Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” The government limited freedom of speech and the press through prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted citizen and professional journalists.
Freedom of Speech: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech is curtailed in both traditional media and social media. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.” Defense attorney Abdulla al-Shamlawi, who defended prominent opposition figures, including members of the now banned opposition group al-Wifaq, was prosecuted for “defamation.” On September 14, an appeals court gave al-Shamlawi a six-month suspended sentence for “inciting sectarianism.” The appeals court decision overturned the June 30 verdict of the High Criminal Court, which sentenced al-Shamlawi to eight months in prison for “humiliating an Islamic sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device.”
On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri for a sermon “disdaining a figure that is revered by a religious group,” according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
On August 30, the Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested a Bahraini doctor for defaming religious figures during a sermon, stating the sermon promoted violence and sectarian sedition. Activists and rights groups claimed the sermon was misinterpreted. The Public Prosecutor’s Office released the individual on September 1 on bail, placed a travel ban on him, and referred his case to the court.
International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including religious clerics, in the days leading up to and following the Ashura religious rites–the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated these individuals for the content of their sermons, and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight; others were detained and released the same day; others remained in custody for several days or weeks.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.
The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and English from stations based outside the country, including by satellite. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments also reviewed those books that discussed religion.
Several journalists submitted suggested reforms for the draft National Action Plan for Human Rights (see section 5).
Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists. The government brought criminal complaints against journalists who worked without accreditation. In August 2019 the family of former member of parliament Osama al-Tamimi, who had been critical of the ruling family on social media, reported he was harassed by security forces and was reportedly under a travel ban.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.
The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”
Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment of no more than two years or a fine. Application of the slander law was selective. The Ministry of Interior reported the government fined or imprisoned 93 individuals for “slander,” “libel,” or “divulging secrets” through April, compared with 172 cases in 2019. In addition, two persons were convicted of “insulting a government institution,” and 582 were convicted of “misusing a telecommunications device.”
National Security: National security-related law provides for substantial fines and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization before obtaining ministry approval, publishing any reports that may adversely affect the dinar’s value, reporting any offense against a head of a state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning an accredited representative of a foreign country due to acts connected with the person’s position.
The government blocked access to some websites from inside the country, including some opposition-linked websites. The government continued blocking Qatar-funded web-based outlets, which it began after cutting relations with Qatar in 2017, and other pan-Arab media outlets that were critical of Bahrain. Access to overseas human rights groups reporting on human rights and political prisoners in Bahrain and opposition-leaning news sites that were critical of the ruling family and the government were blocked within the country. The government restricted internet freedom and monitored individuals’ online activities, including via social media, leading to degradation of internet and mobile phone services for some neighborhoods and to legal action against some internet users.
In May 2019 the Ministry of Interior Cybersecurity Department announced it would use applicable laws to charge social media users who followed accounts that promote hatred and shared their posts. On August 26, the Cybersecurity Department warned against sharing content from Lebanon-based and Iran-based social media accounts that were linked with dissolved political societies al-Wifaq and al-Wafa.
Several reports alleged the government monitored political and human rights activists’ social media accounts and electronic communications.
Defense attorney Abdulla Hashim was charged with misusing social media and publishing “fake news” for eight tweets between 2017 and 2019 highlighting government corruption. At year’s end his case was awaiting an appeal verdict, and he was facing two years in prison for tweets critical of corruption, impunity, and establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
Political and human rights activists reported being interrogated by security forces regarding their postings on social media. They sometimes reported repeated interrogations that included threats against their physical safety and that of their families, threats against their livelihood, and threats of denial of social services such as housing and education. Several activists reported shutting down or deciding to cease posting to their social media accounts because of the threats.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Some academics engaged in self-censorship, avoiding discussion of contentious political issues. In January the Ministry of Interior summoned historian Jassim Hussain al-Abbas for a speech he gave at a conference in which he discussed the history of mosques in the country and alluded to Shia rulers before the first al-Khalifa emir.
The constitution provides for the rights of assembly and association, but laws and the government restricted these rights.
The constitution provides for the right of free assembly, but a number of laws restrict the exercise of this right. The Ministry of Interior maintained a prohibition on public demonstrations for the fifth year, stating the purpose was to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region. According to the government, there were no applications submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.
The law outlines the locations where functions are prohibited, including in areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. The General Directorate of the Police may prevent a public meeting if it violates security or public order, or for any other serious reason. The law states that mourners may not turn funeral processions into political rallies and that security officials may be present at any public gathering.
According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify why it approves or denies requests to allow protests. The penal code penalizes any gathering “of five or more individuals” that is held for the “purpose of committing crimes or inciting others to commit crimes.” Legal experts asserted authorities should not be able to prevent demonstrations in advance based on assumptions that crimes would be committed. Authorities prohibited the use of vehicles in any demonstration, protest, or gathering unless organizers obtained special written permission from the head of public security.
The law states every public gathering shall have a committee consisting of a head and at least two members. The committee is responsible for supervising and preventing any illegal acts during the function. Organizers of an unauthorized gathering face prison sentences of three to six months. The sentence for participating in an illegal gathering ranges from one month to two years in prison. Authorities gave longer sentences for cases where demonstrators used violence in an illegal gathering. During the year the Public Prosecutor’s Office stated there were 374 individuals arrested for violent gatherings, 346 of whom were convicted.
The law regulates election campaigning and prohibits political activities at worship centers, universities, schools, government buildings, and public institutions. The government did not allow individuals to use mosques, maatams (Shia religious halls), or other religious sites for political gatherings.
The government did not prevent small, nonviolent opposition demonstrations that occurred in traditional Shia villages that often protested government policies or were intended to show solidarity with prisoners. Police reportedly broke up some of these protests with tear gas, however. While groups participating in these protests often posted photographs on social media of these events, participants were careful to hide their faces due to fear of retribution.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all groups to register–civil society groups and labor unions with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and political societies with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. The government decides whether a group is social or political in nature, based on its proposed bylaws. The law prohibits any activity by an unlicensed society, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. A number of unlicensed societies were active in the country (see section 3).
A civil society group applying for registration must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, together with minutes of the founding committee’s meetings containing the names, professions, places of residence, and signatures of all founding members. The law grants the Ministry of Labor and Social Development the right to reject the registration of any civil society group if it finds the society’s services unnecessary, already provided by another society, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved society. Associations whose applications authorities rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court, which may annul the ministry’s decision or refuse the appeal.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society activists asserted the ministry routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. Local NGOs asserted officials actively sought to undermine some groups’ activities and imposed burdensome bureaucratic procedures on NGO board members and volunteers. The Ministries of Justice and Interior must vet funding from international sources, and authorities sometimes did not authorize it.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.
Foreign Travel: The law provides that the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities banned them from travel out of the country due to unpaid debt obligations or other fiduciary responsibilities with private individuals or with lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website during the year that allowed individuals to check their status before they traveled, although some persons reported the website was not a reliable source of information. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. During the year the government lifted 37 of 87 travel bans against citizens who were previously restricted from leaving the country.
Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.
Citizenship: The government may revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if the head of household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number at more than 700 since 2012. On August 12, the Court of Cassation reversed the revocation of citizenship of three defendants who were sentenced to life in prison for setting the Sitra Police Station alight in 2017. The Public Prosecutor’s Office asserted the three defendants were connected to a dissolved political society.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In October the government and the UN high commissioner for refugees signed a memorandum of understanding on data sharing and information exchange with the stated goal of supporting refugees in the Middle East.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees 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; however, protection was mostly limited to those who had been able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of deportation if they became unemployed or if their country of origin revoked their passports. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as of December, there were 256 refugees and 56 asylum-seekers registered with the agency.
Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may confer or revoke it. Since the government considers only the father’s citizenship when determining citizenship, it does not generally grant children born to a non-Bahraini father citizenship, even if they were born in the country to a citizen mother (see section 6, Children). Likewise, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to Bahraini women, unlike the process by which foreign women married to Bahraini men may become citizens. Human rights organizations reported these laws resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father was unable or unwilling to pursue citizenship from his country of origin for his children, or when the father himself was stateless, deceased, or unknown. It was unknown how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment. There were reports authorities refused applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose Bahraini fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person (see section 6, Children).
The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Many journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years to life imprisonment.
The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad latitude to interpret it. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government widely used the DSA against persons questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. On April 16, the Department of Nursing and Midwifery banned nurses from speaking to the press after the media reported the health sector’s lack of preparation in managing COVID-19. On April 23, Health Minister Zahid Maleque banned all health officials from speaking with the media.
On October 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release said legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.
During the week of May 3, press outlets reported at least 19 journalists, activists, and other citizens were charged under the DSA with defamation, spreading rumors, and carrying out antigovernment activities. Media accounts of a police case report involving 11 accused individuals detailed Rapid Action Battalion search of mobile phones of two accused and found “antigovernment” chats with other accused individuals. According to the police, these “antigovernment” chats sufficed as evidence to charge and detain the individuals under the DSA.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government were pressured by the government.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge to the viewer. Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record.
On April 10, during the government instituted lockdown to control COVID-19 transmission, a police constable from Hazaribagh police station beat Nasir Uddin Rocky, a journalist with Daily Jugantar, and his brother Saifuddin Quraish, a health worker, even though both men had cards around their necks identifying themselves as essential workers. Officials relieved the constable of his duties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported the police had initiated an investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. In September a group of media experts, NGOs, and journalists said the downward trend of the rule of law and freedom for the media went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.
Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists received threats after publishing their stories.
According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. As of July, 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the Digital Security Act with more than 80 individuals arrested. Law referring to defamation of individuals and organizations was used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.
During June and July, the RSF reported a number of societal attacks against journalists, many in connection with anger over published reports with allegations of corruption and nepotism in the government’s COVID assistance response. According to the RSF, 10 men beat journalist Shariful Alam Chowdhury with steel bars, machetes, and hammers. During the beating, Chowdhury’s arms and legs were broken. Chowdhury’s family told the RSF they believed local village council authorities called for this attack.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government banned virtual private networks and voice over internet protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.
In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.
During the year the government restricted 3G and 4G mobile internet service in Rohingya refugee camps for “security reasons,” according to government officials, and ordered mobile service providers to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged regulating telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs.
Al-Jazeera remained blocked in the country; the government blocked it in March 2019, hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. In August, Amar Desh, a popular news outlet with views favoring the opposition party, started publishing online news through a United Kingdom “.uk” domain. The government had shut down Amar Desh in 2016. Less than 24 hours after Amar Desh began operating, the government blocked the website.
In early April the BRTC blocked Radio Free Asia affiliate BenarNews after the outlet covered a leaked UN memo warning two million Bangladeshis could die from COVID-19 absent appropriate government measures. While access was partially restored in May, observers note the BenarNews website was occasionally blocked up to year’s end.
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.
In June, Begum Rokeya University authorities filed a complaint under the Digital Security Act against Professor Sirajum Munira for a Facebook post the university authorities claimed mocked the late Mohammad Nasim, a former senior government official in the health ministry. Although Munira apologized and deleted the post, police used a screenshot of the deleted post as evidence to arrest her. Several days later a private attorney filed a police complaint under the Digital Security Act against Rajshahi University professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman for making “defamatory comments” regarding Nasim in two Facebook posts. Rahman was later arrested in connection with this complaint. Media reported both Begum Rokeya University and Rajshahi University suspended these professors following their arrests.
The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.
According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.
The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).
The law places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners and also restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees. While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces. See section 6, indigenous persons.
The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission recently estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.
The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.
Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 860,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country.
A National Task Force under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the army and border guards. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission provided coordination. While telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar were restored in August, the one-year restriction limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse, and sharing critical information related to the coronavirus.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.
International organizations reported gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.
Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.
In May the Bangladesh navy rescued Rohingya boat refugees stranded in the open waters and later brought 306 of these refugees to Bhasan Char, a Bangladeshi, remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had no means to travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members. Bhasan Char residents had no means to exit the island, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” Despite pleas from international human rights groups to move the refugees to the mainland, the government rejected the request and said the refugees lived better lives on the island than within the cramped living conditions in Cox’s Bazar.
Authorities have not yet agreed on terms of reference with the UN for an independent protection mission or terms of reference for a technical assessment of Bhasan Char. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups stated the Rohingya refugees relocated to the island as of September lacked medical access and proper sanitation, including supplies for safe menstrual hygiene. Those on the island state they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education. On September 21, several Rohingya refugees began a hunger strike to protest their continued stay on the island. International media, including the Guardian, reported security forces on the island have sexually assaulted Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported navy personnel beat them with rubber sticks and tree branches when they protested their stay on the island. Authorities have not investigated these reports.
International media, including The Guardian, reported authorities relocated an additional 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char in early December, and an additional 1,800 in late December. Future relocations are planned, and questions regarding the voluntariness of those refugees relocating remain.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country. Prior to 2017, the government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of more than 740,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s stance against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system.
Freedom of Movement: There were restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two official camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps; the government stated the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.
Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.
Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.
Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites which were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue hindering the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.
Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certify students have attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. In January the government endorsed an education sector pilot program to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum to 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. Implementation has been delayed due to COVID-19-related closures of refugee learning centers.
Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information on all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and selectively enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
Since May the government undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression. The government harassed bloggers and social media users, detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in June authorities detained Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, and charged them with “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their opposition political commentary.
Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in protest.
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.
The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations.” On March 12, a Minsk district court tried in absentia video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich on charges of calling individuals to participate in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 15 days of arrest. In a video Tsyhanovich reportedly urged supporters to show up at the state-run Belneftekhim headquarters to protest increased gas prices starting on February 25. On June 9, police detained Tsyhanovich to serve his sentence and on June 15, he was given an additional 15-day sentence for participating unauthorized mass event on May 31. On June 26, human rights groups reported that authorities charged Tsyhanovich with organizing or participating in activities that grossly violate public orders and are connected with resisting authorities’ orders. He remained in detention at year’s end on those charges.
On November 12, a court in Drahichyn fined a local resident 999 rubles ($410) for calling to assemble in the city center on October 15. Police detained the resident on the same day. He was released, but the charges remained pending the result of court hearings.
The government prohibits “extremist” information, which is defined as information materials–including printed, audio, visual, video materials, placards, posters, banners and other visuals–intended for public usage or distribution and seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.
On October 20, a Minsk district court recognized Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by pro-opposition Belarusians to organize protests, and its logo as extremist, alleging it promoted mass riots and disorder in addition to distributing other “extremist” materials (see Internet Freedom, below). In addition the government charged the channel’s founder, Stsyapan Putsila, and its former editor, Raman Pratasevich, with organizing mass riots, organizing a group activity grossly violating public order, and inciting hatred based on professional duties, in particular against law enforcement officers and public servants. Both individuals were outside Belarus but were put on the country’s wanted list. The government also prohibits content that promotes violence or war; contains information regarding illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; involves trafficking in persons or pornography; or that may harm the national interests of the country.
The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it only allows registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.
The government prohibits the spread of “fake news” on the internet but did not enforce the prohibition against regular citizens.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.
On October 2, authorities cancelled the accreditation of all foreign press representatives as part of a process they claimed was an effort to update the accreditation process for foreign press. Prior to the cancellation, in August authorities had already begun cancelling foreign press accreditations, including those of the BBC, Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, the German ARD television channel, Deutsche Welle, the French Agence France-Presse news agency, Reuters, and Russian TV Rain. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant accreditation to dozens of foreign correspondents who filed paperwork seeking to cover the August 9 presidential election. Some correspondents were reaccredited, with journalists from Deutsche Welle and BBC among the first, but a number of Belarusian-based freelance journalists were not.
