Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister elected by the parliament heads the government; the president, also elected by the parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. In December 9 snap parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from the Civil Contract party, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. According to the December 10 preliminary assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that should be preserved through further election reforms.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Nikol Pashinyan was initially elected by parliament on May 8 following largely peaceful nationwide protests throughout the country in April and May, called the “velvet revolution.” The new government launched a series of investigations to prosecute systemic government corruption, and the country held its first truly competitive elections on December 9.

Human rights issues included torture; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; police violence against journalists; physical interference by security forces with freedom of assembly; restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; inhuman and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions, including children; and worst forms of child labor.

The new government took steps to investigate and punish abuse, especially at high levels of government and law enforcement. On July 3, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) pressed charges against some former high-ranking officials in connection with their alleged roles in post-election clashes in 2008, when eight civilians and two police officers were killed.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. Before the “velvet revolution,” the government exerted economic pressure on media outlets for favorable and uncritical coverage. Broadcast and many large-circulation print media generally practiced self-censorship, expressing views sympathetic to their owners or advertisers–a mix of government officials and wealthy business people. Small-circulation print and online media outlets tended to be more critical.

There were several instances of violence against journalists in connection with their coverage of the protests leading to the “velvet revolution.” After the May change in government, the media environment became more free as some outlets began to step away from self-censorship; however, some still refrained from critical comments of the new government not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting that would not reflect the political, economic, and other sympathies of the given outlet.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government in private and online without fear of arrest. On June 18, however, Prime Minister Pashinyan posted on Facebook a comment denouncing as “antistate” propaganda carried by some television stations. While he did not mention any specific channels, according to some media watchdogs, the statement had a chilling effect on the media climate (see section 3).

Press and Media Freedom: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint, even after the “velvet revolution,” replacing one government perspective with the other.

Social media users freely expressed opinions about the new government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of fake social media accounts and attempts to manipulate the media, however, increased dramatically after the “velvet revolution.” According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” fake Facebook groups and fake stories, to attack the government. In one example, a video circulated on September 17 supposedly showing Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan calling himself “crazy” and “absolutely abnormal.” The Union of Informed Citizens media watchdog published a document alleging the video was fake because of several inconsistencies in the video.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited or no revenues from advertising.

The media advertising market did not change substantially after the “velvet revolution” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders and controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating in a manner similar to MIS.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent.

The March 23 law governing the structure and activities of government envisions that government sessions would be held behind closed doors; this restriction, however, was removed soon after Nikol Pashinyan’s government took office. Along the same lines, the City of Yerevan attempted to restrict the access of media outlets to municipal hearings, but the move was widely criticized and never materialized.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of violence and professional intimidation against journalists during the April protests that led to the change in government. An estimated 22 reporters and camera operators were abused by police during April 13-23. While using cameras to film the protests and arrests, several reporters were assaulted by police officers. There were cases in which police damaged reporters’ equipment to prevent them from filming. Reporters also were injured by police using special means, such as stun grenades and nonlethal weapons. A number of media representatives reported being attacked by police in plain clothes. A total of 11 criminal cases were filed in connection with the incidents; charges were brought in five of the cases, and three cases ultimately ended up in court.

On April 14, a group of demonstrators led by then opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan broke into the Public Radio building, demanding coverage of their protest. The protesters broke one of the studio doors and seized key radio studios. The criminal charge of organizing mass disorders was later dropped.

In February, MediaLab.am founder and editor Marianna Grigoryan received death threats on social media after publishing a satirical cartoon mocking then defense minister Vigen Sargsyan. The user sending the threats was identified as a former defense serviceman. The international community and media watchdogs expressed concerns over these threats and demanded those responsible be held accountable. The Prosecutor General’s office initiated criminal proceedings on February 6 and forwarded the case to the investigative committee for an inquiry. At year’s end the investigation was ongoing.

INTERNET FREEDOM

Individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email. There were no disruptions to internet services during the nationwide April-May protests leading to the “velvet revolution,” with many media outlets providing live video coverage of the events and protest leaders and participants using the internet, social media platforms, and live broadcasting to address the population directly.

On April 11, the YouTube channels of Factor.am and Armlur.am were blocked for 24 hours. Several media outlets reported cyberattacks during the year from unknown sources.

The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 70 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. The country’s spring civic uprising changed the perception and practice of academic freedom in the country. Students joined together to protest against corrupt practices in universities. In February, a group of student activists formed the Yerevan State University (YSU) Restart group, which aimed to voice concerns and draw attention to corruption at universities. In April, YSU Restart activists joined the protests against then president Sargsyan becoming prime minister and called on students nationwide to boycott classes and join the campaign. As the protests grew, the management of some universities and public schools locked the doors to prevent students, teachers, and professors from leaving the facility to join the protests. Police used force against students to clear sit-ins and blocked streets. Many students were arrested and taken to police stations, but usually were released the same day. During the protests, there were no cases of university leadership expelling students from school or firing faculty members for missing classes (i.e. participating in protests). After the May change in government, YSU Restart organized protests against the rector of Yerevan State University without threats of repercussion.

The “velvet revolution” led to demands for education system leaders to resign. For example, the rector of Shirak State University was forced to resign due to protests against him for corruption and for firing faculty members who criticized him.

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. In some instances, the government restricted those freedoms.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly and after the spring “velvet revolution,” the new government generally respected these rights.

