China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
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Hong Kong → Macau → Tibet →
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the paramount authority. CCP members hold almost all top government and security apparatus positions. Ultimate authority rests with the CCP Central Committee’s 25-member Political Bureau (Politburo) and its seven-member Standing Committee. Xi Jinping continued to hold the three most powerful positions as CCP general secretary, state president, and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
The main domestic security agencies include the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and the People’s Armed Police. The People’s Armed Police continue to be under the dual authority of the Central Committee of the CCP and the Central Military Commission. The People’s Liberation Army is primarily responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Local jurisdictions also frequently use civilian municipal security forces, known as “urban management” officials, to enforce administrative measures. Civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces.
During the year the government continued its campaign of mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang). Authorities were reported to have arbitrarily detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in extrajudicial internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities. Chinese government officials justified the camps under the pretense of combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism. International media, human rights organizations, and former detainees reported security officials in the camps abused, tortured, and killed detainees. Government documents, as published by international media, corroborated the coercive nature of the campaign and its impact on members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang and abroad.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; substantial problems with the independence of the judiciary; physical attacks on and criminal prosecution of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners, and others as well as their family members; censorship and site blocking; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws that apply to foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); severe restrictions of religious freedom; substantial restrictions on freedom of movement (for travel within the country and overseas); refoulement of asylum seekers to North Korea, where they have a well-founded fear of persecution; the inability of citizens to choose their government; corruption; a coercive birth-limitation policy that in some cases included forced sterilization or abortions; trafficking in persons; and severe restrictions on labor rights, including a ban on workers organizing or joining unions of their own choosing; and child labor.
Official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, movement, association, and assembly of Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas, and of predominantly Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang, was more severe than in other areas of the country. Such repression, however, occurred throughout the country, as exemplified by the case of Pastor Wang Yi, the leader of the Early Rain Church, who was charged and convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” in an unannounced, closed-door trial with no defense lawyer present. Authorities sentenced him to nine years in prison.
The CCP continued to dominate the judiciary and controlled the appointment of all judges and in certain cases directly dictated the court’s ruling. Authorities harassed, detained, and arrested citizens who promoted independent efforts to combat abuses of power.
In the absence of reliable data, it was difficult to ascertain the full extent of impunity for the domestic security apparatus. Authorities often announced investigations following cases of reported killings by police. It remained unclear, however, whether these investigations resulted in findings of police malfeasance or disciplinary action.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures. In addition, an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities.
In August the Unirule Institute of Economics, a prominent economic think tank, closed its doors after years of increasing government pressure. Founded in 1993 to promote market reforms, a decade ago Unirule was a well-respected institution in the country with the space to disseminate ideas and facilitate dialogue with government leaders. The last few years have seen the shutdown of its website and public office, and as of August the organization was in liquidation.
On April 19, Zi Su was sentenced by a Chengdu court to four years’ imprisonment on charges of subversion. Zi, a retired professor from the Yunnan Communist Party School, was detained in 2017 after releasing an open letter questioning Xi Jinping’s suitability to continue as the CCP’s leader. Prior to his trial in December 2018, the government offered to shorten his sentence if he fired his lawyer and accepted a court-appointed attorney. Zi accepted, reducing his sentence from 10 to four years.
In September a Sichuan court convicted Chengdu-based activist Huang Xiaomin to 30 months’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Huang had called for direct elections to select party leaders. He was detained for several months before being allowed to hire a lawyer. He was then told to fire his lawyer and accept a court-appointed lawyer in exchange for a more lenient sentence, which he did.
On September 19, local police from Gucheng Township, Chengdu, detained Chen Yunfei for publishing comments in support of Hong Kong’s antiextradition bill movement. Chen had shown public support for the antiextradition protests in Hong Kong and called for a dialogue between Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and protesters to try to reach a resolution.
Countless citizens were arrested and detained for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on sensitive issues. For example, in Nan Le, Henan, a netizen was arrested for spreading “fake news” about a chemical factory explosion on WeChat. In Lianyungang police arrested 22 persons for “internet rumors,” and in Huzhou a netizen was arrested for “spreading rumors,” while he claimed he was only sharing political views.
This trend was particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government had developed a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP implemented a system to limit in-person speech and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped persons of certain ethnicities and faith and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate. During the year the government significantly extended the automation of this system, using phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang built a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
The government also sought to limit criticism of their Xinjiang policies even outside the country, disrupting academic discussions and intimidating human rights advocates across the world. Government officials in Xinjiang detained the relatives of several overseas activists. Chinese embassy officials in Belgium asked a Belgian university to remove information critical of the PRC’s Xinjiang policies from their website, and in February the Belgian author of that critique reported that Chinese government officials disrupted a Xinjiang-focused academic conference in Strasbourg, France. Numerous ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who still lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online, the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. During the year there was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included such criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
In October PRC authorities publicly condemned a tweet by the professional basketball team Houston Rockets’ general manager that expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, and the state-run CCTV cancelled broadcasts of games involving U.S. professional basketball teams visiting China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official from its consulate general in Houston to personally denounce the statement to the Houston Rockets. Similarly, in December Chinese state television cancelled the broadcast of an English Premier League soccer game after one of its players, Mesut Ozil, posted messages on Twitter and Instagram–both of which were blocked in China–denouncing the government’s policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang.
In July Dalian police detained a man only identified as “Lu” for distributing online cartoons that featured pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese contents. The CCP-controlled Global Times accused Lu of being “spiritually Japanese” by advocating for Japanese right-wing politics and militarism. In March 2018 Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly criticized such pro-Japanese cartoonists as “scum among Chinese people.”
In May Anhui police arrested cartoonist Zhang Dongning on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for creating comic books that depicted the Chinese people as pigs. The drawings “distorted historical facts, trampled national dignity, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” according to a police statement. Zhang remained in custody at year’s end.
The government used economic leverage on the mainland to suppress freedom of expression in Hong Kong. In reaction to protests in Hong Kong in August, the mainland government told Hong Kong-based Cathay Airlines that any of its employees who had engaged in “illegal demonstrations, protests, and violent attacks, as well as those who have radical behaviors” were forbidden from working on flights that entered Chinese airspace.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all.
During the year state media reported senior authorities issued internal CCP rules detailing punishments for those who failed to hew to ideological regulations, ordering a further crackdown on illegal internet accounts and platforms, and instructing media to further promote the interests of the government.
The government continued its tight ideological control over media and public discourse following the restructuring of its regulatory system in 2018. The CCP propaganda department has the ultimate say in regulating and directing media practices and policies in the country. The reorganization created three independent administrative entities controlled by the CCP propaganda department: the National Radio and Television Administration (NART), the General Administration of Press and Publications, and the National Film Bureau. While NART is still ostensibly under the State Council, its party chief was also a deputy minister within the CCP’s propaganda department.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda. The CAC served as the representative office to a recently formed CCP committee on cyberspace, which is nominally chaired by President Xi Jinping. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
The internet “clean up” CAC announced in November 2018 continued into 2019. As part of CAC’s 2018 requirements, internet platforms had to submit reports on their activities if their platforms could be used to “socially mobilize” or could lead to “major changes in public opinion.” On January 23, the CAC issued a statement confirming another step in its crackdown on internet content. On April 6, the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications announced an eight-month crackdown on “vulgar content” online. According to the announcement, the National Office tasked local authorities to conduct inspections of online platforms, including social media, livestreaming, videos, and online games. In July the CAC ordered 26 podcast and music applications to terminate, suspend services, or have “talks” with regulators. According to a CAC notice, these applications were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism.”
In 2018 the government directed consolidation of China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China,” which “strengthened the party’s concentrated development and management of important public opinion positions.”
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Several popular domestic soap operas from 2018 were taken off the air after state-owned newspaper the Beijing Daily called the dramas “incompatible with core socialist values.” One such popular show featured Emperor Qianlong and concubines. While episodes from 2018 remained available online, many television stations had canceled similar period dramas in their 2019 programming plans. The National Radio and Television Administration followed up with a temporary ban of historical dramas in late March. The CCP also policed cartological political correctness to ensure that cartoons and documentaries supported the CCP. In one example the domestic television drama Go Go Squid was investigated after displaying a map that did not show Taiwan and Hainan Island as part of China.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP, and they faced increasingly serious penalties for crossing those lines, which could be opaque. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the CCP does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 2017 on the nation’s news media, there were 231,564 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,406 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as XinhuaNet.com and ChinaDaily.com. Other online outlets also reported on important issues but limited their tactics and topics, since they were acting without official approval.
In January government officials detained Yang Zhengjun, the editor in chief of an online labor rights news outlet, iLabour, which reported on harmful working conditions for Chinese laborers. According to RFA, on March 20, police detained Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, at his Guangzhou home. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer for 19 days, during which police interrogated Wei five times at the Shenzhen No. 2 Detention Center. Voice of America reported that authorities forbade Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan, from speaking to foreign media about her husband’s detention. Police also detained Wei’s colleague Ke Chengbing in Guangzhou on March 20, but there was no information regarding his status as of year’s end. Authorities formally arrested and charged Yang, Wei, and Ke in August on charges of “picking quarrels.”
In June authorities in Chongqing announced they had convicted Liu Pengfei on unknown charges and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment. Liu was detained in 2017 while running a WeChat group that reposted foreign press articles in Chinese. Until his conviction was announced, Liu’s condition and location were unknown.
On August 1, Chongqing police arrested former journalist Zhang Jialong. No charges were formally announced, although police reportedly arrested him for social media posts he made in 2017 and earlier. Zhang, a well-known journalist and anticensorship activist, had stopped posting publicly in 2014 after being fired from Tencent, where he worked as an editor, for meeting with then secretary of state John Kerry. His location was unknown at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. As of year’s end, dozens of Uighur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for RFA’s Uighur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. During the year the scope of censorship grew to the point that, according to several journalists, “almost all topics are considered sensitive.” For example, whereas in past years business news reporting had been relatively free of control, many journalists’ contacts were hesitant to express themselves openly even on this topic. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
On June 10, the discipline inspection commission of the CCP’s Beijing branch accused Dai Zigeng, former publisher and cofounder of popular daily newspaper the Beijing News, of “serious violations of discipline and law.”
Prominent Chinese journalist Huang Xueqin, known for her publications about the #MeToo movement in China, was arrested in Guangzhou in October after she wrote about antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. Officials charged her with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” At year’s end she remained in detention.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published a report in January detailing conditions for foreign journalists in the country. More than half (55 percent) of journalists who responded to the FCCC’s survey said reporting conditions had further deteriorated over the prior 12 months. They reported the government regularly surveilled foreign journalists, both in person and, increasingly, via electronic means. Of respondents, 91 percent expressed concern about the security of their telephones, and 66 percent worried about surveillance inside their homes and offices. Half of the journalists said this surveillance diminished their ability to report in the country.
In August a Canadian journalist working for a foreign outlet was detained while reporting in Guangdong. Local police detained the journalist and a PRC news assistant in a rural area, then drove them to a police station in a larger town, held them for seven hours, confiscated their electronic devices, copied all the data on their cell phones, and tried to compel the PRC colleague to sign a confession before putting them on a train out of town. The officials followed them onto the train, separated the two, and continued to intimidate them.
During the Hong Kong protests, mainland government authorities escalated their harassment of foreign journalists, stopping numerous journalists at border crossings near Hong Kong and at airports in Beijing and elsewhere, threatening them with visa obstacles, and making copies of their electronic devices. Journalists said this impeded their ability to gather and disseminate reports about the protests.
Foreign press outlets reported local employees of foreign news agencies were subjected to official harassment and intimidation. A citizen who was assisting a foreign journalist on a reporting trip was detained by local police, then chained to a chair for a full day before being released. Government officials contacted and harassed many Chinese citizen employees’ family members in an attempt to pressure them away from their reporting work. Both the local citizens and their foreign employers lacked recourse in these cases and were generally hesitant to address grievances with authorities due to fear of experiencing even greater repression.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the January FCCC report, 26 of 28 foreign journalists who traveled to Xinjiang in 2018 reported that government officials told them reporting was restricted or prohibited. This continued throughout the year, as numerous foreign journalists reported being followed constantly while in Xinjiang, with government agents stepping in to block access to some areas, intimidating local inhabitants so they would not talk to the journalists, and stopping the journalists–sometimes many times per day–to seize their cameras and force them to erase pictures. Foreign journalists also had trouble securing hotel rooms, since authorities directed hotels to prohibit the journalists’ stays.
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of post-publication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Government officials also sought to suppress journalism outside their borders. While in past years these efforts largely focused on Chinese-language media, during the year additional reports emerged of attempts to suppress media critical of China regardless of language or location. In March government officials warned a Swedish media outlet to cease its “serious political provocations,” for publishing a Swedish-language editorial that supported a position that Chinese officials opposed. Another government official threatened to blacklist a Russian journalist if the journalist did not retract an article in a Russian newspaper detailing negative Chinese economic statistics.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministries of Defense and Commerce continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.
Journalist arrests and dismissals for reporting on sensitive issues continued. One of the country’s few prominent investigative reporters, Liu Wanyong, announced he was leaving the profession, blaming the shrinking space for investigating and publishing accurate news. The Weibo accounts of several bloggers, including Wang Zhian, a former state broadcast commentator who wrote about social issues, were blocked.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films continued to be subject to government censorship. In July the head of the government’s film regulatory body, the National Film Bureau, gave a speech to government officials and film industry representatives exhorting them to use films to promote Chinese political values. Throughout the year the government forbade the release of a number of new movies–including several films with prominent directors and large budgets–because they ran afoul of government censors. Shortly before its July 5 release date, the historical war drama The Eight Hundred was removed from distribution despite numerous theatrical trailers and an $80 million budget. Similarly, in February the film One Second by world-famous director Zhang Yimou was pulled from the Berlin Film Festival only days before its debut for “technical difficulties,” a common euphemism for censorship in China. Another film, Better Days, was pulled from the same festival after the movie failed to receive the necessary permissions from Chinese authorities. The head of the National Film Bureau explicitly encouraged domestic filmmakers to find more “valuable and heavy” topics and materials in the country’s “excellent traditional culture,” “revolution culture,” and “advanced culture of socialism.”
In October, when the U.S. comedy show South Park ran an episode depicting the PRC’s censorship practices, authorities banned the episode and other South Park content from local television and internet.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released, including Bohemian Rhapsody and Top Gun: Maverick. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with a restriction on the total number that keeps annual distribution below 50 films.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
In May media reported that three government officials in Chongqing and Yunnan were disciplined for “secretly purchasing, reading, and keeping overseas books and publications with serious political problems.”
In the fall the Ministry of Education directed all school libraries to review their holdings and dispose of books that “damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” Officials at a state-run library in Zhenyuan, Gansu, responded by burning a pile of “illegal books, religious publications, and especially books and articles with biases,” according to a notice and photograph on the library’s website, which circulated widely online.
New cases of extraterritorial book censorship occurred: government censors required that books printed domestically conform to government propaganda guidelines, even if those books were written by a foreign author for a foreign audience. In February an Australian bookseller reported that PRC officials forbade a Chinese company from publishing a book that included political content they found objectionable, even though the books would have been shipped out of China as soon as they were printed.
On the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, the government made an array of efforts to block all public mention of that historical event, not just in China but even in other countries. Within the country the government preemptively targeted potential critics, including elderly parents of the massacre victims, jailing them or temporarily removing them from major cities. Online censorship increased, with government censors aggressively blocking even indirect references and images from all online platforms, including, for example, an image of books lined up facing a cigarette packet in a pattern invoking the famous video of a man facing down tanks on a Beijing street. The CNN website, normally accessible in the country, was blocked on June 4, and officials broke up a live CNN newscast in Beijing on June 4 by rushing between a news reporter and cameraman as they were broadcasting, demanding CNN staff stop reporting. Other international media outlets faced increased monitoring and detentions for reporting focused on the anniversary, including one reporter who was detained for six hours. Censors at domestic internet companies said tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning as well as voice and image recognition.
The new Heroes and Martyrs Law makes it illegal to insult or defame prominent communists. Citing this law, the CAC ordered major domestic news app Bytedance to rectify information “slandering” Fang Zhimin, a prominent communist historical figure, and to punish the individuals responsible for publishing the defamatory information. Sichuan police arrested a prominent female blogger for violating the Heroes and Martyrs Law because in one of her videos she paired a red scarf, “which symbolized the revolutionary tradition,” with an “inappropriately short” skirt. On March 28, the court sentenced the blogger, identified in court documents only by her last name “Tang,” to 12 days’ incarceration, a fine, and removal of her videos.
Authorities often justified restrictions on expressions on national security protection grounds. In particular, government leaders generally cited the threat of terrorism in justifying restricting freedom of expressions by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
In the first three weeks of January, the CAC closed 730 websites and 9,300 mobile apps, and during the second quarter of the year, it shuttered a total of 2,899 websites. The CAC announced that it had deleted more than seven million pieces of online information, and 9,382 mobile apps by April. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which included politically sensitive materials. For example, in July alone the CAC reportedly collected nearly 12 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information.
The CAC also specifically ordered Tencent’s “Tiantian Kuaibao” news app to make changes, alleging it had been spreading “vulgar and low-brow information that was harmful and damaging to the internet ecosystem,” per the CAC statement. New approvals for offerings on Tencent’s gaming platforms were frozen for nine months in 2018 for any new video game approvals as part of an industry-wide tightening of the video game market, but this was the first time the news app had been criticized. Tencent’s popular messaging app WeChat announced in late February that it had closed more than 40,000 public accounts since the beginning of the year and removed 79,000 articles. The announcement stated the contents of the closed accounts were “false, exaggerated and vulgar” and that they “conveyed a culture of hopelessness and depression,” which “tarnished users’ taste” and the overall environment of the platform.
The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to freely communicate.
On April 8, popular social media site Weibo (similar to Twitter and owned by Sina) announced it had suspended more than 50 popular accounts “according to relevant laws and regulations,” as they included “politically harmful information.” Account owners received notifications from Weibo that the suspensions would last 90 to 180 days. Account holders included Yu Jianrong, a prominent scholar of rural development and activist for the country’s peasants, who reportedly had not published information deemed sensitive for several years but had 7.2 million followers at the time his Weibo account shut down.
The government continued to issue an array of regulations implementing the Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017. The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
Xinhua issued an authoritative news piece in January stating that the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) had released two new documents regarding short-video market regulation: one on regulation of the platforms and one concerning censorship. The new censorship measures imposed stricter criteria for short videos online. The guidelines, which were believed to have been issued at the government’s direction, banned 100 types of inappropriate content, from videos of users dressing up in Communist Party costumes to those “promoting money worship and hedonism.” The CNSA documents openly discussed the “content review” standards it expected of these online video services. Other content to be removed included anything that “attacks China’s political or legal systems,” “content that damages China’s image,” “foot fetishes or sexual moaning,” and “spoofing the national anthem.” The documents called for platforms to expand their internal censorship teams as business grows and changes, and to keep at least one “content review” employee on staff for every 1,000 new videos posted to their platform each day.
CAC regulations on Internet News Information Services require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extend longstanding traditional media controls to new media, including online and social media, to ensure these sources also adhere to CCP directives.
In June censors abruptly shut down the app of the financial news aggregator wallstreetcn.com, which had been downloaded more than 100 million times, as well as its website. Earlier in the year, regulators fined wallstreetcn.com for distributing news without a license, and disrupting “online news order.” In the shutdown notice the CAC said that wallstreetcn.com was in breach of cybersecurity measures.
The CAC also required all live-streaming platforms, video platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps to register with the CAC. Online content platforms by licensed central media and their affiliates were not required to register.
Regulators required a special permit for transmission of audio and visual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming or “sensitive” topics.
The finalization of the Cybersecurity Law in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, imposing penalties on network operators that provide services to users who do not provide real-name information. In response, Baidu and Sina Weibo announced accounts without real name registration would have restricted access to certain website functions (e.g., commenting on posts). Cybercafes in Xingtai and Shanghai also began using facial recognition to match users with their photographs printed on national identification documents. In March, following a chemical plant explosion outside of Shanghai, the local government jammed drones sent by media outlets to capture footage of the explosion.
In December 2018 the Zhuhai Court sentenced prominent anticensorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua to a jail term of two years for “inciting subversion of state power” in a closed-door trial. He was released from prison on November 8. Zhen, also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, reportedly provided technical guidance to domestic Internet users on how to circumvent the Great Firewall to make their posts visible overseas. He was also the executive governor of a website, Rights Movement, which helped collect and disseminate information on rights protections.
Many if not most of the major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as the websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The government further restricted this space during the year, adding the Washington Post, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Australia’s the Age and News, and Wikipedia to the list of websites blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Hong Kong protests that occurred during the year were subject to heavy, selective censorship: the government initially struck any mention of the protests from media and online discussions, then began to allow and even promote reports criticizing the protesters, while continuing to prohibit access to positive or neutral reporting on the protesters, including reporting that detailed the protesters’ demands for democracy and accountability for police actions.
On August 5, Sun Yat-sen University doctoral student Chen Chun joined the protests in Hong Kong and posted his support for the Hong Kong protesters on his Weibo account. Other netizens reported him to Guangdong police, and his account was shut down.
Censorship on Chinese-owned social media platforms of users in other countries also occurred. In November TikTok, which was owned by Bytedance, blocked the account of a foreign-based user who had posted a video to raise awareness of the continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. After a public outcry, TikTok restored her account and admitted her video had been temporarily removed “due to human moderation error.”
The government also punished Chinese citizens for expressing their opinions on foreign social media platforms while outside the country. In November a court in Wuhan sentenced Luo Daiqing to six months’ imprisonment on charges of “provocation” for posting a set of images mocking Chinese leaders on Twitter. Luo posted the images while living in Minnesota, where he was a student; he was arrested in July on a visit home to Wuhan.
The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information. In June at least 10 prominent blogs that published financial news and analyses were shut down and had all past content erased. This happened at the same time that government propaganda sources were publishing specific new messages about the country’s economy.
Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube.
Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users there. A recent round of government attention on Twitter users in China started in late 2018. A Chinese dissident who lived in Beijing said the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau summoned him twice on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and presented printed pages of his tweets as evidence. Internet monitors and activists tallied at least 40 cases of government authorities pressuring users in person to delete their tweets or their Twitter accounts. One user spent 15 days in a detention center, while police threatened another user’s family, and a third Twitter user was chained to a chair for eight hours of interrogation.
During the year authorities continued to manipulate the content of individual Twitter accounts. There were reports of authorities forcing individuals to give them access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their tweets. In March the anonymous netizen behind @AirMovingDevice, a Twitter account that specialized in using publicly available data to critically analyze government activity, declared she or he would be deleting all previous tweets and ceasing communication, adding, “it is not my intention to subvert state or Party authority.”
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On July 29, a court in Sichuan sentenced prominent blogger Huang Qi–a Chinese internet pioneer who once won CCP praise for using the web to “combat social ills”–to 12 years in prison for “deliberately disclosing state secrets” and “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” The charges arose from Huang’s efforts to publicize cases of human rights abuses on the 64Tianwang blog. Huang Qi had been jailed twice previously, for a total of eight years, as a result of his blogging that exposed local government malfeasance and brutality. After Huang’s release from those sentences, he continued his blogging activities.
On January 29, a court in Hubei sentenced Liu Feiyu to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because he ran a news portal publicizing government corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, there were continuing reports of cyber operations against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign entities, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
References to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. A Weibo account featuring lesbian topics, where more than 143,000 users swapped information, was abruptly shut down in April and then reopened several weeks later. Several scenes in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody that depicted the main character’s gay relationships were cut out of the version shown in Chinese movie theaters.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
On June 9, police in Jiuxiangling District summoned Guo Yongfeng, a Christian and former participant of a local democratic movement who lived in Shenzhen, to Xili Police Station in response to his online post about his intention to sue Tencent for banning several of his social media accounts. Police warned Guo against disseminating information online about rights protection and organizing related assemblies, and they did not release him until he wrote a letter of guarantee.
The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts, scrutinized the content of cultural events, and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, Deng Xiaoping thought, and Xi Jinping thought. In February the CCP’s Central Committee and the State Council made public the government’s Education Modernization Plan 2035, which specified 10 strategic tasks, the first task being to study Xi Jinping thought, implement it throughout the education system, including at primary and secondary education levels, and strengthen political thought education in institutes of higher education.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with CCP thought. In March Tsinghua University Professor Xu Zhangrun was suspended due to a series of essays he wrote criticizing policies of the CCP and Xi Jinping. In August 2018 Professor Yang Shaozheng was expelled from Guizhou University for publishing “politically mistaken speech and politically harmful articles,” including an article that estimated the total cost of maintaining the CCP apparatus. After his expulsion the government stripped his teaching credentials, prevented him from finding new employment, and on June 4, state security officials arrested him for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” He was then released, but authorities detained him again in August and cancelled his health coverage and social benefits. In December Fudan University, Nanjing University, and Shaanxi Normal University revised their charters, adding a pledge to highlight the party’s overall leadership in schoolwork and removing a reference to “freedom of thought.” Students at Fudan University protested the revisions by singing the university’s official anthem, which included a reference to “freedom of thought.”
University professors also continued to come under scrutiny after their students reported them for comments deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate. In some cases the university assigned the students to act as informants. In July a university professor in Chengdu was suspended from teaching for two years after students filed a complaint for remarks deemed to have shown insufficient appreciation for Chinese culture and innovation. Professor Tang Yun of Chongqing University was banned from teaching and demoted for making “politically incorrect statements” while lecturing on Chinese author Lu Xun. Professor Tang had his teaching credentials cancelled after students reported his statements to party representatives at the school.