Prior to the October 2 cancellation of foreign press accreditations, authorities refused to accredit some foreign media outlets, such as Polish-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined unaccredited freelance journalists working for these outlets. As of December 10, at least 17 journalists were fined in 30 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. Most of the fines in connection to accreditation or registration were levied on journalists working for Belsat Television.
Authorities deported some members of the foreign press. For example, on August 29, authorities deported two Moscow-based Associated Press correspondents as part of a series of actions that decreased the number of independent correspondents in the country.
By law, the government may close a publication–printed or online–after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Regulations also give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations. After a number of state television personnel resigned in protest over the allegations of presidential election fraud and subsequent police violence starting in August, Lukashenka requested assistance from the Russian state media organization RT. Starting August 17, Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press while authorities suppressed domestic independent voices and pressured the state journalists who had resigned. After August 17, representatives of Russian state-media organizations generally faced less pressure from authorities, when RT began supporting and controlling Belarusian domestic state media.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, in particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover pre- and postelection demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country and at times used violence against journalists and brought false allegations against them. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 500 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and short-term jail sentences. These cases were reportedly in connection to journalists’ alleged participation in unauthorized mass events, livestreaming demonstrations, or working without accreditation for foreign media. On October 12, the Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement noting that the situation for journalists in the country had gone “from grave to catastrophic” due to violence and other forms of pressure on journalists.
In one example of government pressure, on June 20, police detained two journalists of the independent Hantsavitski Chas newspaper, Alyaksandr Pazniak and Syarhey Bahrou, during a live stream in Hantsavichy. At the local police department, Pazniak was reportedly beaten and threatened. Authorities charged the two with resisting police and participating in unauthorized mass events. On June 22, a local court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days of arrest and fined Pazniak 810 rubles ($332).
There were reports that security forces deliberately targeted members of the press for violence during demonstrations. For example, on August 10, security officers were reported to have targeted and dispersed a group of correspondents covering postelection protests who were clearly marked as press and wearing corresponding vests and badges. Officers fired rubber bullets, injuring independent newspaper Nasha Niva journalist Natallya Lubneuskaya, who was hospitalized for more than a month.
There were reports that some journalists were seriously abused during detention. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, an unaccredited 33-year-old journalist with the Poland-based television station Belsat, Vitaliy Dubikov was on his way to a work assignment in Minsk when two police officers stopped him and searched his belongings. Upon finding a camera and microphone with a Belsat logo, they forced him into a tiny compartment in a police van and took him to a Minsk police precinct, where riot police beat him and other detainees with truncheons, ordered them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. Dubikov and other detainees spent the night outdoors, first flat on the ground then kneeling against a wall. In the morning he was crammed into a police van with other detainees and held there for several hours without food, water, or ventilation. On August 14, Dubikov was released without charges.
Security officials also confiscated or deliberately broke journalists’ video and audio equipment. For example, according to press reports, on August 11, security forces approached Associated Press photographer Syarhey Hryts and several colleagues while they were covering police dispersing a demonstration. According to Hryts, riot police, who were not wearing any identifying symbols, swarmed them, seized the memory sticks from their equipment, and smashed his camera.
The government reportedly prosecuted journalists in retaliation for the content of their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 25, officers of the State Control Committee detained Syarhey Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after searching his offices and seizing documents. Satsuk had heavily criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption in the health-care system. He was charged with accepting a bribe, which Reporters without Borders called retaliation for an editorial casting doubt on the official COVID-19 statistics and criticizing an order issued by Lukashenka to “deal with” media outlets that are “sowing panic” regarding the epidemic. On April 4, he was released on his own recognizance; the government investigation continued as of November.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The threat of government retaliation led the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see Internet Freedom, below).
The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines (see Freedom of Speech, above). Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad.
The government reportedly failed to reply to requests for information, and some outlets were believed to have held back coverage to avoid punishment for publishing incorrect information.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings, controls on the size of press runs of newspapers, and inflated costs for printing. For example, after popular opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the nonstate daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (the local branch of the mass-market Russian tabloid) extensively covered violence and beatings of protesters in the days after the election, authorities began censoring further daily editions by blocking printing through two state-run distribution systems, the retail kiosk network Belsayuzdruk and the postal subscription service.
The government controlled printing presses in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a few days after the protests began, the state publishing house began to refuse to print independent newspapers, citing an array of “technical problems,” including lack of materials and broken equipment, which observers believed were pretexts for the refusals. The CPJ noted that, on the same day that an independent newspaper was denied the ability to print an edition with a white-red-white flag on the cover (the symbol of anti-Lukashenka protests), a state-controlled newspaper was able to print an edition featuring an interview with a pro-Lukashenka singer.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report for defamation.
On September 23, officers of the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich, searched his apartment, and confiscated computer equipment. Authorities released Martsinovich after detaining him for 72 hours, but he remained charged with libel against Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou in connection to an interview the newspaper published in which Barsukou was accused of beating detainees inside holding facilities.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, authorities detained lawyer Maksim Znak, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council. He was charged with “calling for actions aimed at harming national security.” Other members of the Coordination Council were also charged with similar offenses. The case was widely believed to be retaliation for Znak’s political activism.
The government monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without judicial oversight. All internet service providers must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year. Companies were also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.
The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.
Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.
Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. From August 9 to August 12, internet access in the country was severely restricted for approximately 61 hours. Only intermittent text messages and voice calls worked for most individuals. While authorities blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions, independent experts attributed the disruptions to the government. Starting in August, there were repeated internet disruptions and complete internet shutdowns, usually coinciding with major protests and police actions to disperse them. Private internet service providers notified customers that the shutdowns were requested by the government on national security grounds. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations occurred.
Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”
There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online. On October 20, a Minsk district court ruled the Telegram channel NEXTA Live and its NEXTA logo were “extremist” and subsequently restricted access to information resources using its name. According to state-run media outlet BelTA’s announcement, the decision was made in response to the finding of “extremist activities” on the Telegram channel, including calls for “organization and public appeals to stage mass riots.” NEXTA, an encrypted channel, was a leading source of information on events in the country and published suggestions for protest routes and meeting points.
Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online. For example, on June 25, security forces raided the home of Ihar Losik, the administrator of the popular opposition Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain. He was charged with “actions that gravely violate public order,” which carries up to three years in prison if convicted, and as of November, remained in pretrial detention. Observers believed the charges to be in retaliation for his moderation of the opposition Telegram channel.
Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information.
By law, the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on users who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violations of the edict was punishable by prison sentences, although no such violations were prosecuted. These government efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages were attacked after the August 9 presidential election, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as principals.
The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions. For example, on August 31, the minister of culture dismissed the head of the Institute of Culture and Arts for purportedly failing to prevent students from protesting. The minister of health care replaced the heads of medical schools in Hrodna, Homyel, and Minsk after a number of doctors, medical professors, and students organized a series of protests in August.
The government restricted artistic presentations or other cultural activities. For example, in September authorities cancelled all shows at the local drama theater in Hrodna, citing the rise in COVID-19 cases, and dismissed at least two leading actors after the troupe stopped a show as a protest against the September 20 detentions of their colleagues at a local demonstration. Observers believed that the cancellation of the shows was in retaliation for the troupe’s actions, since the government did not require all theatres to cancel their shows during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups.
The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions of some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.
Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals may not act as mass event organizers. Individuals who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from the imposition of the fine.
The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.
The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,290 rubles ($2,990); at a nondesignated venue, the price is 1.5 times higher.