A local NGO, the Armenian Helsinki Committee (AHC), examined the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, especially focusing on the protest period of April-May. The April rallies were unprecedented in terms of the number of participants as compared to rallies held in earlier years, with estimates of 100,000-150,000 protesters at some points. From April 13 to April 15, NGOs reported no instances of police interference with assemblies and marches, but the situation changed after April 16, when in response to Nikol Pashinyan’s call for a “decentralized struggle,” numerous citizens organized and held rallies and marches in various parts of Yerevan as well as in the regions.

AHC found many instances of disproportionate use of force, violence, and abuse of official powers by the police at assemblies from April 16 to April 23. For example, on April 16 and on April 22, members of an unknown police unit threw 11 flash grenades into the crowds without proper warning. As a result, 40 citizens and six police officers sought medical assistance. Reporters from 168?am and Factor.am news websites also sustained injuries.

According to the police report, from April 16 to April 26, 1,283 persons were forcibly brought to police departments, including 1,144 in Yerevan, 918 of whom were also subjected to administrative detention. The majority of the demonstrators were held in administrative detention for no more than three hours, in accordance with the law, although some detainees reported being held longer. Some were brought to police departments but were not allowed to make a phone call. Lawyers who cooperated in a hotline organized by human rights defenders reported in many cases officers prevented them from meeting with their clients. In some cases, obstacles for lawyers to enter police departments were removed after intervention from the ombudsman’s office.

There were incidents of violence by masked assailants. On April 22, for example, more than 50 individuals on Erebuni Street attacked protesters with electroshock weapons, truncheons, and stones and verbally abused them. Many of the attackers wore masks that covered their faces. More than 20 police officers were present when the incident occurred, but did not interfere to stop the assaults. A reporter, a cameraman from Shant TV, and a cameraman from Factor TV were hurt during the incident.

The SIS opened investigations into more than 50 criminal cases of police abuse of power accompanied by violence during the assemblies held from April 13 to May 8. Later, those cases were merged into a single criminal case and an investigative group was established. More than 60 episodes of violence were under investigation within the framework of that criminal case, with reporters, lawyers, and numerous citizens recognized as aggrieved parties.

In November the UN special rapporteur on peaceful assembly and association noted, “Armenia has come a long way with recent reforms and the adoption of new laws that regulate the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; however authorities need to ensure the consistent enforcement of the current regulations.”

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. Under the Law on Public Organizations, in force since February 2017, some NGOs have legal standing to act on behalf of their beneficiaries limited to environmental issues in court. The limitations contradict a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that allowed all NGOs to have legal standing in court.

On October 29, the Ministry of Justice proposed draft amendments to the Law on Public Organizations that generated intense public debate. For example, on November 16, the Transparency International Anticorruption Center (TIAC) released a statement expressing concerns the draft amendments would introduce problematic changes to the reporting requirements for civil society organizations. The draft proposed to toughen the reporting for civil society organizations by extending reporting requirements to all organizations regardless of their sources of funding. In addition, the amendments would require personal information of the donors as well as members, governing bodies, staff and volunteers who have received funding. According to TIAC, the draft would put an unreasonable and disproportionate burden on public organizations.

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: While there was no systematic discrimination reported against migrants, refugees, or stateless persons, there were reports of discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration.

During the year, 28 foreigners were apprehended for illegal entry after crossing the border via land or air or arriving at the International Airport in Yerevan, an increase from four in 2017. Unlike the previous practice, when authorities detained and sentenced asylum seekers for illegal entry into the country after registering their asylum applications, in a few cases asylum seekers were released from detention. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences. Two asylum seekers from Afghanistan, who were detained for illegal border crossing in 2015 and sentenced to three years in prison, were released early and accommodated at a reception center for asylum seekers in mid-September. They were under supervision with mandatory reporting requirements between mid-September and October 6, when the sentence expired.

Foreign Travel: Citizens must obtain exit visas to leave the country on either a temporary or a permanent basis. Citizens could routinely purchase exit visas for temporary travel outside the country within one day of application for approximately 1,000 drams (two dollars) for each year of validity.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

As of 2016, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 IDPs of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-94 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and former refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law takes into account specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. Refugees who were not ethnic Armenians needed three years of legal residence in the country to be naturalized.

While the overall quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles. Security considerations permeated all aspects of the asylum procedure and implementation of refugee policies and the NSS continued to influence asylum decision making by the State Migration Service (SMS).

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in capacity of eligibility officers. Enhanced capacity of the judiciary resulted in an increased number of overruled SMS decisions on asylum applications. For the first time since 2009, the Administrative Court issued a judgment overruling an SMS denial of refugee status to a family from Iraq and obliging the SMS to recognize the applicants as refugees. In general, the courts drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically.

Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens.

Access to Basic Services: Conditions in the only reception center for asylum seekers were below international standards, according to one international NGO, and did not address the needs of persons with specific needs and disabilities. With an increased number of asylum seekers during the year, many from Iran and Afghanistan, the reception center’s capacity was exhausted and there was no alternative solution for accommodation of persons with specific needs and large families. Additionally, the center allegedly did not provide clean lodging, adequate sanitary facilities, or sufficient food and medicine, leading to the prevalence of illness and communicable disease. Many refugees were also unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system.

Housing allocated to refugees was often in limited supply and in poor condition and remained, along with employment, their greatest concern. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. Authorities operated an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences with Syrian-Armenian refugees who spoke a different dialect created barriers to employment and, initially, education.

