Bangladesh

Executive Summary

Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government, but in fact, most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December parliamentary election that was not considered free and fair, and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. During the campaign leading up to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. International election monitors were not issued accreditation and visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission, and only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved to conduct domestic election observation.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary or unlawful detentions by the government or on its behalf; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organizations (NGO) laws and restrictions on the activities of NGOs; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, where elections have not been found to be genuine, free, or fair; corruption; trafficking in persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons and criminalization of same-sex sexual activity; restrictions on independent trade unions, workers’ rights, and use of the worst forms of child labor.

There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces.

The United Nations reported three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against peacekeepers from Bangladesh in 2017; the allegations remained pending.

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

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

The constitution provides for the rights to life and personal liberty. There were numerous reports, however, that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

Law enforcement raids occurred throughout the year, primarily to counter terrorist activity. Suspicious deaths occurred during some raids, arrests, and other law enforcement operations. Security forces frequently accounted for such deaths by claiming when they took a suspect in custody to a crime scene to recover weapons or identify coconspirators, the suspect was killed during an exchange of gunfire when accomplices at the location shot at police. The government usually described these deaths as “crossfire killings,” “gunfights,” or “encounter killings,” terms used to characterize exchanges of gunfire between the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) or other police units and criminal gangs. The media also sometimes used these terms to describe legitimate uses of police force. Human rights organizations and media outlets claimed many of these crossfire incidents actually constituted extrajudicial killings. In some cases human rights organizations claimed law enforcement units detained, interrogated, and tortured suspects, brought them back to the scene of the original arrest, executed them, and ascribed the death to lawful self-defense in response to violent attacks. A domestic human rights organization, Human Rights Support Society (HRSS), reported security forces killed more than 400 individuals in crossfire incidents from January through September. Another domestic human rights organization, Odhikar, reported security forces killed 415 individuals in crossfire incidents from January through October.

The government initiated an antinarcotics drive in May aimed at addressing a perceived narcotics problem in the country. The drive resulted in an increase of reported extrajudicial killings relative to last year. Local media reported approximately 230 alleged drug dealers were killed and 17,000 arrests were made from May through June. Human rights organizations and civil society expressed concern over the alleged extrajudicial killings and arrests, claiming many of the victims were innocent and contended the antinarcotics drive was a government effort to exert increased political control over the populace in advance of the national election.

On May 26, RAB forces shot and killed Teknaf City Municipal Councilor Ekramul Haque in Cox’s Bazar District during a gunfight with drug dealers. Haque’s family members disputed RAB’s assertion Haque was involved in narcotics and claimed plainclothes government agents picked up Haque from his home hours before his death to discuss what the government agents alleged was a recent real estate purchase. Community members also disputed Haque’s involvement with illegal narcotics.

Odhikar reported 57 detainees died while under law enforcement custody in the first 10 months of the year.

On March 6, according to press reports, plainclothes law enforcement officers arrested Zakir Hossain Milon, a student leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on allegations of obstruction of justice. During his interrogation Milon complained of an “illness” and was transported to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), where staff physicians declared him dead on March 12. Family members alleged Milon died from torture by law enforcement while under interrogation, claiming when they retrieved the remains from DMCH, the victim’s fingernails were missing, and his lower extremities showed multiple severe bruises.

Competition among factions and members of the ruling party for local offices or dominance in their respective neighborhoods provoked violent intraparty clashes, resulting in killings and injuries between supporters of rival candidates. Human rights organization Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) reported political violence resulted in approximately 30 deaths and 2,850 injuries from January through October.

Terrorists inspired two attacks this year. On March 3, Foyzur Rahman attacked Professor Muhammad Zafar Iqbal at a university in Sylhet. Rahman attacked Iqbal with a knife deeming him an “enemy of Islam.” Iqbal had been a staunch critic of Islamist politics and growing intolerance in local Bangladeshi society. The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) found Rahman had links to Dawah Ilallah, an internet forum run by terrorist organization Ansarullah Bangla Team. Students attempted to restrain Rahman during his attack and turned him over to law enforcement. Iqbal survived the attack with injuries to his head and upper extremity.

b. Disappearance

Human rights groups and media reported disappearances and kidnappings continued, committed mostly by security services. The government made limited efforts to prevent or investigate such acts. Following alleged disappearances, security forces released some individuals without charge, arrested others, found some dead, and never found others. HRSS stated there were 58 enforced disappearances from January through September. Odhikar stated there were 83 enforced disappearances from January through November.