Authorities often formulated pretexts to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example, on July 30, opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rally in Minsk drew 63,000 participants, making it the largest campaign rally since the country’s independence. Tsikhanouskaya was subsequently blocked from holding additional campaign rallies by local Minsk authorities. On August 2, authorities announced that state events would take place every evening at every permitted campaign rally location between August 2 and August 8, despite the fact that Tsikhanouskaya had submitted an application in mid-July to hold rallies at locations in Minsk on August 5 and August 8.
Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. For example, on October 27, a Minsk district court sentenced Zmitser Dashkevich, an opposition and civil society activist and former leader of the Malady Front opposition youth group, to 15 days’ imprisonment after being detained at an October 25 protest. Dashkevich was a key organizer of the Night of Assassinated Poets, an annual opposition commemorative event held October 29 at the Stalinist mass-killings site at Kurapaty to honor more than a hundred Belarusian poets, writers, and public figures killed in 1937.
During the year local authorities countrywide delayed answering or rejected applications for permission to stage various demonstrations. For example, during the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without government approval.
Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished at a later date.
Between August and December, police detained more than 30,000 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals detained during protests. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences of 10 to 15 days, or both. Police also opened at least 900 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between August 9 and December. In June and July, plainclothes and uniformed security officials also arbitrarily detained demonstrators who peacefully stood in lines along roads in many cities, with particular focus paid to individuals wearing opposition symbols or flying the white-red-white opposition-affiliated flag. Nondemonstrators were also detained by police. Other than during the mass detentions on August 9-11, the majority of individuals who were detained before and after the election were registered by police and released the same or next day, although authorities had the ability to apply short-term jail sentences at later dates.
Authorities detained a number of protest leaders, opposition members, and activists and jailed them for initial short-term sentences, then applied additional charges from earlier detentions to keep them jailed for longer periods of time. For example, after his May 6 arrest for participating in an unauthorized 2019 mass event, on May 29, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy. On June 8, Tsikhanouski and six other detainees were charged with “disturbing public order” and “obstructing elections.” On June 16, a criminal case was opened against him for allegedly interfering in the election process and hindering the work of the Central Election Commission. On July 30, authorities announced additional criminal charges against Tsikhanouski, alleging “preparation for mass riots” and an investigation into charges of incitement of violence against police. As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in prison while investigations into these criminal charges proceeded (see also sections 1.d. and 3).
Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations.
On October 12, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Henadz Kazakevich stated that law enforcement bodies would use “special equipment and lethal weapons if need be” to “guarantee the law in the country.” Authorities used live ammunition in a few isolated instances, which led to the death of two protesters (see section 1.a.).
Human rights groups reported authorities sought to mark or tag protesters who had opposition symbols, chanted pro-opposition slogans, or resisted arrest. Water in water cannons was also reportedly dyed to allow identification of protesters later. Authorities reportedly singled out marked individuals for higher levels of physical and psychological abuse in detention facilities.
Plainclothes officers detained individuals with opposition symbols or who had been identified as protest participants or police claimed were protest leaders. When faced with large crowds at unauthorized mass events, plainclothes officers detained, and sometimes beat, suspected rally participants at random along the periphery of events and forced many into unmarked vehicles. From May to December, masked plainclothes police officers often did not announce themselves or present documentation.
In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms under criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. From August 9-11, isolated instances of demonstrators throwing rocks, firecrackers, or Molotov cocktails were filmed by media. Rock throwing also reportedly occurred during protests September 23 after Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported at least 10 instances of motorists hitting police from August 10-12. After August 11, the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful and instances of violence on the part of demonstrators appeared to follow police use of force or violent detentions, especially by masked plainclothes officers. From June through November, isolated fist fights between security officers and demonstrators or attempts by demonstrators to resist arrest occurred in various cities, generally following security officer attempts to arbitrarily detain protesters or disperse peaceful crowds.
For example, on September 29, the Maladzechna Regional Court convicted and sentenced local residents Paval Piaskou and Uladzislau Eustsyahneyeu to up to three years and three months in a low-security prison. Authorities charged them with resisting riot police when on June 19 they attempted to prevent police from detaining a protester.
Since early May the Investigative Committee of Belarus initiated at least 900 criminal cases against individuals who were detained during protests on charges including participation in mass disturbances or riots, causing harm to national security, resistance, and violence or threat of violence against an official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hooliganism, incitement to hostility or hatred, and organization of or participation in actions violating public order. For example, investigators charged at least 231 individuals for allegedly organizing or participating in actions violating public order after detaining them at a protest on November 1. According to the report, this indicated a return to government criminalization of peaceful protests.
Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. For example, in April administrators expelled a fourth-year student at Minsk State Linguistic University for allegedly not attending classes. The student claimed she was in a two-week quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. The student was a member of the executive board of the opposition-affiliated Union of Belarusian Students. From March 20 to March 23, she protested alongside other students near the university, handed out free medical masks, and chanted, “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!” a criticism of authorities’ COVID-19 response. The student claimed the university administration’s decision to expel her was a politically motivated. From October to December, more than 140 students were reportedly expelled due to their political views.
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.
Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.
The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity.
On August 27, a presidential decree on foreign aid entered into force. The decree provides that only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside of a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt categories and taxable categories, that latter of which would require a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduced penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.
Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.
The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.
Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. At its formation on August 18, the group had approximately 70 members, seven of which were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were in prison.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. Following the presidential election, the government increased restrictions on the ability of Belarusians to return home from abroad.
In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity, and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.
The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.
Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the country, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was barred from re-entering the country in late August as he returned from church business in Poland. The archbishop had spoken out against police violence and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit arrested peaceful protesters. Authorities claimed they placed the archbishop on a nonentry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. By law citizenship may not be revoked if a citizen only has Belarusian citizenship and has no claim to another citizenship. Entry may not legally be denied to Belarusian citizens. In late December the archbishop was allowed to reenter the country.
On October 29, authorities abruptly closed the border with Poland and Lithuania, restricting entry into the country. On November 1, authorities temporarily closed all land borders to regular travelers, ostensibly to curtail rising COVID-19 infections. Lukashenka previewed the move in a September 17 speech, in which he did not mention COVID-19 but threatened to close the country’s Western borders because of what he purportedly saw as hostile actions from neighboring democratic governments, in particular Poland and Lithuania. On November 5, authorities further tightened restrictions, primarily against foreigners, but in some cases authorities restricted Belarusian citizens from entering the country, which observers stated was counter to the constitution. In early December the government imposed exit restrictions on citizens seeking to leave by land, reportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the country; NGOs and activists claimed that these closures restricted options for those seeking to leave the country. On December 20, these measures went into effect and restricted the frequency of departures and the categories for persons who could depart. Authorities kept airports open to international travel during this period, although limited availability and high prices imposed costs and restricted options for those seeking to leave the country.
Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, particularly after the August 9 election. Some others were in self-imposed exile or were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.
In July presidential hopeful Valery Tsapkala fled the country with his children, reportedly fearing arrest after other presidential candidates were detained in May and June. His wife, Veranika Tsapkala, participated in Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential campaign and in August also fled due to government pressure and fear of arrest.
After the August 9 presidential election, authorities forced opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Authorities reportedly threatened “her children would grow up as orphans.” On May 29, her husband was detained by authorities and as of December remained in detention. Authorities also detained and threatened an associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Volha Kavalkova, who accepted exile in September after authorities threatened her with a long prison term if she did not leave the country. On September 8, two additional members of the opposition’s Coordination Council, Executive Secretary Ivan Krautsou and Spokesperson Anton Radnyankou, were forced into exile. Security forces abducted Krautsou and Radnyankou and drove them to the border with Ukraine, where they were forced to cross the border into Ukraine.
Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: There were reports that the government expelled or returned asylum seekers or refugees to countries where they were likely to face abuse. For example, on June 29, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a Turkish citizen of Kurdish nationality, Hicri Mamas, who had been denied international protection in Belarus and expelled. Turkey sought Mamas’ extradition on charges of “infringement of the unity and territorial integrity of the state.” Multiple human rights organizations believed Mamas faced a significant risk of torture if he returned to Turkey.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a process for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but are unable to return to their countries of origin.