Durable Solutions: In 2016 the government adopted a concept document outlining its goals concerning the integration of persons granted asylum and refugee status as well as of long-term migrants. According to UNHCR, while in principle the concept would enhance the legal framework for the protection of refugees, it did not go far enough to cover Syrians who had obtained citizenship, thus excluding from the provision of services the majority of displaced Syrians who had arrived in country since the beginning of the conflict. The concept also did not address critical aspects of integration, such as language needs and access to education. The Ministry of Diaspora drafted an integration strategy focused on Syrian-Armenians displaced as a result of the conflict in Syria. UNHCR promoted and advocated for a single policy and comprehensive integration strategy to facilitate integration of all refugees and other displaced persons without discrimination. While the government approved an initial concept on local integration, full implementation remained pending. NGOs partially filled the gap with UNHCR and international donor funding.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to police data, the number of stateless persons by October 29 was 801. The increase was believed to be related to the rising number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. In addition, authorities considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless as of December 2017.

The law provides for the provision of nationality to stateless children born on the country’s territory.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

In April 2017, the country held parliamentary elections, thereby choosing the first legislative body to govern under the new constitution. In conjunction with amendments to the electoral code, this shifted the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, eliminating the direct election of the president and mayors of two major cities and introducing a complex proportional electoral system that many characterized as semi-majoritarian. After the end of Serzh Sargsyan’s second presidential term on April 9, the parliament elected him on April 17 as the first prime minister under the new constitution. On April 23, however, Sargsyan resigned following nationwide protests. On May 8, under public pressure, the parliament elected opposition leader and member of parliament Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On December 9, the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated but free and competitive campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won 70.44 percent of the vote and most seats in Parliament; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.27 percent and 6.37 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE/Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) December 10 preliminary report noted that “early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms.…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote-buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote-buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by one contestant, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

ODIHR observers stated that “contestants were able to conduct their campaigns freely; fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, expression and movement were fully respected during the campaign.” At the same time they emphasized that disinformation, as well as inflammatory exchanges between some contestants, on social networks, were noted during the campaign. Among the few issues that marred the electoral process, the observers noted that “the integrity of campaign finance was undermined by a lack of regulation, accountability, and transparency. For example, contrary to previous ODIHR and Venice Commission recommendations, organizational expenses such as for office space, communication, transportation, and staff were not considered election-related and therefore could remain unreported, “undermining the transparency of campaign finance.” Other shortcomings highlighted by OSCE observers included the narrow legal standing for submitting electoral complaints, contrary to previous ODIHR and Venice Commission recommendations.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties. Prior to the “velvet revolution,” however, authorities suppressed political pluralism in other ways.

While political pluralism expanded after the May change in government, observers noted increased radicalization in society, reflected most acutely in social media, that shrank the space for criticism of the new government, since any dissent was labeled as “counterrevolutionary” by Civil Contract supporters. Some opposition political actors alleged that the new government directed public pressure against them.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. Although the percentage of female members of the parliament and the Yerevan City Council increased from 2017, the participation of women remained low in these and other decision making structures. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected on October 21.

The OSCE’s preliminary statement following the December 9 parliamentary elections noted that all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender quota requirement and women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not ensure the same proportion of representation of women in the parliament, as half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns – women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies observed. Some women candidates were a target of disparaging rhetoric because of their gender.

There are government-mandated seats in the parliament for the country’s four largest ethnic minorities: Yazidi, Kurds, and the Assyrian and Russian communities. Four members of the parliament represented these constituencies.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes applied to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence, although authorities did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in such cases and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to some NGOs representatives, in cases when a woman alleged rape, she was sometimes questioned about her previous sexual experience and subjected to a “virginity test.” In a few cases, if the rape victim was not a virgin, police would dismiss the allegation as unimportant. A majority of domestic violence cases were considered under the law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for field work to address these crimes.

Between 2010 and 2017, the NGO Coalition to Stop Violence against Women recorded the killing of 50 women by an existing or former partner or by a family member. Information on enforcement actions regarding these killings was unavailable by year’s end. In a high profile case, on November 12, 20-year-old Kristine Iskandaryan was beaten to death by her husband. After police learned her husband previously had battered her he confessed and was detained. In the first six months of the year, nine women were killed under such circumstances, but no information became available about whether their cases were investigated.

The Investigative Committee reported investigating 258 cases of domestic violence in the first half of the year, up from 215 in the same period in 2017. Most of the cases were of women abused by a husband or male domestic partner. During the same period, 259 persons were recognized as victims of domestic violence, of which 33 were minors.

NGOs that promoted women’s rights were criticized mostly online for breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.”

On July 1, the December 2017 Law on Prevention of Family Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Family Violence, and the Restoration of Family Cohesion went into effect. In a March 29 letter to the government, two UN special rapporteurs and a UN working group expressed concerns about the law, including that it is not strong enough to protect those facing domestic violence and that a number of its provisions could contravene the right of women victims of violence to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and could hinder their right to justice and to effective remedies for the harm they had suffered.

According to NGOs, the government lacked resources for the full implementation of the law. Police officers began a training program but did not have adequate training or will to apply the law to perpetrators. There was only one shelter for victims, which did not have the capacity to serve all victims. After the May change in government, NGOs reported the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs took concrete steps to increase cooperation, such as such as funding a second shelter in one of the regions and allowing NGOs to post information on its website.

