounds for a worker to refuse to work overtime below these caps. Compensation for overtime is paid in cash at the regular hourly rate or in additional rest time. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

The government set workplace occupational safety and health (OSH) standards and received technical assistance from the International Labor Organization to implement them. Information about penalties for violations of OSH law was not publicly available. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security enforced the minimum wage and workhour standards through offices at the national, provincial, and municipal levels, but the government did not effectively enforce OSH standards. No information was available regarding the number of labor inspectors. Reports from recent years suggested there were very few inspectors, and OSH standards frequently were ignored or weakened by corrupt practices. Civil society organizations reported working conditions for doctors in hospitals were severely unsanitary and that doctors worked long hours without sufficient access to food.

According to government statistics, approximately 250,000 self-employed workers, or 41 percent of the 606,000 persons in the sector, voluntarily suspended their licenses to work due to the economic crisis related to the COVID-19 epidemic. Most self-employed workers worked directly in the tourism sector or in fields that support it. With most international flights suspended, the tourism sector atrophied. The lack of clear regulations about what activities were permissible (when it was clear that some were not) prevented persons from finding employment in this sector.

Despite criminal penalties for doing so, a significant number of workers participated in the informal economy, including individuals who actively traded on the black market or performed professional activities not officially permitted by the government.

Self-employed persons, such as fruit sellers, bicycle taxi drivers, and others, were frequently targeted by police for allegedly acting illegally, even when licensed. Police sometimes arbitrarily and violently closed down these businesses and confiscated any goods.

Foreign companies operated in a limited number of sectors, such as hotels, tourism, and mining. Such companies operated via joint ventures in which the government contracted and paid company workers in pesos for a salary that was a small fraction of what the foreign company remitted in hard currency to the state for labor costs. Most formal employment took place only through government employment agencies. Employers, including international businesses and organizations, were generally prohibited from contracting or paying workers directly, although many reportedly made informal supplemental payments in the form of gratuities.

The Ministry of Labor enforces labor law on any business, organization, or foreign governmental agency based in the country, including wholly foreign-owned companies operating in the country, joint-stock companies involving foreign investors operating in the country, the United Nations, international NGOs, and embassies. Workers employed by these entities are subject to labor regulations common to most state and nonstate workers and are also subject to some regulations specific to these kinds of entities. Government bodies, including the tax collection agency and the Ministry of Finance and Prices, enforced regulations.

On July 6, a total of 13 military personnel were hospitalized and 1,245 persons near La Pua were evacuated after old ammunition exploded in a military facility in Holguin. Following the initial major explosions, workers in nearby fields continued to feel several small explosions throughout the day. They received no information about the cause or the response from the government or military.

The CTC provided only limited information to workers about their rights and at times did not respond to or assist workers who complained about hazardous workplace conditions. It was generally understood that workers could not remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and authorities did not effectively protect workers facing this dilemma.

Russia

Executive Summary

The Russian Federation has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. The bicameral Federal Assembly consists of a directly elected lower house (State Duma) and an appointed upper house (Federation Council), both of which lack independence from the executive. The 2016 State Duma elections and the 2018 presidential election were marked by accusations of government interference and manipulation of the electoral process, including the exclusion of meaningful opposition candidates. On July 1, a national vote held on constitutional amendments did not meet internationally recognized electoral standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service, the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The Federal Security Service is responsible for state security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism, as well as for fighting organized crime and corruption. The national police force, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for combating all crime. The National Guard assists the Federal Security Service’s Border Guard Service in securing borders, administers gun control, combats terrorism and organized crime, protects public order, and guards important state facilities. The National Guard also participates in armed defense of the country’s territory in coordination with Ministry of Defense forces. Except in rare cases, security forces generally report to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities have, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which are accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Members of the Russian security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.

The country’s occupation and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation there significantly and negatively. The Russian government continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside Russia-led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine). Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.

Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death and occasionally involved sexual violence or punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; political and religious prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country; severe arbitrary interference with privacy; severe suppression of freedom of expression and media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other laws to prosecute peaceful dissent and religious minorities; violence against journalists; blocking and filtering of internet content and banning of online anonymity; severe suppression of the right of peaceful assembly; severe suppression of freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organizations”; severe restrictions of religious freedom; refoulement of refugees; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe limits on participation in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government failed to take adequate steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.

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

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

There were several reports the government or its agents committed, or attempted to commit, arbitrary or unlawful killings. Impunity was a significant problem in investigating whether security force killings were justifiable (see section 1.e.).

Opposition activist and anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny was poisoned on August 20 with a form of Novichok, a nerve agent that was also used in the 2018 attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom. After campaigning in Siberia for independent candidates for local elections, Navalny became severely ill and fell into a coma. The Federal Security Service (FSB) was tracking and surveilling Navalny during his stay in Tomsk. On August 21, officials at the Omsk hospital where Navalny was initially treated claimed they found no traces of poison in his system. Navalny was transferred to a hospital in Germany on August 22; on September 2, the German government announced that traces of a nerve agent from the “Novichok” group had been found in samples taken from Navalny. At Germany’s request the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conducted a technical assistance visit, which confirmed that Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent belonging to the “Novichok” group.

Credible reports indicated that officers from Russia’s FSB used a nerve agent to poison Navalny. The G7 industrialized democracies bloc and NATO countries condemned Navalny’s confirmed poisoning and called on Russia to bring the perpetrators to justice. At the November 30 OPCW Conference of States Parties, 58 countries issued a statement urging Russia to disclose “in a swift and transparent manner the circumstances of this chemical weapons attack.” Russian authorities stated there are no grounds to open a criminal investigation into the poisoning, despite Navalny’s requests that they do so.

Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets published reports indicating that from December 2018 to January 2019, local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. According to the NGO Russian LGBT Network, local Chechen authorities illegally detained and tortured at least 40 individuals, including two who reportedly died in custody from torture. According to human rights organizations, as of September authorities failed to investigate the allegations or reports of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of LGBTI persons in Chechnya and continued to deny there were any LGBTI persons in Chechnya.

There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), in some cases resulting in death or suicide. According to media reports, on April 10, prisoners in Penal Colony Number 15 (IK-15) in Angarsk rioted after a prison employee beat one of the inmates, leading him to make a video about his ordeal and slash his veins in a failed suicide attempt. Afterwards, 17 other inmates slashed their veins as well, then set fire to parts of the penal colony. The Federal Penitentiary Service sent in approximately 300 special force officers, who beat the inmates, doused them with water, and set dogs on them. Human rights activists reported that two inmates were killed during the clashes and called for an investigation. On April 14, Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko told media that the riot in IK-15 had been organized from the outside by individuals who had paid “so-called human rights activists” to “stir things up in the media.” Officials confirmed that they found the body of an inmate who had been strangled and hanged. According to media reports, the inmate who made the video that set off the riots later retracted his statement that he had been beaten by a prison employee.

Although Deputy Defense Minister Andrey Kartapolov announced on August 26 that hazing and “barracks hooliganism” in the armed forces had been completely eradicated, physical abuse and hazing, which in some cases resulted in death or suicide, continued to be a problem. For example, on June 21, Russian media reported that Aleksandr Tatarenko, a soldier in a Primorsky region military unit, deserted his post, leaving a suicide note indicating hazing as the reason. After two months, Tatarenko was found living under a bridge while hiding from his unit. Tatarenko’s parents filed a complaint on hazing with the Military Prosecutor’s Office.

In February government spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed calls for an international investigation into the 2015 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, telling journalists that such an investigation would not be permitted on the territory of the Russian Federation. Human rights activists and the Nemtsov family continued to believe that authorities were intentionally ignoring the question of who ordered and organized the killing and noted that these persons were still at large.

There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. For example, on January 30, blogger Imran Aliyev was found dead in a hotel room in Lille, France, having been stabbed 135 times. Aliyev, who had settled in Belgium after leaving Chechnya, often published YouTube videos critical of Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen government. French prosecutors stated that the Russian-born man suspected of killing Aliyev returned to Russia immediately after the stabbing.

On July 4, a man identified by Austrian authorities only as a Russian citizen shot and killed Mamikhan Umarov, an asylum seeker from Russia, in a parking lot outside of Vienna. Umarov was also an outspoken critic of Kadyrov and had posted a YouTube video taunting Kadyrov to “come and stop [him]” shortly before his death. In his interviews and social media posts, Umarov claimed to be a mercenary who had fought on the side of Chechen separatists in the 1990s and sought asylum in 2005 because he feared reprisal in Chechnya. Austrian authorities had designated him a “person at risk” because of his background. Kadyrov responded to allegations of his involvement in this and other extrajudicial killings of Russian citizens in Europe by accusing Western intelligence of killing Chechen dissidents to make him look bad.

The country played a significant military role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths and other abuses to Russian-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).

Since 2015 the country’s forces have conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria).

The news website Caucasian Knot reported that violent confrontations with security forces resulted in at least 14 deaths in the North Caucasus during the first half of the year. Dagestan was the most affected region, with seven deaths in the first half of the year, followed by Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia, where three persons were killed in each region.

b. Disappearance

There were reports of disappearances perpetrated by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the August report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 867 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country.

There were reports that police committed enforced disappearances and abductions during the year. For example, on September 10, the Civic Assistance Committee reported that a North Korean citizen who was seeking asylum in Vladivostok was taken to the Artyom City Police Department by individuals in civilian clothes, where he subsequently disappeared. The North Korean citizen first approached a Migration and Law network lawyer for assistance with an asylum request on August 27, stating that he fled the Far Eastern Federal University campus on Russky Island. An officer at the Frunzenskiy District Police Department told the lawyer that the North Korean consulate took the asylum seeker from the police department. The asylum seeker’s lawyer suspected that he was forcibly returned to his country of origin.

Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia, whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.f.).

There were continued reports of abductions and torture in the North Caucasus, including of political activists and others critical of Chechnya head Kadyrov. On October 28, 1ADAT, a social media channel that is highly critical of Kadyrov, reported that Chechen security forces abducted more than 1,500 persons between April and October. For example, on September 6, Salman Tepsurkayev, a 19-year-old Chechen activist and a 1ADAT moderator, was kidnapped, reportedly by persons with connections to Chechen authorities. On September 7, a video recording of Tepsurkayev circulated on social media in which he appeared naked with signs of torture as he said, “I am punishing myself” and sat on a glass bottle. The office of the Chechen human rights ombudsman commented it was aware of the video of Tepsurkayev but had not looked into the matter because there had been no request from the victim or the relatives. As of December 1, Tepsurkayev’s whereabouts were unknown.

On October 20, the human rights group Memorial reported that five men were abducted from the village of Chechen-Aul on August 28, and two more were abducted on August 30. Memorial stated that all seven men were taken to the city of Argun, where they were visited by the Chechen interior minister Ruslan Alkhanov and Chechen deputy prime minister Abuzaid Vismuradov before being transferred to a secret prison, where they were interrogated and tortured. Four of the men were later released (two on September 18 and two on October 7), while three reportedly remained in government detention facilities as of December. Memorial reported that 13 men were abducted on November 5 from the Chechen city of Gudermes and taken to a secret prison, where Memorial believed they remained as of December.

There were reports Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).

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

Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement officers engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.

In December 2019, for the first time, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation published data on the use of torture in prisons and pretrial detention centers. The data showed that between 2015 and 2018, for every 44 reports of violence perpetrated by Federal Penitentiary Service employees, only one criminal case was initiated.

There were reports of deaths as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).

Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, prisoners in the North Caucasus complained of mistreatment, unreasonable punishment, religious and ethnic harassment, and inadequate provision of medical care.

There were reports that police beat or otherwise abused persons, in some cases resulting in their death. For example, media reported that members of Russia’s National Guard forcibly dispersed a peaceful political rally in Khabarovsk City on October 12. Several participants reported being beaten by police during the rally’s dispersal, at least one with a police baton; one victim suffered a broken nose. Two detained minors said they were “put on their knees in a corner, mocked, had their arms twisted, and were hit in the eye.”

There were reports that law enforcement officers used torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies. For example, on May 11, Russian media reported Vladimir Vorontsov, the creator of the Police Ombudsman project, was hospitalized after being kept in an isolation ward in a prison. According to his lawyer, authorities detained Vorontsov on May 7, denied his request for medical assistance, and interrogated him into the evening, after which he was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to sleep. On May 8, Vorontsov was charged with extorting money from a police officer. Vorontsov alleged the charges against him were revenge for his social activism, which involved reporting on officials’ labor rights violations of law enforcement officers.

In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture following their arrest. For example, on February 10, officers from the Russian National Guard handcuffed Chita resident Vadim Kutsenko and took him to a local forest, where they beat his face and neck, suffocated him, and used a Taser to force him to admit to being a practicing member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When Kutsenko reported the incident to authorities, he was ignored and sent to a temporary detention center along with three other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to media reports, Kutsenko sought medical treatment upon his release, which confirmed the physical trauma.

There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. For example, on February 10, a court in Penza found seven alleged anarchists and antifascist activists supposedly tied to a group known as “Set” (“Network”) guilty of terrorism and sentenced them to between six and 18 years in prison. Authorities claimed they were plotting to overthrow the government, but human rights activists asserted that the FSB falsified evidence and fabricated the existence of the organization known as “Set/Network.” Several of the sentenced men claimed that the FSB forced them to sign admissions of guilt under torture; one of them claimed he had marks on his body from electric shocks and asked for medical experts to document them but was denied the request. Memorial considered all seven men sentenced to be political prisoners.

In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. On January 20, Aminat Lorsanova became the second individual to file a complaint with federal authorities asking for an investigation into abuses against the LGBTI community in Chechnya. In 2018 she was forcibly detained at one psychiatric clinic for 25 days and at another for four months. She was beaten with sticks and injected with tranquilizer to “cure” her of her bisexual identity. Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s minister of national policy, foreign relations, press, and information, publicly denied Lorsanova’s claims and accused the LGBTI community of deceiving “a sick Chechen girl.”

There were reports of rape and sexual abuse by government agents. For example, media reported on Mukhtar Aliyev’s account of his five years in IK-7 prison in Omsk region from 2015 until his release during the year, where he was subjected to torture, including sexual assault. Aliyev told media that prison officials would beat him, tie him to the bars for a prolonged length of time causing his legs and arms to swell up, and force other inmates to assault him sexually while recording their actions. Aliyev said that the officials threatened to leak the recording to other inmates and officials if he did not behave.

There were reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations to exert pressure on them or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Prosecutors and certified medical professionals may request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis. For example, on May 12, approximately two dozen riot police stormed the home of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Siberian shaman who announced in 2019 that he and his supporters planned to walk from Yakutsk to Moscow to “expel” Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. Police detained Gabyshev and forcibly hospitalized him for psychiatric treatment. On May 29, Gabyshev filed a claim refusing further hospitalization, after which the clinic’s medical commission deemed him a danger to himself and others and filed a lawsuit to extend his detention there. The clinic released Gabyshev on July 22.

Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On January 22, the online media outlet 29.ru published an interview with the mother of conscript Ilya Botygin, who claimed that he was a victim of repeated hazing in his Nizhny Novgorod-based unit. The mother said that her son’s superiors locked him up for several days at a time, fed him irregularly, and beat him. When she visited him in January, she took him to the emergency room for a medical examination, but his unit did not accept the paperwork documenting his injuries on the grounds it could be forged. She and Botygin filed a case with the Nizhny Novgorod military prosecutor’s office but told media they had not received any updates about an investigation.

There were reports that Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. According to a July 25 investigation published by independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta, tens of thousands of cases of beatings and torture by the military, police, and other security forces could have gone unpunished in the previous 10 years. The report assessed the Investigative Committee’s lack of independence from police as a key factor hampering accountability, because the organization failed to initiate investigations into a high number of incidents.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.

Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the law mandates the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules. On March 31, Amnesty International urged authorities to take urgent measures to address the potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19 if it spreads among prisoners and detainees. The organization stated that prisons’ overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation led to a high risk of infection among prisoners and detainees.

Physical and sexual abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, Russian media reported that on February 13, the prison warden of IK-5 in Mordovia, Valeriy Trofimov, took prisoner Ibragim Bakaniyev into his office and beat and humiliated him for six hours. Bakaniyev was accused of taking part in a riot that broke out earlier that night. Bakaniyev reported that the torture only ended when he used a hidden blade to cut his hand and threatened to commit suicide. Bakaniyev was sent to a punishment cell for the next three months.

Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, the Committee against Torture in Krasnodar reported that authorities opened a criminal investigation into the July 7 death of Dmitriy Kraskovskiy, a detainee in Pretrial Detention Facility Number 1 in Krasnodar. Authorities suspected he was beaten to death by inmates. The preliminary report indicated multiple bruises and head wounds on Kraskovskiy. The perpetrators allegedly tried to hang the corpse to hide the cause of death.

There were reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on July 22, Russian media and the Civic Assistance Committee reported that a group of inmates tortured and sexually assaulted Makharbi Tosuyev, a prisoner at IK-7, who was confined to the psychiatric department of IK-3. According to Tosuyev, a group of inmates tied him to his bed while he was confined in the psychiatric department of IK-3 as a result of a self-inflicted injury, and tortured and sexually assaulted him with a plastic stick. Tosuyev accused the head of the operational department of IK-3, Edgar Hayrapetyan, of organizing the attack.

Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. Opportunities for movement and exercise in pretrial detention were minimal. Potable water was sometimes rationed, and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem. For example, according to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, Viktor Malkov, died three months after being released from an eight-month-long detention, partly because his chronic health problems were exacerbated by the denial of medical care in the detention center. Malkov, who was detained on the grounds of extremism due to his religious beliefs, had stated that prison officials did not allow him to seek proper treatment or medications for his heart disease and kidney problems.

NGOs reported approximately 50 percent of prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment. Only prisoners with a CD4 white-blood cell level below a certain amount were provided treatment. NGOs reported that interruptions in the supplies of some antiretroviral drugs were sometimes a problem.

There were reports political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on May 21, a court ordered the forced psychiatric treatment of Kamchatka opposition activist Vladimir Shumanin during a criminal prosecution for libel stemming from a 2018 article in which he accused a law enforcement officer of engaging in criminal behavior. In the Far East region, Shumanin was known for running a personal YouTube channel in which he sharply criticized regional and federal authorities.

Administration: Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities may deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case may deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities may also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners. Some pretrial detainees believed authorities sometimes denied visitation and telephone access to pressure them into providing confessions.

While prisoners may file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in almost all regions. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law enforcement backgrounds.

By law members of oversight commissions have the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples, conduct other environmental inspections, conduct safety evaluations, and access prison psychiatric facilities. The law permits human rights activists not listed in public oversight commissions to visit detentions centers and prisons. The NGO Interregional Center for Women’s Support, working with detained migrants, noted that only after a specific detainee submits a request and contacts the NGO may the organization obtain permission to visit a certain detention center.

Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons and release some reports on conditions but continued to withhold permission for it to release all recent reports.

There were reports of authorities prosecuting journalists for reporting torture. For example, in September, three penal colonies in Kemerovo Oblast (IK-5, IK-22, and IK-37) filed a lawsuit for reputational protection against a number of former prisoners and civic activists, including journalist Andrey Novashov, who in June published an article on the news website Sibir.Realii exposing inmates’ allegations of torture in the three colonies.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants. After an arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both the detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing, either in person or through a video link.

Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.

By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.

Problems existed related to detainees’ ability to obtain adequate defense counsel. The law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, but investigators sometimes did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. In many cases especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.

There were reports that security services sometimes held detainees in incommunicado detention before officially registering the detention. This practice usually coincided with allegations of the use of torture to coerce confessions before detainees were permitted access to a lawyer. The problem was especially acute in the Republic of Chechnya, where such incommunicado detention could reportedly last for weeks in some cases.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest or detention, often in connection with demonstrations and single-person pickets, such as those that preceded and succeeded the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments (see section 2.b.). The independent human rights media project OVD-Info reported that during the first six months of the year, police detained 388 single-person picketers in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, although single-person pickets are legal and do not require a permit. After Novaya Gazeta journalist and municipal deputy Ilya Azar was arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest on May 26 for holding a single-person picket in Moscow, law enforcement authorities detained an estimated 130 individuals who took part in protests supporting him in three cities. Many of them were fined for violating the laws on staging public demonstrations.

There were reports that Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).

Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent were not available. By law pretrial detention may not normally exceed two months, but the court has the power to extend it to six months, as well as to 12 or 18 months if the crime of which the defendant is accused is especially serious. For example, Yuliy Boyarshinov, described by Memorial as an antifascist and left-wing activist, was in pretrial detention from 2018 until the resumption of his trial in February; he was convicted and sentenced to 5.5 years in prison in June. He was accused of illegally storing explosives and participating in a terrorist organization because of his purported association with the “Network,” an alleged antifascist and anarchist group that relatives of the accused claim does not really exist. Memorial considered Boyarshinov to be a political prisoner.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. In view of problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined. Acquittal rates remained extremely low. In 2019 courts acquitted 0.36 percent of all defendants.

There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. According to a June 2019 report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, it has become common practice for judges to remove defense attorneys from court hearings without a legitimate basis in retaliation for their providing clients with an effective defense. The report also documented a trend of law enforcement authorities’ using physical force to interfere with the work of defense attorneys, including the use of violence to prevent them from being present during searches and interrogations.

On August 7, the bar association of the Leningrad region opened disciplinary proceedings against Yevgeniy Smirnov, a lawyer from Team 29, an informal association of lawyers and journalists dedicated to protecting civil liberties. Smirnov was one of the lawyers representing journalist Ivan Safronov in a high-profile treason case. His colleagues believed that the disciplinary proceedings were retaliation for his work.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.

The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. A Yekaterinburg-based legal and human rights NGO indicated many defense attorneys do not vigorously defend their clients and that there were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial, defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also may review their file following the completion of the criminal investigation.

Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation is typically poor. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right of appeal.

The law provides for trial by jury in criminal cases if the defendant is charged with murder, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and certain other serious crimes. Nonetheless, trials by jury remained rare, and the vast majority of verdicts and sentences are rendered by judges. The acquittal rate in trials by jury is much higher (23 percent in 2019) than in trials before a judge (0.36 percent in 2019), although acquittals by jury are sometimes overturned by judges in appellate courts.

The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences. In April 2018, a court in Petrozavodsk acquitted renowned historian of the gulag and human rights activist Yuriy Dmitriyev of child pornography charges, a case many observers believed to be politically motivated and in retaliation for his efforts to expose Stalin-era crimes. In June 2018 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia granted the prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal and sent the case for retrial. In the same month, Dmitriyev was again arrested. On July 22, the Petrozavodsk City Court found him guilty of sexual abuse of a minor and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison. On September 29, the Supreme Court of Karelia overturned the decision and extended his sentence to 13 years in maximum-security prison. Memorial considered Dmitriyev to be a political prisoner.

Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Chechnya head Kadyrov.

In some cases judicial authorities imposed sentences disproportionate to the crimes charged. For example, on August 18, political commentator Fyodor Krasheninnikov was sentenced to seven days in jail for publishing comments criticizing the Constitutional Court. The Sverdlovsk Oblast human rights ombudswoman responded that Krasheninnikov should only have been fined. Krasheninnikov filed a complaint with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), asserting that his arrest violated his rights of speech, fair trial, and personal freedom.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually applied in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.

As of December Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 358 names, including 295 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. Nevertheless, Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be two to three times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev (see section 2.a.); human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Yuriy Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians (including Crimean Tatars) imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea; Anastasiya Shevchenko, the first individual charged under the “undesirable foreign organizations” law; students and activists jailed for participating in the Moscow protests in July and August 2019; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. Memorial noted the average length of sentences for the cases on their list continued to increase, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, in 2018. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as the case of Aleksey Pichugin, a former security official of the Russian oil company Yukos, imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence for conviction of alleged involvement in murder and murder attempts; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.

Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible reports that the country attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. Authorities used their access to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to target political enemies abroad. For example, the religious freedom rights organization Forum 18 reported that the country issued Interpol red notices in January to secure the extradition of at least two individuals facing “extremism” charges for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Ashurali Magomedeminov, who studied the work of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, left Russia in 2016; the Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against him in 2017 after accusing him of sharing “extremist literature.”

There were credible reports that, for politically motivated purposes, the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country aimed at having it take adverse action against specific individuals. For example, on February 21, Belarusian police detained Nikolay Makhalichev, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the request of the Russian authorities. Makhalichev said that Belarusian police told him that Russian authorities had put him on an interstate wanted list after they opened a criminal case against him for “extremism” for his religious affiliation. Russian prosecutors brought forth a request for extradition, but on April 7, the Belarusian courts determined that he would not be extradited.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often did not work well. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, it was practically very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights were violated typically sought redress in the ECHR after domestic courts ruled against them. Amendments to the constitution approved in a nationwide vote on July 1, and signed into law on December 8, enshrined the primacy of Russian law over international law, stating that decisions by interstate bodies interpreted in a manner contrary to the constitution are not enforceable in the country. Many experts interpreted this to mean that courts have greater power to ignore rulings from international human rights bodies, including the ECHR; the courts had already set a precedent by declaring such bodies’ decisions “nonexecutable.”

Property Restitution

The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. There is no legislation or special mechanism in the country that addresses the restitution of or compensation for private property; the same is true for heirless property. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the laws’ provisions, claims may only be made by states and not individuals.

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

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

The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, those legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed since 2016 granting authorities sweeping powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). Politicians from minority parties, NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.

Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities with a warrant to monitor telephone calls in real time, but this safeguard was largely pro forma. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor the internet. The Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, although the FSB is not required to show it upon request.

In January a Novaya Gazeta investigation revealed that personnel of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s antiextremism division had installed a secret video camera in 2018 in the bedroom of Anastasiya Shevchenko, an Open Russia activist facing criminal charges for participating in an “undesirable” organization. The camera recorded her for five months without her knowledge.

The law requires explicit consent for governmental and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology. Laws on public security and crime prevention, however, provide for exceptions to this consent requirement. Human rights activists claimed the law lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these data, especially without any judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods and technologies.

As of September almost 200,000 government surveillance cameras have been installed in Moscow and equipped with Russian-developed automated facial recognition software as part of its Safe City program. The system was initially installed in key public places, such as metro stations and apartment entrances, in order to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. The first major test of this system occurred in the spring, as the Moscow city government began enforcing mandatory COVID-19 self-isolation requirements using facial recognition. The personal data of residents and international visitors placed under quarantine in Moscow were reportedly uploaded into the system in order to monitor the public for self-isolation violations. The Moscow city government announced that additional cameras would be installed throughout the city, including in one-quarter of the city’s 6,000 metro cars, by the end of the year.

In July, two activists, Alyona Popova and Vladimir Milov, filed a complaint against the country’s facial recognition program with the ECHR. Popova and Milov claimed closed-circuit television cameras were used during a large September 2019 protest in Moscow to conduct mass surveillance of the participants. They claimed that the government’s collection of protesters’ unique biometric data through the use of facial recognition technology violated the right to privacy and freedom of assembly provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights. Popova and Milov also argued the use of the technology at an opposition rally amounted to discrimination based on political views. The pair had previously filed a complaint in a local Moscow court, which was dismissed in March when the court ruled the government’s use of the technology legal.

On May 21, the State Duma adopted a law to create a unified federal register containing information on all the country’s residents, including their names, dates and places of birth, and marital status. According to press reports, intelligence and security services would have access to the database in their investigations. There were reports that authorities threatened to remove children from the custody of parents engaged in political activism or some forms of religious worship, or parents who were LGBTI persons. For example, on October 2, Russian media reported that authorities were threatening to arrest and take away the children of gay men who have fathered their children through surrogacy, accusing them of child trafficking. Several families reportedly left the country due to fear of arrest. As of December no formal arrest related to this threat had been reported.

The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Belarus, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, COVID-19, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters further stifled freedom of assembly and association.

Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism, under which citizens may be punished for certain types of peaceful protests, affiliation with certain religious denominations, and even certain social media posts, as a tool to stifle dissent. As of August the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,080 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of approximately 80 items from 2019. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 585 extremism cases in 2019, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.

On March 27, the State Duma passed legislation criminalizing the dissemination of false “socially significant information” online, in mass media, or during protests or public events. This law in effect toughened a March 2019 law that prohibited the dissemination of “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” Authorities used the law to target human rights defenders and civil society activists in criminal investigations, most recently by accusing them of spreading unreliable information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 15, Agora International Human Right Group published a report showing that over the course of 450 days, authorities initiated approximately 200 cases against the dissemination of “unreliable socially significant information.” A total of 33 of the cases were filed between April 3 and June 9 and involved criminal complaints that mainly targeted activists, journalists, bloggers, and legislators.

In early May prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the activities of Grigoriy Vinter, the head of the Vologda chapter of the NGO For Human Rights, after posts criticizing authorities for transporting prisoners who showed COVID-19 symptoms were published on a social media page that he administered. Vinter had previously faced similar politically motivated investigations for his human rights advocacy.

By law authorities may close any organization a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.

During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, Russian media reported that on July 10, LGBTI artist and activist Yuliya Tsvetkova was fined by a local court in the Russian Far East for social media posts and drawings depicting same-sex couples with their children, rainbow-colored cats, and matryoshka dolls holding hands. Tsvetkova was also under investigation for spreading pornography among minors for her body-positive projects in 2019. On September 22, her case was returned to the Investigative Committee for Khabarovsk Kray for further investigation in what experts believe was an attempt to prolong the trial.

Authorities investigated individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, at the end of January, popular stand-up comic Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation into one of his performances from 2019. Media reported that an audience member complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, possibly with a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. In March, Dolgopolov announced that he had returned to Russia; the status of the investigation was unclear.

During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 8, media reported that the Investigative Committee opened a case against Voronezh resident Aleksandr Khoroshiltsev for posting a photo of Adolf Hitler on the website of the Immortal Regiment, the name given to the yearly procession of individuals with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. Authorities told journalists that posts such as Khoroshiltsev’s were aimed at rehabilitating the Nazi regime.

The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On May 15, a district court in Kemerovo sentenced Vladislav Koretskiy, an 18-year-old student, to 10 days incarceration for publishing social media posts in 2016 and 2017 containing images of swastikas.

