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Macedonia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. Parliamentary elections were last held in December 2016 and presidential elections in 2014. In its final report on the parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observed that the elections were transparent, well administered, and orderly but took place “in an environment characterized by a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment” and failed to meet some important OSCE commitments for a democratic electoral process. OSCE/ODIHR’s final report on the 2014 presidential elections noted the elections respected citizens’ fundamental freedoms, but that there was inadequate separation between party and state activities.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

On May 31, the parliament elected a new government led by a previous opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), thereby ending a months-long government formation process. On April 27, after a majority of parliament members elected Talat Xhaferi as speaker, protesters stormed the parliament, resulting in injuries to seven members. Media reported members of the Ministry of Interior aided the protesters and failed to uphold their duty to protect parliament members. The ministry punished officers for failing to carry out their duties, including by dismissing eight officers.

The most significant human rights issues included reports of torture by prison guards; interference with privacy; violence against journalists; lack of judicial independence; corruption; and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

The government took some steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses, including police officials guilty of excessive force, but impunity continued to be a widespread problem. Between April 15 and September 15, the Special Prosecutor’s Office, investigating allegations of corruption between 2008 and 2015, filed 18 indictments against 120 defendants, charged 168 criminal offenses, and opened seven investigations against 25 suspects. It also initiated 142 preliminary investigations into apparent criminal behavior relating to or arising from the content of illegally intercepted communications.

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

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

There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

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

The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports that police abused detainees and prisoners and used excessive force. During the first six months of the year, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector for Internal Control and Professional Standards Unit reported receiving 11 complaints against police officers for use of excessive force. It took disciplinary action against two officers for those offenses. From January through September, the Ombudsman’s Office received nine complaints against police for unlawful or excessive use of force.

On October 12, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released a report on its December 2016 visit to the country. During the visit the CPT reported receiving a number of consistent allegations of deliberate physical mistreatment of inmates by prison officers at Idrizovo Prison, the country’s largest penitentiary. The reported mistreatment consisted mainly of slaps, punches, kicks, and blows to various parts of the body and was reportedly used by prison staff as a disciplinary tool, as unofficial punishment for infractions, and as a reaction to inmate requests and complaints. The CPT also noted reports prison officers deliberately incited prisoners to mistreat convicted sex offenders and Romani individuals as well as allegations that prison officers themselves hit convicted sex offenders with batons (see Prison and Detention Center Conditions). The CPT also reported receiving a few allegations of mistreatment of inmates by officers at Stip Prison.

In its October 12 report, the CPT stated, “The violence at Idrizovo Prison is integrally linked to the endemic corruption that has pervaded the whole prison and implicates prison officers, including officers of all grades up to the most senior officers, and educators.” The report noted, “At Idrizovo Prison, every aspect of imprisonment is up for sale, from obtaining a place in a decent cell, to home leave, to medication, to mobile phones and drugs.” In one example of violence linked to corruption and payments to prison officers at Idrizovo Prison, prison officers severely beat an inmate in September 2016; the CPT confirmed the case was under investigation by the Skopje Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In July 2016, six of 37 defendants accused of participating in the 2015 armed clashes with police in Kumanovo that left 18 persons dead asked the court for medical assistance after claiming police brutality during their transport from detention facilities to the court. Lawyers for the defendants requested an indefinite postponement of the trial, claiming, “Torture of the defendants is evident and it has been happening from the first day they were arrested until the last hearing.” The court informed the suspects’ lawyers that a medical report confirmed the physical abuse of two defendants and recognized minor injuries. The former minister of interior, Mitko Chavkov, asserted an investigation into the claims found no evidence of torture and that no charges were filed against accused police and prison guards, despite repeated complaints and calls for action by defense counsel and the ombudsman. In December 2016 the Ministry of Interior announced it would reopen the investigation. As of September 1, there were 14 police officers and prison guards under investigation for the alleged abuses. In October the ombudsman confirmed allegations of torture perpetrated by Ministry of Interior employees in charge of transporting the defendants to court. An investigation continued into one defendant’s claim that a member of the “Tigers” police unit sexually assaulted him.

During the year the European Roma Rights Center, a human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), alleged “institutional violence” was perpetrated against Romani individuals in prisons and that there were several cases of Romani individuals being mistreated in detention facilities, resulting in their deaths.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

The country’s prisons and detention centers failed to meet international standards and in some cases, according to the CPT, conditions could be described as amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment. Endemic corruption, high rates of overcrowding, mistreatment by prison guards, interprisoner violence, unsafe and unhygienic conditions, insufficient staffing, and inadequate training of guards and personnel remained serious problems, particularly at Idrizovo Prison, which held more than three-fifths of the country’s prison population.

Physical Conditions: The country had 11 prisons and three juvenile correctional facilities; seven prisons also housed pretrial detainees. The prisons were designed to hold 2,036 adults, 43 juveniles, and 450 pretrial detainees. As of September 1, the system held 2,767 individuals–2,507 adults, 235 pretrial detainees, and 25 juveniles.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, poor conditions gave rise to what it called the “inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees.”

In addition to mistreatment of inmates at Idrizovo Prison by prison staff (see section 1.c.), the CPT reported that interprisoner violence remained a serious problem at the prison. In one reported case, newly arrived prisoners sentenced for sexual offenses were repeatedly subjected to punches and blows with hard objects (such as brooms) by groups of inmates. Prison staff reportedly did not take any measures to protect these prisoners, and there were allegations that prison officers deliberately incited prisoners to mistreat sex offenders. Some prisoners claimed they were beaten by other inmates because they were unable to pay off debts incurred while in prison.