Crackdowns against student labor activists on university campuses increased early in the year. In January the New York Times reported that more than 20 students at elite Chinese universities had been forced to watch videotaped confessions of detained labor activists to pressure the students to abandon their activism. Additional students and several recent graduates from Peking and Renmin Universities were reportedly detained and held incommunicado after releasing statements decrying police use of coerced confession videos. In May CNN reported six Marxist university students had been disappeared in the lead up to International Labor Day and the 100th anniversary of the May 4 student protests. One of the missing student labor activists, Qiu Zhanxuan, released a video and written testimony detailing abuse at the hands of police, including being strip-searched and forced to listen to a marathon speech by Xi Jinping at high volume.
Foreign universities establishing joint venture academic programs in the country must establish internal CCP committees and grant decision-making power to CCP officials. In August Reuters reported a surge in arrests and deportations of foreign teachers over the past six months as part of a continuing effort to crack down on foreign influence.
During the academic year, schools faced new prohibitions on the use of international curricula. The Ministry of Education forced the suspension of the advanced placement (AP) exams on U.S. history, world history, European history and human geography. The government allowed tests in other subjects, including calculus, biology, and chemistry, to continue.
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. In multiple instances overseas Chinese students monitored and pushed back against on-campus speech or activity considered to be critical of China, oftentimes in coordination with the government. In February the Washington Post reported a group of Chinese students at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, sought guidance from the PRC embassy and filmed the presentation of Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush about China’s mass internment of Muslims. In August the Times of London reported that China aimed to manipulate United Kingdom media and influence public officials through British universities, citing training provided by a University of Westminster media research center with links to the Chinese government on how to handle the British media, and the targeting of United Kingdom government officials, academics, and business executives by Leeds University’s Business Confucius Institute. In August Australia established a University Foreign Interference Task Force to increase consultation between its schools and government to protect national interests out of growing concern about foreign influence on Australian campuses. On November 14, the task force released a set of guidelines designed to protect against such foreign interference by safeguarding the reputation of Australian universities, protecting academic freedom, and ensuring academic institutions and the Australian economy can maximize the benefits of research endeavors.
Authorities in Xinjiang disappeared or detained several prominent Uighur academics and intellectuals. Some officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed to be held in the camps or otherwise detained included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; and Yalqun Rozi, writer. Rahile Dawut’s Han Chinese student Feng Siyu was also detained. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all were disappeared at year’s end. Courts delivered a suspended death sentence for “separatism” to Halmurat Ghopur, former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital. Religious scholars Muhammad Salih Hajim and Abdulnehed Mehsum died in the camps, according to reports during the year from international organizations. Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained detained on charges of “separatism,” and some human rights groups reported he had been sentenced to death. Economist Ilham Tohti remained in prison, where he was serving a life sentence after his conviction on separatism-related charges in 2014.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions, many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
In July residents from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, protested a planned waste incineration plant in the city’s Yangluo District. Media had reported in 2013 that five such plants in Wuhan were substandard and emitted dangerous pollutants. Protests grew over several days, involving up to 10,000 demonstrators, until the local government dispersed them.
On December 26, police from Shandong coordinated with other police nationwide to arrest human rights activists and participants who gathered in Xiamen, Fujian, in early December to organize civil society and plan nonviolent social movements in the country. Suspected charges included “incitement to subvert state power” and “subversion of state power”; the latter crime carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence if convicted. At the end of the year, police held at least four activists in “residential surveillance at a designated location”: organizer Ding Jiaxi and activists Zhang Zhongshun, Li Yingjun, and Dai Zhenya. Their families had no information on their whereabouts. Some human rights activists or those indirectly connected to the meeting participants fled the country or went into hiding inside the country. Several others involved in the meeting, including human rights lawyers, were held for several days in police custody in various jurisdictions for questioning and investigation.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, or other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Large numbers of public gatherings in Beijing and elsewhere were canceled at the last minute or denied government permits, ostensibly to ensure public safety.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by the Charity Law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding. Domestic NGOs continued to adjust to this new regulatory framework.
In 2016 the CCP Central Committee issued a directive mandating the establishment of CCP cells within all domestic NGOs by 2020. According to authorities, these CCP organizations operating inside domestic NGOs would “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” The directive also mandates authorities to conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
In 2017 the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China (Foreign NGO Management Law) came into effect. The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned. On November 25, the Foreign Ministry publicly confirmed for the first time that public security authorities had investigated and penalized a foreign NGO, in this case the New York-based Asia Catalyst, for carrying out unauthorized activities.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Finding an official sponsor was difficult for most foreign NGOs, as sponsors could be held responsible for the NGOs’ conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. After the Ministry of Public Security published a list of sponsors, NGOs reported most government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional supervisory units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of December 31, approximately 510 foreign NGO representative offices (representing 420 distinct organizations) had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with nearly half of those focusing on industry or trade promotion activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2017, there were more than 800,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported foreign funding continued to drop, as many domestic NGOs sought to avoid such funding due to fear of being labeled as “subversive” in the face of growing restrictions imposed by new laws. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs, or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, the Foreign NGO Management Law requires foreign NGOs to maintain a representative office in the country to receive funds, or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict and evict local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
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 did not respect these rights.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
In-country Movement: Authorities continued to maintain tight restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Freedom of movement for Tibetans continued to be very limited in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Uighurs faced draconian restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, identification checks remained in place when entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang, security officials set up checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uighurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put any baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas.
The government maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, the national household registration system (hukou) continued to change, and the ability of most citizens to move within the country to work and live continued to expand. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where the per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, they often could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits they could issue, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in more economically developed urban areas.
The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2019 National Economic and Social Development, published in February by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 286 million individuals lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents.
From May to July, non-Beijing residents applied for a Beijing hukou under the special municipality’s new points-based system. Under the new policy enacted in 2018, nonnatives of the city under the legal retirement age who have held a Beijing temporary residence permit with the city’s social insurance records for seven consecutive years and were without a criminal record were eligible to accumulate points for the hukou. Those with “good employment, stable homes in Beijing, strong educational background, and achievements in innovation and establishing start-ups in Beijing” were reportedly likely to obtain high scores in the point-based competition.
Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.
Foreign Travel: The government permitted legal emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, continued to face foreign travel restrictions. The government expanded the use of exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of rights activists and of suspected corrupt officials and businesspersons, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police sometimes cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country, although often authorities provided no reason for such exit bans. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise prevented from traveling overseas.
Uighurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved at the local level. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. Foreign national family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country. The government continued its concerted efforts to compel Uighurs studying abroad to return to China, often pressuring relatives in Xinjiang to ask their overseas relatives to return. Authorities also refused to renew passports for Uighurs living abroad, compelling them to either return to China or pursue ways to maintain legal status in other countries. Upon return, many of these Uighurs, or persons connected with the Xinjiang residents, were detained or disappeared.
Tibetans faced significant hurdles in acquiring passports, and for Buddhist monks and nuns, it was virtually impossible. Authorities’ unwillingness to issue or even renew old passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.
The government continued to try to prevent many Tibetans and Uighurs from leaving the country and detained many when they attempted to leave. Some family members of rights activists who tried to emigrate were unable to do so.
Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.
Chen Xiaoya, author of the History of Civil Rights Movement 1989, was turned away by Guangxi customs officials when she tried to travel abroad on January 10. Customs officers told her that she was banned from leaving the country because she might jeopardize national security.
Fuzhou-based human rights activist Zhuang Lei attempted to visit Hong Kong on June 6 but was stopped by Shenzhen enforcement officers at the border. Zhuang, who claimed to have no criminal record, was referred to Fuzhou’s domestic security police by the Shenzhen officers. Zhuang believed he was prevented from traveling to Hong Kong due to concerns that he might participate in the Hong Kong protests against an extradition bill on June 9.
Families of “709” lawyers faced difficulties applying for passports or were barred from leaving the country.
Foshan dissident Chen Qitang was released from Sihui Prison on May 24, after serving four and one-half years in jail for “subversion of state power.” After his release, he was prevented from returning home.
On June 1, police in Guilin and Liuzhou summoned internet users who had discussed on social media their plans to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the annual gathering in Victoria Park commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and ordered them not to go to Hong Kong. In April the 1990s Cantonese pop song “Ren Jian Dao” was banned nationwide, including on Apple Music, because the lyrics were believed to be making a reference to the 1989 massacre.
f. Protection of Refugees
Although restricting access to border areas, the government regularly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to repatriate North Korean citizens against their will. In addition, North Koreans detained by PRC authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release. North Korean refugees were either detained in holding facilities or placed under house arrest at undisclosed locations. Family members wanting to prevent forced returns of their North Korean relatives were required to pay fees to Chinese authorities purportedly to cover expenses incurred while in detention. While detained North Koreans were occasionally released, they were rarely given the necessary permissions for safe passage to a third country.
Refoulement: The government continued to consider North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and refouled many of them to North Korea. Missionaries in China involved in helping North Koreans reach safe destinations said that Chinese authorities’ crackdown on North Korean defectors had intensified since Kim Jong Un took power.
In April Chinese authorities apprehended three North Korean women, three men, and a 10-year-old girl who fled from North Korea. RFA reported in August that China had detained 60 North Korean defectors and had refouled them to North Korea where they faced harsh punishments including torture, forced abortions, forced labor, sexual violence, or death.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylum status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but generally recognized UNHCR-registered refugees in China. Asylum applicants and refugees remained in the country without access to education or social services and were subject to deportation at any time.
North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, particularly young women living on the margins of society, were vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriages as a result of their unrecognized status. Authorities continued to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported them to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation.
UNHCR reported that Chinese officials continued to restrict its access to border areas. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, including North Korean asylum seekers in the country seeking economic opportunities generally did not have access to health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the local settlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China.
International media reported as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were trafficked and married to Chinese spouses, had not been registered because their North Korean parent was undocumented, leaving the children de facto stateless. These children were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent. Chinese fathers reportedly sometimes do not register their children to avoid exposing the illegal status of their North Korean partners.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution states, “all power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people” and the organs through which citizens exercise state power are the NPC and the people’s congresses at provincial, district, and local levels. In practice the CCP dictated the legislative agenda to the NPC. While the law provides for elections of people’s congress delegates at the county level and below, citizens could not freely choose the officials who governed them. The CCP controlled all elections and continued to control appointments to positions of political power. The CCP used various intimidation tactics, including house arrest, to block independent candidates from standing for local elections.
In March the NPC removed the two-term limit for the positions of president and vice president, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to remain in office.
Recent Elections: On March 4, the NPC’s 2,980 delegates elected the president and vice president, the premier and vice premiers, and the chairman of the Central Military Commission. The NPC Standing Committee, which consisted of 175 members, oversaw the elections and determined the agenda and procedures for the NPC. The selection of NPC members takes place every five years, and the process is controlled by the CCP.
The NPC Standing Committee remained under the direct authority of the CCP, and all important legislative decisions required the concurrence of the CCP’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. Despite its broad authority under the state constitution, the NPC did not set policy independently or remove political leaders without the CCP’s approval.
According to Ministry of Civil Affairs’ 2016 statistics, almost all of the country’s more than 600,000 villages had implemented direct elections by ordinary citizens for members of local sub-governmental organizations known as village committees. The direct election of officials remained narrow in scope and strictly confined to the lowest rungs of local governance. Corruption, vote buying, and interference by township-level and CCP officials continued to be problems. The law permits each voter to cast proxy votes for up to three other voters.
The election law governs legislative bodies at all levels, although compliance and enforcement varied across the country. Under the law citizens have the opportunity every five years to vote for local people’s congress representatives at the county level and below, although in most cases higher-level government officials or CCP cadres controlled the nomination of candidates. At higher levels legislators selected people’s congress delegates from among their ranks. For example, provincial-level people’s congresses selected delegates to the NPC. Local CCP secretaries generally served concurrently within the leadership team of the local people’s congress, thus strengthening CCP control over legislatures.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Official statements asserted “the political party system [that] China has adopted is multiparty cooperation and political consultation” under CCP leadership. The CCP, however, retained a monopoly on political power, and the government forbade the creation of new political parties. The government officially recognized nine parties founded prior to 1949, and parties other than the CCP held 30 percent of the seats in the NPC. These non-CCP members did not function as a political opposition. They exercised very little influence on legislation or policymaking and were only allowed to operate under the direction of the CCP United Front Work Department.
No laws or regulations specifically govern the formation of political parties. The China Democracy Party (CDP) remained banned, and the government continued to monitor, detain, and imprison current and former CDP members. CDP founder Qin Yongmin, detained with his wife Zhao Suli in 2015, began his 13-year jail term in 2018 in Hubei’s Qianjiang Prison for “subversion of state power.” After his wife was released, she and Qin’s brother visited him in January and noted prison authorities denied him reading and writing materials and that Qin’s physical and mental health were deteriorating due to his forced hard labor.
Participation of Women and Minorities: Women and members of minority groups held few positions of significant influence in the government or CCP structure. Among the 2,987 appointed delegates to the 13th NPC during the year, 742 (25 percent) were women. Following the 19th Party Congress, one member of the CCP Central Committee’s 25-member Politburo was a woman. There were no women in the Politburo Standing Committee.
The election law provides a general mandate for quotas for female and ethnic minority representatives, but achieving these quotas often required election authorities to violate the election law.
A total of 438 delegates from 55 ethnic minorities were members of the 13th NPC, accounting for 16 percent of the total number of delegates. All of the country’s officially recognized minority groups were represented. The 19th Party Congress elected 15 members of ethnic minority groups as members of the 202-person Central Committee. There was no ethnic minority member of the Politburo, and only one ethnic minority was serving as a party secretary of a provincial-level jurisdiction, although a handful of ethnic minority members were serving as leaders in provincial governments. An ethnic Mongolian woman, Bu Xiaolin, served as chair of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, equivalent to a provincial governor. An ethnic Hui woman, Xian Hui, also served as chair of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although officials faced criminal penalties for corruption, the government and the CCP did not implement the law consistently or transparently. Corruption remained rampant, and many cases of corruption involved areas heavily regulated by the government, such as land-usage rights, real estate, mining, and infrastructure development, which were susceptible to fraud, bribery, and kickbacks. Court judgments often could not be enforced against powerful special entities, including government departments, state-owned enterprises, military personnel, and some members of the CCP.
Transparency International’s analysis indicated corruption remained a significant problem in the country. There were numerous reports of government corruption–and subsequent trials and sentences–during the year.
In March 2018 the NPC adopted the National Supervision Law, which codified the joint National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI). The NSC-CCDI is charged with rooting out corruption, and its investigations can target any public official, including police, judges, and prosecutors; the commission can investigate and detain individuals connected to targeted public officials. The creation of the NSC essentially vested the CCDI, the CCP’s internal discipline investigation unit that sits outside of the judicial system, with powers of the state. Rules governing NSC-CCDI investigations, operations, and detentions remained unclear.
NSC-CCDI detention, known as liuzhi, faced allegations of detainee abuse and torture. Liuzhi detainees are held incommunicado and have no recourse to appeal their detention. While detainee abuse is proscribed by the National Supervision Law, the mechanism for detainees to report abuse is unclear. According to the compensation law, however, suspects wrongly accused of corruption can receive compensation for time spent in liuzhi.
Although liuzhi operates outside the judicial system, confessions given while in liuzhi were used as evidence in judicial proceedings. According to press reports and an NGO report released in August, liuzhi detainees experienced extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days.
According to state media, the Discipline Inspection Commission and Supervision Commission in Maoming City, Guangdong, put 11 individuals in liuzhi detention between March and April 2018 for investigation of bribery or negligence of duty. One provincial official head of the liuzhi detention system said suspects averaged 42.5 days in detention before being transferred into the criminal justice system.
Corruption: In numerous cases government prosecutors investigated public officials and leaders of state-owned enterprises, who generally held high CCP ranks, for corruption.
While the tightly controlled state media apparatus publicized some notable corruption investigations, in general very few details were made public regarding the process by which CCP and government officials were investigated for corruption. In September Meng Hongwei, serving as the country’s first Interpol president in Lyon, France, while retaining his position as a PRC Ministry of Public Security vice minister, disappeared after arriving in China on a September 25 flight. Media outlets reported Meng was taken into custody by “discipline authorities” upon his arrival for suspected corruption. The government announced Meng was being monitored while the NSC-CCDI investigated him and his associates for allegedly taking bribes; at year’s end additional details about the case were unavailable.
In 2018 anticorruption investigations probed the high-profile suicide of Zhang Yi, president of the Langfang Chengnan Orthopedic Hospital, when he detailed the corrupt practices that interfered in hospital management and funds. On March 26, a Gu’an County court in Langfang City, Hebei, began hearing the trial for 12 suspects accused of committing crimes including organizing, leading, and participating in a criminal organization; extortion; provoking troubles; intentional injury; intentional destruction of property; forcing deals; capital embezzlement; graft; and fraud. The court did not pass its judgment immediately. The Gu’an court sentenced Yang Yuzhong to 25-years’ imprisonment, the maximum prison sentence allowed. After Yang’s family appealed the ruling, an appeals court in August affirmed the original judgment: 25-years’ imprisonment for Yang Yuzhong and 18- and 10-years’ imprisonment for two major members of Yang’s organized crime group.
Financial Disclosure: A regulation requires officials in government agencies or state-owned enterprises at the county level or above to report their ownership of property, including that in their spouses’ or children’s names, as well as their families’ investments in financial assets and enterprises. The regulations do not require declarations be made public. Instead, they are submitted to a higher administrative level and a human resource department. Punishments for not declaring information vary from training on the regulations, warning talks, and adjusting one’s work position to being relieved of one’s position. Regulations further state officials should report all income, including allowances, subsidies, and bonuses, as well as income from other jobs, such as giving lectures, writing, consulting, reviewing articles, painting, and calligraphy. Officials, their spouses, and the children who live with them also are required to report their real estate properties and financial investments, although these reports are not made public. They are required to report whether their children live abroad as well as the work status of their children and grandchildren (including those who live abroad). Officials are required to file reports annually and are required to report changes of personal status within 30 days.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government sought to maintain control over civil society groups, halt the emergence of independent NGOs, and hinder activities of civil society and human rights groups. The government frequently harassed independent domestic NGOs and in many cases did not permit them to openly monitor or comment on human rights conditions. The government made statements expressing suspicion of independent organizations and closely scrutinized NGOs with financial or other links overseas. The government took significant steps during the year to bring all domestic NGOs under its direct regulatory control, thereby curtailing the space for independent NGOs to exist. Most large NGOs were quasi-governmental, and government agencies had to sponsor all official NGOs.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government remained reluctant to accept criticism of its human rights record by other nations or international organizations. The government sharply limited the visits of UN experts to the country and rarely provided substantive answers to queries by UN human rights bodies. A dozen requests for visits to the country by UN experts remained outstanding.
The government used its membership on the UN Economic and Social Council’s Committee on NGOs to block groups critical of China from obtaining UN accreditation and barring accredited activists from participating in UN events. The government also retaliated against human rights groups working with the United Nations, eliciting the criticism of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government maintained each country’s economic, social, cultural, and historical conditions determined its approach to human rights. The government claimed its treatment of suspects, considered to be victims of human rights abuses by the international community, was in accordance with national law. The government did not have a human rights ombudsman or commission.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women is illegal and carries a sentence that ranges from three years in prison to death. The law does not safeguard same-sex couples or victims of marital rape. The separate law on sexual assault includes male victims, but it has a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Of the reported cases, most allegations of rape were closed through private settlement rather than prosecution. Some persons convicted of rape were executed.
Domestic violence remained a significant problem. Some scholars said victims were encouraged to attempt to resolve domestic violence through mediation. Societal sentiment that domestic violence was a personal, private matter contributed to underreporting and inaction by authorities when women faced violence at home. The Family Violence Law defines domestic violence as a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. Web publication Sixth Tone reported 25 percent of families had experienced domestic violence.
The government supported shelters for victims of domestic violence, and some courts provided protections to victims, including through court protective orders prohibiting a perpetrator of domestic violence from coming near a victim. Nonetheless, official assistance did not always reach victims, and public security forces often ignored domestic violence. Legal aid institutions working to provide counseling and defense to victims of domestic violence were often pressured to suspend public activities and cease all forms of policy advocacy, an area that was reserved only for government-sponsored organizations.
According to women’s rights activists, a recurring problem in the prosecution of domestic violence cases was a failure by authorities to collect evidence, including photographs, hospital records, police records, or children’s testimony. Witnesses seldom testified in court.
Courts’ recognition of domestic violence improved, making spousal abuse a mitigating factor in crimes committed in self-defense.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment against women; however, there is no clear legal definition of sexual harassment. Offenders are subject to a penalty of up to 15 days in detention, according to the Beijing Public Security Bureau. It remained difficult for victims to file a sexual harassment complaint and for judges to reach a ruling on such cases. Many women remained unwilling to report incidents of sexual harassment, believing the justice system was ineffectual, according to official media. Several prominent media reports of sexual harassment went viral on social media, helping to raise awareness of the problem, particularly in the workplace.
In September 2018 Liang Songji and Zhang Wuzhou witnessed police officers beating and forcing female lawyer Sun Shihua to strip naked at a police station in Guangzhou’s Liwan District. They published accounts of the incident on social media, for which Guangzhou police detained both in October 2018. Prosecutors charged them with rumor mongering and obstructing police from performing official duties. After an initial trial on August 11, the Liwan District Court sent the case back to the procuratorate for further investigation, but no new evidence was submitted. Liang and Zhang were sentenced on October 25, Liang to 18 months in jail for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and Zhang to 16 months in jail on the charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “obstruction of official duties.”
Although many women experienced workplace sexual harassment, very few reported it. Human Rights Watch cited one statistic showing nearly 40 percent of women said they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests empowers victims to file a sexual harassment complaint with their employer, authorities, or both. Employers who failed to take effective measures to prevent sexual harassment could be fined.
Some women’s NGOs that sought to increase public awareness of sexual harassment reported harassment by public security and faced challenges executing their programs.
State media claimed the number of coerced abortions had declined in recent years in the wake of loosened regulations, including the implementation of the two-child policy. Nevertheless, citizens were subject to hefty fines for violating the law, while couples who had only one child received a certificate entitling them to collect a monthly incentive payment and other benefits that vary by province–from approximately six to 12 yuan (one to two dollars) per month up to 3,000 yuan ($420) for farmers and herders in poor areas. Couples in some provinces were required to seek approval and register before a child was conceived. The National Health Commission rejected calls to eliminate legal references to family planning, citing the country’s constitutional provision that “the state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development.”
According to other international reports, several Uighur women reported they were forced to undergo sterilization while detained in detention centers. A Uighur woman said she and other women were forced to ingest unknown drugs and drink a white liquid that caused them to lose consciousness and in some cases resulted in a loss of menstruation. She said some women died from excessive bleeding.
Under the law and in practice, there are financial and administrative penalties for births that exceed birth limits or otherwise violate regulations. The law, as implemented, requires each woman with an unauthorized pregnancy to abort or pay the social compensation fee, which can reach 10 times a person’s annual disposable income. The exact amount of the fee varied widely from province to province. Those with financial means often paid the fee so that their children born in violation of the birth restrictions would have access to a wide array of government-provided social services and rights. Some parents avoided the fee by hiding children born in violation of the law with friends or relatives. Minorities in some provinces, however, were entitled to higher limits on their family size.
The law maintains “citizens have an obligation to practice birth planning in accordance with the law” and also states “couples of child-bearing age shall voluntarily choose birth planning contraceptive and birth control measures to prevent and reduce unwanted pregnancies.”
Since the national family planning law mentions only the rights of married couples, local implementation was inconsistent, and unmarried persons must pay for contraception. Although under both civil law and marriage law the children of single women are entitled to the same rights as those born to married parents, in practice children born to single mothers or unmarried couples are considered “outside of the policy” and subject to the social compensation fee and the denial of legal documents, such as birth documents and the hukou residence permit. Single women could avoid those penalties by marrying within 60 days of the baby’s birth.
As in prior years, population control policy continued to rely on social pressure, education, propaganda, and economic penalties, as well as on measures such as mandatory pregnancy examinations and, less frequently, coerced abortions and sterilizations. Officials at all levels could receive rewards or penalties based on whether or not they met the population targets set by their administrative region. With the higher birth limit, and since most persons wanted to have no more than two children, it was easier to achieve population targets, and the pressure on local officials was considerably less than before. Those found to have a pregnancy in violation of the law or those who helped another to evade state controls could face punitive measures, such as onerous fines or job loss.
Regulations requiring women who violate the family planning policy to terminate their pregnancies still exist and were enforced in some provinces, such as Hubei, Hunan, and Liaoning. Other provinces, such as Guizhou and Yunnan, maintained provisions that require “remedial measures,” an official euphemism for abortion, to deal with pregnancies that violate the policy.
Although many local governments encouraged couples to have a second child, families with three or more children still must pay a “social compensation fee.” In Shandong a local district seized a family’s bank account of 22,987 yuan ($3,200) for failure to pay the social compensation fee of 64,626 yuan ($9,000) after having their third child. In a separate case in Shandong, a 67-year-old woman who gave birth to a third child faced fines from the local family planning commission. In previous years those who did not pay the fee were added to a “personal credit black list,” restricting their ability to request loans, take public transportation, purchase items, educate their children, and join tours. The compensation fees were estimated to be 15 to 30 percent of some local governments’ discretionary spending budgets. At year’s end the local government had not decided whether to fine the woman, but one government official promised to publicize the final decision.