The law prohibits showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. For example, on March 3, a district court in Tomsk fined activist Sergey Chaykovskiy, the executive director of the National Bureau for the Development of Democracy, for an Instagram post that showed a speech by Nancy Pelosi accusing Putin of interfering in the conflict in Ukraine. Chaykovskiy captioned the post “Vladimir Putin will answer for his crimes in Ukraine” and was found guilty of disrespecting authorities online.

During the year authorities enforced a law prohibiting the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, in January the Supreme Court upheld lower court orders to block the distribution of an article by independent journalists chronicling the story of a heroin user. Free speech advocates expressed concern that the law allowed the government to ban any nonfiction article on drug use it deemed inappropriate.

During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, in March authorities opened an administrative case against the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for publishing a text from the Open Russia movement on its website. Prosecutors accused the foundation, which aids drug addicts and advocates for changes to laws on narcotics, of cooperating with an “undesirable foreign organization.”

Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which are permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through direct or indirect funding or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”

By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of August there were 11 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.

The law allows authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this legislation would be used to further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual must be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the law range from 10,000 to five million rubles ($133 to $66,500).

A parliamentary commission investigated alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. After the September 13 regional elections, the commission reported that “foreign agent” NGOs tried to discredit the election and undermine the confidence of Russians in the democratic procedures. According to the commission, the interference tactics were diverse and included disinformation on social networks and round-the-clock hacker attacks on the servers of the Russian Central Election Commission.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included one killing, 42 attacks, 97 detentions by law enforcement officers, 46 prosecutions, 27 threats, and six politically motivated firings. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.

There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. For example, according to press reports, on June 30, a police officer severely injured David Frenkel, a journalist with the independent MediaZona outlet, as he was reporting on the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments in St. Petersburg. Frenkel was at a polling station investigating alleged violations of voting procedure. The head of the local voting commission requested that police remove Frenkel from the premises for purportedly interrupting the polling station’s work. A video widely circulated on social media showed the police officer tackling Frenkel, breaking his collarbone in the process. Frenkel was charged with three administrative offenses for allegedly interfering with the election commission’s work, ignoring police orders, and violating COVID-19 restrictions. Frenkel was eventually fined a nominal sum for the violations. His fines were upheld on appeal. Frenkel filed a lawsuit against the police officer involved; a preliminary investigation of the officer’s actions was reportedly launched but found no grounds for the opening of a case.

There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, on May 5, OVD-Info reported that police detained journalist Sergey Poznyakov as he was traveling to the editorial office of the newspaper Communists of Russia, where he worked as a correspondent. Police claimed they detained him because he did not show his documents, although Poznyakov asserted that he did. Police allegedly blocked the entrance to the newspaper’s office for five days, possibly in retaliation for its staff releasing red balloons, a symbolic gesture to communism, during a May Day celebration.

There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, Ivan Safronov, a former national security journalist for major national daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested by the FSB and charged with treason in July. Safronov was working as an aide to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, at the time of his arrest. The charges alleged Safronov was recruited by Czech intelligence agents in 2012 to pass sensitive Russian military information to another foreign government. Observers speculated the charges might be related to a 2017 Kommersant article coauthored by Safronov, detailing the potential sale of Russian military aircraft to Egypt. Safronov also provoked a strong reaction from the government for a 2019 article in Kommersant speculating on a shakeup of the leadership in the Federation Council. Safronov was subsequently fired from Kommersant, according to some accounts, due to government pressure on the publisher. Safronov’s supporters noted the treason charges complicated his defense in that independent examination of the evidence would likely be impossible. If convicted, Safronov faces up to 20 years in prison. As of December Safronov remained in custody.

There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, in July police raided the offices and private homes of the opposition organization MBK Media and its associated human rights foundation, Open Russia. These raids were ostensibly connected to the continuing investigation of the Russian groups’ founder, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, for alleged tax violations in 2003. Independent journalists believed the raids were actually tied to planned protests against recent constitutional amendments. MBK Media representatives pointed out that many of the staff members were only children in 2003, emphasizing their view that the raids were intended to interfere with their work.

In another example, in January Leonid Krivenkov, a retired cameraman for a major Russian state television broadcaster, was severely beaten by two unknown assailants. The attack came several weeks after Krivenkov gave multiple interviews detailing political censorship and corruption at the broadcaster. Krivenkov alleged the two men disparaged him for not respecting his homeland as they beat him. He was treated for a broken nose and severe bruising.

On October 15, journalist Sergey Plotnikov was abducted and beaten by unidentified persons in Khabarovsk, where he had been reporting on continuing protests in the city. He was reportedly handcuffed, driven into the forest outside the city, and threatened by shooting live rounds of ammunition into the ground near his feet. Plotnikov sustained a wound on his temple and was released the following morning.

Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. On April 13, Chechnya head Kadyrov posted a video statement on social media condemning Novaya Gazeta over an article alleging that local authorities’ response to COVID-19 was abusive. Kadyrov made death threats against the newspaper, stating that Russian authorities needed to stop Novaya Gazeta journalists before Chechen authorities would be forced to “commit a crime.” The article’s author, Yelena Milashina, had previously suffered an attack in Chechnya in February after she was ambushed and beaten by unknown assailants at her hotel. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed Kadyrov’s statement by saying that there was nothing out of the ordinary in Kadyrov’s reaction to Milashina’s reporting. On September 29, a Moscow court fined Novaya Gazeta for disseminating “fake” information in the article.

There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).

There were reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, the founder and editor of the independent news site Koza.Press, Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina), was subjected to various forms of harassment and substantial fines by law enforcement in recent years. On October 1, law enforcement officers forcibly entered her Nizhny Novgorod apartment, ostensibly with a search warrant related to the civil society organization Open Russia. On October 2, Murakhtayeva committed suicide by self-immolation outside a regional Ministry of Internal Affairs building, writing on Facebook, “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.”

There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on June 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ center for combating extremism searched a printing house in St. Petersburg. Authorities detained three activists who ordered leaflets that opposed proposed constitutional amendments and criticized President Putin. The activists were charged under an article on production or distribution of campaign materials in violation of the law during elections and referenda.

Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.

Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on June 15, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal libel case against anticorruption crusader, opposition activist, and prominent blogger Aleksey Navalny after he used social media to criticize a WWII veteran’s participation in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package. Navalny faced penalties ranging from a substantial monetary fine to 240 hours of community service if convicted.

National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, Russian military historian Andrey Zhukov was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Zhukov was arrested in 2018 on allegations linked to “the history of the Russian Armed Forces and his vigorous activity online.” According to Zhukov’s colleagues, his interests included the formation, reassignment, and deployment of the country’s military units from World War I to the present. Before his arrest, Zhukov was also researching participants in World War II, their relatives, and their military awards.

There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, in June 2019 security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiyev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. Conviction on the charges may result in up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders emphasized the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiyev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case. They maintained that the case against him was fabricated. Gadzhiyev has remained in detention awaiting trial after a court repeatedly extended his pretrial detention. In April additional charges were filed against Gadzhiyev in Dagestan accusing him of participating in an extremist organization. The charges carry up to an additional 10 years in prison if Gadzhiyev is convicted. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.

There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” For example, on July 6, Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and fined in relation to a 2018 radio piece that delved into the motivations of a teenage suicide bomber who had attacked a regional FSB office. In the piece Prokopyeva discussed whether the country’s repressive political environment might have influenced the attack. Prosecutors sought a six-year prison sentence for Prokopyeva, who was ultimately required only to pay a fine and was able to avoid incarceration. As she had been charged under antiterrorism laws, however, Prokopyeva was placed on a government list of “terrorists and extremists,” barring her from foreign travel as a result.

Internet Freedom

The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.).

The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity. Internet advocates asserted the measure allows for surveillance by intelligence agencies and enables state authorities to control information and block content. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. In July the Account Chamber announced that the proposed plan to create an independent DNS did not meet its deadline, citing COVID-19 related delays.

The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. The law provides that companies refusing to localize Russian users’ data may be subject to penalties ranging from 5,000 rubles ($66) to six million rubles ($78,700), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($236,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In February a Moscow district court fined Twitter and Facebook 4.7 million rubles ($62,800) each for refusing to store the data of Russian users on servers located inside Russia. The two companies were also reportedly at risk of further fines for noncompliance with this requirement.

Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.

Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Companies are fined up to six million rubles ($79,300) if they refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of five million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On August 10, a Moscow court fined Google for repeatedly failing to filter contents prohibited in Russia.

The law requires owners of internet search engines (news aggregators) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.

A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search-engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.”

There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).

The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In March, Roskomnadzor announced the launch of an automated system for checking proxies, VPNs, and search engines for compliance with the requirements for blocking access to prohibited sites.

The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June 2019 authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. In March the Digital Revolution hackers group announced that the FSB had purchased the Fronton program, which allows for cyberattacks to crash servers and hack smart devices. On May 5, a political activist in St. Petersburg, Denis Mikhailov, reported a spam attack on the anniversary of an anti-Putin protest. Mikhailov noted that he received several hundred telephone calls from unknown numbers on that day.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government took further steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.

There were reports that the government censored textbooks, curricula, and other school materials. For example, in January the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) published amendments to its student rules and labor regulations. These changes limited the rights of students to make political statements on behalf of student groups, effectively prohibiting activities by students or faculty deemed “socially divisive” by university administrators. Student newspapers also lost their status as student groups at the university, eliminating their school funding. The policy changes were seen as a direct response to a number of high-profile student political protests and the appearance of an opposition leader on a student talk show in 2019.

There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, or political views. In August the HSE decided not to renew the contracts of five lecturers due to the “reorganization” of the university. Among the lecturers was Kirill Martynov, a political correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Martynov claimed the official explanation for HSE’s failure to renew his contract was dubious, suggesting that it was related to his journalistic work. The university also failed to renew the contract of world-renowned sociologist Ella Paneyakh. Media outlets reported that HSE administrators asked their faculty members not to criticize Russian authorities while publicly identifying with the university.

During the year authorities in Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. In July Chechnya head Kadyrov announced that singers who appear in public (including at weddings) must have their lyrics approved by the Chechen Ministry of Culture and a special commission that checks them for compliance with “the Chechen mentality.”

In June a Moscow court convicted well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov of embezzlement and sentenced him to a fine, three years of probation, and a three-year ban on leading a state-funded cultural institution in Russia. Serebrennikov had been on trial since 2018 for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times, and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. The prosecution was widely seen by observers as a warning to the artistic community as a whole.

There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from threats and physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, on January 30, The Economist magazine reported that teatr.doc, an experimental theater company based in Moscow, was attacked by an ultraconservative group during a play that explored LGBTI themes. The agitators allegedly entered the theater, stopped the play, and shouted homophobic slurs. Police were called in and a fight broke out, but no charges were brought. On another occasion, bomb threats were called in to the theater, forcing the performance to stop and providing authorities an opportunity to check audience members’ documents.

There were reports that authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. In most cases the FSB or other security forces visited the music venues and “highly recommended” cancelation of the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, on January 28, Novaya Gazeta reported that the Prosecutor’s Office in the Kaluga region warned the organizers of a concert by the ska-punk band Distemper that the band’s lyrics contained “propaganda of radical anarchist views” and reminded them that they faced criminal liability for “incitement to extremist activity.” As a result the organizers decided to cancel the concert.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While some public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located. Many public demonstrations were restricted or banned due to COVID-19 measures. Each region enforced its own restrictions. As of September, Moscow and St. Petersburg had banned all mass events.

Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer. In July the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that single-person pickets are considered mass events and violate the COVID-19-related ban on mass gatherings.

The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.

The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Protesters convicted of multiple violations within six months may be fined substantially or imprisoned for up to five years. The law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by fines, 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.

Arrests or detentions for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. The July 9 arrest of Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal sparked more than four months of continuous protests in the region, with solidarity protests occurring in other Russian Far East cities including Vladivostok, Birobidzhan, and on Sakhalin Island. None of the protests was sanctioned by authorities. According to official Khabarovsk Kray statistics, between July 11 and September 6, a total of 4,126 citations were issued for drivers participating in motor rallies that “interfered” with the flow of traffic, 173 citations were issued for participation in an unsanctioned meeting, and 22 individuals were detained. Among those detained and fined was Father Andrey, an Orthodox priest who did not chant slogans or hold placards. He received the largest fine during the series of protests and was detained for three days.

In another example, on April 20, authorities detained at least 69 protesters in North Ossetia’s capital, Vladikavkaz, who opposed the government’s policy imposing self-isolation due to public-health concerns. The 2,000-person protest demanded economic support during the pandemic.

Police often broke up protests that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 19, police officers reportedly severely beat Academy of Science biochemist Anton Rasin, who was participating in a march in Vladivostok in solidarity with the Khabarovsk protests. Rasin claimed officers beat him when he asked plainclothes officers to produce their identification. On July 20, he was convicted and sentenced to five days in jail by the court for failure to obey law enforcement directions.

Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on April 26, police detained Andrey Boyarshinov in Kazan while standing in a single-person picket to protest the demolition of a prerevolutionary building. Police claimed that Boyarshinov was in violation of a self-isolation order in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.

The government continued to use the “foreign agents” law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, stigmatize, and, in some cases, halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 75 NGOs. NGOs designated as “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.

For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; ‎participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.

To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.

The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all of their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, as of August the human rights NGO Memorial was fined at least 24 times for purported violations of the “foreign agents” law. The fines totaled more than five million rubles ($66,500). On December 3, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) initiated a search of Memorial’s Moscow headquarters to verify compliance with the “foreign agents” law. Media reported that the PGO’s “verification” would continue through December 29 and involve requests to review hundreds of documents, in what Memorial characterized as an effort to harass the NGO and hinder its work.

Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support. As of September 2019, four NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” had received presidential grants for “socially oriented projects.”

The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 31 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the European Endowment for Democracy, the Jamestown Foundation, Project Harmony, Inc., seven organizations associated with Falun Gong, the Prague Civil Society Center, and the Association of Schools of Political Studies of the Council of Europe. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if it is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities. Any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found guilty of continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.

Authorities imposed criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On October 2, a Krasnodar court convicted and sentenced Yana Antonova, a pediatric surgeon and a former coordinator of Open Russia in Krasnodar, to 240 hours of forced labor for “participating” in activities of “undesirable foreign organization.” Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017. Authorities opened a criminal case against Antonova in March 2019 for reposting articles on her social media accounts and for conducting a single-person picket.

NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that received support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.

Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, prohibiting all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country and effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and its regional branches were placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, and members were subject to imprisonment, detention, house arrest, or criminal investigation participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization” (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).

There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, media outlets reported that on August 13 in St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Shurshev, a lawyer at the local office of Aleksey Navalny’s team, was beaten for the fourth time in a year. According to Shurshev, police did not respond to any of his reports of attacks.

In multiple cases, authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).

There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.

In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a different location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.

Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.

Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates, for example, that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts. According to press reports citing statistics from the Federal Bailiff Service, approximately 10 million Russians were unable to leave the country because of debts in 2019.

Since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis. For example, in April the Internal Affairs Ministry stripped the citizenship of Feliks Makhammadiyev and Konstantin Bazhenov, two members of Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted of “extremism” on the basis of their religious beliefs. Makhammadiyev was left stateless as a result. As of November Makhammadiyev was still serving a three-year prison term. In another case Yevgeniy Kim, who served more than three years in a Russian prison for conviction of “extremism,” was rendered stateless in January 2019 when Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant him citizenship after he had given up his Uzbek citizenship. Since his release in April 2019, Kim has been held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, where authorities continued to refuse to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,300 internally displaced persons (IDPs) as of December 2019. Of the 5,300 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 1,800 were due to conflict and violence.

According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 9,485 in 2019 to 5,323 in June, of whom 1,085 were IDPs. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. According to Svetlana Gannushkina from the independent NGOs Civic Assistance Committee and Memorial, most IDPs in the country were displaced by the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1992 and the Chechen wars in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The Ossetian-Ingush conflict displaced Ingush people from the territory of North Ossetia-Alania, and the Chechen wars displaced Chechens. The government provided minimal financial support for housing to those who are registered as IDPs, but the Civic Assistance Committee criticized the government’s strict rules to qualify and the long line to wait for housing support.

f. Protection of Refugees

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum, refugee, and stateless persons problems. The Civic Assistance Committee reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons.

The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.

In March the country closed its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, trapping many migrants within the country. Many lost their jobs during that time and faced erratic and ad hoc repatriation measures. Lacking information and fearing the reintroduction of more stringent in-country travel restrictions, many found themselves on the street or stuck in makeshift camps near a transport hub until the country gradually opened up the borders after several months. For example, on September 21, Human Rights Watch reported on a temporary tent camp in the Samara region that housed approximately 4,500 Uzbek migrants who were waiting for a train to take them back to their country. Many had been there for months, living in extremely cramped, substandard conditions with no certainty of when they would be able to leave the country safely. On September 24, the department of the All-Russian Congress of Uzbekistanis in the Samara region announced that these migrants were granted permission to leave the country by October 3.

Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated in the law. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, GAMI, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution. While there were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions, in May the Civic Assistance Committee reported “the scale of expulsion of refugees must be considerable.”

Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties among senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers in 2018, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin.

In an example of clandestine repatriation, on September 1, Shobuddin Badalov, an activist from the Group 24 movement that is banned in Tajikistan, reportedly disappeared in Nizhny Novgorod. His lawyer and associates believed he was kidnapped and extradited without judicial process to Tajikistan. Badalov had been granted temporary asylum status in 2019. On October 3, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that Badalov had voluntarily flown from Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport to Dushanbe on September 1. On November 3, the government of Tajikistan confirmed Badalov’s detention in Tajikistan.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($440) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. NGOs also noted difficulty in applying for asylum due to long queues and lack of clear application procedures. GAMI approved only a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum, except for Ukrainians whose applications had a much higher chance of approval.

Human rights organizations noted the government’s issuance of refugee and temporary asylum status decreased steadily over the previous few years, pointing to the government’s systematic and arbitrary refusal to grant asylums. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin.

Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.

Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees without work permits and refused to hire them. NGOs reported that refugees and migrants were vulnerable to exploitation in the form of forced labor because of the lack of proper documents and insufficient Russian language skills.

Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.

While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration or who did not speak Russian. The Civic Assistance Committee reported that approximately one-third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of January 1, some 41,946 persons, 96 percent of whom were citizens of Ukraine, held a certificate of temporary asylum in Russia. A person who does not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.

g. Stateless Persons

According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality. The Civic Assistance Committee noted that most stateless persons in the country were elderly, ill, or single former Soviet Union passport holders who missed the opportunity to claim Russian citizenship after the Soviet Union broke up. The NGO reported various bureaucratic hurdles as obstacles to obtaining legal status in the country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens could not fully do so because the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On July 1, the government conducted a national vote on a package of constitutional amendments. This vote was not legally a referendum and was considered by most experts to be extraconstitutional. As such it was not bound by Russia’s normal election laws, and domestic observers were not provided a role in monitoring the poll’s conduct. Authorities mobilized administrative resources to drive up voter participation, which in effect functioned as a de facto campaign in favor of the government’s proposed amendments, while those seeking to campaign publicly against the amendments were denied the opportunity. Because the vote was not legally a referendum, no international observers were present to monitor the process.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the 2018 presidential election “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices” and that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” The OSCE also noted that “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state funded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of media and induces self-censorship. Voters were thus not presented with a critical assessment of the incumbent’s views and qualifications in most media.” Observers widely noted that the most serious potential challenger, Aleksey Navalny, was prevented from registering his candidacy due to a previous politically motivated criminal conviction.

In a statement on the 2016 State Duma elections, the OSCE’s election observation mission noted, “Democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society…Local authorities did not always treat the candidates equally, and instances of misuse of administrative resources were noted.”

The September 13 elections of 18 governors and 11 regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Independent election monitors logged thousands of reported abuses during these elections at the regional and local levels. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, the election commission of the Arkhangelsk region announced on August 4 that environmental activist Oleg Mandrykin, nominated by the opposition Yabloko Party to run in the gubernatorial election, had failed to pass the municipal filter. The election commission claimed he had not collected the required number of signatures from the municipal districts and thus was disqualified from running for the post of governor. Mandrykin reported that his supporters had faced “unprecedented pressure” from regional authorities.

Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promoted government-sponsored monitoring instead. Observers were prohibited from being accredited to more than one polling station, limiting the ability of civil society to monitor elections. Critics contended that the law made it difficult for domestic election monitors to conduct surprise inspections due to provisions requiring observers to register with authorities, including the polling station they intended to monitor, three days before elections. Burdensome registration regulations also hampered the work of journalists wishing to monitor elections as well as independent or nonpartisan groups.

The election-monitoring NGO Golos announced that the September 13 election took place under the worst electoral regulations in 25 years, with greater limits on the electoral rights of citizens and increased attacks on the rights of election observers. For example, on September 9, in the Ivanovo and Novgorod regions, security officials searched the apartments of public observation organizers, including Ruslan Zinatullin, the head of the Tatarstan branch of the Yabloko Party. Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was made more difficult by a law prohibiting NGOs listed as “foreign agents,” as well as by continuing harassment and intimidation by authorities.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The process for nominating candidates for office was highly regulated and placed significant burdens on opposition parties and their candidates. While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective self-nominated presidential candidates must collect 300,000 signatures, no more than 7,500 from each region, and submit the signatures to the Central Election Commission for certification. Presidential candidates nominated by parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent presidential candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of signatures invalid.

Candidates to the State Duma may be nominated directly by constituents, political parties in single-mandate districts, or political parties on their federal list, or they may be self-nominated. Political parties select candidates for the federal lists from their ranks during party conventions via closed voting procedures. Party conventions also select single mandate candidates. Only political parties that overcame the 5 percent threshold during the previous elections may form federal and single-mandate candidate lists without collecting signatures, while parties that did not must collect 200,000 signatures to register a candidate for the Duma. Self-nominated candidates generally must gather the signatures of 3 percent of the voters in their districts.

Gubernatorial candidates nominated by registered political parties are not required to collect signatures from members of the public, although self-nominated candidates are. The law also requires gubernatorial candidates not nominated by a registered party to meet a “municipal filter” requirement. Such candidates must obtain signatures of support from a defined portion of municipal deputies, the portion of which varies by region, as well as collect signatures from at least one deputy in each of a specified portion of municipal council districts.

Observers and would-be candidates reported the municipal filter was not applied equally and that authorities pressured municipal deputies not to provide signatures to candidates who were not preapproved by authorities. They asserted that no independent candidate with the potential to defeat authorities’ favored candidates was permitted to pass through the municipal filter, while progovernment candidates were passed through the filter without fulfilling technical requirements.

In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration or faced court-mandated suspensions of their activities. On January 14, the Supreme Court ruled to suspend for three months the work of opposition leader Dmitriy Gudkov’s political party, Party of Change (officially known as Civic Initiative). The Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit against the party after refusing to register its charter because the party purportedly failed to provide the minutes from its meeting.

Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters. On July 23, Dmitry Nizovtsev, the host of the YouTube channel for Navalny’s headquarters in Khabarovsk, was assaulted after he broadcast from a march organized to support ousted Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal. He claimed that his attackers were linked to authorities and beat him because of his reporting and association with Navalny.

Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, media outlets reported on August 31 that representatives of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party were attacked in Novosibirsk in the run-up to the September 13 regional election, including the headquarters of Roman Yakovlev, a candidate from the Communist Party. On July 26, the Communist Party also reported that its candidates had problems with passing the municipal filter in at least three regions.

State entities or entities closely aligned with the state also influenced their employees to vote a certain way. In Omsk workers from Russian Railways told journalists they were encouraged to photograph themselves with their completed ballots for the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments. In Yekaterinburg the clergy of some Russian Orthodox Churches encouraged their parishioners to vote in favor of the constitutional amendments.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women held less than 20 percent of elected seats in the national legislature. As of January women held approximately 5 percent of ministerial positions. While members of national minorities took an active part in political life, ethnic Russians, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operating in the country investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their concerns. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and, in many instances, intensified, particularly of groups that focused on monitoring elections, engaging in environmental activism, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted, especially in Chechnya, which closed its borders in April, purportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some officials, including High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova and her regional representatives, regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs.

Authorities continued to use a variety of laws to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of domestic and foreign human rights NGOs (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

Officials often displayed hostility toward the activities of human rights organizations and suggested their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. For example, Mikhail Degtyaryov, who was appointed interim governor of Khabarovsk Kray in July, warned against believing news reports about him, asserting that negative stories reveal “the hand of the West” and “it’s not for nothing that there are so many suspicious NGOs in Russia.”

Authorities continued to apply a number of indirect tactics to suppress or close domestic NGOs, including the application of various laws and harassment in the form of prosecution, investigations, fines, and raids (see sections 1.e. and 2.b.).

Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of government activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains or in the North Caucasus. A few local NGOs addressed human rights problems in these regions but often chose not to work on politically sensitive topics to avoid retaliation by local authorities. One NGO in this region reported that the organization’s employees sometimes had to resort to working in an individual capacity rather than as representatives of the organization.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country. Two years after the release of the rapporteur’s report, the government still had not provided the OSCE a substantive response to the report or taken action to address the report’s recommendations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to these institutions’ effectiveness.

Many observers did not consider the 168-member Civic Chamber, composed of government-appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government.

The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation and individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government, and monitoring their implementation. The president appoints some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. In October 2019 President Putin overhauled the HRC, dismissing several well respected human rights defenders from the council and appointing Valeriy Fadeyev, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, as its head. Experts noted that Fadeyev worked closely with government authorities and often echoed their assessment of well-known human rights cases. In a July 8 interview with Kommersant, Fadeyev stated he did not believe there were more than 300 political prisoners in the country and that organizations such as Memorial needed to be “more careful” with their lists.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudspersons in all regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, and the law provides the same punishment for a relative, including a spouse, who commits rape as for a nonrelative. The penalty for conviction of rape is three to six years’ imprisonment for a single offense, with additional time imposed for aggravating factors. According to NGOs, many law enforcement personnel and prosecutors did not consider spousal or acquaintance rape a priority and did not encourage reporting or prosecuting such cases. NGOs reported that local police officers sometimes refused to respond to rape or domestic violence calls unless the victim’s life was directly threatened. Authorities typically did not consider rape or attempted rape to be life threatening.

Domestic violence remained a major problem. There is no domestic violence provision in the law and no legal definition of domestic violence, making it difficult to know its actual prevalence in the country. The law considers beatings by “close relatives” an administrative rather than a criminal offense for first-time offenders, provided the beating does not cause serious harm requiring hospital treatment. The antidomestic violence NGO ANNA Center estimated that 60 to 70 percent of women suffering from some type of domestic violence do not seek help due to fear, public shame, lack of financial independence from their partners, or lack of confidence in law enforcement authorities. Laws that address bodily harm are general in nature and do not permit police to initiate a criminal investigation unless the victim files a complaint. The burden of collecting evidence in such cases typically falls on the alleged victims. The law prohibits threats, assault, battery, and killing, but most acts of domestic violence did not fall within the jurisdiction of the prosecutor’s office. The law does not provide for protection orders, which experts believe could help keep women safe from experiencing recurrent violence by their partners.

COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders and general restrictions on movement trapped many victims of domestic violence in the same space as the perpetrators. On May 5, media outlets reported that Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova acknowledged that NGOs recorded an increase of more than 50 percent in the number of domestic violence cases. The ANNA Center reported that 70 percent of the women that called its hotline stated the situation at home worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown. Many victims noted they could not leave their homes due to fear of being punished for violating the stay-at-home order.

There were reports that women defending themselves from domestic violence were charged with crimes. According to a MediaZona study, approximately 80 percent of women sentenced for murder between 2016 and 2018 killed a domestic abuser in self-defense. In one case in 2018, three teenaged sisters allegedly killed their father, Mikhail Khachaturyan, in their Moscow home. In October 2019 authorities confirmed that the father had physically and sexually abused the girls for many years without any repercussions. On July 12, the Attorney General’s Office upheld the murder charges, a reversal to Deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Grin’s December 2019 recommendation to reclassify the sisters’ actions as self-defense. As of September the women remained under house arrest as they awaited a jury trial. The case ignited widespread support for the sisters across the country, with many persons calling for their release.

According to the ANNA Center, when domestic violence offenses were charged, articles under the country’s criminal law were usually applied that employed the process of private prosecution. The process of private prosecution requires the victim to gather all necessary evidence and bear all costs after the injured party or his or her guardian took the initiative to file a complaint with a magistrate judge. The NGO noted that this process severely disadvantages survivors. Experts estimated that seven of 10 such cases were dropped due to reconciliation of the parties as a result of the abuser pressuring, manipulating, and intimidating the victim who often had to continue living in the same house.

According to NGOs, police were often unwilling to register complaints of domestic violence, often saying that cases were “family matters,” frequently discouraged victims from submitting complaints, and often pressed victims to reconcile with abusers. On March 15, in response to domestic violence cases presented to the ECHR, the deputy minister of justice and the Russian representative at the ECHR, Mikhail Galperin, asserted that the state should not be held responsible for the law enforcement officials’ inaction in domestic violence cases if the perpetrator was a private person.

The majority of domestic violence cases filed with authorities were either dismissed on technical grounds or transferred to a reconciliation process conducted by a justice of the peace whose focus was on preserving the family rather than punishing the perpetrator. NGOs estimated that 3 percent of such cases eventually reached the courts. Victims of domestic violence in the North Caucasus experienced particular difficulty seeking protection from authorities. On June 26, Human Rights Watch reported that Madina Umayeva died and was buried overnight in the Chechen Republic. Umayeva’s mother, suspecting her son-in-law of beating her daughter to death and burying her to hide the evidence, had the body exhumed for autopsy. Three days after the body was exhumed, Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov publicly accused the mother of spreading gossip about her daughter’s death and dismissed the possibility that it constituted murder. Umayeva’s mother later appeared on television and said, “I apologize for having listened to rumors. I apologize to [you].”