Prison authorities identified prison overcrowding as a core problem that gave rise to many secondary problems, including inadequate housing conditions for inmates, insufficient and substandard health care, difficult conditions for personal and general hygiene, and poor sanitation. Idrizovo Prison, which was built to hold 800 inmates but held more than 1,800, had especially bad conditions. In its October 12 report, the CPT noted sanitary annexes were in an “appalling state (filthy, foul-smelling, damaged, and leaking), many of the showers did not work and there was hardly any provision of hot water.” At the time of the December 2016 visit, the CPT reported that heating was working only a few hours a day. Provision of health care at Idrizovo and Skopje Prisons was inadequate. The CPT also observed that many prisoners were suffering from insect bites and infections such as scabies.

Insufficient staffing and inadequate training of prison guards and other personnel continued to be problems at all facilities.

Administration: In its October 12 report, the CPT noted it found no functioning internal complaint system in the three establishments it visited, including Idrizovo Prison. In general the ombudsman found that correctional authorities’ investigations into allegations of mistreatment and abuse of prisoners were ineffective. Most offenders continued to abuse with impunity and when criminal charges were filed, the cases were not handled promptly or efficiently. As of September the ombudsman received 157 complaints concerning treatment in correctional facilities and was investigating 44.

The Department for Enforcement of Sanctions received 14 notifications of the use of force against inmates by prison police. One case was under investigation at year’s end.

Independent Monitoring: The law allows physicians, diplomatic representatives, and representatives from the CPT and the International Committee of the Red Cross access to pretrial detainees with the approval of the investigative judge. The government usually only granted independent humanitarian organizations, such as the country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, access to convicted prisoners upon the prisoners’ requests.

The ombudsman regularly visited the country’s prisons and investigated credible allegations of problematic conditions, although on some occasions prisons turned away the ombudsman’s staff because prison administrators were on vacation or medical leave. The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture visited a variety of detention facilities in April. In a press release about the visit, it highlighted the under resourcing of the ombudsman’s office as a critical deficiency in the prevention of torture in correctional facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his/her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The army is responsible for external security, and the president is the supreme commander of the Army. The national police maintain internal security, including migration and border enforcement, and report to the Ministry of the Interior. Civilian authorities have not yet addressed gaps in oversight over law enforcement personnel, particularly in the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Security and Counterintelligence (UBK), which, without legal authorization, allegedly intercepted the communications of more than 20,000 individuals over a multiyear period (see section 1.f.). On September 12, Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski announced plans to reform the UBK and improve its reputation and professionalism. Planned reforms include a system designed to reduce the chances of abusing the legal wiretap authorities. The ombudsman received nine complaints of unlawful or excessive use of force while performing official duties. International observers, embassies, and local NGOs cited corruption, lack of transparency, and political pressure within the ministry as hindering efforts to fight crime, particularly organized crime.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the Army and the Ministry of Interior, and the government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year.

The working group tasked with investigating the Ministry of Interior’s role in the April 27 attack on the parliament found legal and operational shortcomings within the ministry stemming from improper political and criminal influence over officials, including police officers. In response to the election of the new speaker of the parliament on April 27, approximately 200 demonstrators broke through a police cordon, entered the parliament building, and attacked journalists and parliament members. A Ministry of Interior investigation into the events of April 27 concluded that certain employees usurped their official position and failed to adequately protect members of the parliament and journalists. As a result of the investigation, 180 police officers were questioned, eight were dismissed, 43 were suspended, and 70 disciplinary procedures remained in progress.

In addition to investigating alleged police mistreatment, the Ministry of Interior’s Professional Standards Unit conducted all internal investigations into allegations of other forms of police misconduct. The unit has authority to impose administrative sanctions, such as temporary suspension from work, during its investigations. The unit cannot take disciplinary measures, which require a ruling from a disciplinary commission, nor can it impose more serious criminal sanctions, which require court action. During the first half of the year, the unit initiated disciplinary action against 175 police personnel and filed six criminal charges against ministry employees for criminal acts, including “abuse of official position,” “deceit,” and “mistreatment in performing a duty.”

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The law requires that a judge issue warrants for arrest and detention of suspects based on evidence, and police generally followed this requirement. The law states that prosecutors must arraign a detainee within 24 hours of arrest. A pretrial procedure judge, at the request of a prosecutor, may order detention of suspects for up to 72 hours before arraignment. Police generally adhered to these procedures. Authorities generally informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. Detention prior to indictment may last a maximum of 180 days. Following indictment, pretrial detention may last a maximum of two years.

In the majority of cases, the courts adhered to the law for pretrial detention procedures. The selectivity and lack of transparency courts used when evaluating requests for pretrial detention or detention during trials were problematic. Government statistics indicated that prosecutors requested detention orders in 5 percent of all cases. The Skopje Criminal Court granted 80 percent of pretrial detention requests by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. At the same time, the courts denied 89 percent of similar requests for detention and other precautionary measures submitted by the Special Prosecutor’s Office. Over the previous year, courts also rejected additional requests from the Special Prosecutor’s Office for precautionary measures, including house arrest and passport seizure. In some cases the court’s denials allowed high-profile suspects to evade prosecution.