Several members of parliament continued to voice disapproval of the law, with Tsarukyan bloc member Gevorg Petrosyan calling it an instrument that could be used by “freedom loving women” to get rid of their husbands and “fulfil their fantasies outside of the family.”

Some female politicians, as well as human rights and environmental activists, were subject to gender-biased posts and discriminatory comments in social media.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace was widespread and was not adequately addressed by the government, which did not have a functioning, all-encompassing labor inspectorate or other avenues to report such harassment.

On February 13, Marina Khachatryan, a Yerevan city council member from the opposition Yerkir Tsirani (Apricot Land) party, brought a glass filled with a sample of sewer water that was leaking from the Nubarashen prison into a residential area to a council session. Khachatryan attempted to present the sewer water to then mayor Taron Margaryan to raise awareness of city residents’ complaints that the sewage was harming their community. At Margaryan’s instigation, however, other male council members and staff assaulted Khachatryan, beating and manhandling her while threatening her and using sexual insults. Members of the then ruling Republican Party of Armenia said the response was justified and did not condemn the violence. Law enforcement bodies opened a criminal investigation.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Men and women enjoy equal legal status, but discrimination based on gender was a continuing problem in both the public and private sectors. There were reports of discrimination against women with respect to occupation and employment. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government.

The government took no tangible action on a 2015 World Bank study that examined teaching materials and textbooks of high school classes and found the books gave strong preference to men in all forms of representation, including texts and illustrations, while women were less visible or portrayed in stereotypical way.

According to the World Bank 2016 Armenia Country Gender Assessment, the labor market participation gap between men and women was approximately 17 percent. Despite a significant decline in the difference in earnings between men and women, women still earned on average 36 percent less than men. There were few women leaders in the private sector, including in managerial and entrepreneurial positions.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to the National Statistical Service, the boy to girl ratio at birth decreased from 114 to 100 in 2014 to 110 to 100 in 2017. The law requires doctors to question women on their motives for seeking an abortion and refuse those driven by gender selection concerns.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from one or both parents. A centralized system generated a medical certificate of birth to make avoidance of birth registration almost impossible. A low percentage of registered births occurred mainly in Yezidi and Kurdish communities practicing homebirths.

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities lacked access to early learning programs, despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. According to National Statistics Service, in 2017 nationwide preschool enrolment for children younger than five was 29 percent, but only 17 percent for children in rural communities. Many remote rural communities, especially those with population less than 400, did not have preschools. Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. UNICEF expressed concern about the integration into the local community of an increasing number of refugee children from Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine because of lack of proper support for addressing cultural and linguistic barriers.

According to the Prison Monitoring Group, in the beginning of the year seven juveniles did not have access to education in the Abovyan Penitentiary while they were detained or serving a prison sentence. By December, however, that number had decreased to two.

Child Abuse: According to UNICEF, the lack of official, unified data on violence against children limited the government’s ability to design adequate national responses and preventive measures. There were no official referral procedures for children who were victims of violence, including sexual violence, and referrals were not mandatory for professionals working with children, except for doctors who are required to report any injury of children to police.

The law outlines the roles and responsibilities of police and social services in the early identification and response to violence against children in the family. Although the law went into effect on July 1, the government continued to lack services for victims of domestic violence including women and children.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly more frequent within Yezidi communities, but the government took no measures to document the scale or address the practice.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children and provides for prison sentences of seven to 15 years for violations. Child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

The UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography noted in a February 2016 report that although official statistics showed relatively few cases of sexual exploitation and sale of children, there were numerous undetected and unreported cases caused by gaps in terms of legislation, training, awareness-raising, detection, and reporting.

Institutionalized Children: According to UNICEF and other observers, institutionalized children were at risk of physical and psychological violence by peers and by staff. According to a February 2017 Human Rights Watch report, government policies on deinstitutionalization and inclusive education did not provide rights and benefits to children with disabilities on an equal basis with other children and were discriminatory.

In December 2017 the family code was amended to allow for more family-based alternatives for institutionalized children, such as diversification of foster care and improved provisions on adoption; the amendments entered into force in the middle of the year, resulting in a quadrupling in state funding for foster care. Transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care also continued. With the exception of children with disabilities, the number of institutionalized children continued to decrease.

UNICEF expressed concern about inhuman and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions, including children with intellectual and/or psychosocial disabilities in specialized institutions, as well as neglect and the use of physical restraints as means of treatment and punishment. There was also concern about the inefficiency and inadequacy of the complaints systems and the lack of monitoring of institutions. There were reports on social media that the government’s closure of boarding schools without the timely establishment of proper alternative social care services and provision of basic necessities jeopardized children’s well-being and access to education.

According to the NGO United Methodist Committee on Relief, deinstitutionalized children in the country were more at risk of being involved in forced begging, forced labor, and trafficking and of being subjected to violence at home. The NGO relayed at least one case where a deinstitutionalized child was forced to beg by his stepfather. The NGO Coalition to Stop Violence against Women reported that, after a child was placed with a host family, the government ceased any real oversight over the child and the family.

In one Yezidi-populated village, parents complained of discrimination by school teachers and a principal toward their children. They also alleged that the school principal and teachers (who were not ethnically part of the Yezidi community) failed to provide children with quality, public education and reportedly used ethnic slurs against the Yezidis.