NGOs noted there were government-operated institutions that provided services to affected women such as social apartments, hospitals wards, and shelters. Access to these services was often complicated, since they required proof of residency in that particular municipality, as well as proof of low-income status. In many cases these documents were controlled by the abusers and not available to victims. A strict two-month stay limit in the shelters and limited business hours of these services further restricted victims’ access to social services. After COVID-19-related restrictions forced many shelters to close temporarily, NGOs rented out apartments and hotels to shelter the victims.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not specifically prohibit FGM/C. NGOs in Dagestan reported that FGM/C was occasionally practiced in some villages. On May 19, media outlets reported a nine-year-old girl from Ingushetia underwent an FGM procedure at a hospital in Magas in June 2019. The girl’s mother claimed that her former husband and his new wife took the girl to the hospital for the procedure without the mother’s consent. Authorities opened a criminal investigation into the hospital and the doctor who performed the operation. The clinic allegedly advertised FGM procedures performed by a pediatric gynecologist.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Human rights groups reported that “honor killings” of women persisted in Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, but they were rarely reported or acknowledged. Local police, doctors, and lawyers often collaborated with the families involved to cover up the crimes. For example, Russian media reported that in February in Ingushetia, Magomedbashir Mogushkov stabbed and killed his sister, Liza Yevloyeva, to “wash away the shame from the family.” On the eve of the killing, Mogushkov saw his sister on a police surveillance video when a well-known criminal, Isa Altemirov, was being detained. Altemirov’s gang was known to seduce Ingush women into extramarital relationships and blackmail them for money.

In some parts of the North Caucasus, women continued to face bride kidnapping, polygamy, forced marriage (including child marriage), legal discrimination, virginity requirements before marriage, and forced adherence to Islamic dress codes. Women in the North Caucasus often lost custody of their children after the father’s death or a divorce, due to traditional law that prohibits women from living in a house without a man. For example, on August 6, Russian media reported that Liana Sosurkayeva from Chechnya lost her two children to her husband’s brother after the husband died. She has been denied custody of the children, on the basis of Chechen traditional law.

Sexual Harassment: The law contains a general provision against compelling a person to perform actions of a sexual character by means of blackmail, threats, or by taking advantage of the victim’s economic or other dependence on the perpetrator. There is no legal definition of harassment, however, and no comprehensive guidelines on how it should be addressed. Sexual harassment was reportedly widespread, but courts often rejected victims’ claims due to lack of sufficient evidence. In January the newspaper Vedomosti published a survey showing that 16 percent of women and 7 percent of men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at least once in their careers. The newspaper noted that the law does little to help victims, as there is no concept of “harassment” in the labor code.

On April 29, media outlets reported that two women had accused Aleksey Venediktov, the head of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, of sexual harassment. According to Anna Veduta, Venediktov made unwanted advances toward her after a company dinner in 2012 and tried to kiss her outside her home. An activist who asked not be named recounted a similar experience in 2017. Although he had told media in 2005 that sexual harassment was a “right” at Ekho Moskvy, Venediktov denied these allegations.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. While there are no legal restrictions on access to contraceptives, very few citizens receive any kind of sexual education, hampering effectiveness. Senior government officials, the Russian Orthodox Church, and conservative groups in the country advocated stridently for increasing the birth rate, and their opposition to family planning initiatives contributed to a social stigma that impacted the use of contraceptives. Access to family planning and skilled medical birth attendants varied widely based on geography and was often extremely limited in rural areas. The government does not deny access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, but survivors may not always seek needed treatment due to social stigma and the lack of follow-through on domestic-violence cases by the criminal justice system. There were significant social and cultural barriers to family planning and reproductive health in the North Caucasus republics, including cases of female genital mutilation. Approximately 100 occupations remained banned to women because they were deemed “dangerous to the women’s reproductive health.”

Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. In October media widely reported allegations of forced sterilizations of 15 women between 2006 and 2016 at the Uktus Boarding House in Yekaterinburg, which houses orphans with health issues, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. Former residents of the institution also alleged that some women were forced to have abortions. One former resident of the institution reportedly died after undergoing sterilization surgery. Regional law enforcement and health authorities in the Sverdlovsk region launched a probe into the reports, and regional human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Merzlyakova called the alleged sterilizations “unacceptable.”

Discrimination: The constitution and law provide that men and women enjoy the same legal status and rights, but women often encountered significant restrictions. Women have experienced discrimination in the workplace, in pay, and access to credit (see section 7.d.). There are 100 jobs that the Ministry of Labor has ruled to be especially physically taxing, including firefighting, mining, and steam boiler repair, that remain off limits to women.

Children

Birth Registration: By law citizenship derives from parents at birth or from birth within the country’s territory if the parents are unknown or if the child may not claim the parents’ citizenship. Failure to register a birth resulted in the denial of public services.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through grade 11, although regional authorities frequently denied school access to the children of persons who were not registered local residents, including Roma, asylum seekers, and migrant workers.

Child Abuse: The country does not have a law on child abuse, but the law outlaws murder, battery, and rape. The penalties for conviction of such crimes range from five to 15 years in prison and, if they result in the death of a minor, up to 20 years in prison. A 2017 law that makes beatings by “close relatives” an administrative rather than a criminal offense for first-time offenders, provided the beating does not cause serious harm requiring hospital treatment, applies to children as well. Some Duma deputies claimed that children need discipline and authority in the family, condoning beating as a mode of discipline.

Studies indicated that violence against children was fairly common. According to a report published in April 2019 by the National Institute for Child Protection, one in four parents admitted to having beaten their children at least once with a belt. In an extreme case of child abuse, on September 11, media outlets reported that Gulmira Bukenova in Omsk region continuously beat, tied, and starved an 18-month-old boy who lived with her. The mother, Yevgeniya Kabelskaya, was forced to work for free in the household while they lived with Bukenova’s family.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for both men and women. Local authorities may authorize marriage from age 16 under certain circumstances. More than a dozen regions allow marriage from age 14 under special circumstances, such as pregnancy or the birth of a child.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 16. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering, or procuring of children for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Authorities generally enforced the law. For example, on May 8, media outlets reported that authorities detained monk Kliment (Korablev) in Orenburg region for “committing a number of sexual crimes against three minors.” Authorities held him in a pretrial detention center for more than four months. The Orthodox Church prohibited Korablev from taking part in church services until the investigation was over.

The law prohibits the manufacture, distribution, and possession with intent to distribute child pornography, but possession without intent to distribute is not prohibited by law. Manufacture and distribution of pornography involving children younger than 18 is punishable by two to eight years in prison or three to 10 years in prison if children younger than 14 are involved. Authorities considered child pornography to be a serious problem.

Roskomnadzor has the power to shut down any website immediately and without due process until its owners prove its content does not include child pornography. Roskomnadzor reported that from 2012 to 2017, it shut down 38,000 links related to child pornography, or 14 percent of all blocked links.

Institutionalized Children: There were reports of neglect as well as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in state institutions for children. Children with disabilities were especially vulnerable. NGOs pointed to the closing of schools and strict stay-at-home orders during the height of COVID-19 measures as especially detrimental to at-risk children, including children in institutions. NGOs noted that many had limited access to social services and teachers or counselors.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The 2010 census estimated the Jewish population at slightly more than 150,000. The president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia has stated that the actual Jewish population is nearly one million.

Media outlets reported several cases of anti-Semitism during the year. For example, on April 13, unidentified perpetrators set fire to a synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk. No one was injured, but a Jewish community leader estimated property damages at 1.5 million rubles ($19,800). Two months after the incident, police detained a 32-year-old suspect. Authorities initiated a criminal case based on intentional damage to property rather than anti-Semitism.

Leading experts from the Jewish community had varying assessments of the level of anti-Semitism in the country. While the chief rabbi of Russia stated in January that the level of anti-Semitism was at its lowest point historically, in June the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities argued that the level of latent anti-Semitism was still quite high. Some political and religious figures made anti-Semitic remarks publicly. On July 20, the Verkhnepyshminskiy City Court fined Father Sergey Romanov, a former hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, for making anti-Semitic remarks during one of his sermons.

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 protection for persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. The government often did not enforce these provisions effectively.

The conditions of guardianship imposed by courts on persons with disabilities deprived them of almost all personal rights. Activists reported that courts declared tens of thousands of individuals “legally incompetent” due to intellectual disabilities, forcing them to go through guardians to exercise their legal rights, even when they could make decisions for themselves. Courts rarely restored legal capacity to individuals with disabilities. By law individuals with intellectual disabilities were at times prevented from marrying without a guardian’s consent.

In many cases persons with intellectual or physical disabilities were confined to institutions, where they were often subjected to abuse and neglect. Roszdravnadzor, the Federal Service for Surveillance in Health Care, announced that it found abuses in 87.4 percent of institutions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities during a 2019 audit. On November 3, Russian media reported that it was not uncommon for persons with intellectual disabilities who had recently turned 18 to die within a few months of transferring from a children’s institution to an adult neuropsychiatric boarding house due to harsh conditions. The report noted that residents were sometimes given haloperidol and other suppressive substances, sent to isolation wards, tied to beds, and prohibited from going outside freely. On May 6, media outlets reported that a Bogotolsk neuropsychiatric hospital’s junior nurse physically abused an elderly person with a disability by grabbing him and dragging him on the floor without his pants on.

Federal law requires that buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities. While there were improvements, especially in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, authorities did not effectively enforce the law in many areas of public transportation and in buildings. Many individuals in wheelchairs reported they continued to have trouble accessing public transportation and had to rely on private cars. Wheelchair-accessible street curbs are not widely available in many regions throughout the country.

Election law does not specifically mandate that polling places be accessible to persons with disabilities, and the majority of them were not. Election officials generally brought mobile ballot boxes to the homes of voters with disabilities.

The government began to implement inclusive education, but many children with disabilities continued not to study in mainstream schools due to a lack of accommodations to facilitate their individual learning needs. Many schools did not have the physical infrastructure or adequately trained staff to meet the needs of children with disabilities, leaving them no choice but to stay at home or attend specialized schools. Even when children were allowed to attend a mainstream school, many staff and children lacked understanding to meet the educational needs of the child. For example, on September 2, media outlets reported that a child with a disability at a Krasnoyarsk school was excluded from a class photograph, adding that persons with disabilities were often kept from public view.

While the law mandates inclusive education for children with disabilities, authorities generally segregated them from mainstream society through a system that institutionalized them through adulthood. Graduates of such institutions often lacked the social, educational, and vocational skills to function in society.

There appeared to be no clear standardized formal legal mechanism by which individuals could contest their assignment to a facility for persons with disabilities. The classification of children with intellectual disabilities by category of disability often followed them through their lives. The official designations “imbecile” and “idiot,” assigned by a commission that assesses children with developmental delays at age three, signified that authorities considered a child uneducable. These designations were almost always irrevocable. The designation “weak” (having a slight cognitive or intellectual disability) followed an individual on official documents, creating barriers to employment and housing after graduation from state institutions.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law prohibits discrimination based on nationality, but according to a 2017 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, officials discriminated against minorities, including through “de facto racial profiling, targeting in particular migrants and persons from Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Activists reported that police officers often stopped individuals who looked foreign and asked them for their documents, claiming that they contained mistakes even when they were in order, and demanded bribes.

Hate crimes targeting ethnic minorities continued to be a problem, although the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis reported that the number of such crimes declined thanks to authorities’ effectively targeting groups that promoted racist violence. As of August 3, one individual had died and 14 had been injured in racially motivated attacks since the beginning of the year. On June 13, Timur Gavrilov, a 17-year-old medical student from Azerbaijan, died after being stabbed 20 times in Volgograd. Police later detained Vitaliy Vasilyev, an unemployed local man, who confessed to attacking Gavrilov on the basis of his ethnic identity. According to media reports, Vasilyev had ties to radical right-wing organizations and attacked the student because he wanted to “kill a non-Russian.” Authorities charged Vasilyev with murder.

According to a 2018 report by the human rights group Antidiscrimination Center Memorial (ADC Memorial), Roma faced widespread discrimination in access to resources (including water, gas, and electrical services); demolitions of houses and forced evictions, including of children, often in winter; violation of the right to education (segregation of Romani children in low-quality schools); deprivation of parental rights; and other forms of structural discrimination.

On February 21, a court in Leninsk-Kuznetskiy fined a local resident for posts on social media judged to be an “incitement to hatred or enmity” directed against Roma. The man made the posts during large-scale brawls that took place in villages near Leninsk-Kuznetskiy between Romani and non-Romani residents.

Indigenous People

The constitution and various statutes provide support for members of “small-numbered” indigenous groups of the North, Siberia, and the Far East, permitting them to create self-governing bodies and allowing them to seek compensation if economic development threatens their lands. The government granted the status of “indigenous” and its associated benefits only to those ethnic groups numbering fewer than 50,000 and maintaining their traditional way of life. A 2017 report by ADC Memorial noted the major challenges facing indigenous persons included “seizure of territories where these minorities traditionally live and maintain their households by mining and oil and gas companies; removal of self-government bodies of indigenous peoples; and repression of activists and employees of social organizations, including the fabrication of criminal cases.”

On August 9, indigenous residents of Norilsk commemorated the International Day of Indigenous Peoples by holding a march under the theme, “Industrial companies are seizing primordial lands.” A dozen individuals from the Nenets, Nganasans, Dolgans, and Entsy groups who participated in the march alleged they were oppressed, not allowed to lead a traditional way of life, and that their ability to fish was hampered. They specifically condemned industrial oil and gas giant Norilsk Nickel for destroying their way of life. Police initially tried to stop the march but eventually relented.

Indigenous sources reported state-sponsored harassment, including interrogations by security services as well as employment discrimination (see section 7.d.). Such treatment was especially acute in areas where corporations wanted to exploit natural resources. By law indigenous groups have exclusive rights to their indigenous lands, but the land itself and its natural resources belong to the state. Companies are required to pay compensation to local inhabitants, but activists asserted that local authorities rarely enforced this provision. Activists stated that interests of corporations and indigenous persons were in constant conflict.

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

The law criminalizes the distribution of “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors and effectively limits the rights of free expression and assembly for citizens who wish to advocate publicly for LGBTI rights or express the opinion that homosexuality is normal. Examples of what the government considered LGBTI propaganda included materials that “directly or indirectly approve of persons who are in nontraditional sexual relationships” (see section 2.a.). The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, or access to government services, such as health care.

During the year there were reports state actors committed violence against LGBTI individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in Chechnya (see section 1.a.). According to the Russian LGBT Network, as of July more than 175 LGBTI persons had fled Chechnya since 2017, the majority of whom had also left the country.

There were reports that government agents attacked, harassed, and threatened LGBTI activists. For example, on January 29, media outlets reported that Rostov-on-Don-based LGBTI activist Anna Dvornichenko fled Russia for the Netherlands after local law enforcement authorities threatened to initiate criminal and administrative cases against her for “extremist” activities and distribution of LGBTI propaganda to minors. She told media that police refused to investigate several attacks against her in which unknown assailants attacked her with pepper spray and a smoke bomb. In addition, on November 13 in St. Petersburg, masked men shouted homophobic slogans as police and Rospotrebnadzor employees disrupted the opening night of Side By Side, Russia’s only annual LGBT film festival.

LGBTI persons were particular targets of societal violence, and police often failed to respond adequately to such incidents. For example, the Russian LGBT Network reported that a transgender man was attacked while he was leaving a supermarket in the Kursk region on April 28. The assailant grabbed the man by the neck, beat him, and threatened to kill him. After seeking medical attention, the man was diagnosed with a ruptured eardrum and a concussion. According to the network, the victim filed a report, but police did not investigate the incident and refused to open a criminal case.

There were reports that authorities failed to respond when credible threats of violence were made against LGBTI persons. For example, LGBTI and feminist activist Yuliya Tsvetkova reported she had received numerous death threats, including from an organization known as “Saw” that called for violence against the LGBTI community. Tsvetkova was under investigation for the distribution of pornography and LGBTI propaganda to minors and was under house arrest when she received numerous threats that included her address and other personal details. Tsvetkova also stated that her mother had received numerous threatening telephone calls related to her case. When Tsvetkova informed police, they dismissed the reported incidents and claimed it would be impossible to investigate them.

On April 14, the Russian LGBT Network released a report that showed 11.6 percent of LGBTI respondents in their survey had experienced physical violence, 4 percent had experienced sexual violence, and 56.2 percent had experienced psychological abuse during their lifetime. The report noted that LGBTI persons faced discrimination in their place of study or work, when receiving medical services, and when searching for housing. The report also noted that transgender persons were uniquely vulnerable to discrimination and violence. The Russian LGBT Network claimed that law enforcement authorities did not always protect the rights of LGBTI individuals and were sometimes the source of violence themselves. As a result LGBTI individuals had extremely low levels of trust in courts and police.

In one example of low levels of trust in authorities, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that in September St. Petersburg police arrested 53-year-old actor and theater producer Yuriy Yanovskiy for killing Jamshid Hatamjonov, a transgender sex worker from Uzbekistan who preferred to be called Tamara. Tamara was reported missing in January, and her dismembered body was found in July. The investigation was complicated because the victim’s acquaintances were not willing to testify due to fear authorities would identify and harass them for their sexual orientation and profession. Activists suspected that the victim did not seek any help from authorities for her client’s prior violent behaviors because she feared police.

There were reports police conducted involuntary physical exams of transgender or intersex persons. LGBTI NGO Coming Out reported that in March 2019, some police officers physically and sexually harassed a transgender woman in the process of medical transition. Police had detained her to investigate the death of her roommate. During interrogation at the police station, the victim reported that a police officer hit her approximately five times on the head, using both his open hand and his fist. The police officers also inquired repeatedly about her genitals, demanded that she display her chest, made rude comments about the shape and size of her genitals, took photographs of her, and shared the images on social media.

The Association of Russian Speaking Intersex reported that medical specialists often pressured intersex persons (or their parents if they were underage) into having so-called normalization surgery without providing accurate information about the procedure or what being intersex means.

The law prohibiting the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientations” restricted freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly for LGBTI persons and their supporters (see sections 2.a. and 2.b.). LGBTI persons reported significant societal stigma and discrimination, which some attributed to official promotion of intolerance and homophobia.

High levels of employment discrimination against LGBTI persons reportedly persisted (see section 7.d.). Activists asserted that the majority of LGBTI persons hid their sexual orientation or gender identity due to fear of losing their jobs or homes, as well as the risk of violence. LGBTI students also reported discrimination at schools and universities.

Medical practitioners reportedly continued to limit or deny LGBTI persons health services due to intolerance and prejudice. The Russian LGBT Network’s report indicated that, upon disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBTI individuals often encountered strong negative reactions and the presumption they were mentally ill.

Transgender persons faced difficulty updating their names and gender markers on government documents to reflect their gender identity because the government had not established standard procedures, and many civil registry offices denied their requests. When documents failed to reflect their gender identity, transgender persons often faced harassment by law enforcement officers and discrimination in accessing health care, education, housing, transportation, and employment.

There were reports LGBTI persons also faced discrimination in the area of parental rights. The Russian LGBT Network reported LGBTI parents often feared that the country’s prohibition on the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” to minors would be used to remove custody of their children.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Persons with HIV or AIDS faced significant legal discrimination, growing informal stigma-based barriers, and employment discrimination (see section 7.d.). They also continued to face barriers to adopting children in many cases.

According to NGO activists, men who have sex with men were unlikely to seek antiretroviral treatment, since treatment exposed the fact that these individuals had the virus, while sex workers were afraid to appear in the official system due to threats from law enforcement bodies. Many individuals who injected drugs also did not seek treatment because of the country’s aggressive criminalization of illegal drugs and the marginalization of users. Economic migrants also concealed their HIV status and avoided treatment due to fear of deportation. By law foreign citizens who are HIV-positive may be deported. The law, however, bars the deportation of HIV-positive foreigners who have a Russian national or permanent resident spouse, child, or parents. Younger women with HIV or AIDS in particular faced multiple challenges and barriers to accessing treatment because of stigma, discrimination, gender stereotypes, violence, and difficulty accessing sexual and reproductive health care.

Some prisoners with HIV or AIDS experienced abuse and denial of medical treatment and had fewer opportunities for visits with their children (see section 1.c.). For example, on January 24, media outlets reported that Giorgi Murusidze was denied HIV medication for several months while in a St. Petersburg detention center.

On September 7, the head of the Federal Scientific and Methodological Center for the Prevention and Control of AIDS had been diverted to address the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the capacity of the center to provide patients antiretroviral therapy. An NGO noted that it was difficult for persons with HIV or AIDS to receive elective health care, as most beds for patients with infectious diseases had been diverted to COVID-19-related cases. Migrants with HIV or AIDS had an especially difficult time because many lost their jobs and had difficulty accessing health care.

Children with HIV faced discrimination in education. NGOs noted that many younger children with HIV faced resistance by other parents when trying to enroll in schools.

On July 11, the government lifted restrictions on persons with HIV who wanted to adopt children if the adoptive parents met strict criteria, such as being on dispensary observation for at least a year and having a CD4 cell level above 350 cells/milliliter.

The Ministry of Justice continued to designate HIV-related NGOs as foreign agents, effectively reducing the number of organizations that could serve the community (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

The lack of an internal passport often prevented homeless citizens from fully securing their legal rights and social services. Homeless persons faced barriers to obtaining legal documentation as well as medical insurance, without which clinics refused to treat them. Media outlets reported that in April police fined several homeless persons for violating the self-isolation regime imposed in various cities to control the spread of COVID-19.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

A homophobic campaign continued in state-controlled media in which officials, journalists, and others derided LGBTI persons as “perverts,” “sodomites,” and “abnormal,” and conflated homosexuality with pedophilia.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides that workers may form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, but it does not require employers to reinstate workers fired due to their union activity. The law prohibits reprisals against striking workers. Unions must register with the Federal Registration Service, often a cumbersome process that includes lengthy delays and convoluted bureaucracy. The grounds on which trade union registration may be denied are not defined and can be arbitrary or unjustified. Active duty members of the military, civil servants, customs workers, judges, prosecutors, and persons working under civil contracts are excluded from the right to organize. The law requires labor unions to be independent of government bodies, employers, political parties, and NGOs.

The law places several restrictions on the right to bargain collectively. For example, only one collective bargaining agreement is permitted per enterprise, and only a union or group of unions representing at least one-half the workforce may bargain collectively. The law allows workers to elect representatives if there is no union. The law does not specify who has authority to bargain collectively when there is no trade union in an enterprise.

The law prohibits strikes in the military and emergency response services. It also prohibits strikes in essential public-service sectors, including utilities and transportation, and strikes that would threaten the country’s defense, safety, and the life and health of its workers. The law additionally prohibits some nonessential public servants from striking and imposes compulsory arbitration for railroad, postal, and municipal workers, as well as public servants in roles other than law enforcement.

Laws regulating workers’ strikes remained extremely restrictive, making it difficult to declare a strike but easy for authorities to rule a strike illegal and punish workers. It was also very difficult for those without a labor contract to go on a legal strike. For example, on July 13, according to media reports, several dozen Renaissance Heavy Industries workers staged a strike at the Gazprom plant in the Amur region demanding several months of unpaid wages. A crowd there was dispersed by riot police, and authorities charged several participants with criminal charges of hooliganism and participation in riots.

Union members must follow extensive legal requirements and engage in consultations with employers before acquiring the right to strike. Solidarity strikes and strikes on matters related to state policies are illegal, as are strikes that do not respect the onerous time limits, procedures, and requirements mandated by law. Employers may hire workers to replace strikers. Workers must give prior notice of the following aspects of a proposed strike: a list of the differences of opinion between employer and workers that triggered the strike; the date and time at which the strike is intended to start, its duration, and the number of anticipated participants; the name of the body that is leading the strike and the representatives authorized to participate in the conciliation procedures; and proposals for the minimum service to be provided during the strike. In the event a declared strike is ruled illegal and takes place, courts may confiscate union property to cover employers’ losses.

The Federal Labor and Employment Service (RosTrud) regulates employer compliance with labor law and is responsible for “controlling and supervising compliance with labor laws and other legal acts which deal with labor norms” by employers. Several state agencies, including the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor’s Office, RosTrud, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, are responsible for enforcing the law. These agencies, however, frequently failed to enforce the law, and violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining provisions were common. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other similar laws related to civil rights.

Employers frequently engaged in reprisals against workers for independent union activity, including threatening to assign them to night shifts, denying benefits, and blacklisting or firing them. Although unions were occasionally successful in court, in most cases managers who engaged in antiunion activities did not face penalties. For example, in June the independent university teachers’ union University Solidarity called on the heads of the Yugra State University to stop discrimination against Vanda Tilles, a professor and union member at that university. Tilles claimed that the lack of transparency in the promotion system at the university promoted the firing of active union leaders.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor but allows for it as a penal sentence, in some cases as prison labor contracted to private enterprises.

The government was not effective in enforcing laws against forced labor, and there was a government policy or pattern of forced labor. Prescribed penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes. Instances of labor trafficking have been reported in the construction, manufacturing, logging, textile, and maritime industries, as well as in saw mills, agriculture, sheep farms, grocery and retail stores, restaurants, waste sorting, street sweeping, domestic service, and forced begging (see section 7.c.). Serious gaps remained in protecting migrant laborers, particularly from North Korea, who generally earned 40 percent less than the average salary. Migrant workers at times experienced exploitative labor conditions characteristic of trafficking cases, such as withholding of identity documents, nonpayment for services rendered, physical abuse, unsafe working conditions, and extremely poor living conditions.

Under a state-to-state agreement in effect since 2009, North Korean citizens worked in the country in a variety of sectors, including the logging and construction industries in the Far East. In order to comply with the 2017 UN Security Council Resolution prohibiting the employment of North Koreans, Russia has largely eliminated North Korean laborers working in the country legally and continues to affirm its commitment to do so. The country failed, however, to return all North Korean workers by the December 2019 UN deadline and claimed that North Korea’s closing of its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the effort. The Ministry of Internal Affairs was believed to have manipulated its publicly available data on the number of North Koreans working in the country. Observers believed a significant number of North Koreans entering the country on student, tourist, and “other” visa categories since the introduction of UN sanctions came to work rather than their stated purpose of travel, especially in the Far East.

Authorities failed to screen departing North Korean workers for human trafficking and indications of forced labor.

There were reports of forced labor in the production of bricks, raising livestock, and at sawmills, primarily in Dagestan. While both men and women were exploited for forced labor in these industries in the Northern Caucasus region, victims were primarily male job seekers recruited in Moscow.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 16 in most cases and regulates the working conditions of children younger than 18. The law permits children to work at 14 under certain conditions and with the approval of a parent or guardian. Such work must not threaten the child’s health or welfare. The law lists occupations restricted for children younger than 18, including work in unhealthy or dangerous conditions, underground work, or jobs that might endanger a child’s health and moral development.

RosTrud is responsible for inspecting enterprises and organizations to identify violations of labor and occupational health standards for minors. The government effectively enforced the law, although penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

Child labor was uncommon but could occur in the informal service and retail sectors. Some children, both Russian and foreign, were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, forced participation in the production of pornography, and forced begging (see section 6, Children).

Also, see the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, gender identity, or disability. Although the country placed a general ban on discrimination, the government did not effectively enforce the law and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other similar laws related to civil rights.

Discrimination based on gender in compensation, professional training, hiring, and dismissal was common. Employers often preferred to hire men to save on maternity and child-care costs and to avoid the perceived unreliability associated with women with small children. Such discrimination was often very difficult to prove.

The law prohibits employer discrimination in posting job vacancy information. It also prohibits employers from requesting workers with specific gender, race, nationality, address registration, age, and other factors unrelated to personal skills and competencies. Notwithstanding the law, vacancy announcements sometimes specified gender and age requirements, and some also specified a desired physical appearance.

According to the Center for Social and Labor Rights, courts often ruled in favor of employees filing complaints, but the sums awarded were often seen as not worth the cost and time required to take legal action.

The law restricts women’s employment in jobs with “harmful or dangerous conditions or work underground, except in nonphysical jobs or sanitary and consumer services,” and forbids women’s employment in “manual handling of bulk weights that exceed the limits set for their handling.”

The law includes numerous tasks prohibited for women and includes restrictions on women’s employment in mining, manufacturing, and construction. During the year women were prohibited from employment in 456 labor categories. In late 2019 the law was amended to reduce the number of labor categories prohibited to woman to 98, starting in 2021. According to the Ministry of Labor, women on average earned 27.9 percent less than men in 2019. The legal age requirements for women and men to access either their full or partial pension benefits are not equal.

The law does not prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, and there are no criminal or civil remedies for sexual harassment experienced in the workplace.

The law requires applicants to undergo a mandatory pre-employment health screening for some jobs listed in the labor code or when enrolling at educational institutions. The medical commission may restrict or prohibit access to jobs and secondary or higher education if it finds signs of physical or mental problems. The law prohibits discrimination of persons with disabilities, but they were often subjected to employment discrimination. Companies with 35 to 100 employees have an employment quota of 1 to 3 percent for persons with disabilities, while those with more than 100 employees have a 2 to 4 percent quota. An NGO noted that some companies kept persons with disabilities on the payroll in order to fulfill the quotas but did not actually provide employment for them. Inadequate workplace access for persons with disabilities also limited their work opportunities.

Many migrants regularly faced discrimination and hazardous or exploitative working conditions. Despite President Putin signing a decree in April to extend the validity of documents necessary for temporary residency and labor within the country in response to COVID-19 restrictions, media outlets reported numerous cases of migrants being threatened with deportation or forced to pay to extend their status. For example, on May 14, media outlets reported that the employer of a Uzbek citizen who had been working legally in the country for 15 years forced him to pay for the extension of his work permit during the two months he was on unpaid leave and threatened to call authorities if he refused.

Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was a problem, especially in the public sector and education. Employers fired LGBTI persons for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or public activism in support of LGBTI rights. Primary and secondary school teachers were often the targets of such pressure due to the law on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” targeted at minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

Persons with HIV or AIDS were prohibited from working in areas of medical research and medicine that dealt with bodily fluids, including surgery and blood drives. The Ministry of Internal Affairs does not hire persons with HIV or AIDS, although a person who contracts HIV or AIDS while employed is protected from losing their job.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The monthly minimum wage increased to the official poverty level on January 1. Some local governments enacted minimum wage rates higher than the national rate.

Nonpayment of wages is a criminal offense and is punishable by fines, compulsory labor, or imprisonment. Federal law provides for administrative fines of employers who fail to pay salaries and sets progressive compensation scales for workers affected by wage arrears. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and nonpayment or late payment of wages remained widespread. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, Rosstat, as of October 1, wage arrears amounted to approximately 1.83 billion rubles ($23.8 million).