On June 30, the Special Prosecutor’s Office requested a 30-day pretrial detention order for defendants in the “Target” and “Fortress II” cases, Goran Grujevski and Nikola Boshkovski. The Skopje Criminal Court denied the request on June 1. On June 17, the Skopje Appellate Court upheld the detention order pending a Supreme Court decision. On July 26, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s ruling and issued an international arrest warrant against the two, which the Ministry of Interior disseminated through Interpol channels. On October 19, Greek police detained the defendants in Thessaloniki for possession and use of false Bulgarian passports and identification documents. On November 8, Grujevski was tried in absentia in the Fortress II case and sentenced to 18 months in prison. As of December both individuals were awaiting extradition.

The courts sometimes failed to provide appropriate justification for prolonging, substituting, or terminating pretrial detention.

On May 12, the Supreme Court reversed the Skopje Criminal Court’s detention order against Sead Kocan, which was originally requested by the Special Prosecutor’s Office. Media reported Supreme Court president Jovo Vangelovski delayed signing and transmitting the detention order to the Ministry of Interior, allowing the defendant to flee. Kocan, along with three other businessmen, was suspected of falsifying documents in 2011 to win a tender of 17 million euros ($20 million) from the state power company to extract coal from a mine near the city of Bitola.

There is an operating bail system. The law allows defendants to communicate with an attorney of their choice, but authorities did not always inform detainees properly of this right and did not always allow them to consult with an attorney prior to arraignment. Indigent detainees have the right to a state-provided attorney, and authorities generally respected this right. Judges usually granted permission for attorneys to visit their clients in detention. Police reportedly called suspects and witnesses to police stations for “informative talks” without notifying them of their rights and without the presence of legal counsel. Authorities did not practice incommunicado detention but sometimes held suspects under house arrest.

Arbitrary Arrest: The ombudsman received two complaints of arbitrary arrest, and a number of high-profile cases from previous years have not been resolved due to continuous trial postponements.

On November 28, the Criminal Court of Skopje ordered the arrest of 36 suspects for questioning in connection with investigations into the violent attacks in parliament on April 27. After initial questioning, the court ordered 21 individuals remanded to 30-day pretrial detention, including the former chief of public security and members of parliament (MPs). Due to their parliamentary immunity, the MPs were released pending a parliamentary decision on the immunity. On December 1, parliament lifted the immunity of the MPs at the court’s request, citing the nature of the alleged crime; on December 5, the Skopje Criminal Court ordered 30-day detentions of three VMRO-DPMNE MPs and house arrest for the other three. Opposition party VMRO-DPMNE called the detentions politically motivated and its supporters protested on multiple occasions over the course of several weeks. On December 28, in response to a petition by 33 VMRO-DPMNE MPs asking the ombudsman to determine whether the rights of the MPs were violated, the ombudsman announced police had violated the rights to parliamentary immunity and presumption of innocence of the six MPs. He recommended that the Ministry of Interior open an investigation into the conduct of the officers involved and questioned whether the court had authority to issue an arrest warrant for individuals with parliamentary immunity without their immunity being lifted beforehand. On December 29, the minister of interior stated, “during the detainment of the MPs, the police acted legally–upon an order issued by the court,” adding that he provided documentation on the case to the ombudsman. On December 27, the detentions of the MPs were renewed for another 30 days.

Detainees’ Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Arrested suspects, their attorneys, or close family members can petition the court to decide the lawfulness of their detention or obtain court-ordered release as well as to obtain compensation for persons unlawfully detained.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for “autonomous and independent” courts, supported by an independent and autonomous Judicial Council. The judiciary failed to demonstrate independence and impartiality, however, and judges were subject to political influence and corruption. The outcomes of many judicial actions appeared predetermined, particularly in cases where the defendants held views or took actions in opposition to the government. Inadequate funding of the judiciary continued to hamper court operations and effectiveness. A number of judicial officials accused the government of using its budgetary authority to exert control over the judiciary.

According to the ombudsman’s annual report for 2016, the second greatest number of citizen complaints (577 or 15 percent) received by the ombudsman concerned the judicial system. As of September the ombudsman had received 363 complaints concerning the judicial system during the year. The ombudsman’s report stated citizens complained about long trials, bias, selective justice, and undue pressure on judges. A significant portion of court budgets reportedly went to paying damages for violations of citizens’ right to trial within a reasonable time. The report indicated court decisions were sometimes considerably delayed due to administrative deficiencies or judges exceeding the legally prescribed deadlines for issuing written judgments.

In a report released in 2015, the European Commission’s Senior Experts Group highlighted the “atmosphere of pressure and insecurity within the judiciary. Many judges believed that promotion within the ranks of the judiciary was reserved for those whose decisions favor the political establishment.” The update to this report, released September 14, noted that within the judiciary, “many of the practices denounced in the 2015 report have continued.” The report specifically asserted, “The control and misuse of the judicial system…to serve and promote political interests has not diminished by any significant respect.”