All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. The government made an exception for one Russian citizen who sought asylum for religious reasons.
Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status as asylum seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.
Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.
Durable Solutions: Naturalization of refugees was possible after seven years of permanent residence, as in the case of other categories of foreign residents.
Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.
As of July 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and UNHCR listed 6,300 stateless persons. According to authorities, 98 percent of these individuals had permanent residence permits.
Permanently resident stateless persons were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement bodies that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR, stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.
There is a path to citizenship for the stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. There were reports the government inhibited freedom of the press through restrictions on and sanctioning of journalists and press outlets.
There were many public and private media outlets, including two public and seven private television stations, three public and 50 private radio stations, and approximately 175 newspapers and periodicals. Many of these refrained from openly criticizing government policy.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The press and media were closely regulated. The High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) is a quasigovernmental commission with members appointed by the president, private media, and the legislature. HAAC has a dual and perhaps inherently contradictory role of providing for press freedom and of protecting the country against “inflammatory, irresponsible, or destabilizing” media reporting.
On January 3, officers from the Central Office for Cybercrime Prevention arrested Aristide Fassinou Hounkpevi, editor of the online media outlet L’Autre Figaro as well as correspondent of the newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune, for publishing false information about the minister of foreign affairs on a social media site. On January 9, the prosecutor at the Court of First Instance of Cotonou ordered Hounkpevi’s release without charge. The Union of Benin’s Media Professionals stated there was no material evidence to substantiate the accusations against Hounkpevi.
On July 7, HAAC issued an order for all online media outlets “without authorization” to halt publication or face sanctions. The law states that operation of “a website providing audiovisual communication and print media services intended for the public is subject to the authorization” of HAAC. Three outlets suspended operations temporarily, while remaining outlets ignored the order. On July 10, the National Council of Benin’s Press and Audiovisual Employers issued a statement deploring HAAC’s decision.
In April 2019, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, police arrested Casimir Kpedjo of the newspaper Nouvelle Economie for “spreading false information about the Beninese economy.” Kpedjo was held for five days, charged by CRIET with publishing “false information,” and released. As of December 10, Kpedjo had yet to be tried.
In December 2019 police arrested Benin Web TV journalist Ignace Sossou. He was convicted of “harassment through electronic means” after posting quotes of the Cotonou prosecutor’s comments–recorded during anti “fake news” training organized by the French Media Development Agency–to his personal social media accounts. The Cotonou Court of First Instance sentenced Sossou to 18 months’ imprisonment and a substantial monetary fine. On May 19, the Court of Appeals reduced his sentence to six months’ imprisonment, and on June 24, he was released. As of November HAAC had yet to honor a May 2019 Court of Appeals ruling rescinding suspension of La Nouvelle Tribune, and the newspaper had not resumed publication.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Public and private media refrained from openly criticizing government policy. Some journalists practiced self-censorship because they were indebted to government officials who granted them service contracts. Other journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear the government would suspend their media outlets. HAAC held public hearings on alleged misconduct by media outlets during the year.
Libel/Slander Laws: By law journalists may be prosecuted for libel and slander. Journalists may also be prosecuted for incitement of violence and property destruction, compromising national security through the press, or a combination of the two. Penalties for conviction include incarceration and fines. By law anyone convicted of “relaying false information against a person using electronic means” may be sentenced to between one and six months in prison and receive a substantial monetary fine.
The government censored online content, but it did not restrict public access to the internet or monitor private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law states that operation of “a website providing audiovisual communication and print media services intended for the public is subject to the authorization” of HAAC. On July 7, HAAC issued an order for all online media outlets “without authorization” to halt publication or face sanctions. The National Council of Benin’s Press and Audiovisual Employers issued a statement deploring HAAC’s decision (see section 2.a.).
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of assembly and association and the government respected the right of peaceful association but not that of peaceful assembly. Advance notification is required for demonstrations and other public gatherings. The government frequently restricted freedom of peaceful assembly on political grounds.
Permits are required prior to holding protests, but authorities regularly denied or ignored requests for permits.
Authorities sometimes cited “public order” to prevent demonstrations by opposition groups, civil society organizations, and labor unions.
In June the prefect of Cotonou cited public order concerns as the basis for denying a permit to demonstrate in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States regarding the killings by police of African Americans. Human rights activists and some in the opposition media also reported denials of permits to protest local cases of civilian deaths by security forces (see section 1.a.). On July 16, the Constitutional Court ruled that the mayor of Parakou violated constitutional provisions relating to freedom of assembly and public liberty because his prohibition in February of demonstrations critical of the government was discriminatory.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.
In 2018 as part of its effort to reduce corruption, the government banned roadblocks throughout the country. There have been no illegal roadblocks since that time.
Foreign Travel: The government maintained documentary requirements for minors traveling abroad as part of its campaign against trafficking in persons. This was not always enforced, and trafficking of minors across borders continued.
The government regulates the timing and length of seasonal movement of migratory Fulani (Peul) herdsmen and their livestock into and within the country. On February 18, the government reversed a decree issued in December 2019 that had banned Burkinabe, Nigerian, and Nigerien herders from crossing into the country with their cattle.
On March 17, the government closed the country’s land borders to all but specially authorized official travel in an effort to limit the cross-border transmission of COVID-19. Air and sea borders remained open to travelers, however. As of November land borders remained closed.
In July 2019 the government issued a decree barring anyone wanted on criminal charges from obtaining civil documents, including passports, national identity cards, and certificates of citizenship. On July 3, human rights activist Conaide Akouedenoudje filed a complaint with the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights requesting it rule on the decree’s compliance with the country’s human rights obligations. In October the court dismissed the complaint with the explanation that the claimant was not affected by the decree and thus was not an injured party.
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.
Durable Solutions: The government assisted refugees and asylum seekers with obtaining documents from their countries of origin while granting their status as privileged residents. The government also facilitated naturalization of refugees as part of a local integration effort. The government involved civil society, media, and academia in the process. In 2018 the government National Commission of Assistance to Refugees assumed responsibility for refugee issues in the country following closure of the local UNHCR office. The commission cooperates with UNHCR through its regional office in Dakar, Senegal.
There were large communities of stateless individuals residing in eight villages along the border with Niger and Nigeria. These villages were returned to Benin following the resolution of land disputes among Benin, Niger, and Nigeria. The residents lacked the necessary identification documents to claim citizenship.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system contributed to freedom of expression in the country.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a variety of views. The law does not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information, although there were no official restrictions on the media. The law also prohibits media outlets from affiliating with political parties and prohibits outlets from endorsing candidates during the election period. Journalists engaged in self-censorship, especially relating to the royal family, and were hesitant to criticize politicians with whom they had personal relationships.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Public expression is generally free from censorship, although citizens often refrain from public criticism of the royal family. By law the Media Council, an independent body, is tasked with monitoring the media for harmful or offensive content. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report noted “press advocates fear that the new body will further erode press freedom and contribute to greater self-censorship.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation can carry criminal penalties. In its Freedom in the World 2020 report, Freedom House noted that individuals could use defamation laws to retaliate against critics.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government officials stated the government did not block access, restrict content, or censor websites.
There were no reported government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events besides countrywide restrictions on public gatherings due to COVID-19.
The law includes provisions for the government to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, although the implementation of such measures was not common.