The law provides for standard workhours, overtime, and annual leave. The standard workweek may not exceed 40 hours. Employers may not request overtime work from pregnant women, workers younger than age 18, and other categories of employees specified by federal law. Standard annual paid leave is 28 calendar days. Employees who perform work involving harmful or dangerous labor conditions and employees in the Far North regions receive additional annual paid leave. Organizations have discretion to grant additional leave to employees.

The law stipulates that payment for overtime must be at least 150 percent for the first two hours and not less than 200 percent after that. At an employee’s request, overtime may be compensated by additional holiday leave. Overtime work may not exceed four hours in a two-day period or 120 hours in a year for each employee. The government did effectively enforce minimum wage and hour laws, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

The law establishes minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health, but it does not explicitly allow workers to remove themselves from hazardous workplaces without threat to their employment. The law entitles foreigners working in the country to the same rights and protections as citizens.

Occupational safety and health standards were appropriate within the main industries. Government inspectors are responsible for enforcement and generally applied the law in the formal sector. Serious breaches of occupational safety and health provisions are criminal offenses and penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other similar crimes. Experts generally pointed to prevention of these offenses, rather than adequacy of available punishment, as the main challenge to protection of worker rights. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law in all sectors. RosTrud, the agency that enforces the provisions, noted state labor inspectors needed additional professional training and that the agency needed additional inspectors to enforce consistent compliance. Inspectors had the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

At the end of 2019, an estimated 13 million persons were employed in the shadow economy. Employment in the informal sector was concentrated in the southern regions. The largest share of laborers in the informal economy was concentrated in the trade, construction, and agricultural sectors, where workers were more vulnerable to exploitative working conditions. Labor migrants worked in low-skilled jobs in construction but also in housing, utilities, agriculture, and retail trade sectors, often informally. Labor law and protections apply to workers in the informal sector.

No national-level information was available on the number of workplace accidents or fatalities during the year. According to Rosstat, in 2019 approximately 23,300 workers were injured in industrial accidents, including 1,060 deaths.

Syria

Executive Summary

President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath Party leaders dominated all three branches of government as an authoritarian regime. An uprising against the regime that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election resulted in the re-election of Assad, and the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front won 177 of the 250 seats in the People’s Council 2020 parliamentary elections. These elections took place in an environment of widespread regime coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.

The regime’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Regime-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces, integrated with other regime-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces but possessed limited influence over foreign military or paramilitary organizations operating in the country, including proregime forces such as the Russian armed forces, Iran-affiliated Hizballah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Regime and proregime forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of northwest Syria, killing thousands of civilians and forcing nearly one million persons to flee before the brokering of a ceasefire in March, which largely held through the remainder of the year. The assault, involving the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists. As of August the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported there were 6.6 million internally displaced persons, 2.6 million of whom were children, and more than 5.5 million Syrian registered refugees outside the country. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria found it probable that the regime, its Russian allies, and other proregime forces committed attacks “marked by war crimes” that “may amount to crimes against humanity” during these attacks.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime; forced disappearances by the regime; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prolonged arbitrary detention; political prisoners and detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflict, including aerial and ground attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure including schools, markets, and hospitals; serious restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including severe restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; violence and severe discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.

The regime took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security and intelligence forces and elsewhere in the regime.

Regime-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres; indiscriminate killings; kidnapping of civilians; extreme physical abuse, including sexual violence; and unlawful detentions. Regime-aligned militias, including Hizballah, repeatedly launched attacks that killed and injured civilians.

Russian forces were implicated in the deaths of civilians resulting from airstrikes characterized by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate and resulting in the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, particularly during support of the regime’s military campaign in northwest Syria. These airstrikes destroyed hospitals, shelters, markets, homes, and other integral civilian facilities, damaging medical supplies and equipment and shutting down vital health-care networks, and followed a well documented pattern of attacks with serious and deleterious humanitarian and civilian impact.

The unstable security situation in areas under the control of armed opposition groups continued to foster an environment in which human rights abuses were committed, including killings, extreme physical abuse, and detention.

Armed terrorist groups, such as al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), committed a wide range of abuses, including unlawful killings and kidnappings, unlawful detention, extreme physical abuse, deaths of civilians during attacks described by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate, and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, the group continued to carry out unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings, sometimes targeting civilians. The Carnegie Corporation assessed that ISIS benefited from a security vacuum left by the various military forces reducing activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained civilians across the border into Turkey, the cutting of water to civilian populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines.

Elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minority groups that included members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, reportedly engaged in human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, acts of corruption, and restrictions on freedom of assembly.

The UN Commission of Inquiry and human rights groups reported that perpetrators often acted with a sense of impunity, and the vast majority of abuses committed since 2011 went uninvestigated.

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

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

There were numerous reports that the regime and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.). No internal governmental bodies meaningfully investigated whether security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), more than 227,180 civilians were killed in the conflict from 2011 to December. Other groups estimated this number exceeded 550,000. This discrepancy was due in part to the vast number of disappeared, many of whom remained missing.

During the year the SNHR reported 1,462 civilians were killed, including at least 200 women and 218 children. The majority of these deaths occurred at the beginning of the year, during a military operation led by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies against the areas in and around Idlib.

The regime continued to commit extrajudicial killings and to cause the death of large numbers of civilians throughout regime-controlled territories. For example, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reported that the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Assault Corps of the Syrian Arab Army entered al-Quraya on March 27, killed six armed residents in the fighting, and later summarily executed five men and detained others.

The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) and numerous human rights groups reported the regime continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. According to the SNHR, more than 14,500 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and December, including 179 children and 91 women; the SNHR attributed approximately 99 percent of all cases to regime forces, including 115 deaths during the year (see section 1.c.).

Despite a ceasefire established in March, the regime maintained its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling, killing hundreds of civilians during the year. In 2019 the UN secretary-general established a Board of Inquiry (BOI) to investigate attacks on civilian sites shared between humanitarian groups and military actors for the purpose of deconfliction from September 2018 through 2019 in northwest Syria. In April the BOI concluded that, in four of the seven incidents investigated, it “was highly probable” the Assad regime and its allies were responsible for attacks on UN deconflicted hospitals. In March the COI reporting on Idlib determined there were reasonable grounds to believe Russian forces were guilty of the war crime of “launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas” and that “progovernment forces repeatedly committed the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects and intentionally attacking medical personnel. In attacking hospitals, medical units, and health-care personnel, progovernment forces violated binding international humanitarian law to care for the sick and wounded and committed the war crime of attacking protected objects.”

Other actors in the conflict were also implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).

b. Disappearance

There were numerous reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of regime authorities, and the vast majority of those disappeared since the start of the conflict remained missing. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. The SNHR reported approximately 1,185 forced disappearances during the year and documented at least 149,360 Syrians were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions. The regime targeted medical personnel and critics, including journalists and protesters, as well as their families and associates. Most disappearances reported by Syrian and international human rights documentation groups appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).

In July, Syrian journalist Wafa Ali Mustafa told the UN Security Council the number of detained and disappeared was still growing as the regime continued to use detention “as a weapon to terrorize civilians.” As of December the regime issued nearly 17 amnesty decrees, the last of which was in March and included only a small number of cases heard by the Counter-Terrorism Court and military field courts. The decree excluded the vast majority of detainees who were never formally convicted of a crime in any court of law and were classified by the international community as unacknowledged detainees or forcibly disappeared.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) reported in August that it had requested information from the regime on 113 individuals whom the regime reportedly subjected to enforced disappearance between May 2019 and May 2020. The UNWGEID received no response from the regime on these or other outstanding cases. The UNWGEID also received reports of disappearances, including women and children, perpetrated by various armed groups, including those affiliated with the Turkish armed forces.

According to the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, in February the regime released the bodies of Maher Suleiman al-Dali and Ahmad Ali al-Awad, who were arresting after defecting from the Syrian army. Both had signed reconciliation agreements.

Throughout the year the regime continued publishing notifications of detainees’ deaths in regime detention facilities. According to Families for Freedom, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. In many cases the regime had denied the presence of these individuals in its detention centers until it released death notifications. The SNHR recorded at least 970 of these notifications but estimated that the number of detainees certified as dead was in the thousands. The regime did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred.

For example, the SNHR received information in June that Wesam Fawwaz Mer’i al-Haj Ali, a college student detained and forcibly disappeared by regime forces in 2013, had died in regime custody. As was frequently the case, the regime did not provide Wesam’s body to the family or officially inform the family of the timing or manner of his death, although the SNHR reported it was likely due to torture.

The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared approaching authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.

Some terrorist groups and armed opposition groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).

The regime made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.

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

The law prohibits torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, reported thousands of credible cases of regime authorities engaging in systematic torture, abuse, and mistreatment to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations, a systematic regime practice documented throughout the conflict and even prior to 2011. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights assessed that, while individuals were often tortured in order to obtain information, the primary purpose of the regime’s use of torture during interrogations was to terrorize and humiliate detainees.

While most accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in regime custody during the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of regime reprisal. Many torture victims reportedly died in custody (see section 1.a.).

A military defector, nicknamed “Caesar,” testified outside the country in April that he had been ordered to take photographs of the bodies of victims–including thousands of photographs he later smuggled out of the country–who had been detained, tortured, and extrajudicially killed in regime detention centers between 2011 and 2013. Caesar said the bodies had signs of burning, strangulation, and whipping with cables. NGOs continued to report various forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison described the testimonies of 14 former detainees held by the regime in Sednaya Prison and reported prison officials subjected detainees to a wide range of torture as an interrogation tactic and, at times, for no reason at all. The SNHR documented the deaths of at least 33 individuals between March and June, including one woman, due to torture and medical negligence in regime detention centers. For example, the State Security Force arrested Mahmoud Abdul Majid al-Rahil from Daraa on May 4, returning his body to his family three days later. Al-Rahil, whose body bore signs of torture, had previously settled his legal and security status with the regime via a reconciliation agreement and was not engaged in military activity at the time of his arrest. In May the SNHR interviewed 96 individuals released under the March amnesty decree, all of whom had been arrested for their connection to protests. Many reported being subjected to torture by regime security forces as a method for extracting confessions to “terrorism” related crimes.

The COI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported regular use of torture against perceived regime opponents at checkpoints and regime facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. Human rights groups identified numerous detention facilities where torture occurred, including the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra Prison; Sednaya Prison; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and the Tishreen Military Hospital.

The SNHR estimated that parties of the conflict committed at least 11,520 acts of sexual violence between 2011 and December. Regime forces were responsible for at least 8,020 cases of sexual violence between 2011 and December, including 879 cases inside detention centers and 443 violations against girls younger than age 18. American University’s Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence stated that regime authorities subjected men, women, and children in detention to sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, sexual torture and abuse, and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment.

In July, HRW reported the regime and, to a lesser extent, nonstate actors subjected men, boys, transgender women, and nonbinary persons to sexual violence during detention, and that this violence was perpetrated with the intent to torture and terrorize detainees. Those interviewed by HRW described being subjected to rape, threat of rape, genital violence, forced nudity, and sexual harassment. One interviewee, 28-year-old Yousef, stated he was detained by regime intelligence agencies and, once his sexual orientation was revealed, the interrogations increased drastically, accompanied by torture and sexual violence designed to humiliate detainees, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) assessed in June that the regime perpetrated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including the detention and torture of medical workers, intending to “make delivery of health care a crime and to criminalize doctors for treating people.”

There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the regime. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relationships, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities. According to the SNHR’s database, at least 4,815 children were still detained or forcibly disappeared as of September, with at least 100 of those detentions having taken place during the year. In January the COI issued a special report on abuses against children throughout the conflict in Syria. The report noted that regime coerces detained boys as young as 12, subjecting them to severe beatings and torture and denying them access to food, water, sanitation, and medical care. The COI also noted the presence of male and female detainees as young as age 11 recorded in Security Branches 215, 227, 235, and 248 in Damascus. The COI reported that children were made to witness the torture and other abuses inflicted on family members and, on occasions, were forced to inflict torture on other detainees. One COI interviewee described how a 16-year-old boy was forced to electrocute the genitals of another detainee.

The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique of abuse and interrogation.

Numerous human rights organizations concluded that regime forces continued to inflict systematic, officially sanctioned torture on civilians in detention with impunity. There were no known prosecutions or convictions in the country of security force personnel for abuses and no reported regime actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.

In April the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, initiated the first trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria, charging former regime officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib. Raslan was charged with crimes against humanity, rape, aggravated sexual assault, and 58 murders at Branch 251, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 individuals between April 2011 and September 2012. Al-Gharib was charged with aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity and complicity in some 30 cases of torture.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assessed in April the conditions in regime prisons were alarming and presented unique risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. The SNHR estimated at least 149,360 Syrians were in detention centers or forcibly disappeared, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions.

Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. Poor conditions in detention centers were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy. Human rights groups reported that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults.

Reports from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) suggested that there continued to be many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the regime housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.

In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.

Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and often denied pregnant women any medical care. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. One former detainee, Omar Alshogre, testified the regime detained him as a minor in 2012 and subjected him to extensive torture, including at Branch 215 where he was held in an underground prison cell with hundreds of other detainees. He said malnutrition and disease, including tuberculosis, was prevalent among the detainees.

Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable. The OHCHR reported in April that Syrian detainees with disabilities and underlying health conditions were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

According to the COI, conditions in detention centers run by nonstate actors, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked HTS, violated international law (see section 1.g.).

Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with most families waiting years to see relatives and, in many cases, never being able to visit them at all without bribing regime officials.

In areas where regime control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not respect due process and lacked training to run facilities.

Independent Monitoring: The regime prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its visits to formal prisons in 2016 and reported making limited progress on restoring family links to relatives in detention. The ICRC was unable to visit intelligence and military detention centers during the year.

The ICRC and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties to gain access to detention centers across the country but were unable to gain access to any regime-controlled facilities during the year. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the ICRC and UN-supported NGOs access to SDF prisons during the year.

Reportedly, the regime often failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The regime also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the regime to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The COI and various NGOs, activists, and former detainees reported police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the regime did not observe this requirement. Arbitrary arrests continued during the year, according to the COI, local news sources, and various human rights organizations.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Under the constitution and code of criminal procedure, for example, defendants must be informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are entitled to legal aid and are presumed innocent until convicted by a court in a fair trial. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the regime applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which could be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not ensure lawyers’ access to their clients before trial. The ICTJ reported the accused were generally tried without a lawyer and denied the right to present a defense. Judges usually followed the intelligence director’s sentence recommendations, even though it was widely known many confessions were made under torture.

In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the Counterterrorism Court (CTC), courts-martial, or criminal courts. The CTC, military field courts, and military courts are exempted from following the same procedures as ordinary courts, allowing them to operate outside of the code of criminal procedure and deny basic rights guaranteed to defendants. Numerous human rights organizations asserted that trials before these courts were unfair and summary in nature. The regime reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not identify themselves or inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Of the former detainees interviewed by ICTJ, mostly from Sednaya Prison, 99 percent said they were never provided paperwork describing the charges against them during their entire period of detention.

NGOs such as the STJ and the Office of Daraa Martyrs confirmed that reported intelligence branches had arrested at least 500 Syrians who had signed reconciliation agreements with the regime during the last two years. The Office of Daraa Martyrs stated reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government; therefore, the regime often fabricated criminal charges against former opposition members. Organizations such as Amnesty International also charged the regime with breaking terms of surrender deals and arresting civilians in Homs, Daraa, and the Damascus countryside.

Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGO reports and confirmed by regime memoranda secured and released by human rights documentation groups, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. In areas under regime control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that regime forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests.

Estimates varied widely on the number of Syrians remaining in arbitrary detention, as the regime continued to withhold information on the status of the vast majority of detainees. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported at least 149,360 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed 88 percent of these cases to the regime.

In May the ICTJ issued a report stating that the Syrian Arab Army and the four main security services–Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence Directorate, and Air Force Intelligence Directorate–were responsible for the majority of arbitrary arrests and detentions, often on fabricated charges. The SNHR reported that regime forces and proregime militias were responsible for nearly 500 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year, including eight minors and 11 women. The COI stated regime forces and affiliated militias continued to hold tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. It further reported that women with familial ties to opposition fighters or defectors were detained for intelligence-gathering purposes or retribution.

In June, Amnesty International reported regime security forces arrested 11 men for participating in peaceful protests in Sweida. The regime threatened to send eight of them to the “antiterrorism” court in Damascus if protests in Sweida continued. The regime reportedly carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Douma, arresting 12 civilians in June and taking them to an undisclosed location.

The PHR reported that regime forces continued to target specifically health-care workers because of their status as medical professionals and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. Survivors reported the regime relied on torture to coerce medical workers to confess to crimes they did not commit and gather information on other health workers and healthcare activities. Additionally, human rights activists said the regime was arresting health-care providers who spoke to international media outlets about the COVID-19 crisis or contradicted the tightly controlled narrative on the impact of the pandemic on the country.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) reported authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at checkpoints, often citing no reason for their arrest or solely for being of military age. Some who had previously settled their security status with the regime via reconciliation agreements were then transferred to a long-term detention facility or forcibly disappeared.

The HRW reported regime intelligence branches were arbitrarily detaining and disappearing persons in areas retaken by the regime, in violation of reconciliation agreements. The COI reported fear of such arbitrary arrests and detention deterred internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in areas retaken by regime forces.

There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.). The STJ reported that Turkish-supported armed opposition groups (TSOs) detained residents based on their affiliation with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (SNES). For example, the STJ reported that civil police affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups receiving support from the government of Turkey, arbitrarily arrested Kurdish civilians Samia Alo, Abdulhamid Shaiko, Mustafa Ahmad Ibrahim, Abdulrahamn Mustafa Alo, and Rashid Mustafa Ibo in an April 8 raid, demanding their families pay a fine to secure their release.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial, while many detainees died in prison (see section 1.a.). A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. There were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for the prison and detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release, compensation, or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases where defendants were affiliated with the opposition appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. The SNHR reported regime authorities detained and denied access to fair public trial at least 1,730 individuals during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the regime did not respect judicial independence.

The constitution presumes that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them, with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held via video conference instead of in person. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying. The courts appoint lawyers for indigents.

The ICTJ reported that, in the majority of cases involving individuals arrested by regime intelligence branches, defendants were held incommunicado throughout their detention and denied access to a lawyer. The SNHR reported detainees on trial in military courts were often transferred to unknown locations without notification to their attorneys or families. Numerous NGOs reported families of individuals detained by the regime continued to be unable to access information on the status of their relatives.

Human rights groups reported that in some cases the regime provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. By law defendants may present witnesses and evidence or confront the prosecution witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported defendants were tortured and intimidated to acquire information and force confessions, as described in a May ICTJ report.

Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia (Islamic law) regardless of the religion of those involved.

Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the regime denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the regime, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. The regime did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the International Legal Assistance Consortium, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents from the court’s file.

In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. NGOs reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.

According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.

In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities continued to implement a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies.

Human rights groups and media organizations continued to report that the HTS denied those it had detained the opportunity in its sharia courts to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. The HTS reportedly permitted confessions obtained through torture and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.

Tens of thousands of men, women, and children from former ISIS held areas remained in the overcrowded al-Hol camp, administered by an international NGO with security assistance provided by the SDF, where living conditions remained challenging. While basic humanitarian needs were met, services were at times reduced at times due to COVID-19, security incidents persisted, and camp residents did not have freedom of movement.

The SDF reportedly provided information to the COI on its procedure for the return of al-Hol inhabitants and facilitated the return of approximately 1,500 inhabitants between December 2019 and February.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime continued to detain civilians systematically. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the regime, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force, Military, Political Security, and General–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.

Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding the numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges. Human rights groups noted detainees included doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.

Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and widespread torture. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners’ access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the regime denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.

Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. There were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by regime forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.

NGOs continued to report the regime used the counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.

Amnesty: The regime had issued 17 amnesty decrees since 2011, but decrees generally resulted in the release of limited numbers of ordinary criminals. These amnesties excluded detainees who had not been charged with any crimes, which comprised the majority in regime detention. In May the SNHR reported the regime only released 96 detainees in the two months following the March amnesty announcement, arbitrarily detaining 113 others within that same period. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the regime. During the year regime forces violated prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns against civilians and former members of armed opposition factions in areas with signed settlement agreements with the regime.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Regime civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. The HTS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.

In the areas of northeastern Syria under the control of the SNES, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.

Property Restitution

Regime security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law, and although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, regime forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC could try cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.

The regime continued to use Decree 66 to “redesign unauthorized or illegal housing areas” and replace them with “modern” real estate projects. In May the Carnegie Middle East Center called the “Marota City” project in Damascus “the blueprint for future regime-led reconstruction process in Syria used to consolidate its authoritarian rule and crush dissent.” The regime gave residents of the area, known as Bastin al-Razi, 30 days to prove their property rights, an impossible timeframe for those detained, internally displaced, or outside the country due to the conflict.

The regime also continued to implement Law No. 10 to create “redevelopment zones” for reconstruction. Property owners were notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or lose ownership to the state. In January 2019 the regime extended the window from 30 days to one year for citizens to prove they own land being seized for development under Law No. 10, but the NGO PAX reported it was nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property. Refugees and IDPs reportedly feared regime retribution should they attempt to claim their property, and others were unable to assert their housing, land, and property rights due to land zoning, titling, and documentation requirements. Despite the existence of an appeals process, the SJAC expressed serious concern the law was being implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

In August the European Institute of Peace (EIP) reported the regime had prevented IDPs from returning to Wadi Barada, an area formerly held by the opposition where extensive demolitions subsequently took place. It was estimated more than 10,000 displaced residents were unable to return to their homes in Wadi Barada.

The EIP interviewed a former Ain al-Fijeh resident who had received a notice of the regime’s intent to seize his property on charges of supporting terrorism. The resident stated that even his settlement agreement would not be accepted until he surrendered, despite previous regime promises to IDPs that they could return to their homes during settlement negotiations.

Armed groups also reportedly seized residents’ properties. In September the COI reported it had “corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, and detention.” The COI also reported TSO looting and seizures of schools, businesses, and agricultural machinery.

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

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the regime routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the regime maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against regime targets, or resumption of regime control.

The regime continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).

As described in COI reports, the regime employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.

The regime reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. Numerous reports confirmed that the regime continued to punish entire families placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets. The EIP interviewed a resident of Ain al-Fijeh who reported being arbitrarily detained for six months by regime security forces after several of his family members fled to Idlib.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

The regime, proregime militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and violent extremist groups, such as the HTS and ISIS, as well as foreign terrorist groups such as Hizballah, continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran participated in armed combat and supported armed groups operating in the country.

The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the regime’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, law enforcement authorities refusing to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports, such as the September COI report, indicated the regime continued to arbitrarily and unlawfully kill, torture, and detain persons, notably including refugees and IDPs who voluntarily returned to regime-controlled territories. Attacks impacting and destroying civilian infrastructure including schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country.

As of September there were more than 5.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.6 million IDPs. UNHCR also estimated that as of September there were 11.1 million persons in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.1 million in hard-to-reach, besieged areas.

Killings: The regime reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).

Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; the United Nations stopped publishing estimates of the death toll in 2016. The SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed within that time, and other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the large number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown. The SNHR attributed 91 percent of civilian deaths to regime and proregime forces.

Regime and proregime forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for IDPs and Palestinian refugee camps throughout the year; these attacks included bombardment with barrel bombs. These forces used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.

Reports from NGOs and a July COI report indicated that in Idlib, hostilities escalated from the beginning of the year until a ceasefire was brokered between Turkey and Russia in March. Before the ceasefire began, airstrikes by regime and proregime forces caused hundreds of civilian deaths in Idlib.

The SNHR reported the regime and Russian forces carried out at least 490 cluster munition attacks from 2011 to December, comprising the majority of cluster munition attacks during that period. The group also reported that attacks launched by these forces resulted in the deaths of at least 1,030 civilians, including 382 children and 217 women, as well as injuries to approximately 4,350 civilians. For example, the SNHR reported that six civilians, including a child and four women, were killed when a fixed-wing warplane believed to be Russian fired missiles on Jedraya on February 5.

Aerial and ground offensives throughout the demilitarized zone destroyed civilian infrastructure including “deconflicted” hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and farmlands. In April the BOI found it “highly probable” that the regime carried out attacks that impacted three health-care facilities, a school, and a refuge for children in northwest Syria, despite these locations coordinates being deconflicted between the United Nations and Russia.

In July the COI issued a report investigating incidents in northwest Syria, finding that the regime and proregime forces were responsible for 534 of the 582 confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of the year. The COI reported that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that proregime forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” as well as “the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians,” and “that members of progovernment forces, and in particular the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, committed the war crime of pillage.” The COI further stated that proregime forces likely committed “the war crime of spreading terror among the civilian population.” The report noted that “progovernment forces carried out attacks consistent with clear patterns previously documented by COI, affecting markets and medical facilities,” and that “attacks on schools have emerged as one of the most vicious patterns in the Syrian conflict.”

On January 5, as proregime forces intensified efforts to recapture the town of Ariha, six aircraft launched munitions that damaged a water distribution point where civilians had gathered to collect water, in addition to damaging residential homes, a kindergarten, and a mosque, killing at least 13 civilians. On March 5, far from the front lines of the contested area, proregime forces conducted airstrikes on a poultry farm in Marat Misrin where displaced civilians had been relocated, killing at least 16 civilians, including eight women and three children. The COI indicated in its July report there was reason to believe that Russian Aerospace Forces conducted two consecutive airstrikes in this incident.

Although no use of prohibited chemical weapons was reported during the year, in April the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe the regime was responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Ltamenah in 2017. These attacks preceded the more deadly sarin attack in nearby Khan Shaykhun less than two weeks later and were part of the same concerted campaign of terror perpetrated by the Assad regime.

Additionally, the PHR, SNHR, and other NGOs concluded that Russia and the regime targeted humanitarian workers, such as the Syria Civil Defense (The White Helmets) as they attempted to save victims in affected communities. In February the Washington Post reported that airstrikes and shelling killed aid and medical workers attempting to help civilians in Idlib. Most of the 10,000 aid workers in the area were displaced by the regime’s offensive in the first few months of the year, including 15 percent of the International Rescue Committee staff.

There were numerous reports of deaths in regime custody, notably at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison, by execution without due process, torture, and deaths from other forms of abuse, such as malnutrition and lack of medical care (see section 1.a.). In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families.

Violent extremist groups were also responsible for killings during the year. The SNHR attributed 17 civilian deaths to the HTS in the first half of the year. The HTS arbitrarily detained 19-year-old Mohammed Tano in late 2019 and in April condemned him to death for blasphemy, although activists suspected the HTS executed him after discovering texts criticizing HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. In May the online news outlet Middle East Eye reported the HTS killed a civilian in Idlib while using force to disperse a protest. In June the SNHR reported the HTS executed a university student by firing squad at a detention center after detaining him during a raid on his home. There was no trial, and his family was never given his body for burial. In July the COI reported the HTS launched antiregime attacks that affected civilians in regime-controlled areas. On January 21, a nine-year-old boy was killed by a mortar attack reportedly originating from the HTS-controlled part of Aleppo. The COI’s July report found “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the HTS committed the war crimes of murder and of passing sentences and carrying out executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court as well as the war crime of cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture.”

The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in Syria from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates.

Russia, Iran, and Turkey were involved in fighting in Syria during the year. The COI blamed Russia for aerial attacks in northwest Syria throughout the year. Eyewitnesses, a local human rights monitor, and local media reported that an attack carried out by Turkish forces or TSOs on October 16 struck a rural area killing a young boy and injuring others in Ain Issa; the circumstances of this event are in dispute. Official Turkish government sources reported responding to enemy fire on the date in question and in the area that corresponds with this event, with four to six People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters reportedly “neutralized,” a term Turkish authorities used to mean killed, captured, or otherwise removed from the battlefield. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. According to media, YPG forces have also reportedly fired on Turkish and TSO forces following Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria and in November and December 2020 during fighting in the vicinity of Ayn Issa, including near civilian infrastructure.

During the year TSOs were allegedly engaged in extrajudicial killings. For example, in May the STJ reported TSO Sultan Murad detained and executed Ibrahim al-Youssef, after a failed extortion attempt. In August the Kurdish National Council and the Afrin Post reported that TSO Faylaq al-Sham militants killed a 63-year-old Kurdish Yezidi civilian, Nouri Jammou Omar Sharaf, following an unsuccessful extortion attempt. Human rights monitors also reported several instances of individuals dying under torture in Firqat al-Hamza and SNA Military Police detention. During the year the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), to whom the SNA nominally reports, announced the establishment of a commission within its Ministry of Defense to investigate serious allegations of abuses. The SIG sentenced one SNA fighter to a life sentence for the 2019 killing of the Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, and a range of other SNA abuses committed during Operation Peace Spring; however, the SIG did not publicly announce this sentencing and subsequently reduced the sentence to 10 years. Human rights and documentation groups expressed a lack of confidence in the credibility of the SIG’s accountability effort.

COI, the SNHR, and other human rights groups reported multiple car bombings, other attacks involving improvised explosive devices, and intra-TSO fighting in TSO-held areas in northern Syria, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, and noted the rise in such attacks during the year. While there was generally a lack of attribution for these attacks, Turkish government officials alleged most attacks were carried out by groups affiliated with PKK.

Abductions: Regime and proregime forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.).

Armed groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists.

The COI noted in its March and September reports that the HTS routinely detained and tortured civilians in territory in northwest Syria under HTS control. According to the COI and HRW, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived regime supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of the HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. The SNHR reported that approximately 2,115 persons remained in HTS detention as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention. For example, the SNHR reported that in August the HTS abducted a pharmacist and director of the midwifery institute in Idlib, Mustafa al-Jazi. His fate remained unknown.

Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, who ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children had since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.

There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups during the conflict: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio.

The COI reported the SDF continued to arrest civilians, including women and children, and hold them in detention without charge. In March the SNHR reported that since the start of the crisis in 2011, more than 3,000 Syrians, including 169 women and 602 children, were still missing after being detained or forcibly disappeared by the SDF. The SNHR and STJ reported instances of SDF fighters detaining civilians, including journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons affiliated with the SNA. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. For example, the SNHR reported the SDF detained Muhammad Muhsen al-Ibrahim in March 2019 in a raid on his home in Deir Ez-Zour. The SDF did not provide information on al-Ibrahim’s status until September, when the family learned of his death in detention. The SDF continued to allow the ICRC into detention facilities to monitor and report on conditions. In September the SDF stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.