While there were strict rules regulating the assignment of cases to judges that were implemented through an electronic case management system, the European Commission’s Senior Experts Group’s September 14 report noted, “there are credible indications that this system has frequently been interfered with in order to ensure the allocation of sensitive files to particular judges.” In its 2016 annual enlargement progress report, the European Commission found allegations of direct interference by judicial authorities in the use of the Automated Court Case Management Information System (ACCMIS) to assign judges to handle specific procedures initiated by the special prosecutor. Initial findings of the government’s ACCMIS audit, released December 7, found the system had been manipulated, substantiating longstanding rumors of abuse. The Ministry of Justice indicated it would submit the results to the Judicial Council and Public Prosecutor for action.

On February 20, the president of the Skopje Criminal Court, Tatjana Mihajlova, transferred 20 (out of a total 67) judges presiding over high-level criminal cases to the misdemeanor and juvenile divisions of the court. Multiple members of the judiciary claimed the transfers were in retaliation for rulings favorable to the Special Prosecutor’s Office. Judges also alleged that Mihajlova and her successor, Stojance Ribarev, only assigned judges with a record of obstructing the special prosecutor to oversee the cases brought by the Special Prosecutor’s Office.

A 2015 report by the European Commission’s Senior Experts Group raised concerns about the fairness of the conviction of Zvonko Kostovski, a defendant in the “Coup” case. Kostovski, a counterintelligence officer in the Ministry of Interior, pleaded guilty to espionage and illegal interception of communications and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Kostovski claimed he wiretapped compromising conversations for the opposition SDSM party leader, Zoran Zaev, in order to blackmail former prime minister Nikola Gruevski into including the SDSM in the government. In its report the Senior Experts Group expressed concern that it was impossible to know to what extent the facts supported the plea and whether the light sentence the judge conferred may have been a reward for participating in a cover-up of the involvement of others. In October 2016 the Special Prosecutor’s Office requested an extraordinary Supreme Court review of Kostovski’s plea bargain. On July 12, the special prosecutor obtained the original copy of Kotovski’s plea bargain and appealed the plea before the Supreme Court, citing substantive procedural violations. As of December 1, the Supreme Court’s review was pending.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair trial, although political interference in the work and appointment of the judiciary frequently undermined this right.

In 2015 a law took effect that contains updated sentencing guidelines designed to address inconsistent sentencing among different courts. Legal analysts expressed concern that the law seriously hampered judicial discretion to decide sentences according to the facts in individual cases and provided too much power to prosecutors to influence sentences.

The law presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free interpretation as necessary), but authorities did not always respect this right. Trials were generally open to the public. High-profile trials were subject to frequent delays. The ombudsman cited delayed court proceedings as a violation of citizens’ rights and noted the number of complaints regarding delayed court proceedings increased during the year, compared with 2016.

Defense attorneys and human rights activists claimed that closing significant portions of high-profile trials to the public reduced transparency and contributed to declining public confidence in the courts, especially among the ethnic Albanian population. The defense in the “Monster” case and the Kumanovo trial, most of the proceedings of which were held behind closed doors, repeatedly raised such concerns.

For certain criminal and civil cases, judicial panels of three to five individuals, led by a professional judge, are used. Authorities did not always grant defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Free assistance of an interpreter is provided. Defendants may question witnesses and present evidence on their own behalf. Authorities may not compel defendants to testify or confess guilt. Both the prosecution and defendants have the right to appeal verdicts.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

On July 14, journalist Zoran Bozinovski was released from detention after 15 months in custody. In April 2016 Serbian authorities approved his extradition to Macedonia on an Interpol arrest warrant accusing him of criminal association, espionage, and extortion amid allegations that he was part of a spy ring working for foreign governments. The Association of Journalists of Macedonia had called Bozinovski’s arrest and detention “politically motivated and aimed at silencing journalists who had the courage to expose scandals about the authorities.”

Bozinovski had reportedly moved to Serbia out of concern for his safety after posting articles critical of the former government, the VMRO-DPMNE party, and former prime minister Gruevski.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Citizens had access to courts to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Individuals may file human rights cases in the criminal, civil, or administrative courts, and the Constitutional Court, depending upon the type of human rights violation in question and its alleged perpetrator. Individuals also may appeal adverse decisions. The law provides the right to timely adjudication of cases and a legal basis for appealing excessive judicial delays to the Supreme Court. The government generally complied with civil decisions of domestic courts. Individuals may appeal cases involving alleged state violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after exhausting all domestic legal options.

The ombudsman’s 2016 annual report noted continuing problems regarding the right to trial in a reasonable time. According to the report, protracted civil and administrative court cases, as well as insufficient civil enforcement practices, resulted in violations of citizens’ rights.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

The ability to apply for restitution of property confiscated during the Holocaust is limited to Macedonian citizens. Holocaust-era restitution is no longer a significant issue in the country, particularly after the 2000 Denationalization Law and 2007 compensation agreement.

The 2000 Denationalization Law accorded the right to denationalization of property seized after August 1944 to former owners and their successors, in accordance with the provisions related to the right to inherit. It required claimants to have Macedonian citizenship at the time of the law entering force.

The 2007 Compensation Agreement was between the government, the Holocaust Fund, and the Jewish Community and allowed for the payment of 21.1 million euros ($25 million) between June 2009 and June 2018. To date 15.6 million euros ($18.7 million) has been paid. One of its major results was the construction of the Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia, which officially opened in 2011.

The government has no laws or mechanisms in place related to the resolution of Holocaust-era claims by foreign citizens.

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

The law prohibits such actions, although there were reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions during the year.