The law mandates family planning bureaus administer pregnancy tests to married women of childbearing age and provide them with basic knowledge of family planning and prenatal services. Some provinces fined women who did not undergo periodic state-mandated pregnancy tests.
Family-planning officials face criminal charges and administrative sanctions if they are found to violate citizens’ human or property rights, abuse their power, accept bribes, misappropriate or embezzle family planning funds, or falsely report family planning statistics in the enforcement of birth limitation policy. Forced abortion is not specifically listed as a prohibited activity. The law also prohibits health-care providers from providing illegal surgeries, ultrasounds to determine the sex of the fetus that are not medically necessary, sex-selective abortions, fake medical identification, and fake birth certificates. By law citizens could submit formal complaints about officials who exceed their authority in implementing birth-planning policy, and complaints are to be investigated and dealt with in a timely manner.
Discrimination: The constitution states, “women enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life.” The law provides for equality in ownership of property, inheritance rights, access to education, and equal pay for equal work. Nonetheless, women reported discrimination, unfair dismissal, demotion, and wage discrepancies were significant problems.
On average, women earned 35 percent less than men who did similar work. This wage gap was greater in rural areas. Women also continued to be underrepresented in leadership positions, despite their high rate of participation in the labor force.
Authorities often did not enforce laws protecting the rights of women. According to legal experts, it was difficult to litigate sex discrimination suits because of vague legal definitions. Some observers noted the agencies tasked with protecting women’s rights tended to focus on maternity-related benefits and wrongful termination during maternity leave rather than on sex discrimination, violence against women, and sexual harassment; others pointed to the active role played by the All China Women’s Federation in passing the new domestic violence legislation.
On July 11, a Chengdu court ruled in favor of Liu Li, who used an alias, in a lawsuit against her former employer who she said sexually harassed her. The court ordered the former employer to apologize.
In October the Jing’an District People’s Court sentenced a man to six months in prison after he groped an adult woman and an under aged girl on a subway train on July 1.
Women’s rights advocates indicated in rural areas women often forfeited land and property rights to their husbands in divorce proceedings. Rural contract law and laws protecting women’s rights stipulate women enjoy equal rights in cases of land management, but experts asserted this was rarely the case due to the complexity of the law and difficulties in its implementation.
In September 2018 five government departments, including the National Health Commission and the State Drug Administration, jointly released a regulation on banning the use of ultrasonic diagnostic equipment to take “fetus photos” after the government found that such tools had been used to reveal the gender of the fetus.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from parents. Parents must register their children in compliance with the national household registration system within one month of birth. Unregistered children could not access public services, including education.
Education: Although the law provides for nine years of compulsory education for children, many children in economically disadvantaged rural areas did not attend school for the required period, and some never attended. Public schools were not allowed to charge tuition, but many schools continued to charge miscellaneous fees because they received insufficient local and central government funding. Such fees and other school-related expenses made it difficult for poorer families and some migrant workers to send their children to school. The gap in education quality for rural and urban youth remained extensive, with many children of migrant workers attending unlicensed and poorly equipped schools.
Child Abuse: The physical abuse of children is ground for criminal prosecution. The Domestic Violence Law also protects children. Sexual abuse of minors, particularly of rural children, was a significant problem.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 22 for men and 20 for women. Child marriage was not known to be a problem.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum legal age for consensual sex is 14. Persons who forced girls younger than 14 into prostitution could be sentenced to 10 years to life in prison in addition to a fine or confiscation of property. In especially serious cases, violators could receive a life sentence or death sentence, in addition to having their property confiscated. Those who visited girls forced into prostitution younger than 14 were subject to five years or more in prison in addition to paying a fine.
Pornography of any kind, including child pornography, is illegal. Under the criminal code, those producing, reproducing, publishing, selling, or disseminating obscene materials with the purpose of making a profit could be sentenced to up to three years in prison or put under criminal detention or surveillance in addition to paying a fine. Offenders in serious cases could receive prison sentences of three to 10 years in addition to paying a fine.
According to the law, persons broadcasting or showing obscene materials to minors younger than 18 are to be “severely punished.”
Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: The law forbids infanticide; it was unknown if the practice continued. Parents of children with disabilities frequently left infants at hospitals, primarily because of the anticipated cost of medical care. Gender-biased abortions and the abandonment and neglect of baby girls were believed to be in decline but continued to be a problem in some circumstances due to the traditional preference for sons and the birth-limitation policy.
Displaced Children: The detention of an estimated one million or more Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in Xinjiang left many children without caregivers. While many of these children had other relatives willing to care for them, the government began placing the children of detainees in orphanages, boarding schools, or “child welfare guidance centers,” where they were forced to shout patriotic slogans, learn Mandarin Chinese, and answer questions about their parents’ religious beliefs and practices. The number of such children was unknown, especially as many of these facilities were also used for orphans and regular students, but one media outlet reported that, based on a 2017 government planning document, at least 500,000 children were separated from their parents and put into these “care” centers. Government policy aims to provide such children with state-sponsored care until they reach age 18. Media reports showed new construction for orphanages in Xinjiang greatly escalated in 2017 and 2018 to house thousands of children of parents being held in camps. In Hotan, some boarding schools were topped with barbed wire.
Institutionalized Children: See “Displaced Children” section above.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The government does not recognize Judaism as an ethnicity or religion. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts during the year.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law protects the rights of persons with disabilities and prohibits discrimination, but in many instances conditions for such persons lagged behind legal requirements, and the government failed to provide persons with disabilities access to programs intended to assist them.
According to the law, persons with disabilities “are entitled to enjoyment of equal rights as other citizens in political, economic, cultural, and social fields, in family life, and in other aspects.” Discrimination against, insult of, and infringement upon persons with disabilities is prohibited. The law prohibits discrimination against minors with disabilities and codifies a variety of judicial protections for juveniles.
The Ministry of Education reported there were more than 2,000 separate education schools for children with disabilities, but NGOs reported only 2 percent of the 20 million children with disabilities had access to education that met their needs.
Individuals with disabilities faced difficulties accessing higher education. Universities often excluded candidates with disabilities who would otherwise be qualified. A regulation mandates accommodations for students with disabilities when taking the national university entrance exam.
Unemployment among adults with disabilities, in part due to discrimination, remained a serious problem. The law requires local governments to offer incentives to enterprises that hire persons with disabilities. Regulations in some parts of the country also require employers to pay into a national fund for persons with disabilities when employees with disabilities do not make up a statutory minimum percentage of the total workforce.
Standards adopted for making roads and buildings accessible to persons with disabilities are subject to the Law on the Handicapped, which calls for their “gradual” implementation; compliance was limited.
The law forbids the marriage of persons with certain mental disabilities, such as schizophrenia. If doctors find a couple is at risk of transmitting congenital disabilities to their children, the couple may marry only if they agree to use birth control or undergo sterilization. In some instances officials continued to require couples to abort pregnancies when doctors discovered possible disabilities during prenatal examinations. The law stipulates local governments are to employ such practices to eliminate the births of children with disabilities.
Government policy called for members of recognized minorities to receive preferential treatment in birth planning, university admission, access to loans, and employment. The substance and implementation of ethnic minority policies nonetheless remained poor, and discrimination against minorities remained widespread. The government “sinicization” campaign resulted in ethnically based restrictions on movement, including curtailed ability of ethnic Uighurs to travel freely or obtain travel documents; greater surveillance and presence of armed police in Xinjiang; and legislative restrictions on cultural and religious practices.
According to the most recent government census (in 2015), 9.5 million, or 40 percent, of the Xinjiang’s official residents were Han Chinese. Uighur, Hui, ethnic Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic minorities constituted 14.1 million Xinjiang residents, or 60 percent of the total population. Official statistics understated the Han Chinese population because they did not count the more than 2.7 million Han residents on paramilitary compounds (bingtuan) and those who were long-term “temporary workers,” an increase of 1.2 percent over the previous year, according to a 2015 government of Xinjiang report.
The government’s policy to encourage Han Chinese migration into minority areas significantly increased the population of Han in Xinjiang. Han Chinese officials continued to hold the majority of the most powerful CCP and many government positions in minority autonomous regions, particularly Xinjiang. The rapid influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang in recent decades has provoked Uighur resentment.
In 2017 the Xinjiang government also implemented new “Deradicalization Regulations,” codifying efforts to “contain and eradicate extremism,” according to Xinhua. The broad definition of extremism resulted in the reported detention since 2017 of more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in “transformation through education” centers, or detention centers, designed to instill patriotism and erase their religious and ethnic identities. This included many of those ordered to return to China from studying or working abroad. International media reported security officials in the centers abused, tortured, and killed some detainees (see sections 1.a, 1.b, 1.c, 1.d, and 2.d.).
Officials in Xinjiang sustained efforts to crack down on the government-designated “three evil forces” of religious extremism, ethnic separatism, and violent terrorism, including by continuing the concentrated re-education campaign. Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, former Communist leader in the TAR, replicated in Xinjiang policies similar to those credited with reducing opposition to CCP rule in Tibet, increasing the security budget by more than 300 percent and advertising more than 90,800 security-related jobs. Authorities cited the 2016 Xinjiang guidelines for the implementation of the national Counterterrorism Law and a “people’s war on terrorism” in its increased surveillance efforts and enhanced restrictions on movement and ethnic and religious practices.
Outside the internment camps, the government implemented severe restrictions on expressions of minorities’ culture, language, and religious identity, including regulations prohibiting behaviors the government considered signs of “extremism” such as growing “abnormal” beards, wearing of veils in public places, and suddenly stopping smoking and drinking alcohol, among other behaviors. The regulations banned the use of some Islamic names when naming children and set punishments for the teaching of religion to children. Authorities conducted “household surveys” and “home stays” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uighurs’ homes and monitored families for signs of “extremism.” There were media reports that male officials would sleep in the same bed as the wives of men who were detained in internment camps, as part of the “Pair Up and Become Family” program, and also bring alcohol and pork for consumption during the home stay.
In October 2018 the Xinjiang government released new implementing regulations on “de-extremification.” Article 17 of the regulations states that county-level governments “may establish occupational skills education and training centers and other such education and transformation bodies and management departments to conduct education and transformation for persons influenced by extremism.” Some observers noted, despite this new regional law, the “re-education centers” were still illegal under the constitution.
Minority groups in border and other regions had less access to education than their Han Chinese counterparts, faced job discrimination in favor of Han Chinese migrants, and earned incomes well below those in other parts of the country. Government development programs and job provisions disrupted traditional living patterns of minority groups and in some cases included the forced relocation of persons and the forced settlement of nomads. Han Chinese benefited disproportionately from government programs and economic growth in minority areas. As part of its emphasis on building a “harmonious society” and maintaining social stability, the government downplayed racism and institutional discrimination against minorities and cracked down on peaceful expressions of ethnic culture and religion, which remained a source of deep resentment in Xinjiang, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the TAR, and other Tibetan areas.
The law states “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the medium of instruction.” Despite provisions to ensure cultural and linguistic rights, measures requiring full instruction in Mandarin beginning in preschool and banning the use of Uighur in all educational activities and management were implemented throughout Xinjiang, according to international media.
Many of the security raids, arbitrary detentions, and judicial punishments appeared to target groups or individuals peacefully seeking to express their political or religious views. Detention and punishment extended to expression on the internet and social media, including the browsing, downloading, and transmitting of banned content. Officials continued to use the threat of violence as justification for extreme security measures directed at the local population, journalists, and visiting foreigners. According to Xinhua, officials used surveillance and facial recognition software, biodata collection, and big data technology to create a database of Uighurs in Xinjiang for the purpose of conducting “social-instability forecasting, prevention, and containment.” Security forces frequently staged large-scale parades involving thousands of armed police in cities across Xinjiang, according to state media.
Uighurs and other religious minorities continued to be sentenced to long prison terms and in some cases executed without due process on spurious charges of separatism and endangering state security. In 2016 and 2017, the Xinjiang regional government posted advertisements to recruit nearly 100,000 security personnel, international media reported.
The law criminalizes discussion of “separatism” on the internet and prohibits use of the internet in any way that undermines national unity. It further bans inciting ethnic separatism or “harming social stability” and requires internet service providers and network operators to set up monitoring systems to detect, report, and delete religious content or to strengthen existing systems and report violations of the law. Authorities searched cell phones at checkpoints and during random inspections of Uighur households, and persons in possession of alleged terrorist material, including pictures of general religious or cultural importance, could be arrested and charged with crimes. International media reported security officials at police checkpoints used a surveillance application to download and view content on mobile phones.
Ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted, RFA and other international media reported. In August 2018 Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen, testified in a Kazakhstan court that she was forced to work in a center where an estimated 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs were detained. She told the court she had to undergo “political indoctrination” at the camp. Kazakhs were also prevented from moving freely between China and neighboring Kazakhstan, and some were detained in internment camps upon their return to China.
The government pressured foreign countries to repatriate or deny visas to Uighurs who had left China and repatriated Uighurs faced the risk of imprisonment and mistreatment upon return. Some Uighurs who were forcibly repatriated disappeared after arriving in China. Family members of Uighurs studying overseas were also pressured to convince students to return to China, and returning students were detained or forced to attend re-education camps, according to overseas media. Overseas ethnic Uighurs, whether they were citizens of the PRC or their countries of residence, were sometimes pressured to provide information about the Uighur diaspora community to agents of the PRC government.
In July media reported a Uighur woman and her two daughters were given Tajik passports and deported against their will from Turkey to Tajikistan, where they were flown by PRC authorities to Urumqi, despite being legal residents of Turkey. In August a Uighur man fled his home in Pakistan to seek asylum in Europe because multiple other Pakistan-based Uighurs had been refouled back to China. He was refused in entry in Bosnia and sent to Qatar, where he faced refoulement back to China, before ultimately being granted entry to another country.
Freedom of assembly was severely limited during the year in Xinjiang. For information about abuse of religious freedom in Xinjiang, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
For specific information on Tibet, see the Tibet Annex.
No laws criminalize private consensual same-sex activities between adults. Individuals and organizations working on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues continued to report discrimination and harassment from authorities similar to that experienced by other organizations that accept funding from overseas.
LGBTI individuals reported incidents of violence, including domestic violence; however, they encountered difficulties in seeking legal redress, since regulations on domestic violence, including the Family Violence Law, do not include recognition of same-sex relations. Accessing redress was further limited by societal discrimination and traditional norms, resulting in most LGBTI persons refraining to publicly discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity.
NGOs working on LGBTI issues reported that although public advocacy work became more difficult for them due to the Foreign NGO Management Law and the Domestic Charity Law, they made some progress in advocating for LGBTI rights through specific antidiscrimination cases.
Discrimination against persons with HIV remained a problem, impacting individuals’ employment, educational, and housing opportunities and impeding access to health care. In some instances laws protecting persons with HIV from discrimination contradict laws restricting the rights of persons with HIV. During the year state media outlets reported instances of persons with HIV/AIDS who were barred from housing, education, or employment due to their HIV status. An estimated 1.25 million persons in the country had HIV.
Early in the year, a retired worker named “Wang Ming” in Xi’an was “persuaded” by the president of a local public hospital to return home, citing his coughing as a chronic disease. Wang Ming stated his belief the public hospital declined him service after finding out he was HIV positive, infected earlier during a dental operation at a private clinic.
According to the law, companies may not demand HIV antibody tests nor dismiss employees for having HIV. Nonetheless, the regulation on Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS revised during the year also stipulates that HIV-positive individuals shall not engage in work that is prohibited by laws, administrative regulations, and the Department of Health under the State Council.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons carrying infectious diseases and allows such persons to work as civil servants. Despite provisions in the law, discrimination against hepatitis B carriers (including 20 million chronic carriers) remained widespread in many areas, and local governments sometimes tried to suppress their activities. Despite a 2010 nationwide rule banning mandatory hepatitis B virus tests in job and school admissions applications, many companies continued to use hepatitis B testing as part of their pre-employment screening.
The law does not address some common types of discrimination in employment, including discrimination based on height, physical appearance, or ethnic identity.
In an effort to justify the detention of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and elsewhere, official Chinese state media outlets published numerous articles describing members of minority ethnic or religious groups as violent and inferior. Such propaganda emphasized the connection between religious beliefs, in particular belief in Islam, and acts of violence. Moreover, many articles described religious adherents as culturally backward and less educated, and thus in need of government rectification.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Hong Kong
Read A Section: Hong Kong
China → Macau → Tibet →
Hong Kong is a special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of the SAR specify that the SAR enjoys a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework, except in matters of defense and foreign affairs. Throughout the year, however, domestic and international observers continued to express concerns about central PRC government encroachment on the SAR’s autonomy. In November district council elections, prodemocracy candidates won control of 17 out of 18 councils in elections widely regarded as free and fair, although the government barred one opposition figure’s candidacy. The turnout, 71 percent of all registered voters, was a record for Hong Kong. In March 2017 the 1,194-member Chief Executive Election Committee, dominated by proestablishment electors, selected Carrie Lam to be the SAR’s chief executive. In 2016 Hong Kong residents elected the 70 representatives who compose the SAR’s Legislative Council. Voters directly elected 40 representatives, while limited-franchise constituencies elected the remaining 30.
The Hong Kong police force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s Security Bureau. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
From June to year’s end, Hong Kong experienced frequent protests, with some exceeding more than one million participants. Most protesters were peaceful, but some engaged in violence and vandalism. The protests began as a movement against the government’s introduction of legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to any jurisdiction, including mainland China, but subsequently evolved to encompass broader concerns.
Significant human rights issues included: police brutality against protesters and persons in custody; arbitrary arrest; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; and restrictions on political participation.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses but resisted widespread calls for a special inquiry into alleged police brutality that occurred during the demonstrations. The government continued to rely on the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to review allegations against the police.
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, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and an unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters. During the year, however, some SAR and central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence.
Freedom of Expression: There were some legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. Police arrested several individuals for damaging the national flag, which is illegal. For example, in May police arrested a proindependence activist for damaging the Chinese national flag during a protest against the controversial extradition bill. In October, media reported police asked Facebook to remove user posts about police handling of protests. Facebook reportedly declined to do so.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China in order to run for office. The commission disqualified one candidate, democracy activist Joshua Wong, from running in the November district council election. The government determined that Wong could not “possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting ‘self-determination’ is contrary to the content of the declaration” candidates are required to sign.
In 2017 the government disqualified six legislators-elect from taking office because they took their oaths in ways that did not conform to a 2016 NPCSC interpretation of the Basic Law to demonstrate “sincerity” and “solemnity” when taking an oath.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. An April Hong Kong Journalists Association poll found, however, that 81 percent of journalists said press freedom in the SAR had worsened since 2018.
Violence and Harassment: In September unknown persons threw firebombs at the home of Jimmy Lai, owner of the prodemocracy Apple Daily newspaper. Also in September, four unknown assailants attacked an Apple Daily reporter who was covering protests. In November protesters smashed windows and vandalized the offices of China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. Several journalists alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them while covering protests. In October the Foreign Correspondent’s Club condemned the arrest of a photojournalist who was covering a protest. Police reportedly ordered her and other journalists to remove their gas masks despite previous government assurances that the mask ban did not apply to those using masks to perform their professional duties.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. The April Hong Kong Journalists Association survey showed that one in five journalists surveyed said their superiors had pressured them to reduce reporting about Hong Kong independence. Many media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship.
The SAR government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although activists claimed central government authorities monitored their email and internet use.
There were reports of suspected politically motivated cyberattacks against private persons and organizations. In June the creator of the encrypted messaging app Telegram said the app, frequently used by protesters in Hong Kong, was the target of a massive cyberattack, apparently originating from mainland China. In August a similar attack briefly disabled the LIHKG online-chat forum, also frequently used by protesters to organize activities.
There were some restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. A museum dedicated to memorializing the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square reopened in a new location in May after previously closing due to pressure from the museum’s prior landlord. In October Hong Kong Community College assigned Chan Wai-keung, a lecturer, to nonteaching duties after dozens of antigovernment protesters surrounded him and insulted him inside his classroom after Chan publicly called for stiffer penalties against violent protesters. In November the Education Bureau warned students in all government-run schools not to participate in “political activities” while at school.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government allowed most public gatherings to proceed, but government actions, including prosecutions of activists and refusals to grant approval for some assemblies, infringed on the right of peaceful protest.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Before violence erupted at some protests, the police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations, including those critical of the SAR and Chinese central government. After violence began occurring at some protests, however, the police issued letters of objection against several gatherings, including large protest marches. The police also revoked permission for some gatherings after they started. Police on each occasion said they feared the gatherings would result in violence. Police frequently warned participants in unapproved protests that they were participating in unlawful assemblies. As of year’s end, police confirmed more than 6,000 arrests on varying charges in connection with the protests.
Media reports indicated that on several occasions police arrested onlookers not involved in protests. Police also fired thousands of rounds of tear gas to disperse crowds. Several human rights organizations repeated longstanding concerns that the SAR’s legal definitions of illegal assembly and rioting, charges frequently brought against protesters, were overly broad.
On several occasions the MTR Corporation, the operator of Hong Kong’s subway system, suspended services before and during protests. For example, on August 24, the MTR suspended services to Kwun Tong Station, the site of a police-approved protest. Critics claimed the MTR Corporation was acting to suppress peaceful protest in response to mainland state media criticism that the rail operator was facilitating protest. The Hong Kong government owns a majority stake in the MTR Corporation.
In October Chief Executive Lam, through executive fiat under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), banned the wearing of masks. Protesters frequently wore masks to protect themselves from tear gas and to hide their identity from police and from employers who might be pressured to punish employees who support the protests. In November a Hong Kong court ruled the government’s use of the ERO to implement the mask ban unconstitutional.
Continuing government prosecutions of peaceful protesters led to concerns the government was using the law to suppress political dissent. For example, in April and June, a court sentenced Benny Tai and eight other leaders of the 2014 “Occupy Central” protests following their convictions for actions related to peaceful protests. The court sentenced four of the nine to jail for eight to 16 months; the remaining five received community service or were given suspended sentences. All nine defendants have appealed their convictions.
On several occasions progovernment vigilantes, whom the international NGO Freedom House described in some cases as having “probable ties to the Chinese government,” violently attacked protesters and protest organizers. The largest vigilante attack occurred on July 21. On that day a group of more than 100 men, which police sources told the South China Morning Post included persons with organized crime connections, beat protesters and commuters at the Yuen Long subway station, resulting in at least 45 injuries. In August, two unknown men attacked Jimmy Sham, the leader of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), with baseball bats the day before the CHRF was scheduled to lead a large protest march. In October unknown men used hammers to attack Jimmy Sham again. The CHRF was the organizer of the year’s largest protests. On several occasions, prodemocracy protesters also physically attacked allegedly progovernment individuals. For example, in November, one protester lit a man who was heckling him on fire.
SAR law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. In February, however, the Executive Council upheld the ban on the proindependence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP). The ban came after repeated SAR and Chinese central government warnings that advocacy for Hong Kong independence “crosses a red line.”
Under the law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a fine of HK$100,000 ($12,800) and a maximum of three years in prison. Those providing meeting space or other aid to a banned group may also be sentenced to fines and jail time.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Reports that the Immigration Department refused entry to a small number of persons traveling to the SAR for political reasons continued. In May Immigration Department authorities denied entry to former Philippine supreme court justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, who previously accused Chinese president Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity, according to media reports. Activists and other observers contended that refusals, usually of persons holding, or suspected of holding, views critical of the Chinese central government, were made at the behest of mainland authorities.
Foreign Travel: Most residents easily obtained travel documents from the SAR government, although Chinese central government authorities in the past did not permit some human rights activists, student protesters, and prodemocracy legislators to visit the mainland. There were reports of mainland security officials harassing and questioning Hong Kong residents suspected of participating in protests when they traveled to the mainland. In August central government officials detained an employee of the United Kingdom’s consulate in Hong Kong while he was returning from the mainland to his home in Hong Kong. He was released after more than two weeks in detention and later told media that mainland authorities tortured him.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Activists indicated that persons seeking refugee status faced discrimination and were the frequent target of generalizations by some political parties and media organizations.
The government cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, but the SAR government has established a system for providing limited protection to persons who would be subject to torture or other abuses in their home country.
The SAR government used the term “nonrefoulement claim” to refer to a claim for protection against deportation. Persons subject to deportation could file a nonrefoulement claim if they either arrived in the SAR without proper authorization or had overstayed the terms of their entry. Filing such a claim typically resulted in a period of detention followed by release on recognizance. Activists and refugee rights groups expressed concerns about the quality of adjudications and the very low rate of approved claims, less than 1 percent. Denied claimants may appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board. The government did not publish the board’s decisions, a practice which the Hong Kong Bar Association previously noted created concerns about the consistency and transparency of decisions. Persons whose claims were pending were required to appear periodically before the Immigration Department. An NGO reported the government’s process for evaluating claims, which did not allow claimants to legally work in the SAR, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking.
Employment: “Nonrefoulement claimants” have no right to work in the SAR while their claims are under review, and they must rely on social welfare stipends and charities. The SAR government, however, frequently granted exceptions to this rule for persons granted nondeportation status and awaiting UNHCR resettlement.