The COI, HRW, Amnesty International, and Syrian human rights monitors reported multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention by TSOs, including the groups Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police. The SNHR attributed 185 arbitrary detentions and abductions in the first half of the year to TSO-aligned SNA fighters. The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.

According to the COI, areas where TSOs were active continued to face instability due to increased infighting between the groups during the year. Victims of abductions by TSOs were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin. The Afrin Human Rights Organization, the VDC, and Iraqi media outlet Rudaw reported the February 27 kidnapping of Areen Dali Hassan, a Yezidi woman, in Afrin City. Areen was believed to be in Firqat al-Hamza captivity in the “Castle Prison” in al-Basuta in Afrin District. In June, Families for Freedom and a coalition of 11 other human rights groups reported that fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Firqat al-Hamza resulted in the deaths of three civilians and led to the discovery of at least eight women in degrading conditions in Firqat al-Hamza captivity.

The COI reported in September on the transfer of Syrians detained by SNA fighters to the custody of the government of Turkey, indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.” The Turkish government denied these reports and denied responsibility for Syrian opposition or TSO conduct but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and relayed that the Turkish-supported SNA had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline. The government of Turkey stated its own conduct in the operation was consistent with international law and that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the COI and reliable NGO reports, the regime and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Numerous organizations and former detainees reported that nearly all detainees in regime detention experienced physical abuse and torture at some point during their detention.

As of March the SNHR estimated parties of the conflict committed at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence since March 2011. Regime forces and affiliated militias were responsible for the vast majority of these offenses–more than 8,000 incidents in total–including more than 800 incidents inside detention centers and more than 400 against girls younger than age 18 years. The SNHR also reported 3,487 incidents of sexual violence by ISIS and 12 incidents by the SDF. Numerous NGOs reported that persons in areas retaken by regime forces remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals. The Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence reported most sexual and gender-based abuses by regime forces during the year occurred at checkpoints or in detention (see section 1.d.). In August the SNHR and the All Survivors Project issued a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as a tool of torture used by the regime against men and boys.

There were also reports of armed opposition groups engaging in physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected regime agents and collaborators, proregime militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and June, the SNHR attributed more than 43 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 26 to the HTS (including one child), and more than 33 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 52 deaths to torture by Kurdish forces.

The SDF was also implicated in several instances of torture, with the SNHR reporting the group used torture as a means of extracting confessions during interrogations. On January 29, the SNHR reported it had received notification that Fajr Ibrahim died in custody allegedly as the result of medical negligence, after being detained by the SDF in February. The SNHR also reported detainee Mua’th al-Muhammad al-Kal from Raqqa, reportedly detained in February for transferring money to ISIS-affiliated family members, asserted that while imprisoned, he was left in solitary confinement without food and was subjected to beating and torture for several days. The SNHR also reported video surveillance obtained in March showed severe overcrowding in Ghwayran Prison. In September the COI reported several instances of repeated torture of detainees in SDF prisons. The SDF continued to implement protocols to ensure torture was not used as an interrogation technique and initiated investigations into specific incidents of torture presented by the COI. In September the SDF also stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.

According to the SNHR’s June report on the use of torture in Syria, the HTS continued to carryout detentions and kidnappings of local political opponents and journalists. In June the SNHR reported that members of HTS arrested human rights activist Omar al-Eis and kept him in solitary detention for 126 days. Al-Eis reported hearing sounds of torture every day at the Uqab Prison. In April, HTS fighters abducted Hassan Salh Abs from Sarmin. On April 20, his family received information he had been tortured to death at an HTS detention center. Human rights groups continued to report that the HTS officially denounces secularism and routinely detained and tortured journalists, activists, and other civilians in territory it controlled who were deemed to be have violated the group’s stringent interpretation of sharia. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. Media organizations also documented the forced conversion of Druze and Alawite civilians by the HTS, detaining or disappearing those refusing to comply.

The COI, OHCHR, and human rights groups reported that, since January 2018, TSO groups had allegedly participated in the torture and killings of civilians in Afrin and, since October 2019, in the areas taken during Turkish Operation Peace Spring. The COI reported in March, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of armed groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture” in Afrin and the Operation Peace Spring area. The COI in September reported the torture and rape of minors in TSO detention and “corroborated widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions.” The Violations Documentation Center and local media reported in July that SNA-affiliated Firqat al-Hamza had tortured Mahmoud Hassan Omri, a 27-year-old man with a disability, to death in Ras al-Ayn after forcibly disappearing him in November 2019 when he sought to return to his home, which had been seized by the group.

Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN special representative on children and armed conflict reported in its annual report that at least 820 children had been recruited as child soldiers during the reporting period. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, the SNA, as well as ISIS and the HTS, actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”

The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported the recruitment and use of 820 children (765 boys, and 55 girls) in the conflict between January and December of 2019. According to the report, 798 of the children served in combat roles and 147 were younger than age 15. The report attributed 283 verified cases to SDF-affiliated groups; 245 to the HTS; 191 to Free Syria Army-affiliated groups; 26 to Ahrar al-Sham; one to ISIS; 17 to Jaysh al-Islam; three to Nur al-Din al-Zanki; and 10 to regime forces.

In January the COI reported it continued receiving reports of young boys, some considered by persons who saw them to not be older than age 13, observed at checkpoints staffed by the regime and associated militia in Hama. One interviewee explained to the COI how one of the boys, age 16, joined the regime military forces after ISIS killed his brothers.

The COI continued to receive reports of children being recruited by HTS in Idlib governorate, as proregime forces intensified their offensive. In Aleppo boys between 13 to 17 years of age joined armed groups. One interviewee described the case of a 14-year-old boy who joined Ahrar al-Sham in 2018 along with his older brother to participate in operation “Olive Branch” and served at a checkpoint in Aleppo.

In 2019 the SDF signed an action plan with the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, as well as to identify and separate boys and girls within the group’s ranks and to put in place protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use. The SDF continued to implement an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibited using children for spying, to act as guards, or to deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. During the year the SDF screened out more than 250 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the United Nations.

The United Nations confirmed the SDF had demobilized 86 minors (56 girls and 30 boys) during the year and, working with the SNES, returned these minors to their families for community-based reintegration, pursuant to UN requests. In 2019 also the SDF demobilized 86 children.

The SDF and SNES in August announced the establishment of the Complaints Mechanism, a key component of the child soldier demobilization initiative, which provides parents a single SNES and SDF point of contact to inquire about, identify, and demobilize minors from the SDF. The United Nations reported 10 children were recently returned to their parents through this mechanism.

In August the SDF publicly announced it would cease its use of schools for military purposes; the United Nations subsequently confirmed the SDF withdrew from 16 of 28 schools it identified as under SDF use for military purposes, as well as from two other schools.

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

Other Conflict-related Abuse: In January the COI reported, “warring parties have looted and vandalized educational establishments and used schools for military purposes, including as depots, barracks, sniper posts, temporary bases or launching sites. Repeated attacks on educational facilities combined with the complete breakdown of the education system have minimized the opportunities for children to resume their studies and improve prospects for their future.” The COI further concluded it had documented “instances where Government forces deliberately attacked schools, and therefore committed the war crimes of deliberately targeting a civilian object and deliberately attacking civilians.”

In cities where sieges ended and the regime regained control, the SNHR reported the regime and its allies frequently imposed new collective measures to punish communities by restricting humanitarian access; looting and pillaging; expropriating property; extorting funds; engaging in arbitrary detentions and widespread forcible conscription; detaining, disappearing, or forcibly displacing individuals; engaging in repressive measures aimed at silencing media activists; and destroying evidence of war crimes.

The United Nations estimated that violence in Idlib displaced more than 900,000 persons–80 percent women and children–since December 2019.

According to Amnesty International and numerous other human rights and humanitarian groups, those trapped in the area were crammed into close quarters with IDPs and vulnerable to the regime’s and Russia’s campaign of aerial bombardments impacting civilian infrastructure. The White Helmets documented more than 2,200 airstrikes in January and February, including 32 cluster-bomb attacks and 605 barrel bombs in Idlib, along with Aleppo and Hama. UN officials throughout the year voiced grave concerns about the situation for civilians caught in the Idlib siege. Cross-border assistance remained the only means of reaching persons in and around Idlib.

HRW and various media organizations found that the regime implemented a policy and legal framework to manipulate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funding to benefit itself, punish perceived opponents, and reward those loyal to it. The regime regularly restricted humanitarian organizations’ access to communities in need of aid, selectively approved humanitarian projects, and required organizations to partner with vetted local actors to ensure that the humanitarian response was siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the state apparatus, at the cost of preventing aid from reaching the population unimpeded. Organizations continued to report that entities such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) faced difficulties accessing areas retaken by the regime.

The regime frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups. Foreign Policy and HRW reported that the regime had weaponized humanitarian assistance, only allowing the delivery of assistance to loyalist-held areas through regime organizations such as the Syria Trust for Development, which was led by Bashar Assad’s wife, or the SARC.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning, and hundreds of health-care workers had been killed during the conflict. NGOs and media outlets documented repeated and continuing attacks on health facilities and other civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria perpetrated by regime and Russian forces. From March 2011 through March 2020, the PHR reported 595 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 923 medical personnel, with regime and Russian forces responsible for 91 percent of attacks (301 by regime forces and 229 by either Russian or regime forces). In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year. The COI concluded this pattern of attack strongly suggested proregime forces systematically targeted medical facilities and that such acts constituted war crimes. The BOI further reported that Russian and regime forces launched attacks that devastated medical facilities and networks in Idlib. In June, Russia informed the United Nations it would no longer participate in the UN deconfliction mechanism.

The COI reported that the above incidents followed a well documented pattern of attacks with humanitarian and civilian impact conducted by the regime, with Russian and Iranian support.

The 2018 COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, regime and proregime forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed, the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime and served as a regime strategy for punishing those individuals. Various sources continued to report cases during the year in which the regime targeted persons who agreed to reconciliation agreements (see sections 1.b., 1.d., and 1.e.).

Regime forces and armed groups also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.

The COI and NGOs such as PAX indicated that, taken together with steps such as the enactment of Law No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties, the forcible displacements may fit into a wider plan to strip those displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the regime and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).

While the government pushed forward to recapture areas around the M5 highway at the beginning of the year, armed groups such as the HTS launched counterattacks against government positions in Idlib, Aleppo. These attacks, although much fewer and smaller in scale than those by the regime and proregime forces, caused some civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure. The COI reported that on February 5, armed groups fired three rockets impacting a densely populated area in the government-controlled Hamdaniya neighborhood of western Aleppo. This attack damaged a hospital and residential home and killed a family of five. The COI described this attack as “indiscriminate, indirect artillery fire of area weapons into densely populated civilian areas.” The COI also reported the HTS sought to intimidate the local population from expressing dissent by beating and detaining participants during protests throughout the year. In April, HTS forces killed a man while breaking up a demonstration. The COI stated the HTS detained journalists and NGO workers for weeks on the basis of their criticism of HTS activities and that HTS had shot and killed detainees trying to escape during airstrikes on the Qasimiah detention facility on January 17. The COI reported other HTS abuses as well, including looting in Atarib, attempts to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and preventing large numbers of girls from attending school.

The COI and international and Syrian NGOs such as the STJ reported throughout the year that TSO groups had engaged in the systematic looting, seizure, appropriation, and destruction of civilian homes and religious sites, particularly those of Kurds and Yezidis, resulting in significant civilian displacement. TSOs also reportedly continued to bar returnees from their properties in northern Syria and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area. Confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families. According to numerous organizations, including STJ, VDC, and al-Monitor, TSOs, including Firqat al-Hamza and Sultan Murad, seized agricultural machinery, water tanks, and other private property in Ras al-Ayn and sold it back to owners. Firqat al-Hamza and Ahrar al-Sharqiya reportedly seized homes and clinics and then charged their owners rent. In August and September, the COI, media organization The Syria Report, and the STJ reported the Syrian Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council seized two private properties owned by Kurdish residents in Ras al-Ayn and that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, then converted the properties into religious centers without compensating the owners, despite petitions made to the Council. The governor of Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province delivered remarks in June for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of one of these converted sites.

TSOs continued to interfere with and disrupt water access to parts of northeast Syria despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR reported in September that “Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which control the Alouk water pumping station in Ras al-Ain, have repeatedly disrupted water supplies, affecting access to water for up to one million individuals in the city of al-Hassakeh and surrounding areas, including extremely vulnerable displaced persons in various IDP camps.” According to NGO reporting, Alouk Station was offline for 55 percent of the time between October 2019 and August due to TSO denial of access to maintenance crews and deliberate shutdown of the station. Turkish authorities alleged the frequent shutdowns resulted from inadequate power being provided to the plant from a power generation facility in SDF-controlled area, a claim disputed by the United Nations and NGOs present in northeast Syria.

The COI reported in September that SNA members looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites in the Afrin region, including Yezidi shrines and graveyards, as well as sites protected by UNESCO. In April the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar cemetery. These organizations also reported cases where TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.

In August, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported continued abuses against the Christian community, including the detention of Radwan Mohammad by Faylaq al-Sham in Afrin on charges of apostasy after he refused to hand his school building over to the group for conversion into an Islamic school. In July, Faylaq al-Sham also prevented Mohammad from preparing his wife’s body for burial due to her faith.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, arresting, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.

Freedom of Speech: The law contains a number of speech offenses that limit the freedom of expression, including provisions criminalizing expression that, for example, “weakens the national sentiment” in times of war or defames the president, courts, military, or public authorities. For example, Article 376 imposes a one- to three-year sentence on anyone who criticizes or insults the president. The regime routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the regime publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The regime also stifled criticism by invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. The regime monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Although the law provides for the “right to access information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists,” press and media restrictions outweighed freedoms. The law contains many restrictions on freedom of expression for the press, including provisions criminalizing, for example, the dissemination of false or exaggerated news that “weakens the spirit of the Nation” or the broadcasting abroad of false or exaggerated news that “tarnishes” the country’s reputation. The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law further forbids publication of any information about the armed forces. The law criminalizes the publication on social media of false news that causes fear and panic, with prison sentences up to 15 years with hard labor. Article 287 stipulates that the broadcasting of false or exaggerated news abroad that undermines the prestige of the state or its financial standing is subject to a minimum prison sentence of six months in addition to a fine. Article 309 similarly criminalizes the broadcasting of false news or claims that undermine confidence in the “state currency.”

The regime continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to regime requests. The SJAC noted accounts of the regime pressuring doctors, journalists, and patients to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19, including one journalist at a state-owned media outlet who was barred from reporting on COVID-19 deaths.

The SNHR reported that only print publications whose reporting promoted and defended the regime remained in circulation. Books critical of the regime were illegal. The regime owned some radio stations and most local television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored all radio and television news broadcasts and entertainment programs for adherence to regime policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some Arab networks.

Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime. Harassment included intimidation, banning individuals from the country, dismissing journalists from their positions, and ignoring requests for continued accreditation. YouTubers and other citizen journalists were routinely detained, intimidated, and tortured, both by the regime and extremist groups. According to NGO reports, the regime routinely arrested journalists who were either associated with or writing in favor of the opposition and instigated attacks against foreign press outlets throughout the country. Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported that regime authorities in May arbitrarily detained Nada Mashraki, who worked as an editor for Latakkia News Network, after she published a story about judicial corruption. Mashraki was released a month later.

RSF reported that 28 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned, although it did not specify by whom. The reason for arrests was often unclear. The SNHR reported that at least 350 citizen journalists remained missing as of May after being arbitrarily detained by the regime since the beginning of the conflict.

The regime and, to a lesser extent, the HTS and other armed groups routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, Freedom House, and the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ estimated that at least 137 journalists were killed since 2011, while the SNHR estimated more than 707 citizen journalists were killed between March 2011 and May. The SNHR attributed 573 of citizen journalist deaths from 2011 and through 2020 to regime and proregime forces, including 47 individuals who died due to torture.

During the year the CPJ and RSF documented the deaths of two journalists by Russian forces. A Russian airstrike killed Abdul Nasser Haj Hamdan on February 20 while he was documenting the bombardment of Ma’arat al-Naasan in northern Idlib governorate; another Russian airstrike killed freelance photographer Amjad Anas Aktalati on February 4 in Ariha, south of Idlib.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: According to Freedom House, the regime enforced censorship of news sites and social media content more stringently in regime-controlled areas. The regime continued to block circumvention tools used to access censored content, internet security software that can prevent state surveillance, and other applications that enable anonymous communications. Censorship was implemented by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) and private internet service provider (ISP) using various commercially available software programs. Decisions surrounding online censorship lacked transparency, and ISPs did not publicize the details of how blocking was implemented or which websites were banned. The STE was known to implement blocking decisions; it was unclear which state agency typically made the decisions, although security and intelligence bodies were believed to play an important role. Websites covering politics, minorities, human rights, foreign affairs, and other sensitive topics were censored or blocked outright.

The regime continued to control strictly the dissemination of information, including on developments regarding fighting between the regime and the armed opposition and the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and prohibited most criticism of the regime and discussion of sectarian problems, including religious and ethnic minority rights and tensions. The Ministries of Information and Culture censored domestic and foreign publications prior to circulation or importation, including through the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, and prevented circulation of content determined critical or sensitive. The regime prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the regime. Censorship was usually more stringent for materials in Arabic.

Local journalists reported they engaged in extensive self-censorship on subjects such as criticism of the president and his family, the security services, Alawite religious groups, and the spread of COVID-19.

According to National Public Radio, despite regime censorship and a campaign of intimidation to suppress information about the spread of COVID-19, medical workers reported the virus was spreading quickly across the country and that government hospitals were overwhelmed. In August the SJAC noted accounts of the regime pressuring doctors, journalists, and patients to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19. The media publication Syria in Context reported in August that recent satellite imagery showed significant burial activity in Najha cemetery in Damascus, indicating the regime was burying thousands of individuals who died due to COVID-19; Najha is the same cemetery where the regime allegedly buried hundreds of thousands of victims of its notorious detention centers. Doctors in regime hospitals reportedly listed “pneumonia” as the cause of death on death certificates for individuals suspected to have died from COVID-19.

RSF reported journalists fled the advance of regime troops, fearing imprisonment as soon as the regime controlled the province. RSF assessed the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than nine years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since its outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, slander, insult, defamation, and blasphemy, and the regime continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and to detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the regime.

National Security: The regime regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of regime policies or public officials.

Nongovernmental Impact: According to Freedom House, media freedom varied in territory held by armed opposition groups, but local outlets were typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction. The CPJ and RSF reported that extremist opposition groups, such as the HTS, detained, tortured, and harassed journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The COI described HTS targeting female media workers for harassment and threatening detention, causing them to resort to self-censoring and hiding their cameras. In August the SNHR reported that media activist Fayez al-Dgheim was forcibly disappeared by police affiliated with the HTS and that his family had not heard from him, nor were they officially notified of his arrest.

The SNHR also documented HTS members’ assault of 13 citizen journalists on June 10, while they were reporting on the passage of a Russian-Turkish joint patrol on the Latakia-Aleppo International Road. HTS members attacked them and smashed their equipment, accusing them of filming women during their media coverage.

Internet Freedom

In areas controlled by the regime, the STE served as both an ISP and a telecommunications regulator, providing the government with tight control over the internet infrastructure. Independent satellite-based connections were prohibited but heavily employed across the country, given the damage that information and communication technology infrastructure sustained as a result of the conflict. ISPs and cybercafes operating in regime-controlled areas required a permit from the STE and another security permit from the Interior Ministry, and cybercafe owners were required to monitor customers and record their activities. The regime controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts.

Freedom House continued to report that self-censorship was widespread online and had increased in recent years as users contended with threats and violent reprisals for critical content. Sensitive topics included President Assad, former president Hafez Assad, the military, the ruling Baath Party, or influential government officials. Other sensitive subjects including religious and ethnic tensions and corruption allegations related to the president’s family were also off-limits. Individuals and groups reportedly could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The regime applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecuted users. The anticybercrime law (also referred to as Law No. 9), which increased penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression, remained in place. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. RSF asserted the law served as a tool for the regime to threaten online freedom. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime monitored citizens affiliated with the opposition and worked to undermine their activities online. Citizen journalists and other civilians were frequently targeted based on their digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.

The regime interfered with and blocked internet service, text messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The regime employed sophisticated technologies and hundreds of computer specialists for filtering and surveillance purposes, such as monitoring email and social media accounts of detainees, activists, and others. The regime did not prosecute or otherwise take action to restrict the security branches’ monitoring and censoring of the internet. The security branches were largely responsible for restricting internet freedom and access; internet blackouts often coincided with security force attacks. According to Freedom House, the regime blocked websites for human rights groups as well as those criticizing the regime’s political, cultural, social, or economic policies; criticizing specific high-level government officials; or mobilizing persons to protest or resist the regime, including those linked to the network of activists known as the Local Coordination Committees.

The regime also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under attack. Regime officials obstructed connectivity through their control of key infrastructure, at times shutting the internet and mobile telephone networks entirely or at particular sites of unrest. There was generally little access to state-run internet service in besieged areas unless users could capture signals clandestinely from rooftops near regime-controlled areas. Some towns in opposition-held areas had limited internet access via satellite connections. Some activists reportedly gained access independently to satellite internet or through second- and third-generation (2G and 3G) cellular telephone network coverage.

The regime expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread proregime propaganda and manipulate online content, including false content aiming to undermine the credibility of human rights and humanitarian groups. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of proregime computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post proregime material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the regime and groups it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted spyware and other malware in at least 71 android applications using COVID-19 lures to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed regime personnel for instances in which malware infected activists’ computers. Arbitrary arrests raised fears that authorities could arrest internet users at any time for online activities perceived to threaten the regime’s control, such as posting on a blog, tweeting, commenting on Facebook, sharing a photograph, or uploading a video.

Observers also accused the SEA of slowing internet access to force self-censorship on regime critics and diverting email traffic to regime servers for surveillance.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The regime restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit employees of academic institutions to express ideas contrary to regime policy. The Ministry of Culture restricted and banned the screening of certain films.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.

The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the regime, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions. Freedom House reported that residents of Sweida used Facebook to call for protests in January against corruption and deteriorating economic conditions in regime-held areas under the campaign slogan “We Want to Live.” Further protests in Sweida prompted a regime crackdown in June, in which regime security forces and proregime militias assaulted and arbitrarily detained protesters.

According to allegations by human rights activists and press reporting, at times the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. Throughout the year inhabitants in Deir Ez-Zour protested against alleged corruption by SDF officials, lack of access to basic services, reports of forced conscription of youths into the SDF, and lack of information on the status of men and boys detained by the SDF due to suspected affiliations to ISIS. Protests generally occurred throughout northeast Syria on a variety of issues without interference from local authorities; however, the SNHR reported SDF members opened fire on a protest in Mheimida, killing Najm Hussein al-Atwan, and the SDF arbitrarily detained 28 civilians in al-Sh-heil and al-Hawayij following protests in those areas. The SDF reported arresting, trying, and convicting one member of its forces for opening fire and killing an unarmed demonstrator.

During the year the HTS repressed civil society activity and public protests. Media outlets and the SNHR reported HTS militants shot and killed Saleh al-Mrie in April when they opened fire on civilians protesting the opening of a commercial border to link territory controlled by the HTS with regime-held areas.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the regime latitude to restrict this freedom. The regime required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the regime.

None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license, due to the regime’s practice of denying requests for registration or failing to act on them, reportedly on political grounds, but some functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The regime continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association, but journalists in exile continued working to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression through the Syrian Journalist Association, an independent democratic professional association established in 2012 by Syrians in exile.

The regime selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only proregime groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the regime would use party lists to target opposition members.

Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the regime, security forces detained individuals linked to local human rights groups, prodemocracy student groups, and other organizations perceived to be supporting the opposition, including humanitarian groups.

The HTS and other armed groups also restricted freedom of association in areas they controlled. The SNHR reported al-Qa’ida-linked Hurras al-Din kidnapped Khaled Mdallala, a prominent activist and director of the Sham al-Khair Association, on February 24 as part of its effort to repress and restrict civil society organizations operating in Idlib. TSOs reportedly detained residents based on their affiliation with the SNES (see section 1.d.).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, the HTS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime attacks on Idlib governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while fear of death and regime retribution resulted in mass civilian displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).

In-country Movement: In areas outside of regime control, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.

The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement, and the COI reported regime security officials detained, forcibly conscripted, and extorted residents at checkpoints, at times impeding civilians’ access to health care and education. Regime forces used violence to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats, including delegations from the United Nations and the OPCW IIT, from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.

In areas they controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, such as the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in July that HTS systematically interfered with women’s freedom of movement, harassing unaccompanied women and denying them access to public events under threat of detention. The HTS also attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, according to COI reporting.

While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in June, HRW reported that the SNES was restricting the movement of more than 10,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP camp. The COI reported in January that many of the children in al-Hol camp lacked birth registration papers, in some cases because parents were unable to register, jeopardizing their rights to a nationality, hindering family reunification processes, and increasing their vulnerability to abuse.

Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Syrian passports cost approximately $800, which many Syrians found prohibitive. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks and arbitrary detention at airports and border crossings.

The regime also often refused to allow some citizens to return, while millions more Syrians who fled to neighboring countries reportedly feared retribution by the regime should they return. In July the regime implemented a new policy of charging returning refugees a substantial fee to enter the country. The press-monitoring organization Middle East Monitor reported this fee presented a barrier to refugee returns. On September 5, Lebanese government officials announced that 17-year-old Zainab Mohammed Al-Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee, had died while she was trapped between the two countries because she could not afford the fee needed to enter into Syria. A regime immigration official stated the regime’s policy was to refuse entry to any Syrian unable to pay the fee and that the Lebanese government did not accept Syrians back once they crossed the border.

Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country. Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Violence and instability continued to be the primary cause for displacement, much of it attributed to Syrians fleeing regime and Russian aerial attacks, including almost one million persons who were displaced in Idlib during the first three months of the year–the largest single displacement of the conflict. Years of fighting and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, with each displacement further depleting family assets. The UN estimated more than 6.6 million IDPs were in the country and 2.6 million children and 4.7 million individuals were in need of acute assistance. It also included 1.3 million new IDPs and 184,921 IDP return movements since the start of the year. In July the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded 32,170 spontaneous IDP returnees in several areas across the country. Approximately 25,000 of these returns were recorded within and between Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Spontaneous IDP return movements in areas other than northwest Syria remained very low.

The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level three response–the classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. UN humanitarian officials reported most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps.

The regime generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, offer IDPs assistance, facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, or provide consistent protection. The regime forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The regime did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in some cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home. According to PAX and Impunity Watch, the regime systematically dispossessed Syrians perceived to threaten the regime’s authority of their property, presenting an increasingly grave impediment to the return of refugees and IDPs (see section 1.e., Property Restitution). The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity reported in July that regime repression had led the vast majority of Syrian refugees, as well as IDPs displaced from regime-held areas, to fear returning to their homes.

Syrians with a backlog of service bills or back taxes who were unable to pay their debt to the regime were given a brief window to leave their property, while intelligence forces summarily seized homes and businesses of some former opposition members.

The regime routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.). NGOs operating from Damascus faced regime bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to regime offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the regime increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. In January the Russian government, by threatening to veto resolution drafts maintaining existing crossings for UN cross-border humanitarian assistance measures, forced through a UN Security Council resolution that reduced UN cross-border humanitarian assistance from four crossings to two, cutting off northeast Syria from crucial health-related humanitarian assistance. The provision of cross-border assistance by the United Nations and its humanitarian partners was further restricted to one border crossing with Turkey in July after the Russian and Chinese governments vetoed a resolution that would have extended authorization for cross-border assistance through both Turkey crossings into northwest Syria and reinstated the Iraq crossing into northeast Syria. Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey. Jordan’s borders remained closed since mid-March due to COVID-19 prevention measures.

Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the regime continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the regime secured control over many of these areas during the year. Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a pressing concern for service delivery in areas controlled by the regime and nongovernmental actors.

Humanitarian conditions in Rukban remained dire due to severely constrained access to the area. The regime and Russian government routinely refused to approve UN requests for assistance delivery. The most recent UN convoy to Rukban took place in October 2019. A UN mission, including a regime-requested health assessment, planned for April 21, was rejected by the Russian government. The convoy was expected to deliver a combination of food, nutritional supplements, and nonfood items to 2,300 households in Rukban. Conditions in the camp remained poor with few deliveries of food and basic provisions permitted by the regime. Rukban residents continued to depart the settlement in small groups, and several hundred returned to regime-held areas since late March, according to UN sources, including at least several dozen who departed for urgent health services not available in the camp. The regime did not permit those who departed to return to the camp.

Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as the HTS also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. The COI and humanitarian actors reported HTS attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of aid and services in areas of the northwest, including by demanding a share of food packages, cash payments, and housing developments intended for others. For example the HTS reportedly detained and harassed SARC personnel on March 14, occupying offices in Idlib and Ariha and removing and destroying SARC-owned materials. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic challenges in working with the HTS Salvation Government, which impeded delivery of services in the camps.

The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Deir Ez-Zour and Raqqa.

f. Protection of Refugees

The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russian government maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. The Russian government reportedly sought to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, and in November the regime and Russia held a conference on refugee returns in Damascus. The conference did not address any of the root causes that caused persons to flee the regime or offer actionable steps to secure the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees, and was organized without input or support from an internationally recognized authority on humanitarian or refugee issues.

The COI described in January interviews with Syrian parents who relocated their children, particularly boys, outside of Syria to protect them from violence. In one such case, an estimated 500 unaccompanied children, almost all boys older than 14, were registered in 2013 in a refugee camp near the Syrian border.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths. The Damascus governorate council announced in June a plan to confiscate the property of households in the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp as part of a reconstruction project, displacing Palestinian residents unable to prove ownership of their property. Muammar Dakak, director of technical studies in the Damascus governorate council, announced in July that Yarmouk residents would not receive alternative housing.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.

Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.

Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 23,600 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement.

g. Stateless Persons

Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork lost their Syrian citizenship from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.