The government continued to deal with the repercussions of revelations of a widespread, illegal wiretapping campaign allegedly carried out over multiple years inside the UBK headquarters. The campaign was first reported by the then opposition SDSM party in February 2015. In its September 14 report, the European Commission’s Senior Experts Group stated, “Urgent measures to prevent illegal wiretapping have not been addressed” and noted that illegal interceptions may have continued after June 2015. According to the report, the UBK still holds a monopoly over interception of communications for both security purposes and criminal investigations, which interfered with the autonomy of police forces. The report also noted concerns remained regarding the lack of respect for basic human rights and data protection rules within the UBK. On October 31, the government established an expert working group to reform the system for legal interception, headed by deputy director of the UBK, Siljan Avramovski.

The European Commission’s Senior Experts Group criticized the Directorate for Personal Data Protection, the agency responsible for overseeing the government’s handling of personal information, for its delay in responding to the “apparent lack of data protection, the potential improper and uncontrolled registration of telephone numbers, as well as the invasion of the right to privacy through potentially unauthorized surveillance.” In late 2016 the directorate performed four inspections of the UBK and initiated a control inspection on July 24 to measure implementation of the 11 recommendations it made during 2016 inspections. A compliance report published by the directorate on November 24 stated that the Ministry of Interior fully complied with 10 recommendations and partially with one recommendation.

In May 2016 the ruling coalition passed, through an expedited procedure, amendments to the Law on the Protection of Privacy that prohibit the possession, processing, and publishing of any content, including wiretapped conversations, that violate the right to privacy with regard to personal or family life. The amendments, which entered into force in July, also prohibit the use of such materials in election campaigns or for other political purposes.

Lustration, the process of publicly identifying individuals who collaborated with the secret services during the communist era and prohibiting them from holding public office and receiving other government benefits, was discontinued during the year. On August 29, a report about the Lustration Commission’s activities from 2009 to 2017 was submitted to the parliament. On September 13, the parliament terminated the commission without debate. The ECHR has ruled twice, most recently in April, that the country’s lustration procedures violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The December 2016 election for seats in the parliament had a record high turnout and only minor confirmed irregularities. According to the OSCE/ODIHR report, although the State Election Commission struggled with election preparations, election day was generally well administered and orderly. While ODIHR found that fundamental freedoms were generally respected and candidates were able to campaign freely, it noted that the elections took place “in an environment characterized by a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment, and allegations of voter coercion.” According to ODIHR, the elections failed to meet some important OSCE commitments for a democratic electoral process, including voter intimidation, widespread pressure on civil servants, vote buying, coercion, and misuse of administrative resources. Municipal elections were held on October 15, with a second round on October 29. According to the OSCE/ODIHR preliminary report, the elections took place in a competitive environment, voter’s fundamental freedoms were respected, and the elections “contributed to strengthening confidence in the democratic process.” Problems observed during the pre-election period included credible allegations of vote buying, voter pressure, and isolated cases of violence. OSCE/ODHIR found that despite organizational challenges, election day generally proceeded in an orderly fashion.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There are few restrictions on forming or joining political parties, which are subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens. While membership in a political party is not mandatory, there is an active patronage system in the country through which parties confer special benefits and advantages to their members. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party accused the government of continuing these practices, alleging that educational and professional qualifications prescribed by law for public administration positions were not followed. On July 6, Spase Gligorov was appointed to lead the nonpartisan Agency for Administration after his resignation from the SDSM Executive Committee. The appointment of Ivan Barbov as acting director of the University Clinic of Neurology in Skopje was also considered controversial. Barbov was convicted and given a suspended sentence in 2012 for participating in a group that charged patients for illegal insurance papers that granted disability pensions. Multiple sources alleged, however, that some defendants in the case were subjects of politically motivated prosecutions by the former VMRO-DPMNE government. Legal analysts noted that in some high profile cases, if there was the risk of an acquittal due to weak or insufficient evidence, judges would issue guilty verdicts with suspended sentences. This was reportedly done to avoid negative publicity and prevent defendants from suing for damages stemming from unjust detention cases.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and women and minorities did participate. The law requires gender diversity in each political party’s candidate list for parliamentary and municipal elections. No more than two-thirds of a party’s candidates may be the same gender. As of September 28, 41 of the 120 members of the parliament were women, and four women served as ministers in the president’s 25-member cabinet. Men dominated leadership ranks in political parties. Of the 208 candidates for mayoral positions in the October 15 elections, only 12 were women. Six women won mayoral contests on October 15, four of whom were incumbents.

Ethnic Albanians and other ethnic minorities continued to complain of inequitable representation within government and discriminatory practices that excluded them from political participation, such as selective withholding of security clearances.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; there were reports that officials engaged in corruption with impunity. NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption. The government was the country’s largest employer; some analysts estimated it employed as many as 180,000 persons, despite official statistics showing public sector employment of approximately 128,000.

Corruption: On March 30, the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation released its biennial report, which asserted that the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption had lost the confidence of citizens and failed to fulfil its monitoring and control responsibilities. In 2016 the center found corruption had increased since 2014 and that acceptance of corruption remained high among the public. During the year 30.5 percent of 1,000 respondents to a survey conducted by the organization reported they were asked for a bribe, up 4.9 percent from 2014. Similarly, 29.2 percent of respondents offered or gave a bribe, up 7.7 percent from 2014. Corruption varied along ethnic lines, with 83.3 percent of ethnic Albanians reportedly experiencing pressure to pay a bribe and 80.5 percent paying a bribe, compared with 40.6 percent and 35.5 percent, respectively, of ethnic Macedonian respondents.