Access to Basic Services: Persons who made “nonrefoulement” claims were eligible to receive publicly funded legal assistance, including translation services, as well as small living subsidies. The children of such claimants could attend SAR public schools.
Temporary Protection: Persons whose claims for “nonrefoulement” are substantiated do not obtain permanent resident status in the SAR. Instead the SAR government refers them to UNHCR for possible recognition as refugees and resettlement in a third country. Some such persons have waited years in the SAR before being resettled.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The Basic Law limits the ability of residents to change their government. Hong Kong voters do not enjoy universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive or equal suffrage in Legislative Council elections. Article 45 of the Basic Law establishes as the “ultimate aim” direct election of the chief executive through “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
The chief executive is elected by an election committee (CEEC) of approximately 1,200 members (1,194 members in 2017). The election committee consists of the 70 members of the Legislative Council and a mix of professional, business, and trade elites.
Voters directly elect 40 of the Legislative Council’s 70 seats by secret ballot. Thirty-five seats are designated as “geographic constituencies” (GCs) and 35 as “functional constituencies” (FCs). All 35 GCs are directly elected by all voters in a geographic area. Thirty FC seats are selected by a set of voters representing various economic and social sectors, most of whom are probusiness and generally supportive of the Chinese central government. In 2016 the constituencies that elected these 30 FC Legislative Council seats consisted of 239,724 registered individual and institutional voters, of whom approximately 172,820 voted, according to the SAR’s Election Affairs Office’s statistics. The remaining five FC seats must be filled by district councilors (the so-called district council sector, known as “super seats,”) were directly elected by the approximately five million registered voters not represented in another FC, and therefore represented larger constituencies than any other seats in the Legislative Council.
Under the Basic Law, only the SAR government, not members of the legislature, may introduce bills that affect public expenditure, the political structure, or government policy.
In October Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked the ERO, which grants the chief executive power to “make any regulations whatsoever” in times of “emergency or public danger,” to ban face masks. In November a court ruled that Lam’s use of the ERO was unconstitutional.
The SAR sends 36 deputies to China’s National People’s Congress (legislature, NPC) and had approximately 200 delegates in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference–bodies that operate under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party and do not exercise legislative independence. The approval of the chief executive, two-thirds of the Legislative Council, and two-thirds of the SAR’s delegates to the NPC are required to place an amendment to the Basic Law on the agenda of the NPC, which has the sole power to amend the Basic Law.
Recent Elections: On November 24, registered voters elected district councilors in the SAR’s 18 districts. These elections are open to all voters on a one-person, one-vote basis. Turnout for the poll was a record 71 percent of registered voters. The election was considered generally peaceful, free, and fair, although the Hong Kong government barred one prodemocracy advocate, Joshua Wong, from running. Proestablishment candidates reported that attacks on party offices and candidates also negatively affected campaign activities. Voters broadly endorsed prodemocracy and other nonestablishment candidates, who took control of 17 of the 18 councils and won 388 of the 452 contested seats (out of 479 total).
In March 2017 the 1,194-member Chief Executive Election Committee, dominated by proestablishment electors, selected Carrie Lam to be the SAR’s chief executive. Residents expressed concern the small-circle elections for the great majority of CEEC seats were open only to 239,724 of the SAR’s 7.5 million residents. Moreover, although the CEEC election (in 2016) saw a historically high voter turnout of 46 percent and a record number of contested seats across industrial, professional, grassroots, and political sectors, local political observers noted that 300 members–approximately 25 percent–of the committee were elected without a poll or other transparent election process to represent 12 uncontested subsectors and one sub-subsector.
In 2016 SAR residents elected representatives to the 70-member Legislative Council. Proestablishment candidates won 40 of the 70 Legislative Council seats, while prodemocracy candidates won 30.
Political Parties and Political Participation: In 2018 the SAR government banned the proindependence HKNP. This was the first ban of a political party since the establishment of the SAR.
All Legislative Council candidates must sign a confirmation form pledging their allegiance to the SAR and intent to uphold the Basic Law, including provisions stating that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. Since that requirement was instituted, the government barred several potential candidates from running for office.
The Chinese central government and its business supporters reportedly provided generous financial resources to parties that supported the Chinese central government’s political agenda in the SAR, giving them a major advantage in controlling the levers of government and senior positions.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No law limits participation of women in the political process, and they did participate. Fifteen percent of the Legislative Council’s members were women. In March 2017, Carrie Lam was elected to be the SAR’s first female chief executive.
There is no legal restriction against ethnic minorities running for electoral office, serving as electoral monitors, or participating in the civil service. There were no members of ethnic minorities in the Legislative Council, and members of ethnic minorities reported they considered themselves unrepresented.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Although the SAR continued to be relatively uncorrupt, there were isolated reports of government corruption.
Financial Disclosure: The SAR requires the most senior civil service and elected officials to declare their financial investments annually and senior working-level officials to do so biennially. Policy bureaus may impose additional reporting requirements for positions seen as having a greater risk of conflict of interest. The Civil Service Bureau monitors and verifies disclosures, which are available to the public. There are criminal and administrative sanctions for noncompliance.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Prominent human rights activists and organizations critical of the central government also operated in the SAR.
Government Human Rights Bodies: There is an Office of the Ombudsman and an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). The government recruits commissioners to represent both offices through a professional search committee, which solicits applications and vets candidates. Commissioners were independent in their operations. Both organizations operated without interference from the SAR government and published critical findings in their areas of responsibility. NGOs pointed out that the EOC had limited ability to conduct investigations.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape only against women but includes spousal rape. Activists expressed concern that rape was underreported, especially within the ethnic minority community.
The law does not directly criminalize domestic violence, but the government regarded domestic violence against women as a serious concern. Abusers may be liable for criminal charges, such as offenses against person, sexual assault, and ill-treatment of a child, depending on which act constituted the domestic violence. The government effectively prosecuted violators under existing criminal violations.
The Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance allows survivors to seek a three-month injunction, extendable to six months, against an abuser. The ordinance covers abuse between married couples, heterosexual and homosexual cohabitants, former spouses or cohabitants, and immediate and extended family members. It protects victims younger than 18, allowing them to apply for an injunction in their own right, with the assistance of an adult guardian, against abuse by parents, siblings, and specified immediate and extended family members. The law also empowers the court to require that the abuser attend an antiviolence program. In cases in which the abuser caused bodily harm, the court may attach an arrest warrant to an existing injunction and extend both injunctions and arrest warrants to two years.
The government maintained programs that provided intervention, counseling, and assistance to domestic violence victims and abusers.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment or discrimination based on sex, marital status, and pregnancy. The law applies to both men and women, and police generally enforced the law effectively. There were multiple reports, however, of sexual harassment in housing, the workplace, and in universities.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men. The SAR’s sexual discrimination ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sex or pregnancy status, and the law authorizes the EOC to work towards the elimination of discrimination and harassment as well as to promote equal opportunity for men and women. Although the government generally enforced these laws, women reportedly faced some discrimination in employment, salary, welfare, inheritance, and promotion.
Birth Registration: All Chinese nationals born in the SAR, on the mainland, or abroad to parents, of whom at least one is a Chinese national and Hong Kong permanent resident, acquire both Chinese citizenship and Hong Kong permanent residence. Children born in the SAR to non-Chinese parents, at least one of whom is a Hong Kong permanent resident, acquire SAR permanent residence and qualify to apply for naturalization as Chinese citizens. Authorities routinely registered all such statuses.
Child Abuse: The law mandates protection for victims of child abuse (battery, assault, neglect, abandonment, and sexual exploitation), and the SAR government enforced the law. The law allows for the prosecution of certain sexual offenses, including against minors, committed outside the territory of the SAR.
The government provided parent education programs through its maternal and child health centers, public education programs, clinical psychologists, and social workers. Police maintained a child abuse investigation unit and, in collaboration with the Social Welfare Department, operated a child witness support program.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 16 for both men and women; however, parents’ written consent is required for marriage before the age of 21.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Under the law a person having “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a victim younger than 16 is subject to five years’ imprisonment, while having unlawful sexual intercourse with a victim younger than 13 carries a sentence of life imprisonment. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and procuring children for prostitution. The law makes it an offense to possess, produce, copy, import, or export pornography involving a child or to publish or cause to be published any advertisement that conveys, or is likely to be understood as conveying, the message that a person has published, publishes, or intends to publish any child pornography. Authorities enforced the law. The penalty for creation, publication, or advertisement of child pornography is eight years’ imprisonment, while possession carries a penalty of five years’ imprisonment.
The legal age for consensual sex is 16.
International Child Abductions: The SAR 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.
The Jewish community numbered 5,000 to 6,000 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, and the government generally enforced these provisions. The government took action to investigate and punish those responsible for violence or abuses against persons with disabilities. The government generally implemented laws and programs to provide persons with disabilities access to education, employment, the judicial system, and health services. The law on disabilities states that children with separate educational needs must have equal opportunity in accessing education. Some human rights groups reported the SAR’s disability law was too limited and that its implementation did not promote equal opportunities. The Social Welfare Department provided training and vocational rehabilitation services to assist persons with disabilities, offered subsidized resident-care services for persons considered unable to live independently, offered preschool services to children with disabilities, and provided community support services for persons with mental disabilities, their families, and other local residents.
The government generally implemented laws and programs to provide persons with disabilities access to information, communications, and buildings, although there were reports of some restrictions. The law calls for improved building access and provides for sanctions against those who discriminate.
Although ethnic Chinese made up the vast majority of the population, the SAR is a multiethnic society, with persons from a number of ethnic groups recognized as permanent residents with full rights under the law. The law prohibits discrimination, and the EOC oversees implementation and enforcement of the law. The EOC maintained a hotline for inquiries and complaints concerning racial discrimination. Although the SAR government took steps to reduce discrimination, there were frequent reports of discrimination against ethnic minorities; the law did not clearly cover racial discrimination occurring in the course of law enforcement activity.
The government has a policy to integrate non-Chinese students into SAR schools. Nevertheless, advocacy groups said schools were de-facto segregated. Advocates also expressed concerns that Chinese language teaching for minority students was inadequate. Students who did not learn Chinese had significant difficulty entering university and the labor market, according to experts.
Persons born in mainland China also experienced frequent discrimination. On several occasions, protesters verbally or physically attacked mainlanders.
No laws criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. While the SAR has laws that ban discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, disability, and family status, no law prohibits companies or individuals from discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. There are also no laws that specifically aid in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex community. In October a gay man sued the government because public housing rules did not allow his male spouse, whom he married overseas, to live with him because the rules only recognize opposite-sex partners as spouses.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions without previous authorization or excessive requirements and to conduct legal strikes, but it does not protect the right to collective bargaining or obligate employers to bargain. Trade unions claimed the lack of collective bargaining rights and divisions in the labor movement weakened workers’ leverage in negotiations. The law explicitly prohibits civil servants from bargaining collectively.
The law prohibits firing an employee for striking and voids any section of an employment contract that punishes a worker for striking. The commissioner of police has broad authority to control and direct public gatherings, including strikes, in the interest of national security or public safety.
According to the law, an employer cannot fire, penalize, or discriminate against an employee who exercises his or her union rights and cannot prevent or deter the employee from exercising such rights. Penalties for violations of laws protecting union and related worker rights included fines as well as legal damages paid to workers, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Dismissed employees, however, had difficulty proving antiunion discrimination. In August, according to media reports, Cathay Pacific Airways (Cathay) warned employees that they may be fired if they joined a city-wide general strike. Cathay’s cabin crew union head Rebecca Sy told the press in August that Cathay Dragon, a Cathay subsidiary, fired her after company officials showed her printouts of proprotest movement postings on her private Facebook account.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, nor do laws specifically criminalize forced labor. Instead, the SAR uses its Employment and Theft Ordinances to prosecute labor violations and related offenses. Penalties for these offenses were not sufficient to deter violations.
NGOs expressed concerns some migrant workers, especially domestic workers in private homes, faced high levels of indebtedness assumed as part of the recruitment process, creating a risk they could fall victim to debt bondage. Domestic workers in Hong Kong were mostly female and mainly came from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. The SAR allows for the collection of maximum placement fees of 10 percent of the first month’s wages, but some recruitment firms required large up-front fees in the country of origin that workers struggled to repay. Some locally licensed employment agencies were suspected of colluding with agencies overseas to profit from debt schemes, and some local agencies illegally confiscated the passports and employment contracts of domestic workers and withheld them until they repaid the debt.
SAR authorities stated they encouraged aggrieved workers to file complaints and make use of government conciliation services as well as actively pursued reports of any labor violations.
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. Regulations prohibit employment of children younger than 15 in any industrial establishment. The law prohibits overtime in industrial establishments with employment in dangerous trades for persons younger than 18. Children between 13 and 14 may work in certain nonindustrial establishments, subject to conditions aimed at ensuring a minimum of nine years of education and protection for their safety, health, and welfare.
The Labor Department effectively enforced these laws and regularly inspected workplaces to enforce compliance with the regulations. Penalties for violations of child labor laws include fines and legal damages and were sufficient to deter violations.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law and regulations prohibit employment discrimination based on race or ethnicity, disability, family status (marital status or pregnancy), or sex. The law stipulates employers must prove that proficiency in a particular language is a justifiable job requirement if they reject a candidate on those grounds. Regulations do not prohibit employment discrimination on the grounds of color, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV or other communicable disease status, or social status.
The government generally enforced these laws and regulations. In cases in which employment discrimination occurred, the SAR’s courts had broad powers to levy penalties on those who violated these laws and regulations.
Human rights activists and local scholars continued to raise concerns about job prospects for minority students, who were more likely to hold low-paying, low-skilled jobs and earn below-average wages. Experts assessed that a lack of Chinese-language skills was the greatest barrier to employment.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The statutory minimum wage was below the poverty line for an average-sized household. There were many press reports regarding poor conditions faced by and underpayment of wages to domestic workers.
There is no law concerning working hours, paid weekly rest, rest breaks, or compulsory overtime for most employees. Several labor groups reported that employers expected extremely long hours, and the groups called for legislation to address that concern.
Laws exist to provide for health and safety of workers in the workplace. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Employers are required to report any injuries sustained by their employees in work-related accidents.
The government effectively enforced the law, and the Labor Tribunal adjudicated disputes involving nonpayment or underpayment of wages and wrongful dismissal. The number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations except in the cases of nonpayment or underpayment of wages to and working conditions of domestic workers. Penalties for violations of the minimum wage or occupational safety and health violations include fines, payments of damages, and worker’s compensation payments. These penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the Labor Department is responsible for safety and health promotion, identification of unsafe conditions, enforcement of safety management legislation, and policy formulation and implementation; it enforced occupational safety and health laws effectively.
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China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Tibet
Read A Section: Tibet
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The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAPs) and counties in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu are part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee oversees Tibet policies. As in other predominantly minority areas of the PRC, Han Chinese CCP members held the overwhelming majority of top party, government, police, and military positions in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Ultimate authority rests with the 25-member Political Bureau (Politburo) of the CCP Central Committee and its seven-member Standing Committee in Beijing, neither of which had any Tibetan members.
Civilian authorities maintained control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; censorship and website blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; severe restrictions on freedom of movement; and restrictions on political participation.
The government strictly controlled information about, and access to, the TAR and some Tibetan areas outside the TAR. The PRC government harassed or detained Tibetans as punishment for speaking to foreigners, attempting to provide information to persons abroad, or communicating information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent through cell phones, email, or the internet, and placed restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Disciplinary procedures for officials were opaque, and there was no publicly available information to indicate senior officials punished security personnel or other authorities for behavior defined under PRC laws and regulations as abuses of power and authority.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Freedom of Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent including via mobile phones and internet-based communications, were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the vaguely defined crime of “creating and spreading rumors.” Supporting the CCP, criticizing the Dalai Lama, and “not creating and spreading rumors” were some of the major requirements Tibetans had to fulfill to apply for jobs and receive access to government benefits.
Media reports in October noted that advertisements for teaching positions within the TAR required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and authorities rarely granted this permission.
Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. In April the Shannan Newspaper, a daily newspaper in Lhoka City, TAR, included in a listing for new positions the requirement that employees “resolutely implement the party’s line, principles, policies, and political stance, fight against separatism, and safeguard the motherland’s unity and ethnic unity.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
Violence and Harassment: PRC authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2019 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation. In addition, authorities banned some writers from publishing and prohibited them from receiving services and benefits such as government jobs, bank loans, passports, and membership in formal organizations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers and users of WeChat who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
The TAR Internet and Information Office maintained tight control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple observers, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan-language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register with the government, as required by law, websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
The PRC continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan- and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, PRC authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside mainland China.
As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage. There were widespread reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information. In July, in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Radio Free Asia reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to organize gatherings or celebrations of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.
In February, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely manage the internet, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and win the online antiseparatist battle.”
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, both domestically and overseas, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants.
Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges the party had not organized or approved. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its March conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In May police detained Sonam Lhundrub, a Tibetan university student in Lanzhou City, Gansu, after he wrote an essay criticizing the government. His essay noted the lack of government job positions available to Tibetans in the province and the difficulty of competing with Han Chinese applicants for jobs.
In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan living patterns and customs and accelerated forced assimilation through promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, and weakening Tibetan-language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are the official languages of the TAR. Both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, frequently lacked signage in Tibetan. In many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
Financial and subsistence aid is sometimes tied to a reeducation program called “Unity and Love for the Motherland,” a program that continued to expand since its inception in 2017. In areas where this program was in place, state subsidies and incentives were given only to Tibetans who could demonstrate support and knowledge of CCP leaders and ideology, often requiring them to memorize party slogans and phrases of past CCP leaders and to sing the national anthem. These tests were carried out in Chinese, disadvantaging Tibetans who could not speak or read Chinese.
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structure, with party members exercising control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. This requirement included geographic residency limitations on who can attend each monastery. In August monks from prominent Tibetan monasteries attending a government training were told to “lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with socialist society” and that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama “would not be affected by the Dalai Lama’s separatist clique.”
PRC law states “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to officially approved Tibetan-language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of “modern-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious education, particularly computers, physical education, arts, and other “modern” subjects.
The country’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced government intimidation and arrest if they protested official policies or practices.
In March and July, local observers noted that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu received official warnings not to organize certain gatherings, including the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
PRC law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as well as lay persons whom the government considered to have “poor political records.”
In-country Movement: The People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints in Tibetan areas on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports. Tibetans without local residency were turned away from many Tibetan areas deemed sensitive by the government.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from leaving the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Some Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. Such restrictions not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but they also made it difficult to visit family, conduct business, or travel for leisure. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to Han Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.
Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and certain other ethnic minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens when applying for a PRC passport. For Tibetans, the passport application process sometimes required years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes and offering written promises to conduct only apolitical or nonsensitive international travel.
Tibetans continued to encounter significant obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. In some instances the government refused to issue passports to Tibetans. Many Tibetans who possessed passports were concerned authorities would place them on the government’s blacklist and therefore did not travel. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid.
The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. According to local observers, travel agents in the cities of Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming were forbidden to sell overseas package tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6). Travel restrictions also increased around Chinese National Day (October 1).
The government strictly regulated travel of international visitors to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity of the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, international visitors had to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most foreign tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR a government-designated tour guide had to accompany international tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. As in prior years, authorities banned many international tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising as well as during other periods the PRC government deemed politically sensitive. International tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR during such times.
The 2018 Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act defines open access to Tibet as meeting the following two criteria: that U.S. diplomats, journalists, and citizens can access Tibetan areas in the same way as other areas in China, and that no special permits or procedures are required to access Tibetan areas. During the year the PRC did not provide open access to Tibet based on either criterion. PRC authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Freedom of Expression section). The TAR government also frequently denied foreign diplomats’ requests for official travel. Although foreign officials were able to travel more freely in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, the People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus often subjected them to multiple checkpoints. Local government officials routinely limited diplomatic travel within Sichuan Province.
From February to April, the local government reportedly banned foreign tourists from visiting the TAR in advance of Tibet Uprising Day and the convening of the PRC’s national legislature.
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live in exile throughout the world. Tibetans live outside of China for many reasons, although policies enacted by the PRC government in Tibetan areas were frequently cited as the primary factor. Among those living outside of China are the 14th Dalai Lama and several other senior religious leaders who are not approved by the PRC government. These leaders were often unable to meet directly with their home monasteries and students.
The Tibetan overseas community is often subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. Individuals reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China.
In September media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the phones of several leaders in the Central Tibetan Administration, the governance organization of the overseas Tibetan community, as well as officials in the Office of the Dalai Lama.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
According to the law, Tibetans and other Chinese citizens have the right to vote in some local elections. The PRC government, however, severely restricted its citizens’ ability to participate in any meaningful elections. Citizens could not freely choose the officials who governed them, and the CCP continued to control appointments to positions of political power.
Since 2015 the TAR and many Tibetan areas have strictly implemented the Regulation for Village Committee Management, which stipulates that the primary condition for participating in any local election is the “willingness to resolutely fight against separatism”; in some cases this condition was interpreted to require candidates to denounce the Dalai Lama. Several sources reported that newly appointed Communist Party cadres had replaced nearly all traditional village leaders in the TAR and in Tibetan areas outside the TAR over the last three years, despite the lack of village elections.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
PRC law provides criminal penalties for corrupt acts by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively in Tibetan areas, and high-ranking officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption in Tibetan areas during the year; some low-ranked officials were punished.
In September 2018 Tibetan anticorruption activist A-nya Sengdra was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by Qinghai police after exposing corruption among local officials who were failing to pay for land appropriated from local Tibetans. A-nya’s detention was extended several times, and no trial had been scheduled.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Some domestic human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were able to operate in Tibetan areas, although under substantial government restrictions. Their ability to investigate impartially and publish their findings on human rights cases was limited. Restrictions on foreign NGOs made it nearly impossible for foreign human rights groups to investigate or report findings within Tibetan areas. PRC government officials were not cooperative or responsive to the views of foreign human rights groups.
In a July interview, the China director for Human Rights Watch noted that the PRC government was “making the stakes higher for people inside [of Tibet] to talk [to NGOs]. There can be consequences for family members … The authorities are trying very hard to not just cut people off from information sources but really to discourage certain kinds of research or enquiry.”
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Coercion in Population Control: As in the rest of China, there were reports of coerced abortions and sterilizations, although government statistics on the percentage of abortions coerced during the year were not available. The CCP restricts the rights of parents to choose the number of children they have and utilizes family planning units from the provincial to the village level to enforce population limits and distributions.
Discrimination: There were no formal restrictions on women’s participation in the political system, and women held many lower-level government positions. Nevertheless, women were underrepresented at the provincial and prefectural levels of government.
See the Women section in the Mainland China section for more information.
Many rural Tibetan areas have implemented the PRC’s nationwide “centralized education” policy, which forced the closure of many village and monastic schools and the transfer of students to boarding schools in towns and cities. Media reports indicated this program was expanding. The policy limited the ability of children to learn Tibetan language and culture by removing Tibetan children from their homes and communities where the Tibetan language is used. It has also led to the removal of young monks from monasteries, forcing them instead into government-run schools. Authorities enforced regulations specifying that traditional monastic education is available only to monks older than 18, which has led to a reduction in younger students at monasteries. Instruction in Tibetan, while provided for by PRC law, was often inadequate or unavailable at schools in Tibetan areas.
Media outlets reported an increase in the scale of Tibetans attending government-sponsored boarding school outside Tibetan areas. The PRC government reported the programs allowed students greater educational opportunities than they would have had in their home cities. Tibetans and reporters, however, noted the program prevented students from participating in Tibetan cultural activities, observing religious practices, or using the Tibetan language. Media reports also highlighted discrimination within government boarding school programs. Tibetans attending government-arranged boarding schools in eastern China reported studying and living in ethnically segregated classrooms and dormitories justified as necessary security measures, despite cultural integration being the government’s stated purpose for these programs.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
Although the 2010 TAR census figures showed that Tibetans made up 90.5 percent of the TAR’s permanently registered population, official figures did not include a large number of long-, medium-, and short-term Han Chinese migrants, such as cadres, skilled and unskilled laborers, military and paramilitary troops, and their respective dependents. Tibetans continued to make up nearly 98 percent of those registered as permanent residents in rural areas of the TAR, according to official census figures.
Migrants to the TAR and other parts of the Tibetan Plateau were overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. Government policies to subsidize economic development often benefited Han Chinese migrants more than Tibetans. In many predominantly Tibetan cities across the Tibetan Plateau, Han Chinese migrants owned and managed most of the small businesses, restaurants, and retail shops.
Observers continued to express concern that major development projects and other central government policies disproportionately benefited non-Tibetans and resulted in a considerable influx of Han Chinese persons into the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Large state-owned enterprises based outside the TAR engineered or implemented many major infrastructure projects across the Tibetan Plateau, with Han Chinese professionals and low-wage temporary migrant workers from other provinces, rather than local residents, managing and staffing the projects.
Economic and social exclusion was a major source of discontent among a varied cross section of Tibetans. Some Tibetans continued to report discrimination in employment. Some Tibetans reported it was more difficult for them than Han Chinese persons to obtain permits and loans to open businesses, and the government gave many Han Chinese persons, especially retired soldiers, incentives to move to Tibet. Increased restrictions in the three years since a foreign NGO management law was passed severely decreased the number of local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities. For example, after the NGO law took effect in 2017, Trace Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization focusing on Tibetan areas, began closing its programs on the plateau and reported that it had not carried out any programs within China during the year. Other foreign NGOs reported being unable to find local partners. Several Tibetan-run NGOs were also reportedly pressured to close. Throughout the year there were no known Tibetan Plateau-based international NGOs operating in the country.