Authorities took into custody in 2016 the sons of three former opposition politicians convicted by Bangladesh’s International Criminal Tribunal. The detainees were never formally detained or charged with a crime. Authorities released Humam Quader Chowdhury seven months later, but Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem and Amaan Azmi remained missing at year’s end. The government did not respond to a request from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.

High-ranking government officials repeatedly denied incidents of enforced disappearance and claimed victims were hiding of their own accord. A 2017 judicial inquiry concluded enforced disappearances occurred and ordered the Police Bureau of Investigation to take actions regarding disappeared persons. Local law enforcement maintains they continued investigating these disappearances throughout the year.

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

Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, local and international human rights organizations and the media reported security forces, including the intelligence services and police, employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Security forces reportedly used torture to gather information from alleged militants and members of political opposition parties. Security forces reportedly used threats, beatings, kneecappings, and electric shock, and sometimes committed rapes and other sexual abuses. Odhikar reported five deaths from torture during the first 10 months of the year.

The law contains provisions allowing a magistrate to place a suspect in interrogative custody, known as remand, during which questioning of the suspect can take place without a lawyer present. Human rights organizations alleged that many instances of torture occurred during remand.

On May 4, the Detective Branch (DB) of the Bangladesh Police detained Ashraf Ali on suspicion of kidnapping. After 35 hours of detention, Ali was taken to DMCH where he died three hours later. An autopsy conducted at DMCH concluded Ali suffered severe bruising on his lower body and sustained intestinal torsion. According to hospital authorities, DB asked the staff physicians at the hospital to issue a death certificate stating Ali died of natural causes. The physicians refused, reportedly due to Ali’s physical condition upon arrival. Ali’s family stated Ali was a hernia patient but was in otherwise good health.

On August 5, photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments” when reporting on student protests for road safety (see section 2. a.). When Alam was brought to court on August 6, he appeared unable to walk unassisted and showed visible injuries. During his testimony in front of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Alam alleged on the first night of detention, he was blindfolded, a weight was placed on his head, and he was hit on the face. Subsequent medical reports released to the court on August 9, a day after a legally required medical examination at a public hospital, stated Alam had been deemed “physically and mentally sound.” On August 22, Alam’s wife, Rahnuma Ahmed, issued a press release requesting his transfer to a hospital. Ahmed reported during a visit to the jail, her husband claimed he was suffering from breathing difficulties, pain in his gums, and vision problems. Ahmed reported these health issues did not predate his detention. Alam was released on bail on November 20.

According to the United Nations, three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against Bangladeshi peacekeepers reported from 2015-17 remained pending. The cases alleged both sexual exploitation (exploitative relationship, transactional sex) and abuse (sexual assault against minors) involving peacekeepers deployed in the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti and the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two allegations have been substantiated according to UN investigations. The peacekeepers in question were repatriated by the United Nations. The investigations by Bangladesh authorities were pending at the end of the year.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and a lack of proper sanitation. There are currently no private detention facilities. ASK claimed these conditions contributed to custodial deaths, which it claimed totaled 74 from January through December.

Physical Conditions: According to the Department of Prisons, in November more than 95,000 prisoners occupied a system designed to hold approximately 37,000 inmates. Authorities often incarcerated pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as of October, Bangladesh prisons held more than 90,000 prisoners compared to an official capacity of roughly 36,000; prisoners slept in shifts and did not have adequate toilet facilities. In 2016 human rights organizations and the media stated some prisoners did not receive medical care or water, although prison authorities maintained each prisoner had access to water. Water available in prisons was comparable with water available in the rest of the country, which was frequently not potable.

Conditions in prisons, and often within the same prison complex, varied widely. Authorities lodged some prisoners in areas subject to high temperatures, poor ventilation, and overcrowding. The law allows individuals whom prison officials designated as “VIPs” to access “Division A” prison facilities with improved living and food, more frequent family visitation rights, and the provision of another prisoner without VIP status to serve as an aide in the cell.

While the law requires holding juveniles separately from adults, authorities incarcerated many juveniles with adults. Children were sometimes imprisoned (occasionally with their mothers) despite laws and court decisions prohibiting the imprisonment of minors.