According to Transparency International’s annual Global Corruption Barometer released in November 2016, 12 percent of survey respondents reported having to pay bribes to obtain public services to which they were legally entitled. All respondents believed powerful, influential, and rich individuals exerted too strong an influence over politics.

During the first three months of the year, the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption opened 16 cases on the misuse of public funds. During the year the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office investigated 25 suspects on corruption-related charges, filed one indictment, and obtained convictions against four defendants. The crimes included misuse of official position and authority, money laundering or laundering of other criminal proceeds, receiving bribes, and accepting rewards for unlawful influence. As of September 15, the Skopje Basic Prosecution office had two parliament members under investigation for violating rules set forth by the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption.

Between April 15 and September 15, the Special Prosecutor’s Office filed 18 indictments against 120 defendants, charged 168 criminal offenses, and opened seven investigations against 25 suspects. It also initiated 142 preliminary investigations into apparent criminal behavior relating to or arising from the content of illegally intercepted communications between 2008 and 2015. In its June 30 filings, the Special Prosecutor’s Office recommended detention of 18 of those charged, including former prime minister Gruevski. The Skopje Basic Court denied the request to detain Gruevski (see section 1.d.).

Since the creation of the Special Prosecutor’s Office in 2015, the VMRO-DPMNE party repeatedly obstructed the work of the office and publicly criticized Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, claiming she was incompetent and a politically biased tool of the SDSM party. The judiciary played a role in hindering the effectiveness of the Special Prosecutor’s Office.

On November 1, police arrested the former mayor of the Skopje municipality of Gorce Petrov, Sokol Mitrevski, and nine other suspects for misuse of office. The charges were related to the alleged issuance of illegal construction licenses and land concessions. The arrest followed investigations of five other VMRO-DPMNE mayors or former mayors on various corruption-related charges.

Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close family to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public could view disclosure declarations on the website of the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The commission also received and checked 1,460 conflict of interest statements submitted by public officials.

Over the summer, media reported on the financial disclosure declarations of new government officials, especially Deputy Prime Minister Kocho Angjushev, a businessman who reported a net worth of 27 to 28 million euros ($32 million to $33 million) on his disclosure statement. After his appointment Angjushev did not divest from his holding company, Feroinvest, but he did step down as its managing director. The Feroinvest Group owned businesses in the metalworking and renewable energy sectors. On September 19, Angjushev announced his companies would no longer bid on government tenders while he was in office after ELEM, the state-owned power generation company, cancelled a tender that Feroinvest was the frontrunner to win.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal. The penalties for rape range from one to 15 years’ imprisonment, but those laws were poorly enforced. Domestic violence is illegal but was a persistent and common problem. Police and judicial officials were reluctant to prosecute spousal rape and domestic violence. As of September the ombudsman’s office had not received any complaints of inadequate action by police or the judicial system in the investigation or prosecution of domestic violence cases.

The government ran seven limited-capacity shelters, and one NGO operated a shelter that could accommodate 30 at-risk women. A national NGO operated a hotline in both the Macedonian and the Albanian languages and ran two crisis centers to provide temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace and provides a sentencing guideline of three months to three years in prison for violations. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace was a problem, and victims generally did not bring cases forward due to fear of publicity and possible loss of employment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at: www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/monitoring/maternal-mortality-2015/en/ .

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status as men. In some communities, the practice of men directing the voting or voting on behalf of female family members disenfranchised women.

Children

Birth Registration: The law determines citizenship primarily by the citizenship of the parents. It also allows orphans found in the country to acquire citizenship, unless authorities discover before they reach the age of 18 that their parents were foreigners. The government automatically registers the births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions, and the law requires that parents register the births of all children, including those born at home, at magistrate offices within 15 days of birth. Some Romani families delayed the registration of newborns, making it difficult for them to access educational, medical, and other benefits later in life because they lacked proper identity documents.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was a problem in some areas. The government operated a hotline for domestic violence, including child abuse.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. A court may issue a marriage license to persons between the ages of 16 and 18 if it finds them mentally and physically fit for marriage. Early and forced marriage occurred occasionally in the Romani community and, to a much lesser extent, in some Albanian communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The penalty for the commercial sexual exploitation of children is 10 to 15 years in prison. The law prohibits child pornography and provides penalties of five to 15 years in prison for violations. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Authorities considered child commercial sexual exploitation a problem but did not know its extent. The country had an online registry, searchable by name and address, of convicted child traffickers and sex offenders that provided their photographs, conviction records, and residential addresses. Offenders could ask authorities to remove them from the register 10 years after they completed their sentence, provided they did not commit a new offense.

Displaced Children: According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, there were 78 displaced children of different ethnicities registered as of June. An October 2016 report from the Ombudsman’s Office estimated 236 children lived without shelter. With international support the ministry operated two day-centers for street children. The government maintained a transit shelter for street children, but its small size limited its effectiveness in providing social services.