Some employers specifically barred Tibetans and other minorities from applying to job openings. In August, Lens Technology in Hunan Province published a job opportunity specifically barring Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongolians from applying.
The PRC government continued its campaign to resettle Tibetan nomads into urban areas and newly created communities in rural areas across the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Improving housing conditions, health care, and education for Tibet’s poorest persons were among the stated goals of resettlement, although there was a pattern of settling herders near townships and roads and away from monasteries, which were the traditional providers of community and social services. A requirement that herders bear a substantial part of the resettlement costs often forced resettled families into debt. The government’s campaign resulted in many resettled herders losing their livelihoods and living in impoverished conditions in urban areas.
Although a 2015 media report noted that Tibetans and other minority ethnic groups made up 70 percent of government employees in the TAR, the top CCP position of TAR party secretary continued to be held by a Han Chinese person, and the corresponding positions in the vast majority of all TAR counties were Han Chinese. Within the TAR, Han Chinese persons also continued to hold a disproportionate number of the top security, military, financial, economic, legal, judicial, and educational positions. The law requires CCP secretaries and governors of ethnic minority autonomous prefectures and regions to be from that ethnic minority; however, party secretaries were Han Chinese in eight of the nine TAPs located in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces. One TAP in Qinghai had a Tibetan party secretary. Authorities strictly prohibited Tibetans holding government and CCP positions from openly worshipping at monasteries or otherwise publicly practicing their religion.
Government propaganda against alleged Tibetan “proindependence forces” contributed to Chinese societal discrimination against ordinary Tibetans. Many Tibetan monks and nuns chose to wear nonreligious clothing to avoid harassment when traveling outside their monasteries and throughout China. Some Tibetans reported that taxi drivers throughout China refused to stop for them, hotels refused to provide lodging, and Han Chinese landlords refused to rent to them.
Read a Section
China → Hong Kong → Macau →
The Islamic Republic of Iran is an authoritarian theocratic republic with a Shia Islamic political system based on velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). Shia clergy, most notably the rahbar (supreme leader), and political leaders vetted by the clergy dominate key power structures. The supreme leader is the head of state. The members of the Assembly of Experts are nominally directly elected in popular elections. The assembly selects and may dismiss the supreme leader. The candidates for the Assembly of Experts, however, are vetted by the Guardian Council (see below) and are therefore selected indirectly by the supreme leader himself. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the position since 1989. He has direct or indirect control over the legislative and executive branches of government through unelected councils under his authority. The supreme leader holds constitutional authority over the judiciary, government-run media, and other key institutions. While mechanisms for popular election exist for the president, who is head of government, and for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament or majles), the unelected Guardian Council vets candidates, routinely disqualifying them based on political or other considerations, and controls the election process. The supreme leader appoints half of the 12-member Guardian Council, while the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) appoints the other half. Parliamentary elections held in 2016 and presidential elections held in 2017 were not considered free and fair.
The supreme leader holds ultimate authority over all security agencies. Several agencies share responsibility for law enforcement and maintaining order, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and law enforcement forces under the Interior Ministry, which report to the president, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which reports directly to the supreme leader. The Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group with local organizations across the country, sometimes acted as an auxiliary law enforcement unit subordinate to IRGC ground forces. The IRGC and the national army, or “Artesh,” provided external defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
In response to widespread protests that began November 15 after a fuel price increase, the government blocked almost all international and local internet connections for most of a week, and security forces used lethal force to end the protests, killing approximately 1,500 persons and detaining 8,600, according to international media reports. There was no indication government entities were pursuing independent or impartial investigations into protester deaths.
Significant human rights issues included executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of “most serious crimes” and without fair trials of individuals, including juvenile offenders; numerous reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, and torture by government agents, as well as systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; hundreds of political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with independence of the judiciary, particularly the revolutionary courts; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminalization of libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on political participation through arbitrary candidate vetting; widespread corruption at all levels of government; unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by government actors to support the Assad regime in Syria; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; harsh governmental restrictions on the rights of women and minorities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; criminalization of LGBTI status or conduct; and outlawing of independent trade unions.
Despite repeated calls from the international community, including the United Nations, the government effectively took no steps to investigate, prosecute, punish, or otherwise hold accountable officials who committed these abuses, many of which were perpetrated as a matter of government policy. This included abuses and numerous suspicious deaths in custody from previous years. Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.
Government officials materially contributed to human rights abuses in Syria, through their military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hizballah forces; in Iraq, through aid to pro-Iran militia groups; and in Yemen, through support for Houthi rebels, who targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
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, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted “increasing restrictions” on freedom of expression.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
In June and August, two dozen civil society activists circulated two separate letters calling on the supreme leader to step down and begin a process to develop a new constitution. Authorities arrested nearly all of the signatories to these letters and charged them with “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” Their trials continued before a revolutionary court.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.” According to the Washington Post, the ministry temporarily stopped issuing permits to any foreign correspondents during the summer.
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials (approximately $2,100). Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
In June, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, presiding over Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 28, sentenced Masoud Kazemi, editor in chief of the monthly political magazine Sedaye Parsi, to four and one-half years in prison followed by a two-year ban from working as a journalist for national security charges of spreading misinformation and insulting the supreme leader. In November 2018 authorities arrested Kazemi for reporting on corruption in the Ministry of Industry.
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.
According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 38 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of December.
Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations throughout the year in an attempt to censor coverage of the protests and to intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. On May 4, authorities arrested Marzieh Amiri, a journalist for Shargh, a leading reformist newspaper, at a protest outside the parliament building in Tehran. In reaction to Amiri’s arrest, member of parliament Mohammad-Ali Pourmokhtar reportedly said to state media, “[J]ournalists don’t have the right to report on anything they want. They are the problem.” Pourmokhtar noted there was nothing wrong with Amiri’s arrest since she had been exposing important information to enemy states. Amiri posted bail of one billion rials ($23,000) and was released from Evin Prison in late October.
In July, Amnesty International called for the release of three reporters for Gam (Step), a Telegram app news channel covering labor issues. According to Amnesty International’s report and other reporting from human rights organizations, authorities arrested Amirhossein Mohammadifard, Gam’s editor in chief; his wife Sanaz Allahyari, a reporter; and Amir Amirgholi, a Gam staff reporter, in January. The journalists reportedly faced national security charges connected to their reporting on workers’ rights protests in Khuzestan Province. Authorities released the journalists on bail in late October.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
In July the Huffington Post reported that the government had set conditions for the BBC not to share reporting materials it gathered inside the country with BBC Persian, its Persian language channel. According to the report, the agreement was made in exchange for the government to allow a BBC correspondent into the country.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter, but not overthrow, the government are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.
National Security: Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials. In January authorities charged three members of the Iran Writer’s Association with national-security-related crimes, reportedly for publishing information opposing censorship of art and literature, according to CHRI.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to approximately 40 days after the protests began, when the government may be concerned that families of those killed would organize new protests surrounding memorial ceremonies for the victims. Authorities also monitored private online communications and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems. The Supreme Leader’s Office also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to widespread media and NGO reports, the government shut down nearly all internet access in the country for five days following the outbreak of protests over fuel price increases on November 15. The BBC noted that authorities controlled the country’s two internet connections to the outside world, the state telecommunications firm and the Institute for Physics and Mathematics. Oracle’s internet-monitoring service called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.” Access to mobile networks in parts of the country remained heavily restricted for several weeks after the demonstrations began to diminish.
NGOs reported the government filtered content on the internet throughout the year to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that compose the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
Authorities continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April authorities warned citizens they could be prosecuted for posting pictures of major flooding in the country’s southwest under the charge of “disturbing public opinion.” On October 5, authorities reportedly arrested Instagram user Sahar Tabar for “blasphemy” and “encouraging youths to corruption” for posts on her account depicting results of her numerous plastic surgeries. Several weeks later, she appeared to express regret for her actions in a state television broadcast that observers described as a “forced confession.” CHRI reported in August that authorities detained at least 14 Instagram “celebrities” in the previous three months and ordered them to stop their online activities.
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
In April, according to a CHRI report, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council’s Committee for the Islamization of Universities passed an amendment to the country’s academic disciplinary regulations, according to which university students could be punished for engaging in online activities deemed as “unethical.” Jamasb Nozari, director of the state-run Academic Affairs Organization, stated in an interview with Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), “Publishing unethical photos or committing immoral acts in cyberspace and on information-sharing networks will result in disciplinary action against students.”
Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education. According to a HRANA report in September, authorities denied university admission to at least 22 Bahai students solely based on their religious affiliation despite they passed the national admissions test (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In July, CHRI reported that a court sentenced filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to one year in prison for the content of his films. According to Rasoulof, the accusations made against him in court focused on films he made examining the government’s persecution of members of the Bahai faith. Since 2017 authorities have banned Rasoulof from leaving the country and making films. Similarly, film director Jafar Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
In July a revolutionary court sentenced in absentia Nikan Khosravi and Arash Ilkhani of the metal band Confess to more than 14 years in prison and 74 lashes for “insulting the sanctity of Islam,” among other charges.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.
According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, as proregime groups rarely experienced difficulty, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.
Protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement continued throughout the year, as did labor-sector protests. Protests against the country’s compulsory hijab laws also increased.
On May 13, Basij militia and progovernment plainclothes vigilante groups forcibly dispersed a student demonstration at the University of Tehran, in which hundreds of students peacefully protested the country’s mandatory hijab laws. Videos showed clerics, vigilante groups, and Basij members chanting Islamic slogans, calling for the students to respect the law or leave the university. The vigilante groups later reportedly physically attacked the students after they had retreated to the university auditorium.
On November 14, the government announced a fuel subsidy cut that substantially increased the cost of gasoline. The cut sparked days of protests in nearly three-quarters of the country’s provinces and increasingly included broader expressions of frustration regarding the country’s leadership, according to media and NGO reports. Security forces responded with lethal force, killing approximately 1,500 protesters, according to international media reports (see section 1.a.). Authorities also arrested 8,600 demonstrators. Government officials described the protesters as “rioters” and did not indicate any intent to investigate protester deaths, calling the casualty figures “disinformation.”
There were no government investigations into the killings of at least 20 demonstrators during protests in 2017-18, nor were there any government investigations into the forcible dispersal of February 2018 protests by the Gonabadi Sufi dervish community, during which security forces killed numerous dervishes. Between March 9 and 12, an appeals court upheld convictions of 23 dervishes arrested at the 2018 demonstrations and confirmed sentences ranging from six to 26 years in prison, lashings, social media bans, and travel bans. Dozens of members of the Gonabadi Sufi community remained imprisoned at year’s end.
The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 7). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts (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 law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.
Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.
f. Protection of Refugees
According to UNHCR, the government granted registration to 951,142 Afghans under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services and facilitate the issuance of work permits. The most recent Amayesh XIV renewal exercise started on May 28. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted some 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to 2.0 million undocumented Afghans. The country also hosted 28,268 Iraqi refugees.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.
Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, from the beginning of the year to August, more than 219,254 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with many claiming they were pressured to leave. More than 273,089 were deported there throughout the year.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW, the government continued to block many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.
Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to register with the United Nations as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They can apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move between those provinces where Afghans were allowed to go.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards were difficult to renew and were often prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to steep annual renewal fees.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees can enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 92,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffer from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population can enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.
The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. More than 480,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, in addition to 103,000 undocumented Afghan children. According to media reporting, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons included those without birth documents or refugee identification cards. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities prohibited stateless persons from receiving formal government support or travel documents.
In October the Guardian Council approved an amendment to the civil code granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men. Previously, female citizens were not able to transmit citizenship to their children or to noncitizen spouses, and their dependents could not apply for citizenship until they lived in Iran for at least 18 years. The children and spouses of Iranian men were granted citizenship automatically. Under the new law, women must still apply for nationality for their children, and children who turn 18 can apply for nationality themselves. Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Intelligence Ministry and the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government. According to media reports, between 400,000 and one million persons lacked Iranian nationality despite having an Iranian citizen mother, due to prior limitations on citizenship transmission (see section 6, Children).
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose the president, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts and parliament, provided all have been vetted and approved by the Guardian Council. Elections are based on universal suffrage. Candidate vetting conducted by unelected bodies, however, abridged this right in all instances. Reported government constraints on freedom of expression and the media; peaceful assembly; association; and the ability freely to seek, receive, and impart information and campaign also limited citizens’ right to choose freely their representatives in elections.
The Assembly of Experts, which is composed of 86 popularly elected clerics who serve eight-year terms, elects the supreme leader, who acts as the de facto head of state and may be removed only by a vote of the assembly. The Guardian Council vets and qualifies candidates for all Assembly of Experts, presidential, and parliamentary elections based on criteria that include candidates’ allegiance to the state and adherence to Shia Islam. The council consists of six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) and approved by parliament.
The supreme leader exerted significant influence over the activities of elected officials. For example, on November 17, according to press reports, the supreme leader’s office sent a letter to parliament urging members of parliament to end debate on fuel rationing and pricing, which spurred major countrywide protests two days earlier.
Recent Elections: Presidential and local council elections were held in 2017. The country’s electoral system continued to fall short of international standards for free and fair elections primarily because of the Guardian Council’s controlling role in the political process, including determining which individuals could run for office and, in certain instances, arbitrarily removing winning candidates.
In 2017 the Guardian Council approved six Shia male candidates for president from a total candidate pool of 1,636 individuals. Voters re-elected Hassan Rouhani as president.
Candidates for local elections were vetted by monitoring boards established by parliament, resulting in the disqualification of a number of applicants. Observers asserted that reformist candidates such as Abdollah Momeni, Ali Tajernia, and Nasrin Vaziri, previously imprisoned for peacefully protesting the 2009 election, were not allowed to run due to their political views.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides for the formation of political parties, but the Interior Ministry granted licenses only to parties deemed to adhere to the “governance of the jurist” system of government embodied in the constitution. Registered political organizations that adhered to the system generally operated without restriction, but most were small, focused around an individual, and without nationwide membership. Members of political parties and persons with any political affiliation that the regime deemed unacceptable faced harassment and sometimes violence and imprisonment. The government maintained bans on several opposition organizations and political parties. Security officials continued to harass, intimidate, and arrest members of the political opposition and some reformists (see section 1.e.).
Participation of Women and Minorities: Women faced significant legal, religious, and cultural barriers to political participation. According to the Guardian Council’s interpretation, the constitution bars women, as well as persons of foreign origin, from serving as supreme leader or president, as members of the Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, or the Expediency Council, and as certain types of judges.
The Guardian Council disqualified all 137 women who registered as candidates for the 2017 presidential election. Almost 18,000 female candidates, or 6.3 percent of all candidates, were permitted to run for positions in the 2017 local elections.
All cabinet-level ministers were men. A limited number of women held senior government positions, including that of vice president for legal affairs and vice president for women and family affairs. According to the World Bank, women make up 6 percent of members of parliament.
Practitioners of a religion other than Shia Islam are barred from serving as supreme leader or president, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council. The law reserves five seats in parliament for members of recognized minority religious groups, although minorities may also be elected to nonreserved seats. The five reserved seats were filled by one Zoroastrian, one Jew, and three Christians. There were no non-Muslims in the cabinet or on the Supreme Court.
In 2018 the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between state branches, amended the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils to affirm the right of constitutionally recognized religious minorities to run in local elections.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government implemented the law arbitrarily, sometimes pursuing apparently legitimate corruption cases against officials, while at other times, bringing politically motivated charges against regime critics or political opponents. Officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. Many expected bribes for providing routine services or received bonuses outside their regular work, and individuals routinely bribed officials to obtain permits for otherwise illegal construction.
Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. Government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which are defined under law as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but no government agency is required to approve their budgets publicly.
Numerous companies and subsidiaries affiliated with the IRGC engaged in trade and business activities, sometimes illicitly, including in the telecommunications, mining, and construction sectors. Other IRGC entities reportedly engaged in smuggling pharmaceutical products, narcotics, and raw materials. The domestic and international press reported that individuals with strong government connections had access to foreign currency at preferential exchange rates, allowing them to exploit a gap between the country’s black market and official exchange rates.
Corruption: The judiciary continued an anticorruption campaign that observers viewed as motivated by several factors, including political infighting and replacing lost revenue due to economic challenges. The supreme leader approved a request from the head of the judiciary in 2018 to set up special revolutionary courts to try individuals for economic crimes, seeking maximum sentences for those who “disrupted and corrupted” the economy. He was quoted saying that punishments for those accused of economic corruption, including government officials and those from the military, should be carried out swiftly. Amnesty International criticized the courts’ lack of fair trial and due process guarantees.
In October a court reduced a seven-year prison sentence handed down in May to Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of President Rouhani, to five years. The exact nature of the charges was unclear, but he was convicted of receiving bribes. Some observers asserted the case was motivated by retribution sought by hardline political and judicial figures.
In November, Radio Farda reported that as a part of the judiciary’s drive against corruption, a number of employees of the State Deeds and Properties Organization were arrested on charge including “taking huge bribes, forgery, and cooperation with profiteers to appropriate public and private property.” These arrests came in tandem with the arrest of the Rudehen City Council chairman, Manouchehr Hemmat Najafi, on charges of embezzlement and bribery, and of 25 other individuals in connection to a case of unlicensed construction projects. As of December 9, details of the number of arrested employees and their positions have not been disclosed.
Financial Disclosure: Regulations require government officials, including cabinet ministers and members of the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, and Assembly of Experts, to submit annual financial statements to the government inspectorate. Little information was available on whether the government effectively implemented the law, whether officials obeyed the law, or whether financial statements were publicly accessible.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government restricted the operations of and did not cooperate with local or international human rights NGOs investigating alleged violations of human rights. The government restricted the work of domestic activists and often responded to their inquiries and reports with harassment, arrests, online hacking, and monitoring of individual activists and organization workplaces.
By law NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior and apply for permission to receive foreign grants. Independent human rights groups and other NGOs faced harassment because of their activism, as well as the threat of closure by government officials, following prolonged and often arbitrary delays in obtaining official registration.
During the year the government prevented some human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and scholars from traveling abroad. Human rights activists reported intimidating telephone calls, threats of blackmail, online hacking attempts, and property damage from unidentified law enforcement and government officials. The government summoned activists repeatedly for questioning and confiscated personal belongings such as mobile phones, laptops, and passports. Government officials sometimes harassed and arrested family members of human rights activists. Courts routinely suspended sentences of convicted human rights activists, leaving open the option for authorities to arrest or imprison individuals arbitrarily at any time on the previous charges.
In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed concern about the arrest, arbitrary detention, and sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers. He noted acts of intimidation and reprisals in detention, including torture and mistreatment, as well as reports of reprisals against human rights defenders and journalists for engaging the UNSR and cooperating with other UN mechanisms.
According to NGO sources, including HRW and Amnesty International, the government’s rights record and its level of cooperation with international rights institutions remained poor. The government continued to deny requests from international human rights NGOs to establish offices in or to conduct regular investigative visits to the country. The most recent visit of an international human rights NGO was by Amnesty International in 2004 as part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with the country.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: During the year the government continued to deny repeated requests by the UNSR on the situation of human rights in Iran to visit the country.
On November 15, for the seventh consecutive year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing serious concern about the country’s continuing human rights violations. The resolution repeated its call for the country to cooperate with UN special mechanisms, citing the government’s failure to approve any request from a UN thematic special procedures mandate holder to visit the country in more than a decade. It drew attention to the government’s continued failure to allow the UNSR into the country to investigate human rights abuses despite repeated requests. The most recent visit by a UN human rights agency to the country was in 2005.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The High Council for Human Rights, headed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, is part of the judicial branch of the government and lacks independence. The council continued to defend the imprisonment of high-profile human rights defenders and political opposition leaders, despite domestic and international pressure. Larijani continued to call for an end to the position of the UNSR. There was no information available on whether the council challenged any laws or court rulings during the year.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and subject to strict penalties, including death, but it remained a problem. The law considers sex within marriage consensual by definition and, therefore, does not address spousal rape, including in cases of forced marriage. Most rape victims likely did not report the crime because they feared official retaliation or punishment for having been raped, including charges of indecency, immoral behavior, or adultery, the last of which carries the death penalty. Rape victims also feared societal reprisal or ostracism.
For a conviction of rape, the law requires four Muslim men or a combination of three men and two women or two men and four women, to have witnessed a rape. A woman or man found making a false accusation of rape is subject to 80 lashes. In January, IranWire reported the suspicious death of Zahra Navidpour, a woman who had accused Salman Khodadadi, chairman of the parliament’s Social Affairs Committee and a former IRGC commander, of raping her. On January 6, Navidpour was found dead at her home; after her body was rushed to the hospital, the medical examiner provided no reason for the woman’s death, leading to speculation that she had either committed suicide or been killed. Navidpour died while Khodadadi was on trial for having an illegitimate affair; the court sentenced him to two years’ exile, a two-year ban on serving in public office, and 99 lashes; however, the Supreme Court dismissed the lower court’s verdict.
In May local and international media reported that Mohammad Ali Najafi, a former vice president and mayor of Tehran, had confessed to shooting to death one of his two wives. Najafi resigned as mayor of Tehran in 2018 after he was criticized for attending a dance performance by young girls. He was sentenced to death for the murder, but his wife’s family reportedly waived the death penalty, as allowed by law. He also received a two-year jail sentence for possessing an illegal firearm.
The law does not prohibit domestic violence. Authorities considered abuse in the family a private matter and seldom discussed it publicly. In July, according to a HRANA report, the head of the medical examiner’s officer of Tehran Province announced that more than 16,420 cases of domestic violence had been reported to the office, a rise from 2018.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law criminalizes FGM/C and states, “the cutting or removing of the two sides of female genitalia leads to diyeh (financial penalty or blood money) equal to half the full amount of diyeh for the woman’s life.”
Little current data was available on the practice inside the country, although older data and media reports suggested it was most prevalent in Hormozgan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and West Azerbaijan Provinces.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: There were no official reports of killings motivated by “honor” or other harmful traditional practices during the year, although human rights activists reported that such killings continued to occur, particularly among rural and tribal populations.
The law reduces punitive measures for fathers and other family members who are convicted of murder or physically harming children in domestic violence or “honor killings.” If a man is found guilty of murdering his daughter, the punishment is between three and 10 years in prison rather than the normal death sentence or payment of diyeh for homicide cases.
On October 23, the Guardian Council reportedly approved a bill increasing sentences for perpetrators of “acid attacks,” in which the perpetrators throw acid generally on women victims for perceived violations of social norms that discriminate against women.
Sexual Harassment: The law addresses sexual harassment in the context of physical contact between men and women and prohibits physical contact between unrelated men and women. There was no reliable data on the extent of sexual harassment, but women and human rights observers reported that sexual harassment was the norm in many workplaces. There were no known government efforts to address this problem.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal protection for women under the law in conformity with its interpretation of Islam. The government did not enforce the law, and provisions in the law, particularly sections dealing with family and property law, discriminate against women. Judicial harassment, intimidation, detention, and smear campaigns significantly challenged the ability of civil society organizations to fight for and protect women’s rights.
In October the Guardian Council approved an amendment to the country’s civil code that allows Iranian women married to foreign men to transmit citizenship to their children (see section 2.f.). Ahmad Meidari, the deputy of the Ministry of Social Welfare, was reported estimating in January that 49,000 children would benefit if the legislation were enacted. The government does not recognize marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, irrespective of their citizenship. The law states that a virgin woman or girl wishing to wed needs the consent of her father or grandfather or the court’s permission.
The law permits a man to have as many as four wives and an unlimited number of sigheh (temporary wives), based on a Shia custom under which couples may enter into a limited-time civil and religious contract, which outlines the union’s conditions.
A woman has the right to divorce if her husband signs a contract granting that right; cannot provide for his family; has violated the terms of their marriage contract; or is a drug addict, insane, or impotent. A husband is not required to cite a reason for divorcing his wife. The law recognizes a divorced woman’s right to part of shared property and to alimony. These laws were not always enforced.
The government actively suppressed efforts to build awareness among women of their rights regarding marriage and divorce. According to a CHRI report, in September 2018 the IRGC Intelligence Organization arrested Hoda Amid, a human rights attorney, and Najmeh Vahedi, a sociologist and women’s rights activist, three days before they were supposed to host a workshop about the country’s marriage laws, which they had organized with a legal permit. One of the purposes of the workshop was to teach women how to expand their rights with legally binding prenuptial contracts.
The law provides divorced women preference in custody for children up to age seven, but fathers maintain legal guardianship rights over the child and must agree on many legal aspects of the child’s life (such as issuing travel documents, enrolling in school, or filing a police report). After the child reaches the age of seven, the father is granted custody unless he is proven unfit to care for the child.
Women sometimes received disproportionate punishment for crimes such as adultery, including death sentences. Islamic law retains provisions that equate a woman’s testimony in a court of law to one-half that of a man’s and value a woman’s life as one-half that of a man’s. According to the law, the diyeh paid in the death of a woman is one-half the amount paid in the death of a man, with the exception of car accident insurance payments. According to a CHRI report, in July the government declared equality between men and women in the payment of blood money. Per the Supreme Court ruling, the amount paid for the intentional or unintentional physical harm to a woman will still be one-half the blood money as that paid for a man, but the remaining difference will now be paid from a publicly funded trust.
Women have access to primary and advanced education. Quotas and other restrictions nonetheless limited women’s admissions to certain fields and degree programs.