Authorities routinely held female prisoners separately from men. Although the law prohibits women in “safe custody” (usually victims of rape, trafficking, and domestic violence) from being housed with criminals, officials did not always provide separate facilities. Authorities must issue permission for these women to leave this “safe custody.”

Although Dhaka’s central jail had facilities for those with mental disabilities, not all detention facilities had such facilities, nor are they required to by law. Judges may reduce punishments for persons with disabilities on humanitarian grounds. Jailors also may make special arrangements, for example, by transferring inmates with disabilities to a prison hospital.

Administration: Prisons had no ombudsmen to whom prisoners could submit complaints. Prison authorities indicated they were constrained by significant staff shortages. The scope for retraining and rehabilitation programs was extremely limited.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits from governmental inspectors and nongovernmental observers who were aligned with the incumbent party. No reports on these inspections were released.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the Special Powers Act of 1974 permits authorities to arrest and detain an individual without an order from a magistrate or a warrant if authorities perceive the individual may constitute a threat to security and public order. The act was widely cited by law enforcement in justifying their arrests. The constitution provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government did not generally observe these requirements. Media, civil society, and human rights organizations accused the government of conducting enforced disappearances not only against suspected militants but also against civil society and opposition party members. Authorities sometimes held detainees without divulging their whereabouts or circumstances to family or legal counsel, or without acknowledging having arrested them.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Bangladesh Police, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has a mandate to maintain internal security and law and order. Numerous units of the Bangladesh Police operate under competing mandates. The most significant among such units are the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU), the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)–a mostly counterterrorism-focused Special Mission Unit–and the Detective Branch (DB).

The military, which reports directly to the prime minister (who also holds the title of minister of defense), is responsible for external security. The military may also be “activated” as a backup force with a variety of domestic security responsibilities when required to aid civilian authorities. This includes responding to instances of terrorism.

The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) are the two primary intelligence agencies with overlapping responsibilities and capabilities. Both are responsible for domestic as well as foreign affairs and report directly to the prime minister in her capacity as minister of defense. Media reports asserted that the DGFI and, to a lesser degree, the NSI engaged in politically motivated violations of human rights. This included violations against suspected terrorists, members of opposition parties, civil society, and others.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the military and other security forces. While the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption within the security forces, these mechanisms were not regularly employed. The government continued to take steps to improve police professionalism, discipline, training, and responsiveness–and to reduce corruption. Police basic training continued to incorporate instruction on the appropriate use of force as part of efforts to implement community-based policing.

According to police policy, all significant uses of force by police, including actions that resulted in serious physical injury or death, triggered an automatic internal investigation, usually by a professional standards unit that reports directly to the Inspector General of Police. The government neither released statistics on total killings by security personnel nor took comprehensive measures to investigate cases. Human rights groups expressed skepticism over the independence of the professional standards units conducting these assessments. In the few known instances in which the government brought charges, those found guilty generally received only administrative punishment.

Security forces continued to commit abuses with impunity. Plaintiffs were reluctant to accuse police in criminal cases due to lengthy trial procedures and fear of retribution. Reluctance to bring charges against police also perpetuated a climate of impunity. Officers with political ties to the ruling party occupied many of the key positions in the law enforcement agencies.

The government continued support of the Internal Enquiry Cell that investigates cases of human rights abuses within the RAB, which did not widely publish its findings and did not otherwise announce significant actions against officers accused of human rights abuses.

Security forces failed to prevent societal violence (see section 6).

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The constitution requires arrests and detentions be authorized by a warrant or occur as a result of observation of a crime in progress, but the Special Powers Act of 1974 grants broad exceptions to these protections.

Under the constitution detainees must be brought before a judicial officer to face charges within 24 hours, but this provision was not regularly enforced. The government or a district magistrate may order a person detained for 30 days to prevent the commission of an act that could threaten national security; however, authorities sometimes held detainees for longer periods with impunity.

There is a functioning bail system, but law enforcement routinely rearrested bailed individuals on other charges, despite a 2016 directive from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division prohibiting rearrest of persons when they are released on bail in new cases without producing them in court.