In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an estimated increase in population since the 1962 census.

Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens were not able to exercise that ability. Outcomes reflected underlying circumstances of elections that impeded and coerced the will of the electorate.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Parliamentary elections, which introduced primaries and a two-round election system, were held in July with 1,656 candidates vying for 250 seats. The regime claimed there were no reported violations or infringements, but the Washington Post reported that the elections resulted in reports of alleged corruption, even within the regime loyalist community, including fraud, ballot-stuffing, and political interference. Media outlets described low voter turnout, despite compulsory voting requirements enacted under Law No. 8 for military and law enforcement officials, reportedly intended to bolster support for regime-affiliated candidates. Syrians residing outside the country were not permitted to vote, and those in areas outside regime control often had no or limited access to voting locations. Reports of citizens being pressured to vote were common, and voter privacy was not guaranteed. Polling staff reportedly handed out ballots already filled in with Baath Party candidates. According to observers, the results were rigged in favor of the ruling Baath Party, and losing candidates leveled allegations of fraud, ballot-stuffing, and political interference. Most candidates were either from the Baath Party or associated with it.

In 2017 Kurdish authorities held elections for leaders of local “communes” in an effort to establish new governing institutions to augment regional autonomy. The regime does not recognize the Kurdish enclave or the elections. The Kurdish National Council (a rival to the PYD) called for a boycott, terming the elections “a flagrant violation of the will of the Kurdish people.” Media outlets reported the election was monitored by a small group of foreign experts, including a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which runs the Kurdish Regional Government in neighboring Iraq.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides that the Baath Party is the ruling party and assures that it has a majority in all government and popular associations, such as workers’ and women’s groups. The Baath Party and nine smaller satellite political parties constituted the coalition National Progressive Front. The Baath-led National Progressive Front dominated the 250-member People’s Council, holding 183 of the 250 parliament seats following the 2020 election. The law allows for the establishment of additional political parties but forbids those based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.

Membership in the Baath Party or close familial relationships with a prominent party member or powerful regime official assisted in economic, social, and educational advancement. Party or regime connections made it easier to gain admission to better schools, access lucrative employment, and achieve greater advancement and power within the government, military, and security services. The regime reserved certain prominent positions, such as provincial governorships, solely for Baath Party members.

The regime showed little tolerance for other political parties, including those allied with the Baath Party in the National Progressive Front. The regime harassed parties, such as the Communist Union Movement, Communist Action Party, and Arab Social Union. Police arrested members of banned Islamist parties, including Hizb ut-Tahrir (HTS) and the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. Reliable data on illegal political parties was unavailable.

The PYD generally controlled the political and governance landscape in northeast Syria while allowing for Arab representation in local governance councils. The PYD, however, maintained overall control of critical decisions made by local councils. PYD-affiliated internal security forces at times reportedly detained and forcibly disappeared perceived opponents.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Although there were no formal restrictions, cultural and social barriers largely excluded women from decision-making positions. The government formed after the 2014 election included three female members: Vice President Najah al-Attar, Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Nazira Serkis, and Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Rima al-Qadiri. Women accounted for 13 percent of the members of parliament elected in July. There were Christian, Druze, and Armenian members of parliament but no Kurdish representatives. Alawites, the ruling religious minority, held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities as well as more authority than the majority Sunni sect did.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the regime did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of regime corruption during the year. Corruption continued to be a pervasive problem in police forces, security services, migration management agencies, and throughout the regime.

Corruption: Due to the lack of free press and opposition access to instruments of government and media, there was almost no detailed information about corruption, except petty corruption. Freedom House reported that to secure its support base, the regime regularly distributed patronage in the form of public resources and implemented policies to benefit favored industries and companies. Authorities reportedly awarded government contracts and trade deals to allies such as Iran and Russia, possibly as compensation for political and military aid. Basic state services and humanitarian aid reportedly were extended or withheld based on a community’s demonstrated political loyalty to the regime, providing additional leverage for bribe-seeking officials. PAX and Impunity Watch reported in March that the regime had developed “an intricate legal framework that allows it to expropriate anyone it considers a threat or an inconvenience,” assessing the regime’s intent was to dispossess and permanently displace its opponents, rewarding individuals loyal to the regime in the process.

President Bashar Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, reportedly was known as “Mr. 5 Percent.” As late as 2011, Makhlouf reportedly controlled 60 percent of the country’s economy. The Panama Papers, Swissleaks, and most recently the Paradise Papers chronicled his money-laundering and sanctions-busting activities. In May, Makhlouf issued several statements criticizing corruption within the regime and outlining allegations of extortion and arbitrary detention targeting his companies. His actions did not create any moves to address systemic corruption in the regime.

Human rights lawyers and family members of detainees stated that regime officials in courts and prisons solicited bribes for favorable decisions and provision of basic services.

Despite a bread crisis, the regime often refused to allow private bakers in areas previously under opposition control to operate. For example in Homs a private baker Muhammad Nour reported he was unable to obtain approval to operate from the National Security Office in Damascus even after offering a bribe of approximately $11,150 to one of the heads of the security branches in Homs.

Financial Disclosure: There are no public financial disclosure laws for public officials.

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

The regime restricted attempts to investigate alleged human rights violations, criminalized their publication, and refused to cooperate with any independent attempts to investigate alleged violations. The regime did not grant permission for the formation of any domestic human rights organizations. Nevertheless, hundreds of such groups operated illegally in the country.

The regime was highly suspicious of human rights NGOs and did not allow international human rights groups into the country. The regime normally responded to queries from human rights organizations and foreign embassies regarding specific cases by denying the facts of the case or by reporting that the case was still under investigation, the prisoner in question had violated national security laws, or, if the case was in criminal court, the executive branch could not interfere with the judiciary. The regime denied organizations access to locations where regime agents launched assaults on antigovernment protesters or allegedly held prisoners detained on political grounds.

The regime continued to harass domestic human rights activists by subjecting them to regular surveillance and travel bans, property seizure, detention, torture, forcible disappearance, and extrajudicial killings (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In September the SJAC issued a report analyzing regime documentation that detailed coordination between regime intelligence officials and Syrian embassy staff in Saudi Arabia and Spain, corroborating long-standing NGO reporting that the regime maintained a global surveillance apparatus to track dissidents’ activities both inside and outside of the country systematically.

Terrorist groups, including the HTS, violently attacked organizations and individuals seeking to investigate human rights abuses or advocating for improved practices. The SDF and other opposition groups occasionally imposed restrictions on human rights organizations or harassed individual activists, in some cases subjecting them to arbitrary arrest.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The regime continued to deny access for the COI, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to document and report on human rights violations and abuses in the country. The regime did not cooperate fully with numerous UN and other multilateral bodies, resulting in restrictions on access for humanitarian organizations, especially to opposition-controlled areas. In addition the regime did not allow the OPCW IIT to access the sites under investigation in Ltamenah, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 2118.

The UNWGEID continued to request information from the regime on reported cases of enforced disappearances, but it failed to respond. The regime also ignored UNWGEID’s requests for an invitation to visit the country, dating back to 2011. The regime similarly ignored UN and international community calls for unhindered access for independent, impartial international humanitarian and medical organizations to the regime’s detention centers.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but the regime did not enforce the law effectively. Rape is punishable by imprisonment and hard labor for at least 15 years (at least nine years in mitigating circumstances), which is aggravated if the perpetrator is a government official, religious official, or has legitimate or actual authority over the victim. Male rape is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The law specifically excludes spousal rape, and it reduces or suspends punishment if the rapist marries the victim. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies, NGOs, and media outlets characterized rape and sexual violence as endemic, underreported, and uncontrolled in the country (see sections 1.c. and 1.g.). The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) reported fear of rape was one of the most prominent reasons Syrians fled the country. The COI reported rape and sexual violence continued to play a prominent role in the conflict and was used to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition. Regime officials in the intelligence and security services perpetrated sexual and gender-based violence with impunity, according to a February report by the Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence. There were instances, comparatively far fewer, of armed opposition groups reportedly raping women and children. Victims often feared reporting rape and sexual abuse, according to TIMEP, due to the stigma associated with their victimization. HRW reported in July that gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and nonbinary individuals were targeted for sexual violence.

The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, but it stipulates that men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom. According to a February report by the Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence, violence against women and children was pervasive and increased due to the conflict. Victims did not report the vast majority of cases. In August UNFPA reported an increase in domestic violence cases, especially in Hassia camp, Hassia industrial camp, Hussainiya camp, Wadi Majar farms, and Shamsin. UNFPA and local human rights groups reported women and children were at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as early marriage, child labor, and other forms of exploitation largely due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women.

The COI reported in September that armed groups under the SNA detained women and girls, particularly those of Kurdish descent, and subjected them to rape and sexual violence–causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to “female honor.” On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instill fear within male detainees, SNA Military Police officers reportedly forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch.

In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus; the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor licensed them. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programs specifically for protection of women. These programs were not available throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The regime kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases and reportedly rarely pursued prosecution of so-called honor crimes. Reporting from previous years indicated that honor killings increased following the onset of the crisis in 2011. According to a July HRW report, members of the LGBTI community faced death threats from family members when they learned about their sexual orientation and feared being subjected to honor crimes. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by regime forces, for reasons of honor.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. The regime did not enforce the law effectively. Sexual harassment was pervasive and uncontrolled. TIMEP reported that women who were widowed, divorced, or separated from their husbands frequently faced sexual harassment from their employers and landlords.

Reproductive Rights: UNOCHA reported that more than a quarter of surveyed health workers in the country stated that organized family planning services were not available in their communities.

Violence throughout the country made accessing medical care and reproductive services both costly and dangerous, and the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) reported that the government and armed extremists sometimes denied pregnant women passage through checkpoints, forcing them to give birth in unsterile and often dangerous conditions, without pain medication or adequate medical treatment. Physicians for Human Rights documented that attacks on humanitarian actors by the Syrian and Russian governments and, to a lesser degree, armed groups caused medical providers to operate in secret or, in some cases, to leave the country.

UNOCHA reported in 2019 that the majority of Syrian women in regime-held areas were delivering in hospitals, with the exception of women in Quneitra governorate, who reported delivering from home with the aid of a skilled birth assistant. Activists also reported that regime detention centers did not provide medical care to women during pregnancy or birth. Attacks on hospitals affected pregnant women, who were frequently unable to access care, and during the year observers reported to the UN Human Rights Council that hostilities forced an increasing number of women to give birth through caesarean sections to control the timing of their delivery and avoid traveling in insecure environments.

Many pregnant women living in IDP camps in Idlib governorate and camps such as al-Hol and Rukban lacked access to hospitals or to doctors or skilled birth assistants. Humanitarian health partners supported approximately one-third of the nearly 1,600 daily deliveries in the country; of these supported deliveries, approximately one-half involved a caesarean section.

Women and girls subjected to sexual violence lacked access to immediate health care, particularly in regime detention facilities where reports of sexual violence continued to be prevalent, and authorities often denied medical care to prisoners. Health providers and community representatives emphasized that female survivors of rape faced limited availability of clinical management throughout the country.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of involuntary sterilization, but OCHA reported in July an increase in coerced abortions in northwest Syria in response to increasing psychosocial stress, poverty, and lack of employment opportunities, compounded by the effects of COVID-19. Former detainees also reported cases of the regime forcing women in regime detention to have abortions.

Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, nationality, inheritance, retirement, and social security laws discriminate against women. For example, if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, then by law the woman’s punishment is double that of the man. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases. Under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family. Personal status laws applied to Muslims are derived from sharia and are discriminatory toward women. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children. The regime’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they refuse to provide this support, women have the right to sue.

The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.

The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor share responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.

Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported the conflict, and more recently COVID-19, reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.

The HTS reportedly placed similar discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in the territories it controlled. For example, the International Center for the Study of Radicalism reported in September 2019 that the HTS forced women and girls into marriage, imposed a dress code on women and girls, banned women and girls from wearing makeup, required that women and girls be accompanied by a mahram or male member of their immediate family, forbade women from speaking with unrelated men or hosting men who were not their husband, forbade widows from living alone, and instructed that classrooms be segregated. The HTS maintained all-female police units to support the Hisbah (religious police force) in enforcing these regulations, sometimes violently, among women. Summary punishments for infractions ranged from corporal punishment, such as lashing, to execution.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities often did not register births. The regime did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.g.). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.

Education: The regime provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Enrollment, attendance, and completion rates for boys and girls generally were comparable. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education. While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.

Combatants on all sides of the conflict attacked or commandeered schools. The COI reported that repeated attacks on schools, the repurposing of education facilities for military purposes, and the killing and displacement of qualified teachers continued to hamper the ability of children to receive an education and had a disproportionate impact on girls, as well as children displaced from their homes and those with disabilities. Approximately 2.1 million children were out of school (among more than 2.6 million internally displaced Syrian children, including refugees and others in the diaspora); another 1.3 million were at risk for leaving school. In October, UNICEF reported 4.7 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance.

The COI reported the regime allegedly refused to acknowledge school certificates provided by students in grades nine and above, forcing thousands of students to retake exams to enroll in public schools.

The HTS reportedly imposed its interpretation of sharia on schools and discriminated against girls in the territories it controlled (see section 1.g.). The group imposed dress codes on female teachers and pupils, according to the COI, and the STJ reported in April the HTS threatened any woman who failed to abide by the dress code with dismissal. The COI also reported the HTS prevented large numbers of girls from attending school. The COI reported access to education in al-Hol IDP camp remained insufficient.

The SDF ended the use of 12 schools previously converted for military purposes, handing them over to local councils to increase children’s access to education. In areas previously liberated by the SDF from ISIS, more than 526,250 students returned to classes in 741 refurbished buildings and schools previously used or destroyed by ISIS. Many school buildings required extensive repairs, sometimes including clearance of explosive remnants of the war, and administrators required assistance to obtain basic supplies for learning. The SDF reportedly imposed penalties on SDF and school administration staff members who enrolled their children in schools that did not use their curriculum.

Child Abuse: The law does not specifically prohibit child abuse, but it stipulates that parents may discipline their children in a form permitted by general custom. In January the COI reported children, especially girls, were acutely vulnerable to violence and were victims of a broad array of abuses.

NGOs reported extensively on reports of regime and proregime forces, as well as the HTS, sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, killing, and otherwise abusing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). The HTS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution, in the territories it controlled. The regime did not take steps to combat child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties’ consent. STJ reported early and forced marriages were increasingly prevalent, particularly in Idlib. According to World Vision International reporting in July, children were increasingly vulnerable to early and forced marriage due to the extreme financial hardships placed upon families by the conflict, challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 and societal pressures. In August UNFPA reported an increase in early marriage cases, especially in Hassia camp, Hassia industrial camp, Hussainiya camp, Wadi Majar farms, and Shamsin.

Many families reportedly arranged marriages for girls, including at younger ages than typically occurred prior to the start of the conflict, believing it would protect them and ease the financial burden on the family.

There were instances of early and forced marriage of girls to members of regime, proregime, and armed opposition forces.

In previous years ISIS abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for rape and forced marriage (see section 1.g.). The Free Yezidi Foundation reported that Yezidi women and children remained with ISIS-affiliated families in detention camps due to the intense trauma from their treatment under ISIS and fear. In July, Amnesty International reported the stance of the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Council and the legal framework of Iraq, which mandates that any child of a Muslim or “unknown” father be registered as Muslim, effectively denied Yezidi children born under ISIS a place within the Yezidi community and presented another barrier to Yezidi women’s return to their home communities.

From 2014 onwards ISIS began forcibly to marry women and girls living in territories under its control. Some of those forced to marry ISIS members were adults, including widows, but the vast majority of cases the COI documented revealed that girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were victims of forced marriage. Many women and girls reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years. The STJ reported that early and forced marriages were prevalent in areas under HTS control, and Syrians often failed to register their marriages officially due to fear of detention or conscription at regime checkpoints. In September the COI reported cases of SNA members in the Sultan Murad Brigade forcibly marrying Kurdish women in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced “prostitution,” both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” There were no known prosecutions for child pornography.

The age of sexual consent by law is 15 with no close-in-age exemption. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child younger than 15 is punishable by not less than 21 years’ imprisonment and hard labor. There were no reports of regime prosecution of child rape cases.

A July report by OCHA on northwest Syria described significant increases in reports of families marrying off their daughters repeatedly for short periods of time in exchange for money, which constitutes sex trafficking.

Displaced Children: The population of IDP children increased for the ninth consecutive year due to the conflict, and a limited number of refugee children continued to live in the country. These children reportedly experienced increased vulnerability to abuses, including by armed forces (see sections 1.c., 1.g., 2.e., and 2.f.).

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

Anti-Semitism

In June the Jewish Chronicle newspaper reported there were no known Jews still living in Syria. The Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives reported in May the condition of 62 percent of Jewish built heritage sites in Syria was poor, very bad, or beyond repair. The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the Syrian opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”

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

While the law provides some protections for persons with disabilities, the regime did not make serious attempts to enforce applicable laws effectively during the year. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for assisting persons with disabilities, working through dedicated charities and organizations to provide assistance.

The destruction of schools and hospitals, most often by regime and proregime forces, limited access to education and health services for persons with disabilities, but government and nongovernment social care institutes reportedly existed for blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and physical and intellectual disabilities. HRW reported COVID-19 made it increasingly difficult for persons with disabilities to receive medical care. The regime did not effectively work to provide access for persons with disabilities to information, communications, building, or transportation. In its November 2019 report, UNFPA detailed how both public and private spaces–including educational institutions, health-care services, and religious or cultural buildings–were inaccessible to the elderly and persons with disabilities, leading to further ostracism and deprivation. The European Asylum Support Office reported in February that access to facilities and support for persons with disabilities remained limited in Damascus and often nonexistent in other areas of the country. UNFPA further stated that persons with disabilities were sometimes denied aid, as they could not access it, and some distribution centers required presence in person. The COI’s July report noted the challenges facing persons with disabilities when attempting to flee conflict.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The regime actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population–citizens and noncitizens–faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as regime-sponsored violence. In July the COI reported instances of the regime torturing, beating, and denying food and water to Kurdish civilians, at times interrogating them about their faith and ethnicity. Regime and proregime forces, as well as ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed SNA, reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals as well as members of the SDF during the year (see section 1.g.). The COI reported a consistent, discernible pattern of abuses by SNA forces against Kurdish residents in Afrin and Ras al-Ayn, including “[c]ases of detentions, killings, beatings, and abductions, in addition to widespread looting and appropriation of civilian homes.”

The regime continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication in Kurdish of books and other materials, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals. The Alawite community, to which President Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the regime and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the regime reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived proregime stance.

The September COI report stated that women belonging to the Yezidi religious minority were detained and urged to convert to Islam during interrogation. The HTS violently oppressed and discriminated against all non-Sunni Arab ethnic minorities in the territories it controlled, and ISIS members continued to target ethnic and religious minorities in attacks (see section 1.g.).

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature” and punishable by imprisonment up to three years. In previous years police used this charge to prosecute LGBTI individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, but the ARC Foundation and the Dutch Council for Refugees reported in June that LGBTI individuals believed they were not able to seek protection from the regime. NGO reports indicated the regime had arrested dozens of LGBTI persons since 2011 on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties. In July, HRW reported LGBTI persons were subject to “increased and intensified violence based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The sexual violence described included rape, sexual harassment, genital violence, threat of rape of themselves or female family members, and forced nudity by state and nonstate armed groups. This violence took place in various settings, including regime detention centers, checkpoints, central prisons, and within the ranks of the national army.”

Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.

The HTS reportedly detained, tortured, and killed LGBTI individuals in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.). HRW reported instances of blackmail and harassment targeting the LGBTI community, many involving men who were perceived as gay.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no reports of violence or discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS, but human rights activists believed such cases were underreported, and the UN Development Program (UNDP) noted that stigma affected access to health care. The UNDP assessed COVID-19 presented barriers access to HIV testing and treatment. HRW reported in April that, due to restrictions on aid delivery to northeast Syria, Kurdish authorities repurposed test kits designed for HIV and polio to respond to the lack of available COVID-19 testing kits.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Yezidis, Druze, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities were subject to violence and discrimination by ISIS, the HTS, the SNA, and other groups (see section 1.g.).

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

While the law provides for the right to form and join unions, conduct legal labor strikes, and bargain collectively, there were excessive restrictions on these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but also allows employers to fire workers at will.

The law requires all unions to belong to the regime-affiliated General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). The law prohibits strikes involving more than 20 workers in certain sectors, including transportation and telecommunications, or strike actions resembling public demonstrations. Restrictions on freedom of association also included fines and prison sentences for illegal strikes.

The law requires that government representatives be part of the bargaining process in the public sector, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor could object to, and refuse to register, any agreements concluded. The law and relevant labor protections do not apply to workers covered under civil service provisions, under which employees neither have nor are considered to need collective bargaining rights. The law does not apply to foreign domestic servants, agricultural workers, NGO employees, or informal-sector workers. There are no legal protections for self-employed workers, although they constituted a significant proportion of the total workforce. Foreign workers may join the syndicate representing their profession but may not run for elected positions, with the exception of Palestinians, who may serve as elected officials in unions.

The regime did not enforce applicable laws effectively or make any serious attempt to do so during the year. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.

The Baath Party dominated the GFTU, and Baath Party doctrine stipulates that its quasi-official constituent unions protect worker rights. The GFTU president was a senior member of the Baath Party, and he and his deputy could attend cabinet meetings on economic affairs. In previous years the GFTU controlled most aspects of union activity, including which sectors or industries could have unions. It also had the power to disband union governing bodies. Union elections were generally free of direct GFTU interference, but successful campaigns usually required membership in the Baath Party. Because of the GFTU’s close ties to the regime, the right to bargain collectively did not exist in practical terms. Although the law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, past regime repression dissuaded most workers from exercising this right.

There was little information available on employer practices with regard to antiunion discrimination. Unrest and economic decline during the year caused many workers to lose their private-sector jobs, giving employers the stronger hand in disputes.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and such practices existed. The penal code does not define forced labor. The code states, “Those sentenced to forced labor will be strictly required to do work with difficulty on par with their sex, age, and may be inside or outside of the prison.” The penal code allows for forced labor as a mandatory or optional sentence for numerous crimes, such as treason. Authorities may sentence convicted prisoners to hard labor, although according to the International Labor Organization, authorities seldom enforced such a sentence. There was little information available on regime efforts to enforce relevant laws during the year or whether penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Terrorist groups, including ISIS and the HTS, reportedly forced, coerced, or fraudulently recruited some foreigners, including migrants from Central Asia, children, and Western women, to join them. Thousands of Yezidi women and girl captives of ISIS remained missing and were presumed to have been victims of sex trafficking and subjected to domestic servitude (see section 1.g.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law provides for the protection of children from exploitation in the workplace and prohibits the worst forms of child labor. There was little publicly available information on enforcement of the child labor law. The regime did not make significant efforts to enforce laws that prevent or eliminate child labor. Independent information and audits regarding regime enforcement were not available. The minimum age for most types of nonagricultural labor is 15 or the completion of elementary schooling, whichever occurs first, and the minimum age for employment in industries with heavy work is 17. Parental permission is required for children younger than 16 to work. Children younger than 18 may work no more than six hours a day and may not work overtime or during night shifts, weekends, or on official holidays. The law specifies that authorities should apply “appropriate penalties” to violators; however, there was no information that clarified which penalties were appropriate to assess whether such penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Restrictions on child labor do not apply to those who work in family businesses and do not receive a salary.

Child labor occurred in the country in both informal sectors, including begging, domestic work, and agriculture, as well as in positions related to the conflict, such as lookouts, spies, and informants. Conflict-related work subjected children to significant dangers of retaliation and violence.

Various forces, particularly terrorist groups and regime-aligned groups, continued to recruit and use child soldiers (see section 1.g.).

Organized begging rings continued to subject children displaced within the country to forced labor.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Labor and nationality laws discriminate against women. The labor law prohibits women from working during certain hours and does not allow women to work in jobs deemed hazardous, arduous, or morally inappropriate. Additional regulations prohibit women from working in several industries, including in mining, factories, agriculture, energy, and construction. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered. Women participated in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.

The constitution does not address discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, or HIV-positive status. Since the law criminalizes homosexuality, many persons faced discrimination due to their sexual orientation.

The law prohibits most forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, and other state services, but the regime did not enforce these provisions effectively, and Article 130 (b) of the labor law allows an employer to decrease the wages of a person with disabilities whenever his productivity is substantially reduced as attested by a medical certificate. Discrimination occurred in hiring and access to worksites. The law seeks to integrate persons with disabilities into the workforce, reserving 4 percent of government jobs and 2 percent of private-sector jobs for them. Private-sector businesses are eligible for tax exemptions after hiring persons with disabilities.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to certain minority groups (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law divides the public-sector monthly minimum wage into five levels based on job type or level of education, almost all of which fell below the World Bank’s poverty indicator. Benefits included compensation for meals, uniforms, and transportation. Most public-sector employees relied on bribery to supplement their income. Private-sector companies usually paid much higher wages, with lower-end wage rates semiofficially set by the regime and employer organizations. Many workers in the public and private sectors took additional manual jobs or relied on their extended families to support them.

The public-sector workweek was 35 hours, and the standard private-sector workweek was 40 hours, excluding meals and rest breaks. Hours of work could increase or decrease based on the industry and associated health hazards. The law provides for at least one meal or rest break totaling no less than one hour per day. Employers must schedule hours of work and rest such that workers do not work more than five consecutive hours or 10 hours per day in total. Employers must provide premium pay for overtime work. There was little information available on regime efforts to enforce relevant laws during the year or whether penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as fraud.

The regime set occupational safety and health standards. The law includes provisions mandating that employers take appropriate precautions to protect workers from hazards inherent to the nature of work. The law does not protect workers who chose to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety from losing their employment.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage and other regulations pertaining to acceptable conditions of work. The Ministries of Health and of Social Affairs and Labor designated officials to inspect worksites for compliance with health and safety standards. Workers could lodge complaints about health and safety conditions with special committees established to adjudicate such cases. Wage and hour regulations as well as occupational health and safety rules do not apply to migrant workers, rendering them more vulnerable to abuse.

There was little information on regime enforcement of labor law or working conditions during the year. There were no health and safety inspections reported, and even previous routine inspections of tourist facilities, such as hotels and major restaurants, no longer occurred. The enforcement of labor law was lax in both rural and urban areas, since many inspector positions were vacant due to the conflict, and their number was insufficient to cover more than 10,000 workplaces.

Before the conflict began, 13 percent of women participated in the formal labor force, compared with 73 percent of men. During the year the unemployment rate for both men and women remained above 50 percent, with millions unable to participate in the workforce due to continued violence and insecurity. During the year UNFPA reported that local female employment participation increased in areas such as Damascus, Raqqa, and Daraa, as men were detained or killed.

Foreign workers, especially domestic workers, remained vulnerable to exploitative conditions. For example, the law does not legally entitle foreign female domestic workers to the same wages as Syrian domestic workers. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor oversees employment agencies responsible for providing safe working conditions for migrant domestic workers, but the scope of oversight was unknown. The continued unrest resulted in the large-scale voluntary departure of foreign workers as demand for services significantly declined, but violence and lawlessness impeded some foreign workers from leaving the country.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

While Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, the illegitimate authoritarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro usurped control over the executive, judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and stood up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, 2019, Maduro’s constitutional term as president ended, but he refused to cede control based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections, which were widely condemned as neither free nor fair. On January 23, 2019, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Maduro, with the backing of Cuban security force members, refused to cede control over the instruments of state power, preventing interim president Guaido from exercising authority within the country despite his constitutional mandate. On December 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime organized parliamentary elections that were rigged in favor of the regime, and nearly 60 countries and international bodies publicly declared the elections were neither free nor fair.

Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. Increasingly unpopular with Venezuelans, the illegitimate Maduro regime depended on civilian and military intelligence services, and to a lesser extent, progovernment armed gangs known as colectivos, to neutralize political opposition and subdue the population. The National Guard–a branch of the military that reports to the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Venezuelan National Police reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the national police largely focused on policing Caracas’ Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The national police maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states. Members of security forces committed numerous abuses, and a UN report concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that government authorities and security forces committed crimes against humanity.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the illegitimate Maduro regime and colectivos; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; and unlawful interference with privacy. The regime imposed serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. The regime essentially criminalized freedom of speech by declaring reporting unfavorable to its policies as libel and slander, incitement to violence, or terrorism, including accurate reporting regarding COVID-19 infection rates. The illegitimate Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and freedom of assembly. The regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property and that of other nongovernmental organizations and civil society. Citizens were unable to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, and there were restrictions on political participation as well as intimidation, harassment, and abuse of National Assembly members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity. Pervasive corruption and impunity continued among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels, which the illegitimate regime made minimal efforts to eliminate. Other significant issues included trafficking in persons, including forced labor; violence against indigenous persons; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.

The illegitimate regime took no effective action to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

There were numerous reports that the illegitimate Maduro regime committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Although the regime did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and regime-supported colectivos, carried out thousands of such killings during the year.

The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office for Protection of Human Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials. There was also no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.”

On August 20, FAES officers shot and killed journalists Andres Nieves Zacarias and Victor Torres during a raid at the headquarters of Guacamaya TV in Zulia State. Torres’ father, the director of the television station, stated FAES officers then seized all of the station’s audiovisual equipment and planted weapons on the victims’ bodies to simulate an alleged confrontation. Illegitimate regime attorney general Tarek William Saab called the homicides extrajudicial killings, and four FAES officers were arrested in connection with the killings.

The illegitimate regime attorney general reported that from 2017 to July, one officer was convicted of homicide for killings in the context of security operations. The regime did not release details on the officer’s conviction or other investigations of security officers involved in killings. The OHCHR found that investigations of human rights violations committed by regime security forces were hampered by its refusal to cooperate, tampering with evidence, judicial delays, and harassment of relatives of victims. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. In many cases the regime appeared to be scapegoating low-level functionaries while allowing high-level officials who issued the illegal orders to continue in their positions.

A UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela report released in September stated that extrajudicial killings were committed by officers belonging to the military, police, and intelligence services, including in more recent years by FAES and the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps (CICPC) officers. The FFM asserted that some high-level authorities had knowledge of and contributed to the crimes, while others who knew or should have known of the crimes did not take measures to prevent or stop them. Victims were typically young men, targeted due to alleged criminal activity, revenge, or mistaken identity, who were shot and killed in their homes or neighborhoods. Media and NGOs reported security forces attempted to cover up extrajudicial killings by planting evidence or altering crime scenes to suggest an altercation or attempted escape by the victim. The FFM concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that authorities and security forces planned and executed serious human rights violations, including killings, some of which amounted to crimes against humanity, since 2014. The FFM report also stated there were reasonable grounds to believe that Maduro and other regime officials either ordered, contributed to, or were involved in the commission of the crimes and human rights abuses documented in the FFM report.

b. Disappearance

The NGOs Foro Penal and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights documented 753 enforced disappearances of political detainees between 2018 and June 2020. An OHCHR investigation found that almost all individuals detained by the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) were subjected to enforced disappearances for periods of seven to 40 days after their arrest, raising their risk of also becoming victims of torture and abuse. The illegitimate Maduro regime continued to deny requests by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country to conduct an investigation.

On March 10, FAES officers detained National Assembly (AN) deputy Renzo Prieto and two assistants, without a warrant for their arrest, after the three participated in a protest in support of interim president Guaido. The illegitimate Maduro regime authorities did not disclose Prieto’s location, nor did they allow any form of communication between Prieto and his family or lawyers during his detention. Prieto’s family expressed significant concern for his state of health, due to an injury that required urgent surgical care and risk of contracting COVID-19. While in regime custody, Prieto stated he was forced to sleep on the floor in a frigid, windowless, four-by-eight-foot cell with five other detainees. On August 31, Prieto was released. Prieto previously had been in regime detention from 2014 to 2018, also after participating in a protest, in what the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was an arbitrary arrest.

The illegitimate Maduro regime arrested AN deputy Gilber Caro in December 2019, his third detention since 2017, and did not reveal his location or permit contact with his lawyer until January 21. On August 31, he was released.

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

Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were credible reports that Maduro-aligned security forces tortured and abused detainees. According to the illegitimate Maduro regime, as of May, 26 individuals had been convicted of torturing or abusing detainees.

The regime-aligned Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups reported the regime continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No official data were available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. The NGO Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal. The OHCHR found that in some cases doctors issued false or inaccurate medical reports not disclosing signs of torture.

Press and NGOs reported that beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military controlled by the illegitimate Maduro regime. Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were also reported during the year. Regime-aligned authorities reportedly subjected detainees to asphyxiation, electric shock, broken bones, being hung by their limbs, and being forced to spend hours on their knees. Detainees were also subjected to cold temperatures, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation; remained handcuffed for extended periods of time; and received death threats to themselves and their relatives. Detainees reported regime-aligned security forces moved them from detention centers to houses and other clandestine locations where abuse took place. Cruel treatment frequently involved illegitimate regime authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs detailed reports from detainees who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence by regime-aligned authorities. The FFM found that regime-aligned security forces, specifically the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and DGCIM, subjected detainees to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and that high-level regime officials committed, ordered, or contributed to the abuses or were aware of their activities and failed to prevent or stop them.

Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in regime custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which regime authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials. PROVEA identified 574 cases of torture by regime-aligned security forces in 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 individuals. NGOs reported that members of the military represented a growing number of victims of torture, such as retired naval captain Rafael Acosta Arevalo, who died of injuries sustained from torture while in regime custody in June 2019.

Political activist Vasco Da Costa, who had been detained in the Ramo Verde military prison despite being a civilian, was released in August 2019 after more than two years in regime custody. Da Costa described extended periods of torture at the hands of the DGCIM, including use of electric shocks, simulated drownings, and beatings to the feet and stomach to the point that he lost control of his bowels. According to Da Costa, prison guards systematically beat and mutilated detainees according to the detainees’ occupations, targeting the legs of soldiers, the hands of a surgeon who was arrested because he was the spouse of a soldier wanted by the regime, and in the case of Da Costa, his eyes due to his role as an academic.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Despite continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, the illegitimate Maduro regime took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses. Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. NGOs noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police. The regime, backed by Cuban security force members embedded in Maduro’s security and intelligence services, refused to cede power, preventing the interim government from taking action.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure.

Physical Conditions: According to the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL), prison capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails. Overcrowding was 172 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP) noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent. Overcrowding and generally unsanitary conditions placed prisoners at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and COVID-19.

There were two women’s prisons, one each in the states of Miranda and Zulia. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that male and female prisoners intermingled. Illegitimate Maduro regime security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, although separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.

The CICPC detention facility, police station jails, and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Long delays in court proceedings and prison transfers created a parallel system that held prisoners in police station jails, in some cases for years, although these facilities were designed to hold individuals only for 48 hours. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A UVL study of 248 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 315 percent overcrowding. The UVL also found that 5 percent of facilities provided medical services, more than 90 percent did not have potable water, 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms, and 35 percent lacked electricity.

The National Guard (GNB) and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The illegitimate Maduro regime failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with one guard for every 100 inmates, instead of one for every 10 as recommended by international standards. Armed gangs, known as pranes, exercised de facto control within some prisons.

According to the UVL and OVP, between March and August, 287 prisoners died in prisons and jails, more than double the number compared with the same period in 2018. Some deaths resulted from prison and detention center riots. For example, on May 1, GNB officers opened fire on prisoners during a riot at the Los Llanos penitentiary in Portuguesa State, leaving 47 prisoners killed and 67 injured. Illegitimate regime Minister of Prisons Iris Varela claimed the riot began as an attempted prison escape, an account disputed by inmates and their family members, who stated the prisoners were protesting malnutrition. Media reported the prison, which was designed for 750 prisoners, held at least 2,500 inmates. AN members called the violence a massacre, and human rights NGOs and the OHCHR called for an investigation. The illegitimate Maduro regime charged 10 persons for their involvement in the violence.

The OVP reported inmate deaths due to generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons, with 73 percent the result of tuberculosis and malnutrition. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates. The UVL reported that in more than 90 percent of detention facilities, prisoners depended upon family visits to supply them with food, water, and medicine. Media reported prison guards regularly stole food families purchased for inmates. Prisoners were unable to meet their basic needs when illegitimate Maduro regime authorities suspended family visits to prisons and detention centers on April 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces without food and medical attention.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for medical attention.

Administration: The illegitimate regime’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding inmates or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes, violent uprisings, and massacres.

Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, until authorities suspended family visits in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. For political prisoners, prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits by family and legal representation. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.

Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers experienced lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days. As of September the OHCHR had conducted 15 visits of 13 detention centers.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits the arrest or detention of an individual without a judicial order and provides for the accused to remain free while being tried, but judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the illegitimate Maduro regime generally did not observe this requirement. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, the Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, illegitimate Maduro regime authorities rarely granted them formal means to present their petitions. Regime authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals and raided their homes without a warrant. The OHCHR found that in several cases the illegitimate Maduro regime issued warrants retroactively or forged the warrant’s date of issuance. The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention; the law also requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.

Although the law provides for bail, release on bail is not afforded to persons charged with certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.

Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 281 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and July 31.

On May 9, illegitimate regime security forces arrested Junior Pantoja, a former city councilman and soup-kitchen manager, during a violent police confrontation with armed gangs in a Caracas neighborhood. Pantoja’s relatives and neighbors, as well as AN, called the arrest arbitrary and politically motivated due to his role as a community leader. Pantoja’s lawyer claimed security forces planted five bullets on Pantoja in order to arrest him for gang-related activity and arms trafficking. On June 24, he was released and on August 23, he died of a respiratory infection after his health deteriorated while in regime custody.

On October 4, the illegitimate Maduro regime, without providing explanation, prevented interim president Juan Guaido’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, from boarding a flight to Spain. Marrero had been released from regime custody on August 31, following his March 2019 arrest and months of arbitrary judicial delays. Media reported contradictory and conflicting evidence submitted by prosecutors–including allegations that rifles and a grenade were planted at Marrero’s residence on the day of his arrest. Marrero was charged with conspiracy, treason, and weapons smuggling. Many international entities, including the Lima Group and the EU, condemned Marrero’s 2019 arrest as politically motivated.

Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the UVL, approximately 70 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges.

Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events that led to the detention. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary lacked independence and generally judged in favor of the illegitimate regime at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to reports from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), more than 75 percent of all judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the Supreme Court (TSJ) Judicial Committee. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subjected to political influence to make proregime determinations. The OHCHR reported that lower courts received instructions from the TSJ on cases, especially those of a political nature, and observed that TSJ decisions related to the AN were inconsistent and raised concerns regarding politicization. Low salaries for judges at all levels increased the risk of corruption.

There was a general lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and a lack of technical criteria for assigning district attorneys to criminal investigations. These deficiencies hindered the possibility of bringing offenders to justice and resulted in a 90 percent rate of impunity for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights abuses.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. By law defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them, but the requirement was often ignored and, even when respected, involved dubious allegations, according to human rights organizations. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,300 public defenders, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected because of attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. Some NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.

Defendants may request no fewer than 30 days and no more than 45 days to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses. By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and plaintiffs have the right of appeal. The OHCHR documented cases in which the illegitimate Maduro regime prevented lawyers from meeting with defendants and denied them confidentiality or access to case files.

Trial delays were common. Trials in absentia are permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of the procedure claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states that, in the absence of the defense attorney, a trial may proceed with a public defender whom the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”

On November 8, the TSJ convicted judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni of “spiritual corruption,” an offense that does not exist under criminal law, and sentenced her to five years’ imprisonment. Human rights NGOs and lawyers called the charges fabricated and an attempt to coerce other judges to take action against opposition politicians. In 2009 authorities arrested Afiuni on charges of corruption and abuse of authority for her decision to release a businessman who had been held in pretrial detention beyond the maximum time prescribed by law. Following her release to house arrest in 2011, regime-aligned authorities limited her movements and ability to speak to the press before granting her an unconditional release in July 2019.

The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment of fewer than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” community service, or any other condition imposed by the court.

The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the Organic Code of Military Justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs and the IACHR expressed concern with the regime’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. According to Foro Penal, since 2014 military courts had processed 870 civilians.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The illegitimate Maduro regime used the judiciary to intimidate and prosecute individuals critical of regime policies or actions. Foro Penal reported 351 political prisoners in regime custody as of December 28, compared with 388 political prisoners at the end of 2019. The regime routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.

On August 31, the illegitimate Maduro regime announced the “pardon” of 110 political prisoners. These pardons were conditional, with regime officials threatening to rescind the benefit if any individuals “return to any act of terrorism, violence, or coup mongering,” as arbitrarily determined by the regime. According to Foro Penal, however, only 50 of those named were in regime custody at the time. Of the prisoners, 23 had already been released, and the remaining 37 were AN deputies either in exile, in foreign embassy asylum in Caracas, or facing prosecution. Media and NGOs noted that since most on the list were not duly convicted or even charged with any crime, the move was a dismissal rather than a pardon. The list did not include any members of the military, although they represented 20 percent of political prisoners, according to Foro Penal. On September 7, regime attorney general Tarek William Saab encouraged the released detainees to participate in the December 6 parliamentary elections, but he warned they would be rearrested if found to have committed additional “crimes.”

On March 15, SEBIN officers arrested AN deputy Tony Geara. Geara was charged with financing terrorism and weapons trafficking after he posted comments on social media noting that a local hospital did not have running water. Media reported in August that Geara tested positive for COVID-19 while in SEBIN custody in Bolivar State. On August 31, Geara was released.

On August 28, AN deputy Juan Requesens was released to house arrest after being detained for more than two years for his alleged involvement in an attempted assassination of Maduro. International observers criticized irregularities in Requesens’ trial, which was marred by lengthy judicial delays as well as a lack of transparency and legal due process.

On October 14, opposition party leader Leopoldo Lopez fled to Spain after more than one year inside the Spanish embassy in Caracas. He previously escaped house arrest during mass demonstrations in April 2019, and in May 2019 the illegitimate Maduro regime issued a warrant for his arrest. Lopez was notably not included in the August 31 “pardon” of political prisoners.

In 2017 the head of state-owned oil company PDVSA summoned six executives of U.S.-based subsidiary CITGO to Venezuela for an emergency budget meeting: U.S. citizens Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, and Jose Luis Zambrano and U.S. Legal Permanent Resident Jose Angel Pereira (collectively known as the CITGO-6). Upon their arrival in Caracas, they were detained by masked security agents; charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and criminal association for an alleged deal they signed to restructure CITGO bonds; and confined in one of the country’s most dangerous prisons. After their initial appearance before a judge was cancelled dozens of times during three years, the trial of the six began in August. On November 21, they were convicted and sentenced as soon as closing arguments concluded to terms of eight to 13 years in prison. Their cases were marred by a lack of legal due process and based on politically motivated charges. The illegitimate regime denied media and human rights groups access to the trial.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were credible reports that the illegitimate Maduro regime attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On October 22, the TSJ issued an extradition request for Ivan Simonovis, former political prisoner and sitting interim government commissioner for security. The regime charged Simonovis with the attempted murder of Maduro, treason, terrorism, and weapons trafficking. Simonovis escaped from house arrest in May 2019 and fled the country.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

While there are separate civil courts that permit citizens to file lawsuits seeking damages, there are no procedures for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights abuses.

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

The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the illegitimate regime generally failed to respect these prohibitions. In many cases, particularly regarding the political opposition, regime-aligned authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, or interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted both politically motivated and indiscriminate household raids. Throughout the year media reports documented raids by security forces on the homes of opposition party politicians and their relatives.

State surveillance remained rampant, including through the assistance of telecom regulator the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) and state-run telecommunications provider CANTV. In February 2019 the interim government created a website for volunteers to participate in the delivery of international humanitarian aid. CANTV manipulated the Domain Name System to redirect visitors to a fake website registered to CONATEL that was designed to phish visitors’ personal information. Further, telecommunications companies reportedly assisted the government in monitoring communications of political opponents. Technical attacks against media outlets appeared to be linked to the armed forces.

China, through its telecommunications corporation ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation), provided the government with the technology to monitor citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior through an identity card called carnet de la patria (homeland card). To force citizens to comply, the Maduro regime made it obligatory to present the card to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, and subsidized fuel. Citizens essentially had no choice but to obtain and use the card despite the known tracking methods. Chinese companies such as Huawei and the China National Electronics Import-Export Company were also supporting financially and technologically these surveillance methods.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel, slander, and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned illegitimate Maduro regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.

Freedom of Speech: The law makes conviction of insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In 2017 the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC) gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Conviction of exposing another person to public contempt or hatred is punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. Espacio Publico reported 795 violations of freedom of expression, including 135 arrests, between January and August.

The illegitimate Maduro regime threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out regarding COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic. Espacio Publico documented at least 59 arrests by September for COVID-19 coverage.

On March 17, the DGCIM detained medical doctor Ruben Duarte for publishing a video deploring the lack of supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) at the San Cristobal Central Hospital. In August the NGO United Doctors for Venezuela reported at least 12 health-care workers were arrested for demanding PPE. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals, who feared for their own and others’ safety by working without PPE, reported they also faced regime repression for failing to appear for work.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that conviction of inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.

The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience of the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.

Despite such laws, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) used the nearly 600 regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.

The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; CONATEL oversees the law’s application.

The illegitimate Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. Following the shuttering of DirecTV’s operations on May 19, the TSJ ordered the seizure of all property and equipment of DirecTV and banned DirecTV’s executives from leaving the country. On August 14, DirecTV resumed operations, although multiple regime-independent outlets reported challenges–including veiled threats, outright blocks, and fines–preventing them from broadcasting freely over DirecTV when service was re-established.

The illegitimate Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime programming. In addition private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from covering AN debates and activities. The country’s online independent newspapers were frequently blocked by CANTV. NGOs noted that regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during interim president Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions. On January 5, CANTV restricted access to social media on the same day as a leadership vote in the AN, while security forces blocked lawmakers and media from accessing the premises.

The illegitimate regime arbitrarily detained 28 journalists from January to July, according to the national journalists’ union.

Media and NGOs reported increased repression and intimidation of journalists following the emergence of COVID-19. Despite a specific exception permitting travel for members of the press during quarantine, the illegitimate Maduro regime limited the freedom of movement of journalists.

On March 21, FAES officers arrested freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas and his family for inciting hatred. Rojas’ reporting questioned figures published by the illegitimate Maduro regime regarding COVID-19 cases. On August 2, the illegitimate regime granted Rojas a conditional release. DGCIM officers arrested Nicmer Evans on July 13, also for inciting hatred. NGOs and journalists called the arrest a retaliation against Evans due to his role as the founder and director of news site Punto de Corte, which frequently published articles critical of the regime. On August 31, Evans was released.

The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.

Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. The national journalists’ union reported 260 attacks on journalists from January to August. On February 11, regime supporters and colectivos attacked at least 12 journalists covering the return of interim president Guaido from an international tour. Maduro and illegitimate regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the illegitimate Maduro regime’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.

The regime also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.

According to the local journalists’ union, print news outlets closed due to the illegitimate Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. In January, 16 print outlets suspended circulation, generally for lack of supplies, and at least 200 media outlets had been blocked, censored, or closed by May.

The illegitimate Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.

A study by the NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) found that more than five million citizens lived in “media deserts,” areas that had no access to print, television, radio, or digital media due to censorship, forced closures of television and radio stations, and reprisals against journalists. Access to information was most heavily restricted in border territories and indigenous communities.

Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use libel and slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths. In October investigative journalist Clavel Rangel was forced to leave the country promptly after publishing an expose on corruption in Bolivar State. The subject of the report, a businessman with links to the regime, filed a defamation suit against Rangel, which would have prohibited her from discussing the case in media or leaving the country.

National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The illegitimate Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”

During the year Maduro renewed three times the “state of alarm” issued on March 13, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The regime also threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out on COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic.

Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country, often encouraged or left undeterred by the Maduro regime, made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.

Internet Freedom

The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The illegitimate regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. The China National Electronics Import-Export Company provided the regime with cyber support, technical experts, and a suite of software and hardware that was a commercialized version of China’s “Great Firewall” to maintain online censorship, control information, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted illegitimate Maduro regime authorities in locating users.

The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. As of September the illegitimate Maduro regime blocked 40 websites and online platforms that contained information regarding COVID-19.

CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the illegitimate regime’s official rate, as well as cryptocurrency exchanges. The regime-controlled internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS and the VE Sin Filtro (VE without Filter) internet monitoring project sponsored by internet freedom watchdog Venezuela Inteligente, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. Social media and video streaming sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Periscope were blocked during the AN’s January 5 session and also during live speeches made by interim president Guaido throughout the year. In a September 15 televised address, Maduro denounced the news site Monitoreamos.com as an “enemy” and its journalists as “manipulators and bandits.” On September 16, internet service providers blocked access to the site.

Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the illegitimate Maduro regime, and senior regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused of actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.

On August 28, internet providers blocked access to anticensorship tools to prevent health-care workers from accessing the Health Heroes financial assistance program announced by interim president Guaido, according to VE Sin Filtro. The group also found the financial platform used to distribute payments to health workers had been blocked and the illegitimate Maduro regime launched a phishing campaign that redirected users to a malicious site in order to capture their data.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no substantiated reports of illegitimate Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy. According to Aula Abierta, there were 151 security incidents, including fires, thefts, threats, and violence directed towards university students, professors, and school property.

The illegitimate Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.

In August 2019 the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulated the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and stated it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers heading universities. On February 27, the TSJ announced a suspension of the ruling. University professors clarified that the suspension only removed the deadline imposed by the TSJ but left in place the changes to electoral process and granted the Ministry of University Education the power to oversee the elections.

On May 8, the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a report that accused the illegitimate Maduro regime of underreporting COVID-19 infections. On May 13, PSUV vice president Diosdado Cabello announced an investigation into the academy and invited regime-aligned security forces to summon the report’s authors. Domestic research institutions and international organizations condemned Cabello’s actions as unacceptable intimidation, and interim president Guaido denounced the attack on the independence and academic freedom of researchers.

The illegitimate regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria, a regime-issued identity and social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation). NGOs and university students denounced the use of the card as a discriminatory policy that politicized the issuance of scholarships and restricted academic freedom.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the illegitimate Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allows the illegitimate regime to criminalize organizations critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support interim president Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) documented 4,414 protests in the first six months of the year, 221 of which were repressed by regime-aligned security forces and armed groups. The OVCS documented 129 detentions, 62 injured, and two deaths during protests. An OHCHR investigation found three cases of torture and a sexual assault of protesters committed on May 20 by regime security forces in Lara State. Media reported a group of armed colectivos attacked protesters and journalists gathered at a protest convened on February 29 by interim president Guaido in Lara State.

NGOs and opposition deputies expressed concern that the illegitimate Maduro regime used quarantine restrictions as a form of social control to criminalize protests and silence critics. On May 23, FAES officers arrested Giovanny Meza and four others during a protest in Sucre State to demand water and electricity. Meza, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, had a seizure during his hearing. When the judge ordered a medical examination, doctors found that Meza showed signs of torture, including five broken ribs. Meza was charged with instigation to commit a crime, obstruction of public roads, possession of incendiary objects, and criminal association.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the illegitimate Maduro regime did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.

A 2016 presidential decree directed the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” the funding was used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the illegitimate Maduro regime did not respect these rights.

In-country Movement: The illegitimate regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.

The “state of alarm” declared by Maduro in March to limit the spread of COVID-19 restricted freedom of movement and suspended social and business activities. The decree authorized regime-aligned security forces broad latitude and discretion to enforce the decree and conduct investigations. Media reported the illegitimate regime employed the armed forces, FAES, and armed colectivos to enforce quarantine measures. PROVEA documented an excessive use of force in implementing the lockdown, including arbitrary detentions, beatings, torture, and humiliating treatment for allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures.

On March 17, the illegitimate regime suspended all international travel, although it authorized a number of humanitarian and repatriation flights. On March 16, restrictions were put in place to prevent travel among different states and cities. Many countries experienced severe difficulties in repatriating their citizens due to these restrictions.

Throughout the year high-level regime officials stigmatized returning citizens, blaming them for rising COVID-19 cases and calling them “bioterrorists” and “biological weapons.” On July 15, Maduro called on all citizens to report and apprehend returnees who crossed into the country through unofficial border crossings.

The illegitimate Maduro regime required returnees to spend a mandatory two-week quarantine period at shelters run by the armed forces at the border. Humanitarian organizations and interim government officials reported overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in quarantine shelters that increased the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Returnees held in these facilities suffered from insufficient food, water, electricity, and hygiene items, as well as physical insecurity that put vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, at risk of sexual violence and abuse. A COVID-19 diagnostic test was required for release from the quarantine shelters, but in view of the regime’s limited testing capacity, several returnees were held for as long as one month. Media reported returnees were kept from returning to their regions of origin and threatened by armed groups controlling the shelters not to report the poor conditions.

Media reported regime authorities blocked citizens from returning to the country. On June 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime adopted measures to limit the number of citizens returning to the country through the border with Colombia. Migrants were only allowed to return on three specific days a week, and regime authorities set a limit of 1,200-1,300 returnees weekly through Arauca, Cucuta, and Paraguachon. As of September more than 40,000 citizens waited to cross the border into the country through Cucuta, according to the Organization of American States (OAS) commissioner-general for the Venezuela refugee crisis David Smolansky. NGOs reported citizens unable to return to their country faced uncertain legal and financial statuses and were at high risk of victimization for crime, trafficking, and gender-based violence by criminal armed groups.

Following the illegitimate Maduro regime’s closure of official ports of entry, Venezuelans traveling into and out of the country had no choice but to use informal border crossings (trochas) that largely were controlled by illegal armed groups. While no official statistics were available, activists and NGOs reported citizens utilizing the trochas faced significant risks, such as gender-based violence and human trafficking, including forced labor and sexual servitude at the hands of criminal groups. Smugglers and human traffickers also sent refugees and migrants on dangerous sea journeys. In December at least 21 individuals attempting to flee the country and reach Trinidad and Tobago died when their boat capsized. Individuals were often subjected to debt bondage or forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing to illegal armed groups, increasing the vulnerability of migrants to labor exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence. Many were vulnerable to recruitment, sometimes forced, into drug trafficking rings or illegal and other armed groups.

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

Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Several applicants reportedly paid several thousand U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The illegitimate regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission’s headquarters, particularly vulnerable groups, including women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by regime authorities at checkpoints and other locations.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and there is an established system for providing protection to refugees.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties in achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Illegitimate regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In 2019 CONARE announced the creation of a border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The 1999 constitution, the country’s 26th since independence in 1811, provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but regime interference, electoral irregularities, unconstitutional appointments of electors, and harassment and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the 2018 presidential and municipal elections as well as the 2020 legislative elections.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate second term as president began on January 10, 2019, following flawed presidential elections in 2018 condemned by the political opposition and international observers as fraudulent and constitutionally invalid. On January 23, 2019, AN president Juan Guaido invoked Article 233 of the constitution, which calls on the AN president to assume the role of interim president in the event of presidential vacancy. In December 2019 media and AN deputies reported a campaign by the illegitimate Maduro regime to intimidate and bribe opposition lawmakers to break the opposition’s majority in the AN. On January 5, the GNB forcibly barred interim president Guaido and opposition deputies from entering the Federal Legislative Palace to elect the AN leadership for 2020. PSUV deputies and a small group of independent deputies aligned with the regime proclaimed Luis Parra, a deputy tainted by corruption allegations, head of the AN despite the lack of a quorum. Opposition deputies proceeded to meet at the headquarters of newspaper El Nacional, where they elected Guaido AN president with 100 votes in favor and zero against, a clear majority of the 167-member legislature. On May 26, the TSJ issued a ruling declaring Parra the president of the AN and Guaido “in contempt.”

On June 12, the TSJ unilaterally announced the appointment of a new CNE. Opposition deputies denounced the move, noting it was AN’s constitutional role to manage the selection process and election of the five-member CNE through a two-thirds majority vote in the AN. The CNE announced two changes to electoral law on June 30: increasing the number of AN deputies from 167 to 277, in violation of article 186 of the constitution; and increasing the number of deputies elected by political parties, rather than directly by voters, to more than half of all seats, which violates the 2009 Organic Electoral Law.

On December 6, the illegitimate regime conducted fraudulent legislative elections that did not meet any minimum standard of credibility. The regime usurped the TSJ’s legislative powers and illegally appointed members to the CNE; hijacked political parties through the theft of their brand name, assets, and ballot logos, including those from the left that challenged the regime’s control of Chavez’s political legacy; prohibited many political opponents of the regime from running for office and stripped them of their political rights; kidnapped, exiled, and tortured opposition politicians; suppressed indigenous political representation; and arbitrarily increased the number of seats in the AN from 167 to 277. As a result, electoral and constitutional experts, most independent political parties, and civil society organizations rejected the process.

The interim government utilized a provision in the constitution to hold a public referendum, the Consulta Popular, on December 7-12. The Consulta Popular’s questions focused on rejecting the illegitimate regime’s December 6 farce and restoring democracy through free and fair presidential and legislative elections. Participation was open to both citizens in the country and abroad, who could vote via a secure online platform. In-person voting was also available within the country.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties and PSUV dissidents operated in an increasingly restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access.

The illegitimate Maduro regime regularly targeted AN deputies and other opposition politicians and their relatives through violence or threats of violence, arbitrary arrest, politically motivated prosecution, violation of privacy, and restrictions on movement. Interim president Guaido returned to Caracas from an international trip on February 11, in defiance of a travel ban on him imposed by the illegitimate Maduro regime. As he made his way through the airport, Guaido and his entourage were harassed by regime supporters. Regime security forces and colectivos detained, assaulted, and seized the vehicles of AN deputies and journalists attempting to make their way to the airport for Guaido’s arrival. The DGCIM detained Juan Jose Marquez, Guaido’s uncle and an airline pilot who accompanied Guaido on his return flight, charging him with attempted smuggling of explosives, bulletproof vests, and subversive material into the country. AN and international organizations rejected the accusation, calling Marquez’ arbitrary arrest an attempt to intimidate Guaido. Marquez was released to house arrest on June 2.

Between March 26 and April 2, security forces aligned with the illegitimate Maduro regime arbitrarily arrested four Guaido staffers and the girlfriend of a fifth staffer, whom they beat, stripped naked, and threatened with sexual abuse.

On April 30, Maduro announced operations “Tun-Tun” and “Bolivarian Fury” to arrest those involved in an alleged plot to overthrow Maduro. Illegitimate regime-sponsored colectivos responded to the call by harassing and intimidating AN deputies, journalists, and their family members by sending threatening text messages and spray-painting their homes.

The illegitimate Maduro regime used its control over the TSJ to coopt or dismantle political parties not aligned with the regime. On May 25, regime attorney general Tarek William Saab requested that the TSJ declare opposition party Popular Will, Guaido’s former party, a “criminal organization for terrorist purposes.” During the year the TSJ unilaterally replaced the leadership of 11 political parties, including three of the largest opposition parties and four leftist parties that broke with the regime.

Throughout the year GNB forces denied or limited access by AN members to the federal legislative palace during regularly scheduled parliamentary sessions. By June the regime-controlled TSJ had removed the parliamentary immunity of 29 deputies, without following constitutional requirements or due process, prompting many to go into hiding or exile to avoid arbitrary arrest.

During the year the illegitimate Maduro regime expanded the carnet de la patria program, introduced in 2017 as a multipurpose identification card required to access regime-funded social services. To qualify for the card, applicants must provide proof of political affiliation and respond to questions regarding the social service benefits they receive. The card amounted to social control, a tool to leverage access to scarce subsidized consumer products in return for political loyalty. For example, media reported the regime used the card to prioritize testing and distribute medical and financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the illegitimate Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Several officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The illegitimate regime frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, weak institutions, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.

Corruption: According to illegitimate regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, 1,741 persons had been convicted of corruption-related charges since 2018. The regime, however, did not provide information regarding the alleged cases or persons convicted.

Corruption was a major problem in all security and armed forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. There were no data publicly available on the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities. On April 10, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published an investigative report detailing corruption in the military. Using a cache of internal army documents, the report documented the exploits of illegitimate regime defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, his businesses in a foreign country under the names of his family members, and 35 high-ranking officers who benefited from corruption and lucrative state contracts.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials, as well as all directors and members of the boards of private companies, to submit sworn financial disclosure statements. By law the Public Ministry and competent criminal courts may require such statements from any other persons when circumstantial evidence arises during an investigation.