While the constitution provides for the right to assemble peacefully, the government retains the right to restrict assembly. The law permits the government to control the public’s right to assembly “to avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and curfews. Freedom House noted government permission for public gatherings was “sometimes denied.” The law prohibits “promotion of civil unrest” as an act that is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony among different nationalities, racial groups, castes, or religious groups.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government permitted the registration of political parties pursuant to relevant election laws and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) deemed “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” In its Freedom in the World 2020 report, Freedom House stated that local and international NGOs worked with increasing freedom from official scrutiny, with the exception of NGOs working on the status of Nepali-speaking refugees. Under the law all NGOs must register with the government. To register an NGO, an individual must be a citizen, disclose his or her family income and assets, provide his or her educational qualifications, and disclose any criminal record (see also section 5).
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 limited freedom of movement and repatriation for some groups. Freedom of movement of ethnic Nepalis was sometimes restricted.
In-country Movement: The law establishes different categories of residency, which determines whether a person requires a “route permit” to travel internally, which primarily affected foreigners married to a citizen and their children, and those who were permitted to reside in the country to conduct business.
Foreign Travel: NGOs reported that barriers to acquiring foreign travel documents primarily affected ethnic Nepalis, although children of single mothers who could not establish citizenship through a Bhutanese father also were affected. Citizens are required to obtain a security clearance certificate to obtain a passport.
Exile: In the early 1990s, the government reportedly forced between 80,000 and 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents to leave the country, following a series of decisions taken during the 1970s and 1980s establishing legal requirements for citizenship.
After years of international efforts resulting in the resettlement of thousands of refugees, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that as of the end of 2018, approximately 6,500 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in the two refugee camps it administered in Nepal.
There continued to be delays in government consideration of claims to Bhutanese residency by refugees in Nepal.
Citizenship: The law provides for revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who “has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, and people.” The law permits reapplication for citizenship after a two-year probationary period. An individual may reobtain citizenship after successful completion of the probation and a finding that the individual was not responsible for any act against the government. Civil society groups noted disproportionate barriers to citizenship faced by some Nepali-speaking communities and spouses of noncitizens.
The government cooperated with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees, but some refugees were eligible for residence permits.
Since the 1960s the country has sheltered Tibetan refugees who were initially located in seven settlements. Tibetan officials reported the Tibetans had largely successfully integrated into society. According to the Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) 2017-18 annual report, the latest for which information is available, 1,847 Tibetan refugees lived in the country; approximately 1,654 of them had refugee resident permits. The Tibetan refugee population was decreasing as Tibetan refugees adopted Bhutanese citizenship, according to the Department of Immigration.
Freedom of Movement: Tibetan refugees reportedly encountered difficulties traveling within and outside the country. Many Tibetan refugees faced obstacles in obtaining travel permits. There were also reports the government did not provide the travel documents necessary for Tibetan refugees to travel beyond India. Some restrictions on movement exist based on categories of citizenship, which have the greatest impact on Nepali-speaking citizens.
Employment: Reports suggested some Tibetan refugees could not obtain security clearances for government jobs or obtain licenses to run private businesses. While Tibetan refugees are not eligible for government employment, the CTA previously reported that at least 13 refugees received business licenses and others found public-sector employment under temporary government contracts.
Access to Basic Services: The government stated Tibetan refugees have the same access to government-provided health care and education as citizens, although some reports stated Tibetans could not enroll in higher education.
Durable Solutions: The government continued to delay implementing a process to review claims to Bhutanese residency by refugees located outside the country.
A nationwide census in 1985 resulted in a determination that many Nepali-speaking persons in the country were not citizens, effectively rendering them stateless. The government alleged this group of individuals were not citizens because they could not prove they or their antecedents had been resident in the country in 1958 during a general citizenship amnesty. Officials repeated the census in 1988-89 in the southern districts. During the second round of the census, those who were deemed not to be citizens in 1985 could apply for citizenship provided they met certain conditions. The government categorized those who did not meet the new criteria as illegal immigrants and expelled them. According to NGOs, an unknown number of Nepali-speaking stateless persons remained in the country, mainly in the south.
For a child to qualify for citizenship, both parents must be Bhutanese citizens. NGOs and media sources highlighted the existence of stateless children born to unwed mothers who were unable to prove the identity of the father of the child. Government reports indicated that 20 children in the kingdom fell into this category.
Stateless persons cannot obtain “no objection certificates” and security clearance certificates, which are often necessary for access to public health care, employment, access to primary and secondary education, enrollment at institutions of higher education, travel documents, and business ownership. The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) stated, however, that children without citizenship were eligible for public educational and health services.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the Legislative Council may “speak their opinions freely” on behalf of citizens, but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the law it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The law also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This philosophy identifies Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or to “wound religious feelings.”
The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. SPC sections provide, in certain circumstances, for death sentences for apostasy from Islam, deriding Islamic scriptures, and declaring oneself as god, among other offenses. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers did not permit comments or stories on these subjects.
The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including publicly displaying Christmas decorations. Some establishments, however, openly sold Christmas decorations or advertised Christmas-themed events. Christmas remained an official national holiday.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval for hiring foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit. Foreign newspapers generally were available. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.
The government owns the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels are also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything with what the government deems seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing for, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a significant fine and a maximum prison term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences.
Observers reported prohibitions against covering a variety of topics, such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and not being able to report on topics such as crime until there has been an official press release by the relevant government agency. In the past, the government shuttered media outlets, reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events, and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics. There were no such reports during the year. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.
The SPC prohibits publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution to Muslims or to persons with no religion of publications related to religions other than Islam. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.
Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the sultan or the government. Persons convicted under the law face a significant fine, a maximum of three years in prison, or both. There were no reports of such cases during the year.
The government restricted access to the internet, censored online content, and had the capability to monitor private online communications. The government monitored private email and internet chat-room exchanges it believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive views, including those of religious minorities, or material on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications and the Prime Minister’s Office enforce the law that requires internet service providers and internet cafe operators to register with the director of broadcasting in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Authority for the Infocommunications Technology Industry advised internet service and content providers to monitor for content contrary to the public interest, national harmony, and social morals.
Internet companies self-censored content and reserved the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government continued awareness campaigns warning citizens about the misuse of and social ills associated with social media, including the use of social media to criticize Islam, sharia, or the monarchy. The government maintained a hotline for reporting fake or malicious information circulated on social media that involved public or national interests.
Although there are no official government restrictions on academic freedom, government authorities must approve public lectures, academic conferences, and visiting scholars, and the sultan serves as chancellor of all major universities.
Academics reported practicing self-censorship. In recent years, some researchers published overseas under a pseudonym when they perceived that certain topics would not be well received by the authorities. Religious authorities reviewed publications to verify compliance with social norms.
There were government restrictions on cultural events. All public musical or theatrical performances require prior approval by a censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The board determines the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted some activities. Although the Censorship Board rarely required changes in performances, delays associated with the censorship process posed logistical hurdles for performing arts organizations. Authorities restricted traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.
The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The government’s emergency powers restrict the right to assemble. Public gatherings of 10 or more persons require a government permit, and police may disband an unofficial assembly of five or more persons deemed likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Permits require the approval of the minister of home affairs. The government routinely issued permits for annual events but has in recent years occasionally used its authority to disrupt political gatherings. Organizers of events on sensitive topics tended to hold meetings in private rather than apply for permits or practiced self-censorship at public events.
The law does not provide for freedom of association. The law requires formal groups, including religious, social, business, labor, and cultural organizations, to register with the Registrar of Societies and provide regular reports on membership and finances. Applicants were subject to background checks, and proposed organizations were subject to naming requirements, including for example a prohibition on names or symbols linked to triad societies (Chinese organized-crime networks). The government reported it accepted the majority of applications to form associations, but some new organizations reported delaying their registration applications after receiving advice that the process would be difficult. The government may suspend the activities of a registered organization if it deems such an act to be in the public interest.
Organizations seeking to raise funds or donations from the general public are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and each individual fundraising activity requires a separate permit. Approved organizations dealt with matters such as pollution, wildlife preservation, arts, entrepreneurship, and women in business.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The government generally respected the legal right to freedom of internal movement and the right to emigrate but imposed restrictions on foreign travel and repatriation.
Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreign residents working on a contractual basis, must apply for exit permits to travel abroad. Government guidelines state no government official may travel alone, and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but the government enforced this policy inconsistently. The country’s tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel.
Exile: By law the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
There are no recent, reliable statistics on the number of stateless persons in the country, but observers estimated there were tens of thousands, most of whom had permanent resident status. Most stateless residents were native born, of Chinese heritage, and from families that have resided in the country for generations. Other stateless residents included members of indigenous tribes, whose lands span Brunei and the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak, and the foreign wives of Malay Muslim men. The vast majority of stateless persons held a certificate of identity, which functions as a passport. Certificate holders have some rights similar to those of citizens, including rights to subsidized health care and education. The government has no data available on stateless persons who hold no form of residency or certificate of identity.
Stateless persons may apply for citizenship if they are adults born in the country and resident for 12 of the last 15 years, provided they pass a test demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Malay culture and language. Women married to citizens and the minor children of citizens who did not obtain citizenship at birth–such as children of citizen mothers and permanent resident fathers–may also apply. Members of the stateless community who passed the Malay culture and language test have for years reported a de facto suspension of citizenship approvals for stateless adult residents, with many reporting that although five to 10 years had elapsed since they passed their test they still had not been granted citizenship. The minister of home affairs noted that most of the 389 applicants awarded citizenship during the year had married Malay Muslim citizens and were not members of the ethnic Chinese community, although the local press did highlight two members of the ethnic Chinese community who gained citizenship.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press but ban “defamatory” speech regarding the president and other senior officials, material deemed to endanger national security, and racial or ethnic hate speech. Additional restrictions imposed in 2015 continued and were applied to press outlets, including those critical of the government or the human rights situation in the country. Social media networks, primarily Twitter and WhatsApp, served as news outlets, often replacing traditional news outlets.
Freedom of Speech: The law protects public servants and the president against “words, gestures, threats, or writing of any kind” that is “abusive or defamatory” or would “impair the dignity of or respect for their office.” The law also prohibits racially or ethnically motivated hate speech. The penalty for conviction of insulting the head of state is six months to five years in prison and a token monetary fine. Some journalists, lawyers, NGO personnel, and leaders of political parties and civil society stated the government used the law to intimidate and harass them.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government owned and operated daily newspapers and a radio and television station. The CNDD-FDD operated a government-aligned radio station. Independent media existed but were restricted. Radio Isanganiro was the country’s largest independent radio station. Iwacu, an independent newspaper that was generally critical of the government and its policies, continued to publish articles in French and English, although it faced harassment from the government.
In November 2019 the Conseil National de la Communication (CNC) suspended Nawe.bi’s online Nawe Television Station and blocked the comments page of Nawe.bi’s website for operating without a CNC license. On August 12, the CNC withdrew Nawe.bi’s operating license because it continued to operate its television station. On the same day, CNC also suspended Itara Burundi’s operating license, citing the absence of a media director and lack of a physical address in the country.
In 2017 the CNC announced a decision to withdraw the licenses of Radio Bonesha, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and Radio/Television Renaissance for breaches of their agreements with the CNC or for not abiding by content regulations. Radio Bonesha continued to operate a website, and RPA continued to broadcast into the country from Rwanda. The CNC continued to prohibit any journalist from providing information to the BBC since its license was revoked in 2019 and to the Voice of America since the decision to suspend it indefinitely in April 2019.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists and outspoken critics reported harassment and intimidation by security services and government officials to prevent them from doing their work independently or covering sensitive topics. Some journalists were required to obtain permission from local authorities prior to travel. Forces allied to the CNDD-FDD repressed media perceived as sympathetic to the opposition, including print and radio journalists, through harassment, intimidation, and violence. The majority of independent journalists fled the country during and after the political crisis and crackdown in 2015, and some remained in exile as of November. The government detained or summoned for questioning several local journalists investigating subjects such as human rights abuses, corruption, or refugees fleeing the country.
In 2018 the government passed a law to regulate accreditation of journalists by increasing the prerequisites to include minimum requirements for education and prior experience and threatening criminal penalties for journalists found working without credentials. Reporters indicated there were lengthy delays in the accreditation process that prevented them from being able to work. Those who were able to continue working complained that government agents harassed and threatened media that criticized the government and the CNDD-FDD. Journalists had difficulty corroborating stories, since local sources were intimidated.
On March 28, Edouard Nkurunziza, a journalist for Iwacu received a death threat from Anglebert Ngendabanka, a member, after Nkurunziza quoted Ngendabanka’s statements regarding political intolerance in Cankuzo Province. Nkurunziza went into hiding until August when Ngendabanka finished his term. Iwacu formally protested Nkurunziza’s treatment to the speaker of the National Assembly and requested Ngendabanka be held accountable for the death threat. The National Assembly speaker did not take any action.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored media content through restrictive press laws established by the CNC, an organization that is nominally independent but subject to political control. According to Freedom House, observers regarded the CNC as a tool of the executive branch, as it regularly issued politicized rulings and sanctions against journalists and outlets. In 2016 the CNC passed two decrees regarding media activity, one for domestic journalists and one for foreign outlets operating in the country. The first compels all journalists to register annually with the CNC. The second limits the access granted to international journalists and establishes content restrictions on the products disseminated by these outlets. The CNC continued to monitor the press closely. In October 2019 the CNC issued a media code of conduct for all media outlets and journalists during elections. The code obliged media to work in synergy with the CNC and prohibited the reporting of results other than those officially announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). The code also prevented journalists from using opinion polls as a source of information. Some independent media commented that the CNC drafted the code without consultation with professionals and completely restricted freedom of the press. Broadly interpreted laws against libel, hate speech, endangering state security, and treason also fostered self-censorship, including by journalists working for the national broadcaster. Those who did not self-censor faced “reassignment” to jobs where they did not have access to the public or were fired.
The CNC regulates both print and broadcast media, controls the accreditation of journalists, and enforces compliance with media laws. The president appoints all 15 CNC members, who were mainly government representatives and journalists from the state broadcaster.
Several media outlets stated they received explicit threats that they would be closed if they published or broadcast stories critical of the government.
National Security: A 2013 law requires journalists to reveal sources in some circumstances and prohibits the publication of articles deemed to undermine national security. National security provisions were used to deter criticism of government policies or officials (see section 1.e, Political Prisoners and Detainees, Amnesty, the case of Iwacu journalists).
Nongovernmental Impact: Many members of the governing party’s Imbonerakure youth wing collaborated with government security forces to inhibit freedom of expression. In some cases they were official members of mixed security councils, which comprise police, local administration officials, and civilians.
Imbonerakure prevented Jean Marie Vianney Ngendakumana, a journalist with Isanganiro Radio, and his driver, Said Rukundaneza, from continuing their press coverage in Kiyenzi zone, Kanyosha commune, in Bujumbura on April 9. Ngendakumana was investigating an incident in the area involving a member of the CNL who was attacked at his home. The Imbonerakure deflated the tires of the journalist’s vehicle and prevented them from moving. Ngendakumana and the driver were detained by the group of Imbonerakure until residents in the neighborhood intervened, which resulted in the pair going free.
The government sometimes restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content. Some citizens relied heavily on the social media platforms WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information concerning current events. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored email or internet chat rooms. Several journalists stated they were generally freer in their reporting online than on radio and other media more closely controlled by the government, particularly when posting in French or English rather than in local languages. Several radio stations that were closed in 2015 continued to broadcast radio segments and issue articles online.