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

Anti-Semitism

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts, although after the “velvet revolution” some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not respond to these slurs.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with any disability in employment, education, and access to health care and other state services, but discrimination remained a problem. The law and a special government decree require both new buildings and those under renovation, including schools, to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Very few buildings or other facilities were accessible, even if newly constructed or renovated. Many public buildings, including schools and kindergartens, were inaccessible. This inaccessibility also deterred persons with disabilities from voting, since these buildings often served as polling stations during elections. According to the OSCE/ODIHR election observation report on the December 9 snap parliamentary elections, 71 percent of polling stations observed were not accessible to persons with physical disabilities or reduced mobility.

Although the law on general education provides for a transition from general education to inclusive education for children with disabilities by 2025, and despite the increasing trend towards inclusive education, many children with disabilities remained in segregated educational settings and did not have access to inclusive education. Many NGOs reported schools lacked physical accessibility and accessible learning materials and made limited effort to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities in mainstream schools. In addition, teachers did not receive adequate training on inclusive education.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities but prior to May failed to carry out this mandate effectively. For example, in September 2017, the government approved a decision to issue vouchers to persons with disabilities to purchase hearing aids and wheelchairs, instead of providing the actual devices. There were reports, however, the vouchers failed to cover the market price of hearing aids and wheelchairs, resulting in financial strain on the persons who needed them.

Persons with all types of disabilities experienced discrimination in every sphere, including access to health care, social and psychological rehabilitation, education, transportation, communication, employment, social protection, cultural events, and use of the internet. Lack of access to information and communications was a particularly significant problem for persons with sensory disabilities. Women with disabilities faced further discrimination, including in social acceptance and access to health and reproductive care, employment, and education, due to their gender.

Hospitals, residential care, and other facilities for persons with more significant disabilities remained substandard.

Disability status determines eligibility for various social benefits. Media reports alleged corruption and arbitrary rulings on the part of the Medical-Social Expertise Commission, a governmental body under the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that determines a person’s disability status. In 2016, the National Security Service arrested and charged the head of the commission, Armen Soghoyan, and 16 other officials with soliciting bribes. The trial of the case was ongoing as of year’s end.

By the year’s end, the Investigative Committee opened 92 criminal cases for corrupt practices in the social security (including disability pensions) provision offices. The committee brought charges against 50 persons.

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

Antidiscrimination laws do not extend protections to LGBTI persons on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were no hate crime laws or other criminal judicial mechanisms to aid in the prosecution of crimes against members of the LGBTI community. Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity negatively affected all aspects of life, including employment, housing, family relations, and access to education and health care. Transgender persons were especially vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse and harassment.

During the year the NGO Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK Armenia) documented 15 cases of alleged human rights violations against LGBTI persons, but only four victims sought help from the ombudsperson’s office and none from law enforcement bodies. Three cases were sent to court; the fourth one was dropped because the perpetrator committed suicide.

On August 14, police arrested a suspect after several transgender individuals called to report being attacked at a public park. The same day, police released a video of the transgender persons trying to attack the suspect, who was under arrest at the police station, with the narrator indicating that the attackers were guilty of violence against the police. The video included the names and photos of the transgender individuals. Police arrested the two transgender persons in the video. According to the arrestees’ statements, six police officers beat them and held them in handcuffs over a 72-hour period they spent at the police station. Police later released one of the transgender persons. On August 16, the second transgender person was taken to Nubarashen Prison. The prison administration subsequently sent a letter to the prosecutor general’s office stating that, upon admission to prison, the detainee had signs of physical abuse on his body. The detainee was charged with hooliganism (punishable by up to seven years in prison) and violence against authorities (punishable by up to five years in prison). According to SIS, it had launched a criminal case on charges of torture against the police officers who had allegedly beaten the transgender person. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

On August 3, while an LGBTI activist was hosting eight friends in his parents’ house in Shurnukh village, a mob of approximately 30 persons attacked them and chased them out of the village, hitting, kicking, and throwing stones at them while yelling insults. Six of the activists were taken to the hospital. The victims reported the attack to police, who opened a criminal case on charges of beating. In December the police dropped the case based on the November Amnesty, although nobody had been charged within the case, although according to PINK Armenia, the names of the perpetrators, allegedly most of the village residents, were known.

On November 6, the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups and New Generation NGO announced the cancellation of the Forum of LGBT Christians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to take place in Yerevan November 15-18. The Forum would have brought participants together for networking, discussions, and prayer. After news leaked about the forum, local and Russia-connected bloggers seized on the information to provoke anti-LGBTI sentiment and issue threats of violence and death against the LGBTI community and forum participants. Police officials met with New Generation to discuss security risks facing the organizers and participants. New Generation subsequently cancelled the forum issuing a statement that read in part, “We are deeply distressed and disappointed that political violence, death threats, and vandalism directed at LGBTI people are constituting a genuine threat to the safety of our participants.”

Several international organizations, the Human Rights Defenders Office, and a number of civil society organizations issued statements condemning the violence at Shurnukh. Many more social media posts, however, defended the villagers with messages attacking LGBTI and other minorities. In one Facebook post, Prosperous Armenia parliamentarian Gevorg Petrosyan wrote, “all gays, sectarians, and their defenders should be eradicated from our holy land.”