Authorities generally permitted defense lawyers to meet with their clients only after formal charges were filed in the courts, which in some cases occurred weeks or months after the initial arrest. Detainees are legally entitled to counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it, but the country lacked sufficient funds to provide for this entitlement.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests occurred, often in conjunction with political demonstrations or as part of security force responses to terrorist activity, and the government held persons in detention without specific charges, sometimes in an attempt to collect information about other suspects. The expansiveness of the 1974 Special Powers Act grants a legal justification to arrests that would often otherwise be considered arbitrary, since it removes the requirement that arrests be based on crimes that have previously occurred. This year experienced a significant increase in arrests of opposition party activists. According to figures provided to the Dhaka Tribune by the BNP, 434,975 criminal charges in 4,429 cases were lodged against BNP members from September 1 through November 14. Law enforcement also arrested at least 100 students, most of whom participated peacefully in the quota reform and road safety protest movements.

On September 5, DB officers in Dhaka arrested numerous students from their student residences late at night, allegedly for their roles in the road safety protests in July and August. While authorities later released some of the students, 12 of the students were kept in custody for days before being brought before a judge. Human rights activists criticized the DB for its initial denial of the arrests and failure to produce them before the court within 24 hours of arrest, as mandated by the law. Some of the students released by DB alleged physical abuse during their informal detention.

In a September 11 article, the Daily Star newspaper published a listed of allegedly false criminal charges by police against opposition party BNP activists. The list included charges against an 82-year bedridden man in a hospital, a person who was abroad on the day of the alleged incident, and an individual who died approximately two years before the alleged crime. On November 7, the BNP submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office what it claimed to be a partial list of 1,046 “fictitious cases” filed against its leaders and activists.

Police routinely detained opposition activists in their homes, in public places, or when commuting to and from their respective parties’ events. On September 10, multiple newspapers reported police in Dhaka apprehended dozens of BNP supporters as they were returning home after participating in a peaceful human chain in front of the National Press Club to demand the release of incarcerated party chair Khaleda Zia.

Pretrial Detention: Arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention continued due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, limited resources, lax enforcement of pretrial rules, and corruption. In some cases the length of pretrial detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime.

In July, Hasnat Karim, a UK citizen detained without charges and denied bail for more than two years as part of the investigation into the 2016 Holey Bakery Attack that killed more than 20 persons, was released. Law enforcement authorities decided not to charge Karim, due to a lack of evidence against him.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Pursuant to the Special Powers Act, a magistrate must inform a detainee of grounds for detention within 15 days. Regulations require an advisory board, appointed by the government, to examine each case of detention that lasts longer than four months. Detainees have the right to appeal.

Judicial vacancies hampered legal challenges to cases of detention. In 2017 The Daily Star reported delays in the recruitment of judges were hampering judicial proceedings and leading to a substantial case backlog. The article noted approximately 400 lower court judgeships, including 50 district judgeships, remained vacant. On January 16, the Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs Minister reported to parliament that 3,309,789 cases were pending with the court system on the last day of 2017.

On May 31, the president appointed 18 additional judges to the High Court division of the Supreme Court, raising the number of High Court Judges to 98. As of September the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had appointed four judges on an 11-member bench.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but corruption and political interference compromised its independence. In 2014 parliament passed the 16th amendment, authorizing parliament to remove judges. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled the amendment unconstitutional. The resulting public dispute with parliament and the prime minister resulted in the resignation and departure from the country of Chief Justice S. K. Sinha. In an interview with BBC Bangla broadcast on September 19, Sinha claimed he was placed under house arrest following judgment and forced by the intelligence service to leave the country. In his autobiography, released in August, Sinha claimed the prime minister, the president, and law minister pressured him to rule in favor of the government. A petition filed by the government seeking to review the decision remained pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. The government continued to pursue corruption charges against Sinha at year’s end. Media observers and political commentators alleged the charges were politically motivated.

On January 3, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court accepted a government draft of disciplinary rules for lower court judges, putting an end to protracted negotiations between the judiciary and government. While the Supreme Court claimed the rules did not undermine its supremacy and it did not lose its oversight over the lower courts, some senior jurists interpreted the rules as making the lower courts subordinate to the executive branch. On February 2, the president appointed Appellate Division judge Syed Mahmud Hossain as the Chief Justice of Bangladesh, superseding Justice Abdul Wahab Miah, who had been officiating as the Chief Justice since October 2017. Miah immediately resigned as a Supreme Court justice, citing “personal reasons.”