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

A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with restrictions from the illegitimate Maduro regime. Major domestic human rights NGOs conducted investigations and published their findings on human rights cases. Regime officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their requests. Domestic NGOs reported fear the regime would use the 2017 Law against Hate to justify widespread repression of their activities, jailing of the participants and organizers, and threats against family members. Some domestic NGOs reported threats against and harassment of their leaders, staff, and organizations, in addition to raids and detentions, but they were able to publish dozens of reports during the year. Some human rights activists reported regime authorities barred them from traveling abroad or that they feared not being able to return to the country if they traveled. NGOs played a significant role in informing citizens and the international community regarding alleged abuses and key human rights cases.

NGOs noted the illegitimate Maduro regime created a dangerous atmosphere for them to operate. The PSUV first vice president and ANC president, Diosdado Cabello, used his weekly talk show to intimidate NGO staff of Espacio Publico, PROVEA, and Foro Penal. Several organizations, such as the OVP, PROVEA, Foro Penal, and Citizen Control, reported their staffs received both electronic and in-person threats. Human rights organizations claimed they were subject to frequent internet hacking attacks and attempts to violate their email privacy. Multiple humanitarian NGOs were targeted by the regime, which issued politically motivated arrest warrants against their staff and directors, raided their facilities, and stole computers and other electronic devices.

The 2010 law prohibits domestic NGOs from receiving funds from abroad if they have a “political intent,” defined as the intent to “promote, disseminate, inform, or defend the full exercise of the political rights of citizens” or to “defend political rights.” The illegitimate Maduro regime attempted to discredit and threatened NGOs with criminal investigations for allegedly illegally accepting foreign funds. Various regime officials accused human rights organizations on national television and other media of breaking the law by receiving funding from international donors. On February 19, Cabello announced the ANC would revise laws governing NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources for sanctions to “the maximum extent possible.” Cabello singled out PROVEA for “destabilizing Venezuela.” NGOs and the OHCHR reported the regime refused or significantly delayed legal registration of NGOs, preventing them from receiving international funding. On November 20, Sudeban–a banking authority affiliated with the regime–directed all banks to strengthen monitoring of NGO operations in the country to detect potential illicit activity.

The law stipulates monetary penalties, a potential five- to eight-year disqualification from running for political office, or both. The law defines political organizations as those involved in promoting citizen participation, exercising control over public offices, or promoting candidates for public office. Although the law was not enforced, its existence created a climate of fear among human rights NGOs and a hesitancy to seek international assistance.

In addition to the restrictions placed on fund raising, domestic NGOs also faced regulatory limitations on their ability to perform their missions. The law includes provisions eliminating the right of human rights NGOs to represent victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings. The law provides that only the public defender and private individuals may file complaints in court or represent victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by public employees or members of security forces.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The illegitimate Maduro regime was generally hostile toward international human rights bodies and continued to refuse to permit a visit by the IACHR, which last visited the country in 2002. In 2019 the regime and the OHCHR signed a memorandum of understanding that provided for the presence of two UN human rights officers for one year, which was extended for another year in September. The illegitimate Maduro regime failed to implement recommendations issued by the OHCHR, such as the dissolution of FAES, which the OHCHR and an independent UN FFM found reasonable grounds to believe committed extrajudicial killings. In 2019 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish a one-year FFM to investigate “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment committed in Venezuela since 2014.” In September the FFM reported there were reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed since 2014 and the illegitimate Maduro regime either ordered, contributed to, or was involved in the commission of these crimes. On October 6, the UN Human Rights Council voted to extend the mandates of the FFM and the OHCHR for an additional two years. The OAS passed resolutions citing the continued deterioration of human rights conditions in the country, and in its October 21 General Assembly resolution, it welcomed the UN’s FFM report while calling for the “immediate and complete implementation of the recommendations contained therein, including the investigation of human rights violations and the cessation of the use of excessive force, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the illegitimate regime gave its 2016-19 human rights plan minimal attention, with no announcements to renew or update the plan.

The TSJ continued to hold the AN in “contempt” status, which diminished the purview and operational effectiveness of the assembly’s subcommission on human rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, making it punishable if convicted by a prison term of eight to 14 years. A man may legally avoid punishment by marrying (before he is sentenced) the person he raped. The law allows authorities to consider alternative forms of punishment, including work release, for those convicted of various crimes, including rape, if they have completed three-quarters of their sentence.

The law criminalizes physical, sexual, and psychological violence in the home or community and at work, with increased penalties for intimate partner violence. The law punishes perpetrators of domestic violence with penalties for conviction ranging from six to 27 months in prison. The law requires police to report domestic violence to judicial authorities and obligates hospital personnel to notify authorities when admitting patients who are victims of domestic abuse. Police generally were reluctant to intervene to prevent domestic violence and were not properly trained to handle such cases. The law also establishes women’s bureaus at local police headquarters and tribunals specializing in gender-based violence, and two-thirds of states had specialized courts. The Public Ministry’s Women’s Defense Department employed a team of lawyers, psychiatrists, and other experts who dealt exclusively with cases of femicide, gender-related violence, and other crimes against women.

The illegitimate Maduro regime did not publish statistics on gender-based violence. The OHCHR reported a lack of due diligence in investigations of gender-based violence cases. According to NGOs, government efforts to protect victims of gender-based violence were ineffective or nonexistent. Enforcement of laws and access to justice were limited, as victims of gender-based violence reported a lack of progress and inability to follow up on cases after filing reports with authorities.

Many advocates observed there was a lack of public awareness among women regarding resources and support available to prevent and combat domestic violence. There were five shelters for victims of gender-based violence, most of which struggled to operate effectively due to a lack of financial resources. NGOs provided the majority of domestic abuse support services.

NGOs and media reported an increase of domestic abuse and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The NGO Woman Your Voice Has Power reported a 52 percent increase in domestic violence during the year. Between January and October, the NGO Utopix documented 217 femicides and an atmosphere of impunity for domestic abusers. On August 15, Mariana Lilibeth Gonzalez was assaulted in her home and shot 30 times. No suspects were arrested in connection with her death.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal and punishable by fines and a prison sentence of one to three years. Although allegedly common in the workplace, sexual harassment cases were rarely reported.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals do not always have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children or have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The Ministry of Health of the illegitimate Maduro regime restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, and did it not allow the full range of services.

Abortion is illegal in the country unless necessary to save the mother’s life. Activists reported a cumbersome process, requiring a diagnosis of a life-threatening condition and review by the hospital board, that prevented women from receiving legal abortions. Illegally terminating a pregnancy is punishable by prison sentences of six months to two years for the woman and one to three years for persons performing the procedure. On January 11, authorities released from prison to house arrest professor and women’s rights activist Vannesa Rosales after she assisted a 13-year-old rape victim in ending a pregnancy. Rosales was charged with facilitating an abortion and conspiracy to commit a crime.

The illegitimate Maduro regime’s economic mismanagement and neglect of the country’s health-care infrastructure severely restricted access to contraception and to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. Media reported that methods of contraception were scarce and, where available, cost 25 times the monthly minimum wage. According to NGOs, the COVID-19 pandemic further reduced access to contraception and the ability to consult doctors or access pharmacies.

Hospitals lacked qualified health care professionals, medicine, and basic necessities, such as water, electricity, and cleaning supplies. The country’s health care crisis, including the unavailability of maternal health services, was compounded by the pandemic as hospitals prioritized COVID-19 cases over other health services. While the illegitimate Maduro regime statistics on maternal death rates have not been published since 2016, according to the Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Venezuela, the maternal death rate in 2019 was 112 deaths per 100,000 live births, with postpartum hemorrhages, sepsis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension cited as the leading causes of maternal mortality. Doctors stated that these were “predictable and treatable” conditions but were often fatal due to hospitals’ lack of adequate resources and medicine.

According to the UN Population Fund, the adolescent birth rate in 2019 was 95 births for every 1,000 adolescents aged 15 to 19.

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

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men under the constitution. Women and men are legally equal in marriage, and the law provides for gender equality in exercising the right to work. The law specifies that employers must not discriminate against women with regard to pay or working conditions. According to the Ministry of Labor and the Confederation of Workers, regulations protecting women’s labor rights were enforced in the formal sector, although according to the World Economic Forum, women earned 36 percent less on average than men doing comparable jobs.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory. According to UNICEF, 81 percent of children younger than five were registered at birth, based on 2011 statistics provided by the government. The children’s rights NGO Cecodap reported that families struggled to register births due to quarantine measures surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Child Abuse: According to UNICEF and NGOs working with children and women, child abuse, including incest, occurred but were rarely reported. The illegitimate regime made efforts to detain and prosecute some perpetrators of child abuse. Although the judicial system acted to remove children from abusive households, the press reported public facilities for such children were inadequate. According to NGOs, in many cases children were returned to their homes without proper reintegration measures or follow-up. A study by the NGO Save the Children found a 30 percent increase in child abuse in homes under quarantine.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 for women and men, but with parental consent the minimum age is 16.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: By law conviction of having sexual relations with a minor younger than 13, with an “especially vulnerable” person, or with a minor younger than 16 when the perpetrator is a relative or guardian are punishable with a mandatory sentence of 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits the forced prostitution and corruption of minors. Penalties range from 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment in cases of forced labor and some forms of sex trafficking of women and girls. The law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute child sex trafficking. The law prohibits the production and sale of child pornography and establishes penalties of 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Displaced Children: Children’s rights advocates and media reported an increase in the number of abandoned children living on the street. Cecodap estimated that as many as one million minors had been left behind with family members as their parents fled the country’s economic crisis, many of whom also struggled with the country’s economic downturn. These children resided in limbo, since their parents who left were unable legally to transfer guardianship to a third party.

State-run facilities, already filled to capacity, were unable to support the influx of children in need. Private institutions denounced the illegitimate regime’s refusal to provide subsidized food benefits to support the country’s population. NGOs noted young girls made up close to one-half of the children living on the streets. This significant shift posed particular challenges for shelters, which historically housed predominantly male populations. With institutions filled to capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions, such as curfew violations, were confined in inadequate juvenile detention centers.

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://www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Confederation of Israelite Associations in Venezuela estimated there were 9,000 Jews in the country.

Jewish community leaders expressed concern regarding anti-Semitic statements made by high-level regime-aligned officials and anti-Semitic pieces in proregime media outlets. They stated regime-owned or -associated media and supporters of the illegitimate regime promoted Zionist conspiracy theories and denied or trivialized the Holocaust.

The community leaders noted many other anti-Semitic incidents occurred during the year. There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, including anti-Semitism.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, but the illegitimate regime did not implement the law, inform the public of it, or combat societal prejudice against persons with disabilities. The law requires that all newly constructed or renovated public parks and buildings provide access, but persons with disabilities had minimal access to public transportation, and ramps were almost nonexistent. Many persons with disabilities expressed concerns that public transportation workers often were unwilling to transport them and forced them to find taxis, which were often unaffordable and frequently not equipped to support patrons with disabilities. NGOs reported hospitals lacked infrastructure to accommodate persons with mobility problems and staff to communicate with deaf persons. Parents of children with disabilities also complained they were forced to wait in long lines for services rather than receiving preference as is afforded by law. Online resources and access to information were generally available to persons with disabilities, although access to closed-captioned or audio-described online videos for persons with sight and hearing disabilities was limited. Separately, leading advocates for persons with hearing disabilities lamented difficult access to public services due to a lack of interpreters in public courts, health-care facilities, and legal services, as well as a lack of other public accommodations.

The National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, an independent agency affiliated with the Ministry for Participation and Social Development, advocated for the rights of persons with disabilities and provided medical, legal, occupational, and cultural programs. According to the commission, fewer than 20 percent of persons with disabilities who registered with regime health programs were fully employed.

Children with disabilities attended specialized schools and integrated classes with their peers without disabilities. Media reported that schools for children with disabilities suffered from underfunding, decaying infrastructure, and little consideration for the specific needs of individual disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities reported significant difficulties in school enrollment, which prevented their children from receiving formal education. On March 16, the illegitimate Maduro regime closed the country’s schools through the calendar year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. NGOs reported that in the shift to online classes, children with disabilities had limited access to educational materials and the Ministry of Education did not adapt curricula for children with disabilities. A June study by the NGO Deaf Confederation of Venezuela found that nearly 90 percent of children with disabilities decreased their educational activities during the quarantine.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race. The law prohibits all forms of racial discrimination and provides for a maximum of three years’ imprisonment for acts of racial discrimination. As mandated by law, signage existed outside commercial and recreational establishments announcing the prohibition against acts of racial discrimination. Beyond signage the illegitimate regime did little to enforce laws against discrimination or prosecute cases of discrimination.

Indigenous People

The law prohibits discrimination based on ethnic origin. The constitution provides for three seats in the AN for deputies of indigenous origin to “protect indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation,” but some indigenous communities continued without representation in the national legislature due to the TSJ’s annulment of the 2015 election of Amazonas State’s indigenous representatives.

NGOs and the press reported local political authorities seldom took account of indigenous interests when making decisions affecting indigenous lands, cultures, traditions, or allocation of natural resources. Indigenous groups continued to call for faster implementation of the demarcation process.

Indigenous groups and NGOs expressed concern regarding mining in the expanding “Arco Minero,” an area that extends between the states of Bolivar and Amazonas. Indigenous communities reported the illegitimate Maduro regime developed and expanded mining zones without consulting those native to the region, resulting in a rise in environmental degradation, water contamination, and malaria. Illegal armed groups, including the National Liberation Army and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia had a considerable presence in the area, increasing the level of violence and insecurity in the communities. There was also an unprecedented influx of disease; drugs; human trafficking, including prostitution and forced labor; and other illegal activities in the mining areas, putting indigenous communities at risk.

Indigenous groups regularly reported violent conflicts with miners and cattle ranchers regarding land rights. There were reports of harassment, attacks, and forced evictions against indigenous persons living in areas included as part of illegitimate regime mining concessions. Indigenous reported a lack of consultation by the illegitimate Maduro regime on the social and environmental impact of mining activity in indigenous and protected areas.

Border disputes with Colombia affected indigenous groups living in border regions. There were many reported cases in which movements of indigenous groups were restricted, including from border closures in February.

NGOs stated that quarantine measures imposed by the illegitimate Maduro regime unduly impacted indigenous communities, preventing transit to and through territories and making it impossible for indigenous persons to obtain food, water, and access to medical care. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 325 persons, 82 of whom were Wayuu, were forcibly displaced between January and August by armed groups.

Media reported that in Zulia on April 12, GNB members used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a group of indigenous Wayuu, primarily older women and children, who were protesting a lack of food and water. Media reported that a Wayuu teacher was injured when she was shot in the face during the confrontation.

On July 24, the CNE abolished the system of direct, confidential voting of indigenous representatives to the AN. In August the CNE reversed course again to allow secret voting but opted to maintain the introduction of “community assemblies,” which would elect an unspecified number of spokespersons, who in turn would elect AN representatives. The AN and indigenous activists criticized the regulations as unconstitutional and an infringement of indigenous autonomy and the right to self-determination.

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

Local police and private security forces allegedly prevented lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons from entering malls, public parks, and recreational areas. NGOs reported the illegitimate Maduro regime systematically denied legal recognition to transgender and intersex persons by preventing them from obtaining identity documents required for accessing education, employment, housing, and health care. This vulnerability often led transgender and intersex persons to become victims of human trafficking or prostitution.

NGOs reported incidents of bias-motivated violence against LGBTI persons. Reported incidents were most prevalent against transgender individuals. Leading advocates noted that law enforcement authorities often did not properly investigate to determine whether crimes were bias motivated.

The constitution provides for equality before the law of all persons and prohibits discrimination based on “sex or social condition,” but it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a TSJ ruling, no individual may be subjected to discrimination because of sexual orientation, but the ruling was rarely enforced.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law provides for the equal rights of persons with HIV or AIDS and their families. Nevertheless, leading advocates alleged discrimination against such persons. PROVEA reported that hospitals discriminated against persons with HIV. On September 7, FAES officers raided the headquarters of Solidarity Action, an NGO that advocates for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS, seizing medication and detaining eight persons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides that all private- and public-sector workers (except members of the armed forces) have the right to form and join unions of their choice, and it provides for collective bargaining and the right to strike. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights, and the illegitimate Maduro regime deployed a variety of mechanisms to undercut the rights of independent workers and unions. Minimum membership requirements for unions differ based on the type of union. Forming a company union requires a minimum of 20 workers; forming a professional, industrial, or sectoral union in one jurisdiction requires 40 workers in the same field; and forming a regional or national union requires 150 workers. Ten persons may form an employee association, a parallel type of representation the illegitimate regime endorsed and openly supported.

The law prohibits “any act of discrimination or interference contrary to the exercise” of workers’ right to unionize. The law requires all unions to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster that includes the full name, home address, telephone number, and national identification number for each union member. The ministry reviews the registration and determines whether the union fulfilled all requirements. Unions must submit their registration application by December 31 of the year the union forms; if not received by the ministry or if the ministry considers the registration unsatisfactory, the union is denied the ability to exist legally. The law also requires the presence of labor inspectors to witness and legitimize unions’ decisions before the Ministry of Labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns regarding the ministry’s refusal to register trade union organizations.

By law employers may negotiate a collective contract only with unions that represent the majority of their workers. Minority organizations may not jointly negotiate in cases where no union represents an absolute majority. The law also restricts unions’ ability to administer their activities. For example, the CNE has the authority to administer internal elections of labor unions, federations, and confederations. By law elections must be held at least every three years. If CNE-administered and -certified elections are not held within this period, the law prohibits union leaders from representing workers in negotiations or engaging in anything beyond administrative tasks. The ILO repeatedly found cases of interference by the CNE in trade union elections, and since 1999 it has called for delinking the CNE from the union election process.

The law recognizes the right of all public- and private-sector workers to strike, subject to conditions established by law. Workers participating in legal strikes receive immunity from prosecution, and their time in service may not be reduced by the time engaged in a strike. The law requires that employers reincorporate striking workers and provides for prison terms sufficient to deter violations for employers who fail to do so. Replacement workers are not permitted during legal strikes. The law prohibits striking workers from paralyzing the production or provision of essential public goods and services, but it defines “essential services” more broadly than ILO standards. The ILO called on Venezuela to amend the law to exclude from the definition of “essential services” activities “that are not essential in the strict sense of the term…so that in no event may criminal sanctions be imposed in cases of peaceful strikes.”

The minister of labor may order public- or private-sector strikers back to work and submit their disputes to arbitration if a strike “puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population.” Other legal provisions establish criminal penalties for exercising the right to strike in certain circumstances. For example, anyone who “organizes, supports, or instigates the realization of activities within security zones that are intended to disturb or affect the organization and functioning of military installations, public services, industries and basic [i.e., mining] enterprises, or the socioeconomic life of the country” could be punished with five to 10 years in prison if convicted. The law also provides for prison terms sufficient to deter violations by those who restrict the distribution of goods and “those…who develop or carry out actions or omissions that impede, either directly or indirectly, the production, manufacture, import, storing, transport, distribution, and commercialization of goods.” There was no information on whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining through administrative and legal mechanisms. The regime did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denial of civil rights, such as discrimination.

The ILO raised concerns regarding violence against trade union members and intimidation of the Associations of Commerce and Production of Venezuela by the illegitimate regime. In 2018 ILO member countries voted to establish an ILO Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Venezuela to investigate longstanding complaints first filed in 2015 of labor rights violations of ILO Conventions Nos. 26, 87, and 144, which pertain to minimum-wage fixing, freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, and tripartite consultation, respectively. In 2019 the commission submitted its report to the ILO director general, noting the illegitimate regime had repeatedly committed violations of international conventions on minimum wage, freedom of association and the right to organize, and labor standards. The report also called for “the immediate release of any employer or trade unionist who may be in prison as a result of carrying out the legitimate activities of their workers’ or employers’ organization.” In late October the illegitimate Maduro regime rejected the ILO COI recommendations from 2019 on egregious labor violations.

Organized labor activists continued to report that the annual requirement to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster was onerous and infringed on freedom of association. They alleged the ministry removed member names from the rosters for political purposes, particularly if members were not registered voters on the CNE’s rolls. Labor leaders also criticized the laborious and costly administrative process of requesting CNE approval for elections and subsequent delays in the CNE’s recognition of such union processes. In addition there reportedly was a high turnover of ministry contractors, resulting in a lack of timely follow-through on union processes. Labor unions in both the private and public sectors noted long delays in obtaining CNE concurrence to hold elections and in receiving certification of the election results, which hindered unions’ ability to bargain collectively.

The illegitimate Maduro regime continued to support many “parallel” unions, which sought to dilute the membership and effectiveness of traditional independent unions. The regime excluded from consideration other, independent union federations, including the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, General Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, Confederation of Autonomous Unions of Venezuela, and National Union of Workers.

The illegitimate regime continued to refuse to adjudicate or otherwise resolve the cases of thousands of employees of the state-owned oil company PDVSA who were dismissed during and after the 2002-03 strike. The Ministry of Labor continued to deny registration to the National Union of Oil, Gas, Petrochemical, and Refinery Workers.

The concept of striking, demonized since the 2002 national security law, was used periodically as a political tool to accuse regime opponents of coup plotting or other destabilizing activities. Some companies, especially in the public sector, had multiple unions with varying degrees of allegiance to the ruling party’s version of the “socialist revolution,” which could trigger interunion conflict and strife.

The OHCHR documented restrictions on labor unions through the arbitrary detention of union leaders and five forced evictions of union headquarters. The Venezuelan Observatory of Union Freedom documented more than 100 detentions, most of which were arbitrary, of union leaders since 2010.

NGOs reported the illegitimate regime continued harassment of unions by prosecuting union members in military courts. On March 31, a labor attorney was severely beaten and taken into custody by the GNB in Barquisimeto, Lara, for recording with his cell phone a peaceful protest of health workers who were struggling to get gasoline ration vouchers promised by the regime.

Union leaders denounced the detention on May 8 of Bartolo Guerra, a PDVSA tugboat captain, for criticizing the illegitimate Maduro regime. In a meeting with the company’s leadership, workers expressed frustration regarding low salaries and poor working conditions. According to the Federation for Oil Workers, Guerra had worked for 40 consecutive days, and the company had not provided food or water for employees for more than a week. Guerra blamed the misery and hunger of workers on Maduro. When Guerra refused to retract his statements, the DGCIM arrested him and charged him with treason.

On August 31, Ruben Gonzalez, secretary general of miners’ union Sintraferrominera, was released after a military tribunal convicted him for “outrage” to the armed forces and the GNB and sentenced him to five years and nine months in prison. Union leaders described Gonzalez’ 2018 arrest and imprisonment as part of the illegitimate regime’s efforts to eliminate the union and install a more pliant, parallel union while a new collective agreement was negotiated.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits some forms of forced or compulsory labor but does not provide criminal penalties for certain forms of forced labor. The law on organized crime prohibits human trafficking by organized crime groups. It prescribes penalties sufficient to deter human trafficking of adults carried out by a member of an organized-crime group of three or more individuals. The organized-crime law, however, fails to prohibit trafficking by any individual not affiliated with such a group. Prosecutors may employ other statutes to prosecute such individuals. The law increases penalties for child trafficking with the purpose of forced labor. There was no comprehensive information available regarding the illegitimate regime’s enforcement of the law. The labor group Autonomous Front in Defense of Employment, Wages, and Unions (FADESS) reported that public-sector worker agreements included provisions requiring service in the armed forces’ reserves. NGOs noted sex trafficking and forced labor in domestic service within the country increased in 2019 (see section 7.c.).

Some doctors participating in Cuba’s overseas medical program showed indicators of forced labor. According to FADESS, more than 60,000 Cubans worked in the illegitimate Maduro regime’s social programs (such as the Mission Inside the Barrio) in exchange for the regime’s provision of oil resources to the Cuban government. FADESS noted Cubans worked in the ministries of Education, Registrar, Notary, Telecommunications, and Security. FADESS also cited that the G-2 Cuban security unit was present in the armed forces and in state enterprises. The Cuban government may have forced some Cubans to participate in its government-sponsored medical missions. Some Cuban medical personnel who participated in the social program Mission Inside the Barrio described indicators of forced labor, including underpayment of wages, mandatory long hours, limitations on movement, the use of “minders” to conduct surveillance of participants outside of work, forced political indoctrination, and threats of retaliatory actions against workers and their families if they left the program or did not return to Cuba as directed by government supervisors. The Cuban government acknowledged that it withheld the passports of Cuban medical personnel in the country. Venezuelan authorities did not investigate allegations of forced labor in Cuba’s overseas medical program. Additionally, doctors who deserted the program reported Cuban “minders” coerced them to indoctrinate the population into supporting the illegitimate Maduro regime and falsify records to bolster the number of individuals assisted.

The law does not criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

Illegal mining operations existed in some of the country’s most remote areas, including Bolivar State, where armed groups exploited girls into sex trafficking, forcibly recruited youth to join armed criminal groups, and forced children to work in mines under dangerous conditions. In 2019 the OHCHR documented instances of forced labor, violence, and human trafficking related to mining activity in the Mining Arc of the Orinoco River. It estimated that approximately 45 percent of miners in Bolivar State were underage and extremely vulnerable to human trafficking.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum employment age at 14. Children younger than 14 may work only if granted special permission by the National Institute for Minors or the Ministry of Labor. Such permission may not be granted to minors who are younger than the legal age for work in hazardous occupations that risk their life or health or could damage their intellectual or moral development. According to the ILO, the illegitimate Maduro regime had not made publicly available the list of specific types of work considered hazardous. Children ages 14 to 18 may not work without permission of their legal guardians or in occupations expressly prohibited by law, and they may work no more than six hours per day or 30 hours per week. Minors younger than 18 may not work outside the normal workday.

Anyone employing children younger than eight is subject to a prison term that is sufficient to deter violations. Employers must notify authorities if they hire a minor as a domestic worker. The illegitimate regime did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

No information was available on whether or how many employers were sanctioned for violations. The illegitimate regime continued to provide services to vulnerable children, including street children, working children, and children at risk of working. There was no independent accounting of the effectiveness of these and other illegitimate regime-supported programs.

Most child laborers worked in the agricultural sector, street vending, domestic service, or in small and medium-size businesses, most frequently in family-run operations. There continued to be isolated reports of children exploited in domestic servitude, mining, forced begging, and commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6), many of whom could be victims of trafficking. Members of the illegitimate Maduro regime supported the operations of the National Liberation Army and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia dissidents by allowing the exploitation, sex trafficking, forced labor, and forced recruitment of children. A study by Cecodap found that child laborers constituted up to 45 percent of those working in mines. Media reported children as young as nine years old working in mines.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits employment discrimination of every citizen. The law prohibits discrimination based on age, race, sex, social condition, creed, marital status, union affiliation, political views, nationality, disability, or any condition that could be used to lessen the principle of equality before the law. No law specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV/AIDS status. Media and NGOs, such as PROVEA and the Human Rights Center at the Andres Bello Catholic University, reported the illegitimate Maduro regime did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate to law related to civil rights, such as election interference.

NGOs reported public employees faced discrimination and harassment for their political beliefs or activities. According to Aula Abierta, 4,876 public servants were dismissed from their jobs for political reasons in 2018.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The illegitimate Maduro regime raised the national minimum wage, but it remained below the poverty line. Labor experts noted the unilateral nature of the decision contravened ILO Convention No. 26 requiring the government to consult with employers and workers prior to enacting wage increases. Legislators noted the decree violated the law, since it supplanted collective bargaining agreements. Union leaders from the petroleum, health, telecommunications, and electricity sectors highlighted that the wage-raise decree did not include wage adjustments to keep up with hyperinflation and thus remained insufficient to afford the basic food basket. The decree also violated the law by nullifying previously signed collective bargaining agreements, including wage tables that scaled salaries to account for seniority and merit pay.

The trade union of the industrial sector stated that fewer than 2,000 of the 15,000 industries existing in 2000 remained as of May.

The law sets the workweek at 40 hours (35 hours for a night shift). The law establishes separate limits for “shift workers,” who may not work more than an average of 42 hours per week during an eight-week period, with overtime capped at 100 hours annually. Managers are prohibited from obligating employees to work additional time, and workers have the right to two consecutive days off each week. Overtime is paid at a 50 percent surcharge if a labor inspector approves the overtime in advance and at a 100 percent surcharge if an inspector does not give advance permission. The law establishes that after completing one year with an employer, a worker has a right to 15 days of paid vacation annually. A worker has the right to an additional day for every additional year of service, for a maximum of 15 additional days annually.

The law provides for secure, hygienic, and adequate working conditions. Workplaces must maintain “protection for the health and life of the workers against all dangerous working conditions.” The law obligates employers to pay workers specified amounts for workplace injuries or occupational illnesses, ranging from two times the daily salary for missed workdays to several years’ salary for permanent injuries. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Occupational safety and health (OSH) were not appropriate for the main industries in the country, and workers were not able to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The illegitimate Maduro regime did not effectively enforce OSH law. Penalties for OSH law violations were not commensurate with those for crimes, such as negligence.

The law covers all workers, including temporary, occasional, and domestic workers. There was reportedly some enforcement by the Ministry of Labor of minimum wage rates and hours of work provisions in the formal sector, but an estimated 40 percent of the population worked in the informal sector, where labor law and protections generally were not enforced. There was no publicly available information regarding the number of inspectors or the frequency of inspections to implement health and safety, minimum wage, or hours of work provisions. Ministry inspectors seldom closed unsafe job sites. Official statistics regarding workplace deaths and injuries were not publicly available.

Health workers were severely exposed to COVID-19 due to the lack of personal protective equipment. The illegitimate Maduro regime cracked down on medical professionals who spoke about the realities they faced in their work.

NGOs and media reported hazardous conditions in mining areas, many of which operated illegally and exposed miners to injury, disease, and mercury poisoning. The OHCHR documented high levels of violence and human rights violations perpetrated by armed groups and illegitimate Maduro regime security forces who fought for control over mining territory. NGOs reported the use of beatings, mutilation, disappearances, and killings by armed groups to enforce control in mining areas.