Institutionalized Children: Advocates and the ombudsman reported a lack of accountability for child neglect and abuse in orphanages, shelters, and detention centers. In June 2016 the Ombudsman’s Office presented a report on the Tetovo Juvenile Penitentiary, describing inhuman living and sanitary conditions in the facility, disturbing treatment practices in the penitentiary wards, and a lack of medical care. According to the ombudsman, physiological and sanitary needs were unmet; there was no permanent doctor on staff; and hepatitis was spread through sexual intercourse among the boys, some of whom had been victims of sexual abuse.

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 travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community estimated that 200 to 250 Jews lived in the country. There were some instances of anti-Semitic speech on social media and the Jewish community reported flyers with anti-Semitic content were thrown in the yard of its headquarters.

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 always enforce these provisions effectively. The law allows persons who have experienced discrimination to submit complaints to the Commission for Protection from Discrimination. The commission was located in an office sometimes inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities.

A separate law regulates a special government fund for stimulating employment of persons with disabilities. The Employment Agency manages the fund with oversight by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. The fund provided grants for office reconstruction or procurement of equipment for workstations to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The law requires persons with physical or mental disabilities to obtain approval from a government medical commission to serve in supervisory positions in the private and public sectors.

The law establishes accessibility standards for new buildings; existing public structures were to be made accessible for persons with disabilities by the end of 2015. NGOs reported many public buildings did not comply with the law. Although all buses purchased since 2013 by the government for Skopje were accessible to persons with physical disabilities, public transportation remained largely inaccessible in other regions. The Ministry of Transport and Communications continued a multiyear project to procure accessible train cars and make train stations in Skopje and 10 other cities accessible.

The Ministry of Education and Science made efforts to provide suitable support to enable children with disabilities to attend regular schools. It employed special educators, assigned either to individual selected schools or as “mobile” municipal special educators covering all schools in their municipality, to support teachers who had children with disabilities in their regular classes. School authorities also installed elevators in several primary schools and deployed technology to assist students with disabilities in using computers in selected primary and secondary schools. Despite these efforts, a large number of students with disabilities continued to attend separate schools.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

According to the country’s most recent census in 2002, the ethnic composition of the population was 64.2 percent Macedonian, 25.2 percent Albanian, 3.9 percent Turkish, 2.7 percent Romani, 1.8 percent Serbian, 0.8 percent Bosniak, and 0.5 percent Vlach. According to the ombudsman’s annual report, ethnic minorities, with the exception of Serbs and Vlachs, were underrepresented in the civil service and other state institutions, including the military, police, intelligence services, courts, national bank, customs service, and public enterprises.

The law provides for primary and secondary education in the Macedonian, Albanian, Romani, Turkish, and Serbian languages. The number of minority students who received secondary education in their native language continued to increase, especially after secondary education became mandatory in 2007, although the government was unable to provide full instruction in Romani due to a shortage of qualified teachers.

Ethnic Albanians continued to criticize unequal representation in government ministries and public enterprises. The country’s police academy continued to fall short of the number of minority trainees needed to comply with the constitution, which stipulates that the administration reflect the ethnic composition of the state. Ethnic Albanians alleged the government designed the testing process in the academy unfairly to deny access to minority groups. In particular, ethnic Albanians complained of cultural biases in the tests. Ethnic Albanian and other minority representation within the civilian administration of the Ministry of Defense remained low. Some elite units of the police and the military had almost no representation of ethnic minorities.

Roma reported widespread societal discrimination. NGOs and international experts reported that employers often denied Roma job opportunities, and some Roma complained of lack of access to public services and benefits. The Ministry of Health and the NGO Hera, in partnership with UNICEF, sponsored the Roma Health Mediators Program to provide health, social, and early childhood development services in seven municipalities with high Romani populations.

Ethnic Turks complained of discrimination.

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

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are legal.

The LGBTI community remained marginalized and activists supporting LGBTI rights reported incidents of societal prejudice, including hate speech, physical assaults and other violence, failure of police to arrest perpetrators of attacks, and a failure of the government to condemn or combat discrimination against the LGBTI community. Five cases of hate crimes against transgender individuals were reported during the year. According to the NGO Subversive Front, as of September 1, the Skopje Public Prosecutor’s Office had not processed 39 pending cases involving hate speech targeting members of the LGBTI community.

According to NGOs, there was a lack of will among political parties to address the problem of violence and discrimination against LGBTI individuals. Government representatives were typically absent from public discussions on LGBTI issues. An informal LGBTI interparliamentarian group was established in June, when the prime minister issued a statement on LGBTI inclusion.

In June the new government supported Pride Week and, for the first time, the minister of culture spoke at a pride event. On January 1, a memorandum of cooperation on information sharing between the LGBTI Support Center and the Ombudsman’s Office came into force.

On September 22, the Administrative Court adopted a decision that requires the Ministry of Justice to correct a transgender person’s entry in the birth registry upon request. The decision also compels the Ministry of Interior to issue a new national identification number to the applicant within three days of the correction.

As a result of complaints from LGBTI organizations and with support from the ombudsman, the Ministry of Education withdrew a number of textbooks found to be discriminatory on the basis of gender and family status. The state universities of Cyril and Methodius and Kliment Ohridski did not comply with the directive, and discriminatory texts were still in use at these institutions as of October.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were isolated reports of discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in the health-care sector.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law requires federated unions to register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy and with the State Central Registry. Union leaders reported occasions when the ministry would extend the registration process for a new union for months without explanation.