The Statistical Center of Iran reported during the year that the jobless rate among women ages 15 to 19 was 35 percent. All women’s participation in the job market remained as low as 16 percent. Women reportedly earned 41 percent less than men for the same work. Unemployment among women in the country was twice as high as it was among men.
Women continued to face discrimination in home and property ownership, as well as access to financing. In cases of inheritance, male heirs receive twice the inheritance of their female counterparts. The government enforced gender segregation in many public spaces. Women must ride in a reserved section on public buses and enter some public buildings, universities, and airports through separate entrances.
The law provides that a woman who appears in public without appropriate attire, such as a cloth scarf veil (hijab) over the head and a long jacket (manteau), or a large full-length cloth covering (chador), may be sentenced to flogging and fined. Absent a clear legal definition of “appropriate attire” or of the related punishment, women (and men) were subjected to the opinions of various disciplinary and security force members, police, and judges.
In May, CHRI reported that authorities arrested 30 individuals, including both men and women, who were practicing yoga inside a home in the city of Gorgan. The individuals were accused of wearing “inappropriate clothing” and engaging in “indecent activities.” Several individuals reported such arrests were not uncommon but that public officials rarely acknowledged them.
Protests, beating, and arrests continued as security forces cracked down on peaceful nationwide protests against dress restrictions. CHRI reported that since 2018 at least 44 women had been arrested for peacefully protesting the mandatory dress code. According to media reports in June, the government introduced 2,000 new morality police units to manage what officials called “increasing defiance” of the compulsory hijab law.
In April security forces arrested Yasaman Aryani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi, and Mojgan Keshavarz after they posted a video for International Women’s Day. In the video the women are seen walking without headscarves through a Tehran metro train, handing flowers to female passengers.
Numerous news outlets reported that in August a revolutionary court sentenced Arabshahi, Aryani, and Keshavarz to 16, 16, and 23 years in prison, respectively, for “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting corruption and prostitution.”
In May, CHRI reported that authorities had released Vida Movahedi eight months after she was arrested for peacefully protesting the hijab law. Movahedi was initially arrested in October 2018 after she stood on a utility box on Revolution Street in Tehran, removed her headscarf, and waved it on a stick in defiance.
On June 22, according to a video posted to Instagram by activist Masih Alinejad, plainclothes police violently dragged a 15-year-old girl into a police car for not obeying a directive to put on a hijab. Tehran police confirmed the arrest two days later, stating that the girl and four of her friends “insulted the agents” after refusing to respect “public moral and civil codes.”
According to international media reports, in June security guards attacked women trying to enter a stadium in Tehran to watch a men’s soccer match between Iran and Syria. In September, Sahar Khodayari, known as “Blue Girl,” died from severe burns caused by self-immolation after police arrested and later released her from Qarchak Prison on bail on charges of “improperly wearing hijab” and defying the country’s ban on female spectators from viewing soccer and other sports in public stadiums. Following Khodayari’s suicide and under pressure from the world soccer governing body (FIFA), the government permitted approximately 3,500 women to attend the October 10 World Cup qualifier match between Iran and Cambodia at Azadi Stadium, which has an estimated capacity of 78,000. Amnesty International labelled the government’s last-minute permission a “cynical publicity stunt” to “whitewash their image” following the death of Khodayari.
As noted by the former UNSR and other organizations, female athletes have been traditionally barred from participating in international tournaments, either by the country’s sport agencies or by their husbands. There were, however, cases throughout the year of female athletes being permitted to travel internationally to compete.
Birth Registration: Prior to October only a child’s father could convey citizenship, regardless of the child’s country of birth or mother’s citizenship. Legislation passed and approved in October provides Iranian mothers the right to apply for citizenship for children born to fathers with foreign citizenship (see section 2.f. and section 6, Women). The new law also includes a stipulation of obtaining a security clearance from the security agencies prior to receiving approval. Birth within the country’s borders does not confer citizenship, except when a child is born to unknown parents. The law requires that all births be registered within 15 days.
Education: Although primary schooling until age 11 is free and compulsory for all, media and other sources reported lower enrollment in rural areas, especially for girls.
Children without state-issued identification cards are denied the right to education. In her March 2018 report, former UNSR Jahangir noted that in Sistan va Baluchestan Province, the Cabinet of Ministers requested the Ministry of Education to issue a special card for children without birth certificates so they could attend school. As a result, more than 20,000 children who had received such cards registered for school, and 19,000 were allowed to attend. In his February report, current UNSR Rehman expressed concern over access to education for minority children, including references to high primary school dropout rates for ethnic minority girls living in border provinces.
Child Abuse: There was little information available on how the government dealt with child abuse. The law states, “Any form of abuse of children and juveniles that causes physical, psychological, or moral harm and threatens their physical or mental health is prohibited,” and such crimes carry a maximum sentence of three months in confinement or a fine of 10 million rials ($230).
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for girls is 13, but girls as young as nine years old may be married with permission from a court and their fathers. In 2018 UNICEF reported that 17 percent of girls in the country were married before reaching age 18 and that approximately 40,000 were married before 15. In March 2018 former UNSR Jahangir stated this number was likely higher, as thousands of underage marriages were not reported. The issue became a subject of national debate in February when a charity group reported on the case of “Raha,” an 11-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by a nearly 50-year-old man she was forced to marry. Authorities reportedly arrested the man on February 11 and nullified the marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The legal age requirements for consensual sex are the same as those for marriage, as sex outside of marriage is illegal. There are no specific laws regarding child sexual exploitation, with such crimes either falling under the category of child abuse or sexual crimes of adultery. The law does not directly address sexual molestation nor provide a punishment for it.
According to CHRI, the legal ambiguity between child abuse and sexual molestation could lead to child sexual molestation cases being prosecuted under adultery law. While no separate provision exists for the rape of a child, the crime of rape, regardless of the victim’s age, is potentially punishable by death.
Displaced Children: There were reports of thousands of Afghan refugee children in the country, many of whom were born in Iran but could not obtain identity documents. These children were often unable to attend schools or access basic government services and were vulnerable to labor exploitation and trafficking.
UNHCR stated school enrollment among refugees was generally higher outside the 20 settlements, where more resources were available and where 97 percent of the refugees reside.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The law recognizes Jews as a religious minority and provides for their representation in parliament. According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews. Members of the Iranian Jewish community are reportedly subject to government restrictions and discrimination. Government officials continued to question the history of the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism remained a pervasive problem. In May, President Rouhani implied Jewish control over various Western interests, saying that speeches by foreign officials criticizing Iran were “written by Zionists word for word.” Cartoons in state-run media outlets repeatedly depicted foreign officials as puppets of Jewish control.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
In October, HRW and CHRI reported persons with disabilities remained cut off from society, a major obstacle being a mandatory government medical test that can exclude children from the public school system. They continued to face stigma and discrimination from government social workers, health-care workers, and others. Many persons with disabilities remained unable to participate in society on an equal basis. The law provides for public accessibility to government-funded buildings, and new structures appeared to comply with these standards. There were efforts to increase access for persons with disabilities to historical sites. Government buildings that predated existing accessibility standards remained largely inaccessible, and general building accessibility, including access to toilets, for persons with disabilities remained a problem. Persons with disabilities had limited access to informational, educational, and community activities. CHRI reported in 2018 that refugees with disabilities, particularly children, were often excluded or denied the ability to obtain the limited state services provided by the government.
The constitution grants equal rights to all ethnic minorities, allowing minority languages to be used in the media. The law grants the right of citizens to learn, use, and teach their own languages and dialects. In practice minorities did not enjoy equal rights, and the government consistently barred use of their languages in school as the language of instruction.
The government disproportionately targeted minority groups, including Kurds, Ahwazis, Azeris, and Baluchis, for arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, disappearances, and physical abuse. These ethnic minority groups reported political and socioeconomic discrimination, particularly in their access to economic aid, business licenses, university admissions, job opportunities, permission to publish books, and housing and land rights.
Another widespread complaint among ethnic minority groups, particularly among Ahwazis, Azeris and Lors, was that the government diverted and mismanaged natural resources, primarily water, often for the benefit of IRGC-affiliated contractors. According to reports from international media and human rights groups, these practices devastated the local environment on which farmers and others depended for their livelihoods and well-being, resulting in forced migration and further marginalization of these communities.
The law, which requires religious screening and allegiance to the concept of “governance by the jurist,” not found in Sunni Islam, impaired the ability of Sunni Muslims (many of whom are also Baluch, Ahwazi, or Kurdish) to integrate into civic life and to work in certain fields.
Human rights organizations observed that the government’s application of the death penalty disproportionately affected ethnic minorities. Authorities reportedly subjected members of minority ethnicities and religious groups in pretrial detention repeatedly to more severe physical punishment, including torture, than other prisoners, regardless of the type of crime of which they were accused.
The estimated eight million ethnic Kurds in the country frequently campaigned for greater regional autonomy. The government continued to use the law to arrest and prosecute Kurds for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. The government reportedly banned Kurdish-language newspapers, journals, and books and punished publishers, journalists, and writers for opposing and criticizing government policies.
Authorities suppressed legitimate activities of Kurdish NGOs by denying them registration permits or bringing security charges against persons working with such organizations. Authorities did not prohibit the use of the Kurdish language in general but did not offer education in Kurdish in public schools. UNSR Rehman stated in his July report concern regarding the reported persecution of Kurdish language teachers, including Zara Mohammadi, arrested and detained by authorities on May 23 for giving private Kurdish lessons without a permit in Sanandaj.
According to the same UN report, in the first six months of the year, 115 Kurdish citizens were arrested for charges related to membership in Kurdish political parties and 84 for participating in civic activities such as organizing Nowruz celebrations or managing networks on social media. International human rights observers, including the IHRDC, stated that the country’s estimated two million Ahwazi Arabs, representing 110 tribes, faced continued oppression and discrimination. Ahwazi rights activists reported the government continued to confiscate Ahwazi property to use for government development projects, refusing to recognize the paper deeds from the prerevolutionary era.
According to UNSR Rehman’s July report, his office received information that the IRGC was involved in redirecting floodwater in the spring towards local farms to preserve oil reserves and equipment in Khuzestan Province. In April media and NGOs reported that police arrested social media users and Arab flood relief volunteers and charged them with “broadcasting distracting news and flood rumors.” They remained detained in Khuzestan.
Ahwazi human rights groups reported the government rounded up hundreds of Ahwazis following the September 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahwaz (estimates reported in November 2018 ranged from 600 to more than 800 arrests), while the state-run Tasnim news agency reported the arrest of 22 persons in connection with the attack (see section 1.a.). Ahwazi human rights groups also reported instances of torture of detainees in the Intelligence Ministry detention center in Ahwaz.
Ethnic Azeris, who number more than 18 million, or approximately 23-25 percent of the population, were more integrated into government and society than other ethnic minority groups and included the supreme leader. Azeris reported the government discriminated against them by harassing Azeri activists or organizers and changing Azeri geographic names.
UNSR Rehman stated in his July report that there were 82 Azeris arbitrarily detained on national security-related charges with sentences of up to six years. This figure includes activists and supporters of the soccer club Tiraxtur who were arrested and detained on May 2 for leading pro-Azeri chants at a soccer match at Sehend Stadium in Tabriz.
According to reports, the government tried to prevent thousands of mostly Azeri speaking activists from meeting every year at Babak Fortress to celebrate peacefully the birthday of a historic figure, Babak Khorramdin. The annual gathering has general overtones of Azeri nationalism. Amnesty and HRANA reported that Azeri law student and activist Ebrahim Nouri was arrested on 30 occasions, including at Babak Fortress, and accused of promoting propaganda against the government and “separatism in Azerbaijan.”
Local and international human rights groups alleged discrimination during the year against the Baluchi ethnic minority, estimated at between 1.5 and two million persons. Areas with large Baluchi populations were severely underdeveloped and had limited access to education, employment, health care, and housing; Baluchi activists reported that more than 70 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.
According to activist reports, the law limited Sunni Baluchis’ employment opportunities and political participation. Activists reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population. According to Baluchi rights activists, Baluchi journalists and human rights activists faced arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and unfair trials.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, which is punishable by death, flogging, or a lesser punishment. The law does not distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual same-sex intercourse, and NGOs reported this lack of clarity led to both the victim and the perpetrator being held criminally liable under the law in cases of assault. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to international and domestic media reports, there was at least one case during the year in which an alleged criminal was executed for sodomy-related charges. While few details were available for specific cases, LGBTI activists expressed concern that the government executed LGBTI individuals under the pretext of more severe, and possibly specious, criminal charges such as rape. In June the foreign minister appeared to defend executions of LGBTI persons for their status or conduct. After being asked by a journalist in Germany why the country executes “homosexuals,” the foreign minister stated, “Our society has moral principles. And we live according to these principles. These are moral principles concerning the behavior of people in general. And that means that the law is respected and the law is obeyed.”
Security forces harassed, arrested, and detained individuals they suspected of being LGBTI. In some cases security forces raided houses and monitored internet sites for information on LGBTI persons. Those accused of “sodomy” often faced summary trials, and evidentiary standards were not always met. The Iranian LGBTI activist group 6Rang noted that individuals arrested under such conditions were traditionally subjected to forced anal or sodomy examinations–which the United Nations and World Health Organization stated can constitute torture–and other degrading treatment and sexual insults. Punishment for same-sex sexual activity between men was more severe than between women.
The government censored all materials related to LGBTI status or conduct. Authorities particularly blocked websites or content within sites that discussed LGBTI issues, including the censorship of Wikipedia pages defining LGBTI and other related topics. There were active, unregistered LGBTI NGOs and activists in the country, a number of whom were arrested or charged for LGBTI-related activities during the year.
On December 13, Radio Farda reported that Rezvaneh Mohammadi, a gender-equality activist, was sentenced to five years in prison by Branch 28 of the revolutionary court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, under the charge of “collusion against national security by seeking to normalize homosexual relations.” NGOs noted this was the first time an activist had faced such an accusation in the country. According to CHRI, authorities arrested Mohammadi in September 2018 and held her in solitary confinement for several weeks at Evin Prison, where they pressured her, including with threats of rape, to confess to receiving money to overthrow the government. Hate-crime laws or other criminal justice mechanisms do not exist to aid in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes.
The law requires all male citizens older than age 18 to serve in the military but exempts gay men and transgender women, who are classified as having mental disorders. New military identity cards listed the subsection of the law dictating the exemption. According to the NGO 6Rang, this practice identified gay or transgender individuals and put them at risk of physical abuse and discrimination.
NGOs reported authorities pressured LGBTI persons to undergo gender reassignment surgery. According to a July report by the NGO 6Rang, the number of private and semigovernmental psychological and psychiatric clinics allegedly engaging in “corrective treatment” or reparative therapies of LGBTI persons continued to grow. The NGO 6Rang reported the increased use at such clinics of electric shock therapy to the hands and genitals of LGBTI persons, prescription of psychoactive medication, hypnosis, and coercive masturbation to pictures of the opposite sex. According to the NGO 6Rang, one such institution is called The Anonymous Sex Addicts Association of Iran, with branches in 18 provinces.
Despite government programs to treat and provide financial and other assistance to persons with HIV/AIDS, international news sources and organizations reported that individuals known to be infected with HIV/AIDS faced widespread societal discrimination. Individuals with HIV/AIDS, for example, continued to be denied employment as teachers.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but neither the constitution nor law specifies trade union rights. The law states that workers may establish an Islamic labor council or a guild at any workplace, but the rights and responsibilities of these organizations fell significantly short of international standards for trade unions. In workplaces where workers established an Islamic labor council, authorities did not permit any other form of worker representation. The law requires prior authorization for organizing and concluding collective agreements. Strikes are prohibited in all sectors, although private-sector workers may conduct “peaceful” campaigns within the workplace. The law does not apply to establishments with fewer than 10 employees.
Authorities did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. The government severely restricted freedom of association and interfered in worker attempts to organize. Labor activism is considered to be a national security offense, with severe punishments up to and including the death penalty. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination and does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
Antiunion discrimination occurred, and the government harassed trade union leaders, labor rights activists, and journalists during a crackdown on widespread protests. Independent trade unionists were subject to arbitrary arrests, tortured, and subjected to harsh sentences.
According to media and NGO reporting, on May 1, International Labor Day, police violently attacked and arrested at least 35 activists who had gathered for peaceful demonstrations demanding workers’ rights, organized by 20 independent labor organizations, in front of parliament. The government barred teachers from commemorating International Labor Day and Teachers’ Day. Several prominent teachers and union activists remained in prison or awaited new sentences, including Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi (see below).
The Interior Ministry; the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare; and the Islamic Information Organization determined labor councils’ constitutions, operational rules, and election procedures. Administrative and judicial procedures were lengthy. The Workers’ House remained the only officially authorized national labor organization, and its leadership oversaw, granted permits to, and coordinated activities with Islamic labor councils in industrial, agricultural, and service organizations with more than 35 employees.
According to CHRI, the labor councils, which consisted of representatives of workers and a representative of management, were essentially management-run unions that undermined workers’ efforts to maintain independent unions. The councils, nevertheless, sometimes could block layoffs and dismissals. There was no representative workers’ organization for noncitizen workers.
According to international media reports, security forces continued to respond to workers’ attempts to organize or conduct strikes with arbitrary arrests and violence. As economic conditions deteriorated, strikes and worker protests were numerous and widespread across the country throughout the year, often prompting a heavy police response. Security forces routinely monitored major worksites. According to CHRI, workers were routinely fired and risked arrest for striking, and labor leaders were charged with national security crimes for trying to organize workers.
According to a CHRI report, in August 2018 security forces violently suppressed protests at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane company in the southeast. Haft Tappeh, the country’s largest sugar production plant, had been the site of continuing protests against unpaid wages and benefits for more than two years. According to CHRI, at least five workers were detained and charged with national security crimes but later released on bail following negotiations between labor representatives and judicial officials. In May the protests resurfaced in response to the announcement of a joint indictment issued against five journalists and two labor rights activists. Sepideh Gholian, Amir Hossein Mohammadifard, Sanaz Allahyari, Ali Amirgholi, Asal Mohammadi, Esmail Bakhski, and Ali Nejati were charged with “assembly and collusion against national security,” “forming groups with the intention to disturb national security,” and “contacts with antistate organizations.”
According to NGO and media reports, as in previous years, a number of trade unionists were imprisoned or remained unjustly detained for their peaceful activism. Mehdi Farahi Shandiz, a member of the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Labor Unions in Iran, continued serving a three-year sentence, having been convicted of “insulting the supreme leader” and “disrupting public order.” There were reports that Shandiz was beaten and tortured in Karaj Prison and kept for prolonged periods in solitary confinement.
The government continued to arrest and harass teachers’ rights activists from the Teachers Association of Iran and related unions. In March media outlets reported continued nationwide teacher strikes demanding better pay, rights to an official union, and the release of teachers’ rights activists who were jailed during protests in 2018. That same month Hashem Khastar, a teachers’ rights activist from Mashhad, was allegedly abducted by unknown individuals, resurfaced shackled to a bed at a psychiatric hospital, was released, and taken into custody.
According to a CHRI report, Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) jailed since 2017, continued a 14-year combined sentence for charges associated with his peaceful defense of labor rights. CHRI reported in July that Beheshti-Langroudi commenced another hunger strike protesting his unjust sentence, the judiciary’s refusal to review his case, and the mistreatment of political prisoners. Esmail Abdi, a mathematics teacher and former secretary general of ITTA, continued a six-year prison sentence for labor rights activism. He was arrested in 2015 and convicted in 2016 for “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” CHRI reported in April 2018 that Abdi had written a letter from Evin Prison criticizing the judiciary’s “arbitrary and illegal rulings” and “widespread violations of the rights of teachers and workers in Iran.” He decried the “criminalization of trade unions” and demanded a public trial that he had thus far been denied.
According to reports from international media and human rights organizations, truck drivers launched nationwide strikes over low and unpaid wages and stipends throughout the year. HRANA reported that the government arrested at least 261 drivers in 19 provinces following a round of protests in the fall of 2018. The drivers were threatened with heavy sentences, and Attorney General Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri issued a public statement suggesting that those who initiated the protest should be subject to the death penalty. In October 2018 the International Transport Workers’ Federation expressed concern over the government’s harsh crackdown on labor action by truckers across the country, including the threat of the death penalty against organizers.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law and made no significant effort to address forced labor during the year. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Conditions indicative of forced labor sometimes occurred in the construction, domestic labor, and agricultural sectors, primarily among adult Afghan men and boys younger than age 18. Family members and others forced children to work.
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 does not prohibit the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits employment of children younger than age 15 and places restrictions on employment of children younger than 18, such as prohibiting hard labor or night work. The law does not apply to domestic labor and permits children to work in agriculture and some small businesses from the age of 12. The government did not adequately monitor or enforce laws pertaining to child labor, and child labor remained a serious problem. Penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations.
The United Nations in 2016 cited a 2003 law that exempts workshops with fewer than 10 employees from labor regulations as increasing the risks of economic exploitation of children. The UN report also noted serious concerns with the large number of children employed under hazardous conditions, such as in garbage collection, brick kilns, and industrial workshops, without protective clothing and for very low pay.
There were reportedly significant numbers of children, especially of Afghan descent, who worked as street vendors in major urban areas. According to official estimates, there were 60,000 homeless children, although many children’s rights organizations estimated up to 200,000 homeless children. The Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that street children in particular were subjected to various forms of economic exploitation, including sexual abuse and exploitation by the public and police officers. Child labor also was used in the production of carpets and bricks. Children worked as beggars, and there were reports criminals forced some children into begging rings. According to ISNA, Reza Ghadimi, the managing director of the Tehran Social Services Organization, said in 2018 that, according to a survey of 400 child laborers, 90 percent were “molested.”
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 constitution bars discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, and social status “in conformity with Islamic criteria,” but the government did not effectively enforce these prohibitions. According to the constitution, “everyone has the right to choose any occupation he wishes, if it is not contrary to Islam and the public interests and does not infringe on the rights of others.”
Despite this constitutional provision, the government made systematic efforts to limit women’s access to the workplace, and their participation in the job market remained as low as 16 percent. Women reportedly earned 41 percent less than men for the same work. Unemployment among women in the country was twice as high as it was among men. Hiring practices often discriminated against women, and the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare guidelines stated that men should be given preferential hiring status. An Interior Ministry directive requires all officials to hire only secretaries of their own gender. Women remained banned from working in coffee houses and from performing music alongside men, with very limited exceptions made for traditional music. Women in many fields were restricted from working after 9 p.m.
Kurds, Ahwazis, Azeris, and Baluchis reported political and socioeconomic discrimination with regard to their access to economic aid, business licenses, and job opportunities.
CHRI reported that, according to the director of the State Welfare Organization, 60 percent of persons with disabilities remained unemployed.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
In 2018 the Supreme Labor Council, the government body charged with proposing labor regulations, agreed to raise the minimum monthly wage by 19.8 percent. There were reported complaints that the minimum wage increase was too low in light of the plunging value of the Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar, which is used to price day-to-day goods. The minimum wage is commonly below the poverty line in rural areas.
The law establishes a maximum six-day, 44-hour workweek with a weekly rest day, at least 12 days of paid annual leave, and several paid public holidays. Any hours worked above that total entitles a worker to overtime. The law mandates a payment above the hourly wage to employees for any accrued overtime and provides that overtime work is not compulsory. The law does not cover workers in workplaces with fewer than 10 workers, nor does it apply to noncitizens.
Employers sometimes subjected migrant workers, most often Afghans, to abusive working conditions, including below-minimum-wage salaries, nonpayment of wages, compulsory overtime, and summary deportation without access to food, water, or sanitation facilities during the deportation process. The government did not effectively enforce the laws related to wages and hours, and occupational safety and health. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
According to media reports, many workers continued to be employed on temporary contracts, under which they lacked protections available to full-time, noncontract workers, and could be dismissed at will. Large numbers of workers employed in small workplaces or in the informal economy similarly lacked basic protections. Low wages, nonpayment of wages, and lack of job security due to contracting practices continued to contribute to strikes and protests, which occurred throughout the year.
According to local and international media reports, thousands of teachers, truckers, and workers from a wide variety of sectors held largescale, countrywide rallies and protests demanding wage increases and payment of back wages throughout the year. During the year authorities increased pressure against these protesters through intimidation, wrongful arrests, and arbitrary charges.
Little information was available regarding labor inspection and related law enforcement. While the law provides for occupational health and safety standards, the government sometimes did not enforce these standards in either the formal or informal sectors. Workers reportedly lacked the power to remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment.
Labor organizations alleged that hazardous work environments resulted in the deaths of thousands of workers annually. In 2018 the state-run Iran Labor News Agency quoted the head of the Construction Workers Association as estimating there were 1,200 deaths and 1,500 spinal cord injuries annually among construction workers, while local media routinely reported on workers’ deaths from explosions, gas poisoning, electrocution, or similar accidents.
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.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigative Committee, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the National Guard are responsible for law enforcement. The FSB 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 FSB 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 reported to civilian authorities. National-level civilian authorities, however, had, at best, limited control over security forces in the Republic of Chechnya, which were accountable only to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
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 forces in eastern Ukraine. Credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russia-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, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in Chechnya by local government authorities; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture by government law enforcement personnel 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 prisoners; 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; 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; 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; coerced abortion and sterilization; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, LGBTI persons, and members of ethnic minorities.
The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.