On September 4, the Law Ministry transferred criminal proceedings against former BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia from a public courtroom to a closed facility at a prison. The Law Ministry cited security reasons for the transfer. Subsequent proceedings took place in the prison on September 5 without Zia’s lawyers present. An appeal was filed September 5 challenging the lack of a public tribunal for the accused. The appeal was rejected by the High Court.

On June 6, a High Court panel reproved a Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate court for “abusing the process of the court” to prolong disposal of a bail petition filed by Zia.

Human rights observers maintained magistrates, attorneys, and court officials demanded bribes from defendants in many cases, or they ruled based on influence by or loyalty to political patronage networks. Observers claimed judges who made decisions unfavorable to the government risked transfer to other jurisdictions. Officials reportedly discouraged lawyers from representing defendants in certain cases.

Corruption and a substantial backlog of cases hindered the court system, and the granting of extended continuances effectively prevented many defendants from obtaining fair trials.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not always protect this right due to corruption, partisanship, and weak human resources.

Defendants are presumed innocent, have the right to appeal, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. The accused are entitled to be present at their public trial. Indigent defendants have the right to a public defender. Trials are conducted in the Bengali language. The government does not provide free interpretation for defendants who cannot understand or speak Bengali. Defendants also have the right to adequate time to prepare a defense.

Accused persons have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. They also have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt although defendants who do not confess their guilt are often kept in custody. The government frequently did not respect these rights.

Mobile courts headed by executive branch magistrates rendered immediate verdicts that often included prison terms to defendants who were not afforded the opportunity for legal representation. Deputy commissioners from various districts requested the government expedite the passage of an amendment to the Mobile Court Act of 2009 giving executive magistrates increased judicial powers. Parliament had not introduced such legislation by year’s end. In 2017 the High Court ruled that empowering executive magistrates with judicial powers was “a frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary and violates the theory of separation of powers.” The government appealed the verdict through the Appellate Panel of the Supreme Court, which stayed the verdict, allowing the mobile courts to function pending the Appellate Panel’s next decision.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were reports of political prisoners or detainees. Political affiliation often appeared to be a factor in claims of arrest and prosecution of members of opposition parties, including through spurious charges under the pretext of responding to national security threats. The opposition BNP maintained thousands of its members were arrested arbitrarily throughout the year.

On February 8, former prime minister of Bangladesh and chairperson of the BNP, Khaleda Zia, was sentenced to five years imprisonment on corruption and embezzlement charges, on charges first filed in 2008 under a nonpartisan caretaker government. International and domestic legal experts commented on the lack of evidence to support the conviction, suggesting a political ploy to remove the leader of the opposition from the electoral process. The courts were generally slow in considering petitions for bail on her behalf. A person convicted under similar circumstances would normally receive an immediate bail hearing. In Zia’s case the bail hearing was postponed nearly a month. When the High Court granted bail on March 12, the order was immediately stayed for two months by the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. Upon confirming the bail order, approximately three months after the conviction, the government obtained arrest warrants in other cases against her.

ASK claimed 1,786 BNP party members were arrested in the eight days preceding Zia’s sentencing. A BNP spokesperson told Human Rights Watch thousands had been detained including members of the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, and others not linked to any party. It was not possible to verify these numbers independently.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Individuals and organizations may seek judicial remedies for human rights violations; however, lack of public faith in the court system deterred many from filing complaints. While the law has a provision for an ombudsman, one had not been established.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

The government did not implement the 2001 Vested Property (Return) Act to accelerate the process of return of land to primarily Hindu individuals (see section 2.d.). The act allows the government to confiscate property of anyone whom it declares to be an enemy of the state. It was often used to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups when they fled the country, particularly after the 1971 independence war.

Minority communities continued to report land ownership disputes that disproportionately displaced minorities, especially in areas near new roads or industrial development zones where land prices had increased. They also claimed local police, civil authorities, and political leaders were sometimes involved in evictions or shielded politically influential land grabbers from prosecution (see section 6). In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act which may allow for land restitution for indigenous persons living in the CHT. The amendment has not yet provided resolution to any of the disputes (see section 2.d.).

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

The law does not prohibit arbitrary interference with private correspondence. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies may monitor private communications with the permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs, but police rarely obtained such permission from the courts to monitor private correspondence. Human rights organizations alleged the Bangladesh Police, the NSI, and the DGFI employed informers to conduct surveillance and report on citizens perceived to be critical of the government.