Openly gay men are exempt from military service. An exemption, however, requires a medical finding based on a psychological examination indicating an individual has a mental disorder; this information appears in the individual’s personal identification documents and is an obstacle to employment and obtaining a driver’s license. Gay men who served in the army reportedly faced physical and psychological abuse as well as blackmail.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to human rights groups, persons regarded as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, such as sex workers (including transgender sex workers) and drug users, faced discrimination and violence from society as well as mistreatment by police. According to a June UN Human Rights Council report by the rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, stigma and discrimination in health-care settings were major barriers to accessing treatment and services for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the April 11 presidential election took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. National Assembly elections in 2015 could not be fully assessed due to the absence of an OSCE election observation mission, but independent observers alleged numerous irregularities throughout the country.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met in Dushanbe.

Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; criminalization of libel; physical attacks on journalists; arbitrary interference with privacy; interference in the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association through intimidation; incarceration on questionable charges; harsh physical abuse of selected activists, journalists, and secular and religious opposition figures; blocking of websites; restrictions on freedom of movement for a growing number of journalists and activists; refoulement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police detention and torture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.

The government did not prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered nine journalists and bloggers and one poet to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli, who was sentenced to six years in prison on January 12 by the Balakan District Court. The Sheki Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on April 24 and the Supreme Court rejected the appeal on September 18. Mukhtarli had been living in Georgia before he was reportedly abducted from Tbilisi in May 2017 (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).

A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, authorities arrested opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli four days after he gave a speech on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, at the grave of journalist Elmar Huseynov. In his speech, Bakhishli held President Aliyev responsible for Huseynov’s killing. On September 18, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Bakhishli had been sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention in late March and released a few days before his May 3 speech.

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity,” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures. Authorities placed activists in administrative detention for their critical social media posts. For example, on May 22, opposition Popular Front Party member Rahib Salimli was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after he used social media to call for the release of political prisoners.

Press and Media Freedom: Government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media throughout the year. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities penalized them in various ways for doing so. The 2018 IREX Media Sustainability Index stated that “mainstream news media are under the strict control of the ruling elite and only report news that suits its purposes.” No significant opposition printed publications remained in the country.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations.

Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network. On August 1, authorities shut the progovernment media holding company APA News Agency, further reducing sources of information in the country.

During the year authorities continued to pressure independent media outlets outside the country and those individuals associated with them in the country. In high-profile examples, authorities continued the criminal case against Meydan TV initiated in 2015.

Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported journalists from independent media outlets were subject to physical and cyberattacks during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.

Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of physical attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. There were no indications that authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists that took place in prior years. Journalists and human rights defenders continued to call for full accountability for the 2015 beating and death of journalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev, who reported receiving threatening messages three weeks earlier; the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa; and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. For example, Kanal 13 journalist Ismail Islamoglu stated publicly that police detained him on October 26 and subjected him to physical and psychological pressure for three days for his journalistic activities. In July the Prosecutor General’s Office opened criminal cases against websites Bastainfo.comand Criminal.az and interrogated their editors in chief and journalists for their reporting on the assault on Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev.

Most locally based media outlets relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing. Those not benefitting from this type of financing experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. In May 2017 the law was amended increasing the fine for libel from 100 to 1,000 manat ($58 to $580) to 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($580 to $875). The fine for slander was increased from 300 to 1,000 manat ($175 to $580) to 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($580 to $1,170). The law was also amended so that insulting the president could no longer be punished by fines, leaving judges with the sole options of punishment of up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Libel laws were employed against journalists. For example, in March 2017 a Baku city court sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years’ imprisonment for libel for publicly stating that he was tortured by police.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives.

Some activists and journalists suspected the government was behind the hacking of several social media accounts. In high-profile examples involving activists, on January 9, the Facebook page of Jamil Hasanli, chairman of the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), was hacked and all posts on the page were deleted; on February 4, prominent NCDF member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook page was hacked. In an illustrative example involving the media, on January 29, the Facebook pages of independent media outlet Meydan TV were hacked.

In July and August, the Sabayil District Court granted the suits of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies and blocked access to Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az. On August 10, the Baku Court of Appeals court ruled to unblock Arqument. The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets including Azadliq, Turan, and Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by the authorities during the year.

The government also required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online.

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period from June 2017 through May, showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. It stated that the government increasingly blocked access to news websites and noted cyberattacks against news websites and activists ahead of the April presidential election; new fines for distributing illegal content online; and the detention of journalists, bloggers, and social media users for their online publications.

According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 80 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members reported difficulty finding teaching jobs at schools and universities.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who failed to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($290 to $580) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them unconstitutional. Authorities throughout the country routinely ignored applications for public rallies, effectively denying the freedom to assemble.

Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in periods of administrative detention up to 30 days. A total of 18 individuals were detained and sentenced to 15 to 30 days of administrative detention for their participation in government authorized opposition rallies on March 10, March 31, and April 14. Activists also stated that, as of April 15, more than 100 Popular Front party members were summoned or harassed by police and warned about participating in opposition demonstrations. In another high-profile example, Azer Gasimli and four other activists of the opposition Republican Alternative Party were arrested, charged with resisting police, and sentenced to administrative detention for their role in organizing an unauthorized march in the center of Baku on May 28 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Police summoned dozens of other participants and warned them not to take part in similar future events.