A court of general jurisdiction may terminate trade union activities at the request of the registrar or competent court when those activities are deemed to be “against the constitution and law.” There are no nationality restrictions on membership in trade unions, although foreign nationals must have a valid work permit and be employed by the company or government body listed on the permit.

The government and employers did not always respect freedom of association, the right to strike, and the right to collective bargaining. Unions maintained the law’s “exclusionary” provision allowed employers to terminate up to 2 percent of workers from collective bargaining negotiations during a strike. Collective bargaining is restricted to trade unions that represent at least 20 percent of the employees and employers’ associations that represent at least 10 percent of the employers at the level at which the agreement is concluded (company, sector, or country). Government enforcement resources and remediation were inadequate. Penalties for violations of the law were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were generally subject to lengthy delays.

In February, in response to a 2017 International Labor Organization’s Committee of Experts report, the Ministry of Education amended the law to prohibit the replacement of striking workers to comply with the request.

Unions, with the exception of a few branch unions, were generally not independent from the influence of government officials, political parties, and employers–particularly those that had close ties with the previous governing coalition.

On August 14, Zhivko Mitrevski stepped down as head of the Federation of Labor Unions. The federation had dismissed Mitrevski in November 2016 after he suspended four labor unions that had accused him of abusing his office, misusing funds, and interfering in union operations. Despite the federation’s election of Darko Dimovski as acting president, former minister of labor and social policy Ibrahim Ibrahimi reinstated Mitrevski. In May the Supreme Court ruled that Dimovski should be registered as president.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the government largely enforced applicable laws. The law prescribes imprisonment, which apply to violations of forced labor or for the destruction or removal of identification documents, passports, or other travel documents. There were instances in which women and children were subjected to forced labor, such as peddling small items in restaurants and bars. Some Romani children were forced to beg, often by relatives (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 15, although children can begin work at 14 as apprentices or as participants in an official vocational education program. The law prohibits employing minors under the age of 18 in work that is detrimental to their physical or psychological health and morality.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing laws regulating the employment of children. The government made efforts to enforce the law in the formal economy but did not do so effectively in the informal economy. Police and the Labor Ministry, through centers for social work, shared responsibility for enforcing laws on child trafficking, including forced begging. The law mandates a prison sentence for persons who buy, sell, keep, or take minors for the purpose of exploitation. If enforced, the penalties would be sufficient to deter violations.

Although child labor was not prevalent in the country, there were reports that individuals in the informal economy employed child labor. The most common examples included using children to beg, clean windshields, and sell cigarettes and other small items in open markets, the streets, or in bars and restaurants at night. Although the necessary laws were in place, government efforts to eliminate forced begging by children were largely ineffective. Children involved in these activities were primarily Roma and most often worked for their parents or family members. Officials frequently failed to hold those exploiting the children accountable, and Romani children remained vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy funded two day-care centers that provided education, medical, and psychological services to children who were forced to beg on the street. The Labor Ministry also cofunded a day-care center operated by an NGO in the Skopje suburb of Shuto Orizari.

Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, one of the worst forms of child labor (see section 6, Children).

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations generally prohibit discrimination regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, health status, political opinion, religion, age, national origin, language, or social status. The law does not address discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status. The government did not always enforce the laws effectively. Civil activists complained that the State Commission for Protection against Discrimination was not doing its work and was merely an employment hub for individuals close to the previous governing party.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, and certain ethnic groups in the military, police, intelligence services, courts, national bank, customs service, state agencies, and public and private companies (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). Despite government efforts and legal changes for mandatory inclusion in the primary and high education, the Romani community continued to live in segregated groups without proper health and social protection. Data from the State Employment Office showed that due to the low participation in the education system, particularly higher education, Roma generally had difficulties finding a job in the formal economy. Women’s wages lagged behind those of men, and few women occupied management positions. Persons with disabilities faced discrimination in hiring and access to the workplace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

On September 19, the parliament approved a bill to increase the national minimum wage from 10,080 denars ($193) per month to 12,000 denars ($231). This change also applied to workers in the textile and leather industries, where the previous minimum wage was 8,080 denars ($155) per month. As of June, according to official statistics, the average monthly net wage was 22,808 denars ($439). In October the State Statistical Office estimated that 21.8 percent of the population lived at or under the poverty line. The poverty threshold was measured as a monthly income of 14,500 denars ($279) for a family of four.

Although the government set occupational safety and health standards for employers, those standards were not enforced in the informal sector, which accounted for an estimated 22 percent of the economy.

Labor inspectors have the authority to press misdemeanor charges against an employer who violates labor laws and to close an establishment until the employer corrects the violations. In cases of repeated violations, owners can be fined. The total number of inspectors was considered adequate to investigate violations of labor law and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. In practice, inspections were not adequate to ensure compliance due, in part, to an inadequate regional distribution of inspectors.

During the year the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy labor inspectorate filed complaints against several businesses for forcing employees to work long hours without the rest breaks required by law; nonpayment of salaries, benefits, and overtime; and cutting employees’ vacation. Violations in wage and overtime were most common in textiles sector, railroads, and retail.

Minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards were not effectively enforced. Many employers hired workers without complying with the law, and small retail businesses often required employees to work well beyond legal hourly limits. During the year the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health was not fully functional and held only an advisory role. While workers have the legal right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their future employment, employers did not always respect this right.

There were on average 40 workplace fatalities per year, but no data on the specific causes of workplace deaths or injuries was available for the year.

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