The government became increasingly active in monitoring social media sites and other electronic communications in an effort to intimidate the public. The government formed a monitoring cell to “detect rumors” on social media. State Minister for Posts, Telecommunications, and Information Technology Tarana Halim said content that threatens communal harmony, disrupts state security, or embarrasses the state would be considered rumors and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.

The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The Foreign Donation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA) references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.

As of November, Khaleda Zia had secured bail in 34 of 36 cases against her on issues such as corruption, violence, and sedition. She remained in prison because she had not received bail in two other pending cases.

Press and Media Freedom: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure.

The government maintained editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially during the August student road safety protests.

On July 22, editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, was physically assaulted following court proceedings in a defamation case regarding his comments about the prime minister and her niece. A recording of the incident shows police standing by while Mahmudur was attacked. An investigation had not taken place by the end of the year.

According to BDnews24.com, on August 4, a group of approximately 12 journalists, including Associated Press photojournalist AM Ahad, was attacked by unidentified individuals near Dhaka City College while covering student traffic safety protests. AM Ahad suffered severe injuries to his legs, and attackers also broke his camera. The information minister requested an investigation into the attack.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported 23 journalists, including Shahidul Alam, were attacked while reporting on student traffic safety protests on August 5. In a Skype interview with al-Jazeera on August 4, Alam discussed the student protests and subsequently described attacks on the student protestors on his personal Facebook page. The next day Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments.” When Alam was brought to the court on August 6, he appeared unable to walk unassisted and showed visible signs of injury (see section 1.c.) Alam was charged under the ICTA, which criminalize the publication of material that “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience, causes a “deterioration in law and order,” or “prejudices the image of the state or a person.” After multiple bail hearing postponements, the High Court granted Alam bail, and he was released on November 20. The government filed an appeal of the bail order. Alam’s trail proceedings recommenced on December 11, but they were subsequently postponed to 2019. Domestic and international NGOs consider the case against Alam to be politically motivated.

A top Dhaka Metropolitan Police official reported the government gathered details on approximately 100 social media accounts, which they claimed incited violence during student traffic safety protests by spreading provocative content. It was difficult to obtain reliable counts on the total number of those arrested, detained, released, or disappeared in conjunction with either the April through May quota protests or the August student traffic safety protests. Reports varied in the media. Families of the detained held press conferences to encourage the government to acknowledge their family members were being held in custody.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. RSF alleged media self-censorship is growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets, and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”

Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem.

In September parliament passed the Digital Security Act (DSA), claiming it was intended to reduce cybercrimes. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA as intended to suppress freedom and criminalize free speech. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights organizations criticized the DSA as restricting freedom of expression.

The government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. During the August student traffic protests, the government blocked internet connections to limit the ability of the protesters to organize. Television stations reported that they were “asked” by government officials not to broadcast reports of the students on the streets.

According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship, due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.

Some international media outlets reported delays and difficulties in obtaining visas. A government-managed film censorship board reviewed local and foreign films and had the authority to censor or ban films on the grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism, but it was less strict than in the past.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations. In May a LGBTI rights activist expressed fear about organizing the LGBTI community in the country, as formal organization would require the disclosure to the government of LGBTI activists’ identities, making them potential targets for government monitoring and harassment.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government prohibited Virtual Private Networks and Voice Over Internet Protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.

In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs. In 2016 the BTRC carried out a directive to block 35 news websites that had published material critical of the government and political leaders who were perceived to feature overt support for political opposition groups. Many of the sites remained blocked.

The ICTA criminalizes the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals. Opponents of the law said it unconstitutionally restricted freedom of speech. The government used the ICTA and threat of sedition charges, which carry a possible death penalty, to limit online activity and curtail freedom of expression online. The Digital Security Act (DSA) was passed on September 19. Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar said on September 15 that section 57 of the ICTA would be removed by the passage of the bill; however, much of section 57 was incorporated into the final DSA law.

According to nongovernmental organization Article 19, the government arrested at least 87 individuals under section 57 of the ICTA from January to August. According to Odhikar, in August, 22 individuals were charged under the ICTA for allegedly providing “false” information or “spreading rumors” deemed to be against the state through Facebook and social media during the road safety protest movement.

On June 18, the bdnews24 website was blocked for several hours by the BTRC without an official explanation. According to independent journalists, a report written by the media outlet contained a paragraph about the offer of presidential clemency and release from prison of the brother of the recently appointed army chief. The paragraph was removed and the newspaper portal later unblocked.