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. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. 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, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. 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 Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. 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 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.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of December the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,003 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 450 items from 2018. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,200 extremism cases in 2018, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
At the same time, in December 2018, President Putin signed legislation that partially decriminalized the expression of “extremist” views, stipulating that speech that “incited hatred or enmity” or denigrated a person or group be treated as an administrative misdemeanor, not a crime, for a first-time offense. Several persons were previously charged with extremism under criminal law for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. Following the amendment to the antiextremist legislation, however, courts dropped charges against some of the defendants. On January 15, for example, authorities dropped charges against Eduard Nikitin, a doctor in the Khabarovsk region who faced up to five years in prison on extremism charges. He was accused of “liking” an image condemning the country’s aggression in eastern Ukraine posted on the Odnoklassniki social network in 2015.
Although the amendment was expected to have a retroactive effect, not all individuals imprisoned on extremism charges saw charges dropped or sentences commuted. For example, on August 28, a court in the Belgorod region denied a request for parole from 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze. In February 2018, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced him to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
By law authorities may close any organization that 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 “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on October 28, the Moscow branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an administrative case for suspected “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” against the producers and participants of a YouTube video in which children interviewed a gay man, Maksim Pankratov, about his life. The video contained no discussion of sex, but included questions on Pankratov’s sexual orientation, how he would like other individuals to treat him, and his vision for his life in the future. On November 2, the Moscow Region Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation into the video’s producers and participants on suspicion of “violent sexual assault of a minor” younger than age 14, a crime punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison. According to press reports, the parents of the children in the video have experienced pressure from authorities to testify against the video’s producers and received visits from child protective services, which they interpreted as a threat to terminate their parental rights. Pankratov reported receiving threats of physical violence from unknown persons following the opening of the criminal case. As of December Pankratov was in hiding in an undisclosed location in Russia, while the video’s producer, popular online celebrity Victoria Pich, had fled the country.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, on September 30, a court in Irkutsk sentenced Dmitriy Litvin to 100 hours of community service for social media postings in 2015 of caricatures that allegedly offended the feelings of Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and shamanists.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” For example, on April 5, the Investigative Committee for the Chuvash Republic opened a criminal case against opposition blogger Konstantin Ishutov for material he had posted on social media in 2010 criticizing authorities’ poor maintenance of local cemeteries and contrasting it with the maintenance of cemeteries in Germany. Investigators claimed this material attempted to justify the actions of Nazis during World War II and diminish the significance of the Soviet victory. Ishutov was charged under the same statute in 2018 for posting a photo of a Nazi leaflet with the phrase, “When the Third Reich treats the Soviet people better than Putin treats the Russian people.” As he awaited trial, a court prohibited Ishutov from using the internet, traveling, or leaving his home after 10 p.m. On November 8, the Supreme Court of the Chuvash Republic started reviewing Ishutov’s case. On December 18, the Chuvash Supreme Court found Ishutov guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism” and other charges. He faces up to seven years in prison.
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 July 30, a district court in St. Petersburg sentenced Fyodor Belov to five days’ administrative arrest for publicly displaying a tattoo of a swastika.
On March 18, a new law entered into force that stipulated fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. According to the Agora International Human Rights Group, in the first six months after the law’s entry into force, authorities opened 45 cases, 26 of which dealt with insults against President Putin. For example, on April 22, a court in the Novgorod region fined unemployed machinist Yuriy Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles ($471) for posting insulting comments about President Putin on social media.
On March 18, a new law, commonly characterized as a ban on “creating and spreading fake news,” also came into force. It prohibits “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and/or health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and/or 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.” The fine for violating the law is up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for individuals, up to 200,000 rubles ($3,140) for officials, and up to 500,000 rubles ($7,850) for legal entities. In the event of repeated violations or violations with grave consequences, fines may go up to 1.5 million rubles ($23,600).
The law on “fake news” was applied multiple times during the year. For example, on July 29, a court in Nazran, Ingushetia, fined Murad Daskiyev, the head of the Council of Clans of the Ingush People, 15,000 rubles ($236). According to the court, Daskiyev knowingly distributed false information indicating that the head of the Republic of Ingushetia was preparing to sign a border agreement with the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia. Daskiyev maintained that the information he published was true. According to free expression watchdogs, authorities were motivated by a desire to suppress this information, following a large protest movement that emerged in Ingushetia in late 2018 after it signed a border agreement ceding land to the Republic of Chechnya.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, on August 19, Roskomnadzor threatened to block access to independent media outlet Meduza unless it deleted an August 8 article debunking myths about drug use, which Roskomnadzor claimed promoted drug use. Meduza restricted access to the article for its users in the country.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of suicide” to prosecute or threaten to block independent media outlets. In August, Roskomnadzor issued three letters threatening to block access to the independent outlet Batenka, da vy Transformer unless it deleted several articles about the problem of suicide in the country. According to Roskomnadzor, the articles, which discussed the prevalence of and motivations behind suicide, promoted suicide. The outlet complied with the demands.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, on June 27, a court in the city of Saransk fined Idris Yusupov 6,000 rubles ($94) for organizing a screening of a film about Anastasiya Shevchenko, an activist under criminal prosecution for purported “cooperation” with the Open Russia movement, which had been declared an “undesirable foreign organization.” The court considered the film screening to be evidence of Yusupov’s own “cooperation” with Open Russia.
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.
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 were 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 funding, either directly 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 December there were 10 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.
On December 2, President Putin signed a law allowing 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 situation would 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 would also have to be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the new law range from 10,000 ($157) and five million rubles ($78,500).
On August 19, the State Duma created a commission to investigate alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. On September 27, the commission determined that German media outlet Deutsche Welle violated the law by reporting on unauthorized protests in Moscow and allegedly calling on individuals to take part in them. The commission urged the government to revoke Deutsche Welle’s license to operate in Russia, although as of December it continued to operate in the country. The commission also accused other foreign media outlets, such as Radio Liberty, BBC, Voice of America, and others, of violations during the “day of silence” that preceded the Moscow City Duma elections on September 8.
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 three killings, 62 attacks, 169 detentions by law enforcement officers, 28 prosecutions, 30 threats, 14 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices. 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 security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. According to press reports, on May 5, Sergey Zaytsev, head of the Shirinskiy region of the Republic of Khakasia, shoved and body-slammed Ivan Litoman, a journalist from the state Rossiya-24 television channel. Litoman was interviewing Zaitsev and had asked him about allegedly poor-quality housing provided to persons left homeless by the 2015 wildfires. On May 27, the local Investigative Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the incident.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, during protests in Moscow on July 27 and August 3, police threatened journalists, obstructed their work, damaged their equipment, and forcefully detained them. According to freedom of assembly monitor OVD-Info, 14 journalists were detained in Moscow on August 3 alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists called these detentions, “a clear attempt to intimidate journalists and censor coverage.”
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes, such as drug possession, in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. In one such incident, on June 7, Moscow police detained investigative journalist Ivan Golunov and charged him with possessing and attempting to sell illegal drugs after purportedly finding amphetamines in his backpack. Following his arrest, officers reportedly beat Golunov and denied him access to his lawyer for 14 hours. Police also purportedly found drugs in Golunov’s apartment, which they searched following his arrest. Police posted nine photos of the alleged narcotics, but then took all but one of the photos down after evidence emerged indicating that the photos were taken in places other than Golunov’s apartment. Golunov and human rights advocates maintained that the drugs were planted on him in an attempt to imprison him in retaliation for his coverage of corruption, particularly in the funeral business. Following significant public outcry, police on July 11 dropped charges, released Golunov, and announced an investigation into the fabrication of charges against him. On December 19, during his annual year-end press conference, President Putin announced that five police officers who arrested Golunov were being investigated on felony charges. According to Meduza, the outlet for which Golunov worked, the investigation began on December 18.
There were reports of journalists being fired for their political views or unfavorable reporting about powerful political figures. For example, according to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on May 20, the leadership of the Moscow business daily Kommersant fired journalists Maxim Ivanov and Ivan Safronov for writing an article predicting that the influential speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, would soon be replaced. Eleven other journalists at the newspaper resigned in protest, and more than 200 others issued a joint statement warning that its readers would as of then be denied unbiased coverage. The newspaper denied that its owner, progovernment oligarch Alisher Usmanov, played a role in the decision, but sources that spoke to RSF and other media outlets indicated that Usmanov had made the decision. Human Rights Watch called the firing “the latest episode in the gutting” of the country’s independent media.
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, on April 18, police raided the St. Petersburg office of the independent news website Rosbalt and seized several computers. According to the newspaper’s lawyer, the search was purportedly in connection with a libel allegation made by Usmanov, although the lawyer maintained that Rosbalt had not published anything about Usmanov. The newspaper’s editor noted that the computers seized were the ones used in a continuing investigation into a crime boss named Young Shakro. Police also searched the home of Rosbalt reporter Aleksandr Shvarev the same day.
There were reports of authorities using “tax inspections” that observers believed were intended to punish or pressure independent outlets. For example, on August 1, the editor of the independent media outlet Dozhd announced that it had received a notice of an unscheduled tax inspection, which she feared may have been in retaliation for the outlet’s extensive coverage of election-related protests in Moscow on July 27.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by unknown persons. On August 9, an unknown assailant in St. Petersburg attacked photojournalist Georgiy Markov, who specialized in photographing opposition protests. The assailant sprayed him with pepper spray and hit him on his head and chest. Law enforcement officials had detained Markov several times while he was photographing opposition protests, beating him at one in May.
There were reports of unidentified individuals or groups of individuals attacking the offices of independent media outlets. For example, on April 1, unknown persons ransacked the office of the newspaper Kommersant in Yekaterinburg, smashed the computers of the chief editor and accountant, took several hard drives, and left a message containing a death threat on the desk of the director of the newspaper. The journalists believed the attack was related to a book published with the participation of the newspaper’s staff about local criminal groups.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. For example, in late February a relative of Anatoliy Popov, the head of the Dobrovskiy region administration in Lipetsk oblast, threatened local journalist Dmitriy Pashinov over his critical reporting about Popov. On May 11, Pashinov was arrested and charged with “insulting a representative of the state” for allegedly cursing at a regional prosecutor in 2017, remarks Pashinov denied making.
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 multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, on September 24, Izvestiya published online but subsequently removed an article by military reporter Ilya Kramnik critical of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Within two days the newspaper removed Kramnik from its editorial staff and informed him that his contract would not be renewed. The country’s charge d’affaires in Great Britain accused the Ministry of Defense press service of pressuring Izvestiya to fire Kramnik.
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on August 7, press reports indicated that police in St. Petersburg had distributed notices to local printing presses, informing them that it is unacceptable to fulfill orders for materials that discredit the government or political figures, that offend a person’s honor and dignity, or that promote unsanctioned demonstrations during the pre-electoral period. The printing presses were instructed to turn over orders for any such materials to police.
On January 28, after allegedly receiving information that the business was about to print “extremist” material, police arrived at the St. Petersburg printing house where activist Mikhail Borisov worked. It later became known that Borisov had been preparing to print posters criticizing acting governor Aleksandr Beglov. Police seized four computers but did not detain Borisov since he had not yet printed the posters. The printing house later fired him from his job.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread. For example, on January 21, the Yaroslavl affiliate of the radio station Ekho Moskvy canceled a planned interview with LGBTI activists after receiving threats, including from local officials.
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 March 23, the press reported that the head of the federal space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, had filed a libel complaint against two websites with the Prosecutor General’s Office, which referred the matter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministry opened a criminal libel investigation into the two websites, RusPress and Kompromat-Ural, which had alleged in late 2018 that Rogozin had used money from the Roscosmos budget to pay for public relations campaigns to burnish his personal reputation and had bribed the heads of media outlets to remove unfavorable coverage of him.
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.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, on June 14, security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik, at his home. 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 Gadzhiev 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. The charges carry up to a 20-year prison term. Human rights defenders emphasized that the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case, and they maintained that the case against him was fabricated. As of December Gadzhiev remained in detention awaiting trial after a court in Makhachkala extended his pretrial detention through January 13, 2020. 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.” On September 20, authorities charged Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva with “public justification of terrorism in the media.” She faced up to seven years in jail for comments she made on a local radio station in November 2018 about a suicide bombing at an FSB building in Arkhangelsk. Although she never voiced approval of the bomber’s actions, she suggested that the government’s restrictions on peaceful expressions of dissent may make individuals more likely to resort to violence. In July before these charges were brought, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) added Prokopyeva to its list of terrorists and extremists because of her comments, resulting in the freezing of her bank accounts and the seizure of her passport. According to press reports, in early October officials at the Pskov Investigative Committee summoned for interrogation several journalists and public figures who had spoken out in support of Prokopyeva and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements about the contents of their conversation.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.). 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.
On May 1, President Putin signed a new law on internet sovereignty, the provisions of which mostly took effect on November 1. The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. Internet advocates asserted the measure would allow for greater surveillance by intelligence agencies and increase the ability of state authorities to control information and block content. Authorities in the Ural Federal District in central Russia began carrying out tests of such equipment in September (with the goal of covering the entire region by the end of the year), but media noted both that the tests resulted in network failures and slower web traffic, and that prohibited services like the Telegram messaging service remained accessible. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. Telecom operators were expected to have until January 1, 2021, to start using the country’s DNS; those who refuse would be disconnected from data exchange points.
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. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing penalties on companies that refuse to localize Russian users’ data from 5,000 rubles ($78) to 6 million rubles ($94,200), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($283,000) 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 April a Moscow court fined Facebook and Twitter 3,000 rubles ($47) each in separate proceedings for failing to inform authorities where they stored the personal data of users.
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. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing fines on companies that refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. Previously the fine was up to 1 million rubles ($15,700), but the new law raised it to 6 million rubles ($94,200). 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 four million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On July 18, Roskomnadzor fined Google 700,000 rubles ($11,000) for not removing links to sites banned by the government from its search results.
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 2019 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.” On April 19, the Constitutional Court rejected a legal challenge to the law brought by the human rights NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
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 June Roskomnadzor announced that it would block nine VPN services that refused its March demand to register with authorities. At least some of these services remained effective within the country as of September.
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 authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. For example, individuals who were detained during the August 3 protests in Moscow and whose cell phones police confiscated told Novaya Gazeta about repeated attempts to hack their email accounts in the days following their release. One protester, whose cell phone was tracking its geolocation, reported that his cell phone had apparently been transported to a location in the Moscow suburbs while he was in detention.
There were reports of the disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, authorities in Ingushetia restricted access to mobile internet on numerous occasions during mass protests in March against a land swap with the Republic of Chechnya. During the July 27 and August 3 protests over the Moscow City Duma elections, authorities switched off mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.
There were reports that the government censored textbooks and curricula. For example, on February 6, the press reported that economics professor Igor Lipsits was informed by his publisher that the economics textbook he had authored had been banned for use in the country’s schools. An expert review by the Russian Education Academy (a government body) had reportedly concluded that examples used in the textbook did not “promote love for the Motherland.” In order to have his book approved for use in schools, the academy suggested that Lipsits add information about the government’s “plans for the next economic breakthrough” and discuss how other government economic policies improve a person’s “sense of pride in the country.”
There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, political views, or all. During the summer the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) combined the departments of political science and public administration, resulting in layoffs for a number of professors who reportedly held views sympathetic to the opposition. The university also decided not to renew contracts for several staff members; political analyst and HSE lecturer Aleksandr Kynev said he believed this was for purely political reasons. Yelena Sirotkina, another HSE professor, stated that she resigned voluntarily but under pressure from the university administration. In May the university shut down a student talk show after students invited opposition activist Lyubov Sobol to appear as a guest. According to Meduza, the university administration had made prior attempts to censor the show’s content.
There were reports that authorities restricted academic travel or contacts. On July 13, the Ministry of Education and Science issued new rules obliging academics working at institutions under the ministry to seek approval for any meetings with foreigners. The rules call for institutions to notify the ministry five days in advance of such meetings, a minimum of two academics to be present during meetings, and participants to file a written report that includes passport scans of their foreign interlocutors. Under the rules noncitizens are not allowed to use any notetaking or recording equipment during meetings without prior authorization from the state.
On February 27, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy sent a letter to the heads of the country’s regions, ordering them to ensure that exhibits at museums under their purview “embody the state’s priorities.”
During the year authorities in the Republic of Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. On July 15, the Chechen Minister of Culture announced that the songs of local singers Ayub and Askhab Vakharagov “violate the norms of Chechen culture.” In August, Chechen security forces detained and reportedly held them without charge for two weeks.
On September 24, a Moscow court returned the case against well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov to the prosecutor over errors in the indictment. The prosecutor appealed this decision, however, and submitted new materials to the court, which the court accepted. Serebrennikov had been on trial since November 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. Serebrennikov was released on bail on April 8. As of December the date for his new trial had not been announced.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. For example, on October 7, authorities in Moscow disrupted the opening of a modern art exhibit on police violence against protesters that took place during election-related demonstrations in July and August in Moscow. Shortly before the opening, regular Moscow police, officers from Moscow’s “antiextremism” police, city authorities, the state consumer protection service, the fire department, and members of a progovernment extreme nationalist organization arrived at the gallery and blocked individuals from entering the exhibit.
There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, in May activists from two progovernment nationalist movements tried to disrupt the annual LGBTI film festival Side-by-Side in Moscow. They blocked the entrance to the venue, shouted homophobic slurs, and threw ammonia on a Canadian diplomat. According to festival organizers, police officers observed all the disruptions but did nothing to intervene. The venue also received multiple bomb threats over the course of the festival, which led police to evacuate the buildings and delay the start of each film screening by several hours.
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” they cancel the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, media reported that authorities visited the music venues at which the rapper Face was to perform in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude in late August, after which the organizers canceled both concerts. The venues cited low ticket sales, although the rapper’s team claimed the tickets had sold quite well. Face had performed during an August 3 opposition protest in Moscow and had also published lyrics critical of the government. Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Center, claimed that the FSB had made a “blacklist” of musicians whose concerts are supposed to be disrupted.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
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 numerous 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.
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.
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. Penalties may be up to 300,000 rubles ($4,710) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,420) for organizers, and one million rubles ($15,700) for groups or entities. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,700) or imprisoned for up to five years.
A December 2018 law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($471 to $785), 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.
Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For example, on July 27 and August 3, security forces detained an estimated 2,500 persons during unsanctioned protests in support of independent candidates to the Moscow City Duma. Although the majority were detained briefly and received no criminal or administrative charges, several hundred protesters received fines, jail sentences, or both.
Following the July 27 unsanctioned protest in Moscow, authorities charged 18 individuals with “inciting and participating in mass riots.” The Investigative Committee then changed the charges in several of the cases to “causing harm to law enforcement officers.” Although the charges of “inciting and participating in mass riots” were dropped against eight of the accused, all of these eight individuals received jail sentences of up to 3.4 years after being found guilty of other charges (including “causing harm to law enforcement officers”). As of December the court had not sentenced the other individuals initially charged.
On September 5, a Moscow court sentenced computer programmer Konstantin Kotov to four years in prison for “repeated violations” of protest regulations. The court found that Kotov had “disregarded basic constitutional principles” by taking part in several unsanctioned demonstrations within a 180-day period. Kotov had been detained at several peaceful protests since March, the last being on August 10 as he was exiting a metro station to attend a protest. Memorial considered Kotov to be a political prisoner.
Authorities charged individuals with protest-related offenses for their social media posts about protests. On August 14, police charged blogger Andrey Trofimov from Sergiyev Posad with organizing an unsanctioned demonstration because he retweeted two protest announcements made by opposition leaders. Trofimov maintained he played no other role in organizing the protests.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 18, police beat protesters demonstrating against the construction of a landfill in Likino-Dulyovo in the Moscow region. Eyewitnesses claimed that at least four persons sustained serious injuries as a result, including a broken arm and fractured ribs.
Participants in demonstrations and even bystanders were at times subjected to threats and physical violence. On July 27, members of the National Guard, who had been deployed to the unsanctioned protest in Moscow, detained graphic designer Konstantin Konovalov, a local resident who had been on a run in his neighborhood before the protest began. In so doing they broke one of his legs. On September 17, a Moscow court fined Konovalov 10,000 rubles ($157) for taking part in an unsanctioned protest, despite the fact that the event was set to begin several hours after his detention.
Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on September 19, Omsk police briefly detained Moscow activist Vera Oleynikova, who had staged a single-person picket calling for freedom for prisoners of conscience in front of the Omsk FSB headquarters. She claimed that police took her to a police station and refused to allow a defense lawyer to see her.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of rights of free assembly. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In November 2018 the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI matters could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.
On August 3, police and the National Guard in St. Petersburg forcefully dispersed approximately 50 single-person picketers advocating for the LGBTI community after city authorities turned down their request to hold a pride parade. Law enforcement authorities detained 12 persons, three of whom were hospitalized due to injuries that human rights activists said were the result of police brutality.
Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 14th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.
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 a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to 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 76 NGOs. NGOs designated “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. On December 16, President Putin signed a law raising the fine for noncompliance from 10,000 rubles ($157) to 50,000 rubles ($785) for individuals and from 500,000 rubles ($7,850) to 1 million rubles ($15,700) for legal entities. “Serious violations” may result in fines of 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for citizens and up to 5 million rubles ($78,500) for legal entities.
Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, human rights activist Lev Ponomarev’s three NGOs received fines totaling more than one million rubles ($15,700) for not marking their materials as originating from a “foreign agent.” On November 1, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of Ponomaryov’s NGO “For Human Rights” due to purported violations of the law, including the law on “foreign agents.”
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, 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 19 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the Free Russia Foundation, the Ukrainian World Congress, People in Need, and the Atlantic Council. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group 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 to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
During the year authorities began for the first time to impose criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On January 21, authorities raided the home of Open Russia activist Anastasiya Shevchenko, arrested her, and charged her with “cooperation” with an “undesirable foreign organization.” (Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017.) She faced up to seven years in prison. On January 23, she was placed under house arrest. Shevchenko was prevented from visiting her 17-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized in critical condition, until hours before she died on January 30. As of December her trial had not begun, and she remained under house arrest. Memorial considered Shevchenko to be a political prisoner. Several other Open Russia activists were also under criminal investigation.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive 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 as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of December, nine members of Jehovah’s Witnesses had received jail sentences of up to six years for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization, and between 200 and 300 individuals were under criminal investigation (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, the NGO Russian Socio-Ecological Union documented seven physical attacks on environmental activists the first five months of the year. On March 10, an unknown assailant stabbed environmentalist Denis Shtroo in Kaluga, who died of his wounds four days later. Shtroo had opposed the construction of a landfill in a nearby village, and his friends and relatives believed that he was attacked due to his activism. As of December his killing remained unsolved.
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, Discrimination, 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 new 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 3.5 million citizens are unable to leave the country because of debts.
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. On June 4, the Supreme Court upheld this policy.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary basis. For example, according to human rights groups, on January 29, Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant citizenship to Blagoveshchensk resident Evgeniy Kim, rendering him stateless since he had given up his Uzbek citizenship earlier. Kim was serving a 3-year, 9-month prison sentence for “extremism” for studying the works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi and was considered by Memorial to be a political prisoner. Upon his release from prison on April 10, Kim was notified that he was present in the country in violation of migration law. As of September he was held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, the country of his birth, although Uzbek authorities refused to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2018. Of the 5,900 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 3,600 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the First Chechen War in 1994-96.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. Media reports indicated that not all individuals displaced by weather-related events received the assistance that the federal government initially promised them. For example, a RIA Novosti report in August concluded that authorities rejected 15 percent of the applications of those who applied for housing assistance after they were displaced by flooding in the Irkutsk region in August, leaving them with no shelter at the onset of winter.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.
UNHCR reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems.
NGOs 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. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, 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.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated within 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, the 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 a reasonable ground to fear persecution. There were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions.
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 between 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. UNHCR reported several cases of refoulement during the year but could not provide data on its extent.
In one example of clandestine detention and repatriation, on February 14, officials arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned to Tajikistan opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoyev, who had been living as a refugee in the Netherlands since 2015. He traveled to Moscow to attend a conference but claimed authorities acting at the behest of the Tajik government detained him and put him on a plane to Dushanbe. According to Human Rights Watch, Tajik security services were present at his detention, and during the flight they put a bag over his head and beat him. After two weeks in Tajikistan, authorities released Gadoyev and allowed him to return to the Netherlands after the intervention of European governments and human rights activists.
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 ($520) 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 refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. Except for Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. 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.
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. The NGO Civic Action Committee reported that approximately a 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 in the form of temporary asylum to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 6,000 persons during the year. A person who did 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.
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.
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, to register candidates for public office, to access media outlets, and to conduct political campaigns.
Recent Elections: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the March 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, “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state-founded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of the 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 criminal conviction that appeared politically motivated.
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 8 elections of 19 governors and several dozen local and regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Journalists and observers reported numerous violations, especially in the run-up to the Moscow City Duma election and the St. Petersburg gubernatorial and legislative elections. These included assaults, arrests, harassment, coordinated police raids on the homes of opposition candidates, and widespread restrictions on the ability of independent candidates to register to appear on the ballot. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, opposition activist and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin collected the 4,500 voter signatures for his district candidacy to the Moscow City Duma, but election officials refused to register his candidacy, citing technical flaws in many of the signatures he had collected, often based on the assessments of government handwriting experts. Although many of the voters whose signatures had been disqualified personally appealed to the election commission to confirm that their signatures were authentic, the commission would not reconsider its decision.