The government also prevented opposition groups from gathering to visit culturally important sites, a practice authorities previously permitted. For example, on November 17, police detained approximately 50 opposition activists, including PFP Chairman Ali Kerimli and NCDF Chairman Jamil Hasanli, for attempting to hold a procession through Martyr’s Alley to commemorate National Revival Day. Most activists were released the same day, but Kerimli and approximately eight others were held incommunicado until November 19, when Kerimli and five others were released with fines and three PFP activists were sentenced to 20 days of administrative detention.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.

A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.

Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.

In 2014 the president approved a number of amendments to the administrative code and the laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities that imposed additional restrictions on NGO activities and closed several loopholes for the operations of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The legislation also introduced some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors were required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The laws make unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidated and dissuaded potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricted their ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

In January 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued new regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. According to the new procedures, obtaining grant registration processes for multiple agencies were merged. The new procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

In 2016 the Ministry of Justice adopted rules on monitoring NGO activities. The rules authorize the ministry to conduct inspections of NGOs, with few provisions protecting their rights, and provide the potential of harsh fines if they do not cooperate.

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. As a result a number of NGOs were unable to operate, the bank accounts of several NGOs remained frozen, and some NGO leaders were still prohibited from leaving the country.

The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, no foreign NGOs had been able to register under these rules.

NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on submitted applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues related to democratic development. Some experts estimated up to 1,000 NGOs remained unregistered.

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for at least 20 opposition figures, activists, and journalists.

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

Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), the head of the Republican Alternative Party Assembly, Azer Gasimli, investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, lawyers Intigam Aliyev, Asabali Mustafayev, and Emin Aslanov, and at least 15 freelance journalists who filed material with Meydan TV. A travel ban was imposed on Republican Alternative Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov following his conditional release from prison on August 13 (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In August authorities lifted the travel ban on human rights activist Ogtay Gulaliyev that had been in place since 2011.

The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses but given suspended sentences also were not permitted to travel abroad.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

The Azerbaijani State Committee for Refugee and IDP Affairs reported 641,890 registered IDPs in the country, including persons in IDP-like situations, as of year’s end. UNHCR reported 620,422 registered IDPs in the country during the year. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988-93 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

IDPs had access to education and health care, but their unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Some international observers stated the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Refoulement: There were press reports that Turkish citizens were transferred from Azerbaijan to Turkey–where they were detained by Turkish authorities–without due process. Citing Turkish media sources, Turan reported February 22 that Azerbaijani officials facilitated the detention and extradition to Turkey of Ayhan Seferoglu and Erdogan Taylor, both of whom had worked as teachers in Azerbaijan, despite Azerbaijani court rulings in their favor. After his detention, Serfoglu’s Azerbaijani wife reportedly asked the Azerbaijan State Migration Service to grant her husband political asylum; authorities subsequently informed Serfoglu’s Azerbaijani wife that the application had been rejected. Turkish authorities reportedly alleged Seferoglu and Taylor were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. According to an April 18 Meydan TV report, Azerbaijani authorities also rendered three such Turkish citizens back to Turkey in 2017 in a similar manner.

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 some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for all refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: According to UNHCR, the country did not allow Russian citizens who fled the conflict in Chechnya access to the national asylum procedure. UNHCR noted, however, that the country tolerated the presence of Chechen asylum seekers and accepted UNHCR’s role in providing for their protection and humanitarian needs.

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,131 refugees (a number that includes state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at the end of 2016, the most recent year for which data was available. According to the State Migration Service, 291 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.

While the law provides for the right to apply for stateless status, some persons could not obtain the documentation required for the application and, therefore, remained formally unrecognized. The law on citizenship makes it difficult for foreigners and stateless persons to obtain citizenship.

For the most part, stateless persons enjoyed freedom of movement within the country. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted to Azerbaijan if they left the country. The law permits stateless persons access to basic rights, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.

The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government had stripped 85 persons of citizenship. On October 4, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a written statement noting the government’s 2015 deprivation of journalist Emin Huseynov’s citizenship should be viewed “as part of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, the government continued to restrict this ability by interfering in the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: On February 5, the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October to April 11. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. ODIHR concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.

The OSCE/ODIHR cancelled its observation of the 2015 National Assembly elections when the government refused to accept its recommended number of election observers. Without ODIHR participation, it was impossible to assess properly the fairness of the elections. Independent local and international monitors who observed the election alleged a wide range of irregularities throughout the country, including blocking observers from entering polling stations, ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and voting by unregistered individuals; opposition monitors also alleged such irregularities. The country’s main opposition parties boycotted the election.

Following a 2016 referendum, constitutional amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years and permitted the president to call early elections if twice in one year legislators passed no-confidence measures in the government or rejected presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession. In February 2017 the president appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president. While observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly reported the referendum was well executed, independent election observers identified numerous instances of ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. They also observed significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the Central Election Commission.

Political Parties and Political Participation: While there were 55 registered political parties, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party dominated the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. The National Assembly has not included representatives of the country’s main opposition parties since 2010.

During the year authorities continued to take various measures to prevent the Republican Alternative Movement from incorporating itself as a political party. For example, in October and November 2017, the Baku City Executive Authority denied the group’s repeated requests for space to hold a party congress and reportedly ordered private venues to refuse to rent space to the group. On April 7 and 8, the group held an online party congress and subsequently announced its transformation into a political party, acknowledging the online congress would not meet government requirements for registration.

The Popular Front Party was initially denied a venue for its party congress by the Baku City Executive Authority. After losing a court challenge, the city provided a venue on April 1.