Some media websites were occasionally unavailable to internet users in the country. Publications affected included the newspaper Iwacu and the online publication Ikiriho prior to its suspension in 2018 by the Ministry of Justice. There was no official comment on the outages; both the reason and mechanism remained unclear. In most cases the outages lasted a few days before access was restored. Websites, including Facebook, WhatsApp, You Tube, and Twitter, were inaccessible to users on May 20, election day. Netblocks.org, an organization monitoring internet shutdowns, determined that access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp had been restricted by the government. Access was restored in the evening of the same day. Government officials did not comment on the internet disruption.
There were allegations, including by Freedom House, that hiring practices, student leadership elections, and grading at the University of Burundi were subject to political interference in favor of CNDD-FDD members.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right (see section 1.d.). The law requires political parties and large groups to notify the government in advance of a public meeting and at least four days prior to a proposed demonstration and allows the government to prohibit meetings or demonstrations for reasons of “public order.” When notified, authorities in most cases denied permission for opposition members to meet or demonstrate and dispersed meetings already underway. In contrast, supporters of the CNDD-FDD and government officials were regularly able to meet and organize demonstrations on short notice; these demonstrations were frequently large and included participation by senior officials.
Despite a law prohibiting political rallies prior to the official campaign period, the CNDD-FDD was able to hold large events without consequences whereas opposition events were shut down and participants faced arrest. During the official campaign period, numerous rallies were organized across the country by all competing political parties. Opposition parties were allowed to engage in campaign events, rallies, and other activities, but there were frequent reports by journalists and members of opposition parties that they were detained, harassed, arrested, or physically beaten for having held “illegal meetings” or “seeking to disrupt elections”–often involving events with no more than a handful of individuals. Victims of these actions were primarily members of the CNL party, although occasionally other parties were also victims. The COI report indicated that during the presidential election campaign, members of Imbonerakure, often with the support of local administration, prevented CNL rallies by occupying the venues CNL had reserved in advance.
The COI report indicated that during the presidential election campaign, members of Imbonerakure, often with the support of local administration, prevented CNL rallies by occupying the venues CNL had reserved in advance.
The constitution provides for freedom of association within the confines of the law, but the government severely restricted this right.
In 2017 the government enacted a law constricting the liberties of international NGOs. The law includes requirements that international NGOs deposit a portion of their budgets at the Bank of the Republic of Burundi and that they develop and implement plans to attain ethnic and gender balances in the recruitment of local personnel. The law contains several clauses that give the government considerable control over NGOs’ recruitment and programming.
On February 13, the minister of interior ordered international NGOs to submit detailed personal information on their employees, including their ethnicity, raising international NGO concerns the government would use the data to target political opponents and exercise control over the organizations. On March 20, the government announced that those that did not respect ethnic balances prescribed by law would be shut down and that compliance inspections would be undertaken. Human Rights Watch and other organizations commented that the requirement was an attempt to exert control over NGO operations. In September the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released three decrees concerning the government’s relationship to international NGOs that furthered concerns that authorities were moving toward requiring them to observe ethnic quotas in recruiting staff.
In 2017 the government also enacted laws governing domestic CSOs. The law requires CSOs to register with the Ministry of the Interior (or with provincial governments if they operate in a single province), a complex process that includes approval of an organization’s activities from the Ministry of the Interior and other ministries, depending on the CSO’s area(s) of expertise. Registration must be renewed every two years, and there is no recourse when authorities deny registration. The law provides for the suspension or permanent closure of organizations for “disturbing public order or harming state security.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government severely restricted these rights.
Following his election, President Ndayishimiye called on refugees to return home, stating their countries needed them and declaring the initiative as a presidential priority. On August 13, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reached a tripartite agreement to facilitate the repatriation of Burundian refugees from Rwanda. The first group of refugees from Mahama Camp was repatriated on August 27, and two more convoys followed within a month. Following the successful return of the three convoys from Rwanda, UNHCR reported vastly increased interest in returning to Burundi on the part of refugees. As of September, more than 98,736 refugees had returned since 2017, primarily from Tanzania and Rwanda. President Ndayishimiye welcomed the August 27 convoy of more than 400 refugees from Rwanda and requested Burundian local officials to support the reintegration of the returnees. The three convoys brought the total number of returnees from Rwanda to more than 1,500 since President Ndayishimiye took office.
In August 2019 the governments of Tanzania and Burundi signed an agreement whereby they agreed to the return of approximately 180,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, “whether voluntarily or not,” starting in October 2019. Initial returnees were determined to be voluntary; however, later media reports indicated that some refugees, who had initially volunteered to return, changed their minds but authorities disregarded their change of mind and forced them to leave. International organizations and human rights groups claimed that Tanzanian authorities were making conditions for refugees so difficult that in many cases their returns could not legitimately be considered voluntary. Nonetheless, there were no reports or UNHCR determination that the agreement between the country and Tanzania had been used to repatriate refugees forcibly. In December 2019 the two governments agreed to a three-week pause in returns. Repatriation of Burundian refugees from Tanzania resumed on February 6. From January to September, nearly 19,000 Burundian refugees returned from Tanzania, Rwanda, and the DRC.
In-country Movement: According to several news sources, the government enforced the use of household logbooks, cahier or livret de menage, that listed the residents and domestic workers of each household in some neighborhoods of the capital. In numerous instances, police arrested persons during neighborhood searches for not being registered in household booklets. Persons who attempted to cross the border to flee violence and reach refugee camps were sometimes stopped and turned back by police, the SNR, or Imbonerakure members.
Local governments established checkpoints on roads throughout the country on a widespread basis, officially for the collection of transit taxes on drivers and passengers; the checkpoints were often staffed by police or members of the Imbonerakure. Checkpoints were also established for security purposes. There were frequent allegations that those staffing the checkpoints sought bribes before allowing vehicles to proceed. In some instances, members of the Imbonerakure were accused of using the checkpoints to deny free movement to individuals for political reasons, such as failing to demonstrate proof of voter registration or of contributions for the funding of elections or for refusal to join the ruling party or on suspicion of attempting to depart the country in order to seek refugee status. Media reported local administrative officials and Imbonerakure members increased control over population movement during the electoral period. On January 15, the permanent secretary of the National Security Council mentioned the need to revitalize joint security committees, of which the Imbonerakure were often members, and to “control population flows and movements of travelers and to keep track every day of the foreigners staying in every household and at every hotel.”
Foreign Travel: Authorities required exit visas for foreigners who held nonofficial passports and who did not hold multiple-entry visas; these visas cost 48,000 Burundian francs ($25) per month to maintain. Most foreigners held multiple-entry visas and were not subject to this requirement.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated there were 136,610 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as of September. According to the IOM, 83 percent were displaced due to natural disasters while 17 percent were displaced for political or social reasons. Some IDPs reported feeling threatened because of their perceived political sympathies. Some IDPs returned to their homes, but the majority remained in IDP sites or relocated to urban centers. The government generally permitted IDPs at identified sites to be included in programs provided by UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations, such as shelter and legal assistance programs.
The government generally cooperated with the local UNHCR office and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR estimated 73,614 refugees were in the country as of September, with a further 5,390 in the process of seeking asylum. Of the refugees and asylum seekers, more than 98 percent were Congolese, including arrivals during the year. Due to measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including border closures, the number of refugees entering the country was reduced. Continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as border closures prevented refugees from returning. Efforts begun in 2015 to resettle Congolese refugees in third countries continued.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees residing in camps administered by the government and by UNHCR and its partners had access to basic services. The large percentage of refugees residing in urban areas also had access to services, such as education, health care, and other assistance offered by humanitarian organizations. Due to their inability to work, most refugees lacked sufficient resources to meet their basic needs, even with support from the international community.
According to UNHCR, an estimated 1,131 persons at risk of statelessness lived in the country. All were from Oman, were awaiting proof of citizenship from the government of Oman, and had lived in Burundi for decades. Most of those who remained at risk of statelessness had refused an offer of Burundian citizenship from the government if they could not get Omani citizenship. Stateless persons faced limited freedom of movement because they were ineligible for driver’s licenses and passports.