St. Petersburg’s gubernatorial and legislative elections were marred by multiple claims of fraud. The strongest challenger to the incumbent governor, Aleksandr Beglov, dropped out a week before the election, claiming the deck was stacked against him. The election-monitoring NGO Golos documented cases in which local election authorities double-counted votes in order to ensure that progovernment candidates won and other indications of fraud. It took more than a week for some municipalities to announce results, leading observers to speculate that they were falsified after the real results were rejected.
After the elections, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova accused local authorities of trying to cover up electoral violations instead of reporting them through proper channels. On September 25, she specifically accused Vyacheslav Makarov, the speaker of the regional legislative assembly in St. Petersburg, of interfering in the elections and recommended that St. Petersburg Election Commission head Viktor Minenko resign. Nonetheless, neither Minenko nor Makarov faced any consequences, and the election results were certified.
Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promote government-sponsored monitoring. 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, whose monitors registered as journalists for their affiliated publications.
During the September 8 elections, observers also faced threats and physical obstacles, including from groups of athletes affiliated with authorities. Media reported that local administrations hired these athletes (some of whom were local thugs affiliated with government-sponsored sports clubs) to threaten opposition candidates, intimidate observers, and interfere with the vote count, especially in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg municipal election commission member Mikhail Losev reported that when he attempted to submit a complaint about voting violations on election day, five athletic-looking men approached and threatened him, telling him he need to make the “correct” choice, intimating that he risked being attacked.
Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was curtailed 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 candidates and political parties. 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 Electoral Commission for certification. Nominees from parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent 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, by political parties in single-mandate districts, by political parties on their federal list, or 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. 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. For example, three candidates in the St. Petersburg gubernatorial election admitted that they passed through the municipal filter without having gone to municipal council districts to collect deputies’ signatures. At the same time, Yabloko party candidate Boris Vishnevskiy failed to pass the filer because he faced opposition in municipalities controlled by the ruling party, United Russia.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration. On May 27, authorities denied opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s application to register a political party for the ninth time in six years, a decision that observers believed was politically motivated.
Opposition politicians often faced violence and threats. Media outlets described a spate of threats and attacks on independent candidates who tried to register for the St. Petersburg municipal elections. For example, on July 26, an unidentified assailant attacked Navalny associate Aleksandr Shurshev when he tried to submit candidate registration documents to the local election commission. He claimed that a guard who stood nearby did nothing to stop the attack.
Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters (see sections 1.d., 2.a., and 2.b.). On July 24, a district court in Moscow sentenced Navalny to 30 days in jail for encouraging Muscovites to participate in an unsanctioned protest. Several municipal deputy candidates linked to Navalny faced threats and obstacles from unidentified persons and claimed that government officials did not intervene.
Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, according to media reports, a group of 30 masked men (some of whom were on horseback) attacked a bus carrying journalists and observers from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in the Republic of Tuva on the eve of the September 8 elections. The assailants threatened the driver and the passengers, punctured the bus’s tires, and demanded that the group abandon the trip. One LDPR candidate named the head of the Tuva Equestrian Federation as a participant in the attack.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women held approximately 17 percent of legislative seats during the year. 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 generally operated in the country, investigating and publishing 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 election monitoring, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted. Some officials, including the ombudsman for human rights, regional ombudsman representatives, and Mikhail Fedotov, who was the chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council until late October, 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 towards the activities of human rights organizations and suggested that their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. For example, on May 15, the head of the Federal Prison Service, Gennadiy Kornienko, called human rights defenders who brought cases to the ECHR that involved abuses taking place in prisons “odious persons.”
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 their activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains. 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.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in the Republic of Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country.
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 126-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 selects some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. On October 21, President Putin overhauled the HRC, replacing its head, Mikhail Fedotov, with Valeriy Fadeyev, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party. Officially, Fedotov was dismissed because he had turned 70, the age limit for service in the government. President Putin could have issued a waiver that would have allowed him to stay on, leading human rights activists to speculate that authorities wanted an HRC head who would be more loyal to the president and less critical of restrictions on political freedoms. Some members of the HRC who were well-respected human rights defenders were also dismissed at the same time as Fedotov, compounding observers’ concerns.
Human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudsmen in all its 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
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, and the law provides the same punishment for a relative, including the spouse, who commits rape as for a nonrelative. The penalty for 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 and sometimes charged a victim with assault if he or she harmed the alleged perpetrator in self-defense.
For example, as of December the trial of 19-year-old Darya Ageniy for criminal assault in Krasnodar region continued. In July 2018 authorities charged her for stabbing an assailant who tried to assault her sexually while she was vacationing in Tuapse the month prior. She claimed the man pressed her against a wall and attacked her; she took out a small knife and stabbed him until he let go of her, after which she fled to her hotel. Two months later police arrested her at her home in the Moscow region and took her back to Tuapse, where her attacker had filed a complaint against her for causing him “grievous bodily harm.” Although she initially faced up to 10 years in prison, her lawyer worked with investigators to reclassify her case so that she would only face one year.
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 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 partner, or lack of confidence in law enforcement personnel. 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.
There were reports that women defending themselves from domestic violence were charged with crimes. According to a Mediazona study, 80 percent of women sentenced for murder between 2016 and 2018 killed a domestic abuser in self-defense. In one case in July 2018, three teenaged sisters allegedly killed their father, Mikhail Khachaturyan, in their Moscow home. On October 1, authorities confirmed that the father had physically and sexually abused the girls for many years without any repercussions. As of December the girls remained under house arrest as they awaited their trial for murder, which prosecutors argued was premeditated. The case ignited widespread support for the sisters across the country during the year, with many persons calling for their release.
According to a Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence published in October 2018, 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 required the victim to gather all necessary evidence and bear all costs after the injured party or their guardian took the initiative to file a complaint with a magistrate judge. The NGO believed that this process severely disadvantaged survivors.
On July 9, the ECHR issued its first ruling on a domestic violence case in the country, ordering the state to pay 20,000 euros ($22,000) to Valeriya Volodina, who had filed a complaint in 2017. Volodina stated that her former boyfriend severely beat her several times, threatened to kill her, and abducted her. Volodina also claimed that police ignored numerous calls she made for authorities to investigate. In 2018 authorities agreed to charge the man with violating her privacy after he published intimate photographs of her, but the investigations never led to a trial, and Volodina changed her name and fled the country.
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. 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.
A 2017 law made 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. According to official statistics released in 2018, since the law was passed, the number of reported domestic violence cases has fallen by half. NGOs working on domestic violence noted that official reporting of domestic violence decreased because the decriminalization deterred women suffering domestic violence from going to police. In contrast, an antidomestic violence hotline center noted an increase in domestic violence complaints after the 2017 amendments, which the center considered to be a direct effect of decriminalization. According to Gazeta.ru, the number of cases of women beaten by relatives or partners increased by 40 percent in 2018. Human Rights Watch identified three major impacts of the 2017 decriminalization: fostering a sense of impunity among abusers, weakening protections for victims by reducing penalties for abusers, and creating new procedural shortcomings in prosecuting domestic violence.
On November 19, in response to the ECHR’s questions on whether Russian officials acknowledged the seriousness and scale of domestic violence and discrimination against women in Russia, the Justice Ministry responded that claims about the scale of domestic violence in the country were “quite exaggerated” and these women’s claims were undermining “the efforts that the government was making to improve the situation.” The ministry added that men were more likely to suffer discrimination in the context of domestic violence because they did not ask for protection from abuse by women.
At the time of Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report, there were 434 shelter spaces nationally for women in crisis situations. NGOs noted, however, that access to shelters 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.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not specifically prohibit FGM/C. NGOs in Dagestan reported FGM/C was occasionally practiced in some villages, estimating that 1,240 Dagestani girls are subjected to it every year. In November 2018 Meduza reported that a private clinic in the Best Clinics network was offering FGM/C procedures to girls between ages five and 12, which the Federal Service for Health Supervision (Roszdravnadzor) later confirmed. The Best Clinics case was referred to the Investigative Committee in February.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Human rights groups reported that “honor killings” of women persisted in Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere in the North Caucasus but were rarely reported or acknowledged. Local police, doctors, and lawyers often collaborated with the families involved to cover up the crimes. A December 2018 study by human rights defenders, the first ever conducted, found 39 cases of honor killings (36 women, three men) between 2008 and 2017 in the North Caucasus region but estimated that the real number could be much higher.
In some parts of the North Caucasus, women continued to face bride kidnapping, polygamy, forced marriage (including child marriage), legal discrimination, and forced adherence to Islamic dress codes.
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.
On September 27, the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Moscow opened an investigation into a Moscow police station after two female employees complained of sexual harassment by one of its directors. Both stated that he pressured them into intimate relationships and threatened them with career repercussions when they did not comply. One victim told journalists that when she reported the incidents to the station’s management, they told her to keep quiet and ignore them.
Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. Multiple media outlets during the year, including the Dozhd television channel on October 4 and the Izvestiya newspaper on November 7, published articles containing allegations that female residents of long-term psychiatric care facilities have been involuntarily sterilized or subjected to forced abortions. Data about the extent of the practice were not available. On April 30, a psychologist who worked with persons with disabilities in state care facilities published an account of at least two young women who were recently forced to have abortions at psychoneurological dispensary #30 in the Moscow region.
Discrimination: The constitution and law provide that men and women enjoy the same legal status and rights, but women often encountered significant restrictions, including prohibitions on their employment in 456 jobs. Although the government promised to open most of these jobs to women by 2021, the approximately 100 jobs that the Ministry of Labor has ruled especially physically taxing, including firefighting, mining, and steam boiler repair, would remain off limits.
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 cannot 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 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 by the National Institute for Child Protection, one in four parents admitted to having beaten their children at least once with a belt. For example, on July 6, seven-year-old “Aisha” (not her real name) was taken to a hospital near her home in Ingushetia. She had countless bruises, bites, and burns all over her body; it turned out that her aunt, who had been her guardian for six months, had been abusing her. Aisha had to have extensive surgery to save her severely damaged arm. Her aunt was detained under the suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm to a minor.
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 for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. Authorities generally enforced the law. For example, on September 25, authorities arrested an Orthodox priest, Nikolay Stremskiy, who had adopted 70 children and charged him with sexual assault and debauchery. He was alleged to have sexually abused seven of the minors in his care. As of December Stremskiy remained in pretrial detention.
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 age 18 are 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.
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. For example, on October 1, media reported on the death of a 15-year-old girl from a home for children with mental disabilities in Sakhalin. A nurse admitted leaving her alone in a bathtub after turning on the hot water; the girl was scalded and later died at the hospital. Authorities opened an investigation into the nurse’s actions, and Sakhalin governor Valery Limarenko ordered an internal review of the institution.
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.
The 2010 census estimated the Jewish population at slightly more than 150,000. The president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, however, has stated that the actual Jewish population is nearly one million.
While anti-Semitism is not widespread, media reported several cases during the year. For example, on Passover eve on April 18, unidentified perpetrators drew a swastika on and set fire to the country’s largest yeshiva, located in the Moscow region. No one was injured, but a storehouse burned down.
In late August a group of Krasnodar residents entered a synagogue and interrogated a rabbi for an hour, accusing him of spreading alien religious practices. The group’s leader later announced that she would commence “partisan actions” against a Jewish community center.
Although leading experts in the Jewish community noted that anti-Semitism had decreased in recent years, some political and religious figures made anti-Semitic remarks publicly. On a visit to Jordan in August, Chechen Republic head Kadyrov allegedly told a group of ethnic Chechens that Jews were “the main enemy of Islam.” The month prior he allegedly told a group of Chechen police that Israel was a “terrorist organization.”
On April 24, the acting mayor of Lipetsk, Yevgeniy Uvarkin, answered a question at a public hearing from a local resident seeking to halt local stadium construction by wondering aloud whether the resident had a “Jewish last name.” He apologized for the remark the next day.
On May 6, presidential advisor Sergey Glazyev wrote an op-ed article in which he speculated that Ukrainian president Zelensky, along with the president of the United States and “far-right forces in Israel,” would seek to replace “Russians” in eastern Ukraine with “the inhabitants of the Promised Land tired of the permanent war in the Middle East.” On May 7, Glazyev asserted that his words were being misinterpreted.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
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 mental disabilities deprived them of almost all personal rights. Activists reported that courts declared tens of thousands of individuals “legally incompetent” due to mental 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 mental disabilities were at times prevented from marrying without a guardian’s consent.
In many cases persons with mental or physical disabilities were confined to institutions, where they were often subjected to abuse and neglect. A June report by Nyuta Federmesser, the head of the Moscow Multidisciplinary Center for Palliative Care, compared these facilities to “gulags,” where many residents spend significant time in restraints and are denied medical care, nutrition, or stimulating environments.
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.
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. For example, according to a local organization of persons with disabilities, a kindergarten in the Leningrad region refused to admit Nikita Malyshev, a child with a disability, instead directing him to a specialized school more than 30 miles from his home. His mother filed a claim against the school, and on February 12, the Supreme Court ruled that the local administration must propose a reasonable alternative that is physically close and takes the family’s needs into account if the neighborhood school cannot accommodate the child. Activists praised the ruling but questioned how municipalities intended to implement it.
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 mental 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 problems 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.
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. On July 23, human rights activist Aleksandr Kim, a Russian citizen of Korean descent, filmed police as they stopped migrants in an underpass to check documents. One officer asked for Kim’s documents, admitting on camera that it was because he looked Asian. Kim was ultimately fined 1,000 rubles ($16) for disobeying police orders.
Hate crimes targeting ethnic minorities continued to be a problem, although the NGO SOVA Center reported that the number of such crimes declined thanks to authorities’ effectively targeting groups that promoted racist violence. As of December 2, six individuals had died and at least 33 had been injured in racially motivated attacks since the beginning of the year. One victim was an Uzbek migrant stabbed in St. Petersburg on September 16. Law enforcement bodies detained two young men from Moscow with ties to nationalist movements as the main suspects in what they have classified as a hate crime.
According to a 2017 report by the human rights group Antidiscrimination Center (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); and other forms of structural discrimination.
On June 17, a local official from the village of Chemodanovka in the Penza region admitted that authorities forcibly relocated approximately 900 Roma to the Volgograd region after a mass brawl erupted along ethnic lines on June 13, leaving one person dead and another in a coma. He subsequently retracted the comment and stated that the Roma had left the village voluntarily. On June 15, local residents burned the homes of Roma in the neighboring village of Lopatki.
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.”
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 there was a constant conflict of interest between corporations and indigenous persons.
On November 7, a Moscow court ordered the closure of the Center for Support of Indigenous People of the North, a nearly 20-year-old indigenous advocacy group that was at the forefront of representing indigenous legal, economic, and environmental rights. The court cited incomplete paperwork as the reason for its closure, but activists called it an excuse to silence the indigenous voice that was critical of corporations and authorities.
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 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 or employment or in access to government services, such as health care.
During the year there were reports of state actors’ committing violence against LGBTI individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in the Republic of Chechnya (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).
There were reports government agents attacked, harassed, and threatened LGBTI activists. For example, on June 17, an LGBTI activist from Novocherkassk told media outlets that an officer from the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center for Combating Extremism had surveilled and harassed him in early June and then attacked him on June 14. Doctors diagnosed him with a closed head injury and concussion. When he went to file a police report, the officers allegedly laughed and joked about his situation.
Openly gay men were particular targets of societal violence, and police often failed to respond adequately to such incidents. For example, according to the Russian LGBT Network, in July police refused to reopen a criminal case into the 2017 beating of Volgograd teenager, Vlad Pogorelov, because they did not see “hatred and enmity” as the assailants’ motive. Instead, they fined each of the attackers 5,000 rubles ($78). In June 2018 Pogorelov had filed a complaint with the local prosecutor’s office against the local police decision to close a criminal investigation into the 2017 attack. Pogorelov, then 17 years old, was lured into a meeting by homophobic persons posing as gay youth on a dating website. They beat and robbed Pogorelov, who filed a police report. Police opened a criminal investigation into the attack but closed it within a month, citing the “low significance” of the attack and informing Pogorelov that police were unable to protect LGBTI persons. According to the Russian LGBT Network, the case was emblematic of authorities’ unwillingness to investigate adequately or consider homophobia as a motive in attacks on LGBTI persons.
There were reports that authorities failed to respond when credible threats of violence were made against LGBTI persons. For example, authorities failed to investigate the appearance of a website in spring 2018 called the Homophobic Game “Saw,” which called for acts of violence against specific LGBTI persons and human rights defenders. While the site was blocked several times by Roskomnadzor, it would periodically reappear under a new domain name. After the July 23 killing of LGBTI activist Yelena Grigoryeva, whose name appeared on the “Saw” list, the site was blocked again. Although police arrested a suspect on August 1 who apparently confessed to the crime, authorities gave no indication of his motive, and human rights defenders believed that investigators were pursuing the theory that the killing was unrelated to Grigoryeva’s activism for the rights of LGBTI persons. On August 4, the Ministry of Internal Affairs informed individuals who had filed a complaint about the “Saw” site that, since the site was blocked and inaccessible, they were unable to investigate its contents. On August 14, the FSB informed the individuals who filed the complaint about the site that they had examined it and found no evidence of a crime.
In April 2018 the Russian LGBT Network released a report that documented 104 incidents of physical violence, including 11 killings, towards LGBTI persons in 2016-17. The report noted the continuing trend of groups and individuals luring gay men on fake dates to beat, humiliate, and rob them. The report noted that police often claimed to have found no evidence of a crime or refused to recognize attacks on LGBTI persons as hate crimes, which impeded investigations and perpetrators’ being fully held to account. During investigations of attacks, LGBTI persons risked being outed by police to their families and colleagues. LGBTI persons often declined to report attacks against them due to fears police would mistreat them or publicize their sexual orientation or gender identity.
There were reports that police conducted involuntary physical exams of transgender or intersex persons. For example, according to press reports, on May 1, police in Makhachkala, Dagestan, arrested Olga Moskvitina, who is intersex, at a protest. When police discovered that she was marked as male in her passport, she was forced to strip to the waist so that officers could examine her and was questioned about her genitals. She was reportedly humiliated and threatened by the officers. On May 1, her personal identifying information was published on social networks along with threats against her, which Moskvitina believed was done by or with the support of local police. On May 5, Moskvitina’s landlord was reportedly visited by plainclothes officers, who pressured him to evict her from her apartment, which he did.
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, as well as those suspected of being LGBTI persons, also reported discrimination at schools and universities. Roman Krasnov, a vice rector at the Ural State University of Economics in Yekaterinburg, admitted that the institution monitored the social media accounts of its students in order to ensure that they showed proper “moral character,” which students claimed was monitoring targeted at LGBTI individuals. A student who wished to remain anonymous told media outlets in September that Krasnov threatened him with expulsion after his social media accounts showed that he might identify as LGBTI because he was sympathetic to LGBTI matters.
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 that LGBTI persons faced discrimination in the area of parental rights. The law does not allow for same-sex couples to adopt children together, only as individuals. The Russian LGBT Network reported that 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. For example, Andrey Vaganov and Yevgeniy Yerofeyev fled the country in August after the Investigative Committee announced that it had opened a criminal negligence case against the officials who had allowed the adoption of their two sons. Although the couple had married in Denmark in 2016, only Vaganov had a legal relationship to the children. A statement on the Investigative Committee’s website accused the men of “promoting nontraditional relationships, giving the children distorted perceptions about family values and harming their health and their moral and spiritual development.” The state learned that the children were living with two fathers after a doctor treating one of the children reported it to police. The couple told media outlets they had no choice but to leave the country in view of the probability that their children would be removed from their home.
Persons with HIV/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. 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.
Prisoners with HIV/AIDS experienced regular abuse and denial of medical treatment and had fewer opportunities for visits with their children.
Children with HIV faced discrimination in education. For example, on April 10, a woman in the small village of Iskitim, in the Novosibirsk region, reported that local authorities refused to register her adopted six-year-old son for school because the child was HIV-positive. Staff at a local clinic had reportedly violated doctor-patient confidentiality rules and were warning other village residents about her child’s diagnosis. The family received threats demanding that they leave the village. On April 18, the local Investigative Committee opened an investigation into the violation of the child’s privacy.
Until June 2018 when the Constitutional Court deemed the practice unconstitutional, HIV-positive parents were prohibited from adopting a child. On May 3, President Putin signed a law that allowed persons with HIV to adopt children already living with them. Several lawsuits preceded this legislation, most notably one filed by an HIV-positive woman in Balashikha. Because she was unable to have children, her sister decided to carry her husband’s child through artificial insemination, giving birth in 2015. The woman planned to adopt the child, but her HIV-positive status precluded her from doing so. She filed a lawsuit and won in February, after which she was allowed to adopt the child.
The Ministry of Justice continued to designate HIV-related NGOs as foreign agents, effectively reducing the number of organizations that may serve the community (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
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 Moscow authorities relocated a number of homeless shelters from central areas to the city’s outskirts prior to the World Cup in 2018 and have not returned them to the original locations, although they were where the majority of homeless citizens resided.
A homophobic campaign continued in state-controlled media in which officials, journalists, and others called LGBTI persons “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 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 also prohibits some nonessential public servants from striking and imposes compulsory arbitration for railroad, postal, and municipal workers as well as other 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 the workers. It was also very difficult for those without a labor contract to go on a legal strike. For example, in October 2018, 99 gold miners in Kamchatka walked off their jobs at Zoloto Kamchatki to protest their poor working conditions and low pay. According to media reports, the governor urged the miners not to speak to journalists, while other miners reported threats from police. After a few weeks, the company agreed to raise salaries but fired 54 of the 99 strikers. The company also initiated a lawsuit to declare the strike illegal. The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia noted that they were unable to do anything since the miners were not unionized.
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 the parties that triggered the strike; the date and time at which the strike was 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 were not sufficient to deter violations.
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 March and April, the medical workers’ union in Anzhero-Sudzhensk led a series of strikes, including a hunger strike by nurses, to protest layoffs and staff transfers. Authorities publicly criticized the striking personnel, with Kemerovo governor Sergey Tsiliyev accusing them of “discrediting the honor of the region.” After the first picket on March 11, police ordered the interrogation of all participants. On April 11, the city’s mayor demanded that nurses give up their union membership.
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 generally effective in enforcing laws against forced labor, but gaps remained in protecting migrant laborers, particularly from North Korea who generally earned 40 percent less than the average salary. Migrant forced labor occurred in the construction and service industries, logging industry (timber), textile shops, brick making, and the agricultural sector (see section 7.c.). Migrant workers at times experienced exploitative labor conditions characteristic of trafficking cases, such as withholding of identity documents, nonpayment for services rendered, physical abuse, 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 international sanctions prohibiting the employment of North Koreans, the country reduced the number of North Korean laborers who work in the country legally. According to the Foreign Ministry, as of September approximately 4,000 North Koreans were employed in the country legally, a significant drop from 40,000 in 2017. Although the government announced that it intended to return all North Korean workers to their country by December 22, a significant number of North Korean nationals continued to travel to and reside in Russia under student and tourist visas, 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 and sawmills, primarily in Dagestan. Both men and women were exploited for forced labor in these industries in the Northern Caucasus region; however, victims were primarily male job seekers recruited in Moscow. Media outlet Coda also reported on forced labor in illegal sheep farms in the Stavropol region.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/ and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the employment of children younger than age 16 in most cases and regulates the working conditions of children younger than 18. The law permits children to work at age 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 age 18, including work in unhealthy or dangerous conditions, underground work, or jobs that might endanger a child’s health and moral development.
Child labor was uncommon, but it could occur in the informal service, construction, and retail sectors. Some children, both Russian and foreign, were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation and forced participation in the production of pornography (see section 6, Children).
Also, see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law 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.
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 to take a legal action. In an uncommon case, on September 9, an entrepreneur who refused to hire a 49-year-old woman in Volgograd because of her age was fined up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570). The court ruled that the entrepreneur represented a legal entity, instead of an individual, which stipulated the relatively large fine.
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 hundreds of tasks prohibited for women and includes restrictions on women’s employment in mining, manufacturing, and construction. Women were banned from 456 jobs during the year. According to the Ministry of Labor, women on average earned 28.3 percent less than men in 2017.
The law requires applicants to undergo mandatory medical screenings when entering into a labor agreement 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. Persons with disabilities were 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. Union organizers faced employment discrimination, limits on workplace access, and pressure to give up their union membership.
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, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity). On April 9, a St. Petersburg court ruled that a printing house illegally fired Anna Grigoryeva, a transgender woman who had worked there for years as a man. This was the first time that a court ruled in favor of a person fired for their transgender identity.
Persons with HIV/AIDS were prohibited from working in some areas of medical research and medicine. For example, the Ministry of Transport prohibited HIV-positive persons from working as aviation dispatchers until the Supreme Court lifted the ban on September 10.
In September 2018 as part of broader pension reform, amendments to criminal law were adopted to establish criminal liability for employers who dismiss workers due to approaching pension age.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly minimum wage increased to the official “subsistence” 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 Rosstat, as of September 1, wage arrears amounted to approximately 2.6 billion rubles ($40.8 million). As of September 17, the State Unitary Enterprise Chuvashavtotrans had a debt of 39.8 million rubles ($625,000) for 707 employees, one of the largest wage arrears for a single organization.
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 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 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. 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 that state labor inspectors needed additional professional training and additional inspectors to enforce consistent compliance.
At the end of 2018, an estimated 14 million persons were informally employed. 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-quality 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 2018 approximately 25,400 workers were injured in industrial accidents, including 1,140 deaths.