Opposition members were more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights defenders estimated at least 60 individuals associated with opposition political parties were detained and sentenced to administrative detention under these circumstances during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, at least 15 opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including the head of the Shirvan branch of the Musavat Party, Alikram Kurshudov, and all three deputy chairs of the Popular Front Party, Gozel Bayramli, Fuad Gahramanli, and Seymur Hezi.

Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and by employing economic pressure on their family members.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs, a cabinet-level position, was female, and 16.8 percent of members of the National Assembly were women.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal and carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Spousal rape is also illegal, but observers stated police did not effectively investigate such claims.

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of the domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that as a result, police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims.

The State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA) continued their activities against domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. For example, during the year the SCFWCA organized an awareness campaign against domestic violence as part of a “16 Days against Gender Based Violence” campaign. Activities included the placement of advertising on billboards and public transportation, handing out pamphlets in urban centers, and holding conference with stakeholders to discuss the problem.

The government provided limited protection to women who were victims of assault. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment. The SCFWCA worked extensively to organize events that raised awareness of sexual harassment and domestic violence. For example, on August 6 and 7, the SCFWCA organized a workshop on combatting domestic violence in Goychay.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Although women nominally enjoyed the same legal rights as men, societal and employment-based discrimination was a problem. According to the State Statistical Committee, there was discrimination against women in employment, including wide disparities in pay and higher rates of unemployment.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The gender ratio of children born in the country during the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the SCFWCA. Local experts reported gender-biased sex selection was widespread, predominantly in rural regions. The SCFWCA conducted seminars and public media campaigns to raise awareness of the problem.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. Registration at birth was routine for births in hospitals or clinics. Some children born at home were not registered.

Education: While education was compulsory, free, and universal until the age of 17, large families in impoverished rural areas sometimes placed a higher priority on the education of boys and kept girls in the home to work. Social workers stated that some poor families forced their children to work or beg rather than attend school.

Child Abuse: While there are penalties for sexual violence against children and child labor, the law does assign punishment for domestic and other violence specifically against children. To address the problem of child abuse, the SCFWCA organized multiple events. Between May and August, the State Committee held meetings with public servants on combatting gender discrimination and child abuse in Sheki, Shamakhi, Gakh, Goygol, Shamkir, Gadabay, Lankaran, Jalilabad, and Lerik.

Early and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2016 State of the World’s Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before their 18th birthday. The law provides that a girl may marry at the age of 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states a boy may marry at the age of 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam. In August activists reported the rape of a 14-year-old girl in Lerik and her family’s subsequent plans to marry her to the rapist. According to media reports, authorities did not investigate the case.

The law establishes fines of 3,000 to 4,000 manat ($1,750 to $2,340) or imprisonment for up to four years for conviction of the crime of forced marriage with an underage child. Girls who married under the terms of religious marriage contracts were of particular concern, since these were not subject to government oversight and do not entitle the wife to recognition of her status in case of divorce.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Recruitment of minors for prostitution (involving a minor in immoral acts) is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The law prohibits pornography; its production, distribution, or advertisement is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

Displaced Children: In past years a large number of internally displaced children lived in substandard conditions and, in some cases, were unable to attend school. Significant government investment in IDP communities has largely alleviated these problems. Some civil society representatives working with street children reported boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

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

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish community was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. A local NGO reported there were approximately 60,000 children with disabilities in the country, of whom 6,000 to 10,000 had access to specialized educational facilities while the rest were educated at home or not at all. The Ministries of Education and Labor and Social Protection of the Population continued efforts to increase the inclusion of children with disabilities into regular classrooms, particularly at the primary education level. No laws mandate access to public or other buildings, information, or communications for persons with disabilities, and most buildings were not accessible. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

During the year the government funded construction projects to make large sections of downtown Baku’s sidewalks wheelchair accessible. As a result persons with disabilities affecting mobility were better able to navigate the city.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. Civil society activists stated an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. Some groups, including Talysh in the south and Lezghi in the north, reported the government did not provide official textbooks in their local native languages.

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

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover LGBTI individuals.

In September 2017 police conducted raids on the LGBTI community, arresting and detaining more than 83 men presumed to be gay or bisexual as well as transgender women. Media and human rights lawyers reported that police beat detainees and subjected them to electric shocks to obtain bribes and information about other gay men. Detainees were released after being sentenced to up to 30 day of administrative detention and/or fined up to 200 manat ($117). During the year some victims of the raids filed cases against state in the ECHR, which remained pending at year’s end.

A local NGO reported there were numerous incidents of police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation and noted that authorities did not investigate or punish those responsible. Men who acknowledged or were suspected of being gay during medical examinations for conscription were subjected to rectal examinations and often found unqualified for military service on the grounds that they were mentally ill. There were also reports of family based violence against LGBTI individuals, hate speech against LGBTI persons, and hostile Facebook postings on personal online accounts.

Activists reported that LGBTI individuals were regularly fired by employers if their sexual orientation/gender identity became known.

LGBTI individuals generally refused to file formal complaints of discrimination or mistreatment with law enforcement bodies due to fear of social stigma or retaliation. Activists reported police indifference to investigating crimes committed against LGBTI individuals.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Civil society representatives reported discriminatory attitudes towards persons with HIV and AIDS were prevalent throughout society. The government continued to fund an NGO that worked on health issues affecting the LGBTI community.

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