The BTRC blocked the Daily Star’s website on June 2, following a June 1 article reporting on extrajudicial killing in Cox’s Bazar. On December 9, the BTRC also blocked 58 various news portals’ websites affiliated with political opposition parties (see section 1.a.).

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported in 2017 that approximately 18 percent of the population uses the internet. The BTRC reported approximately 90 million internet subscriptions in September, including an estimated 85 million mobile internet subscriptions (one individual may have more than one subscription).

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provided for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. A Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) order requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations in Dhaka.

According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups. Occasionally, police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.

Throughout the year the BNP was hindered by the government from hosting assemblies and rallies. The BNP was denied applications “for security reasons” to hold rallies in Dhaka on March 11, 19, and 29 at the Suhrawardy Udyan, one of the few large places designated for political rallies, but it was ultimately permitted to host its rally at a different location.

In a separate instance, the BNP claimed it received verbal permission to conduct a rally on its founding anniversary on September 1 in Dhaka and to conduct a human chain in front of the National Press Club on September 10. Law enforcement officials, however, apprehended hundreds of participants in the two BNP events. The BNP reported law enforcement detained 304 leaders and activists in the first three days of September and approximately 200 leaders and activists during the party’s human chain later in the month. The assistant inspector general of police headquarters denied reports of raids to detain opposition activists.

The incumbent Awami League (AL) and its allies were allowed to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan and other venues of their choice throughout the year.

On September 15, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she would instruct the DMP commissioner to allow political parties to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan. According to Prothom Alo, on September 29, the DMP gave permission to the BNP to hold rallies at Suhrawardy Udyan, under 22 conditions, including that they provide their own security and install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the venue. The DMP also “banned all activities that can hamper public safety; carrying sticks; speech hurting religious sentiments, and arriving at the venue in processions.”

During the year police used force to disperse peaceful demonstrations. According to the Daily Star, on March 14, police dispersed a group of approximately 1,000 protesters marching towards the secretariat building in Dhaka, using batons and tear gas and injuring 15 protesters. The protesters were scheduled to arrive at a prescheduled sit-in at the secretariat. After the violent dispersal occurred, a DMP spokesperson defended the government’s actions on the grounds the protesters were obstructing traffic.

Beyond formal government hindrance and police obstruction of peaceful demonstrations, there were reports the government deployed ruling party student activists to areas where peaceful assemblies took place. On August 4, alleged Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) activists attacked a group of students in Dhanmondi with batons, rocks, and pistols in an effort to quell road safety protests. The action resulted in a reported 150 injuries. Multiple news outlets reported police did not try to prevent or restrain the attackers. Police detained dozens of students and supporters publicly supporting the road safety protestors.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5., and 7.a.).

The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5). The government announced in October 2017 a number of NGOs were no longer allowed to operate in Cox’s Bazar, including Muslim Aid Bangladesh, Islamic Relief, and Allama Fazlullah Foundation. The three organizations remain barred from operating in Cox’s Bazar during the year, according to media reports.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas–the CHT and Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced some restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners.

More than 700,000 individuals, mostly Rohingya women and children, have fled violence in Burma since August 2017, which the Secretary of State determined in November constituted a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military. The total number of Rohingya refugees hosted in Bangladesh was approximately one million living in refugee camps and host communities in Cox’s Bazar near the Burmese border. The government restricts Rohingya refugees to the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts in Cox’s Bazar, although the government has allowed exceptions for medical treatment in Cox’s Bazar city.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Prior to the August 2017 influx of Rohingya, UNHCR reported 66 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the camps who received counseling through March. In October the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported it identified approximately 100 cases of human trafficking among Rohingya refugees since September 2017 with the majority subjected to labor trafficking.

In-country Movement: The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not bound under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this document.

The government does not recognize the new Rohingya arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abides by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception is the Rohingya do not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout Bangladesh. While the refugees are able to move largely unrestricted in the Ukhia and Tekhaf subdistricts, the government established checkpoints to prevent their movement outside this area.

Members of the political opposition were sometimes prevented from moving around the country or faced harassment and detention when attempting to do so. Senior BNP leader and former law minister Moudud Ahmed was confined to his house in Noakhali twice during the year. Ahmed claimed police officials barricaded him in his home, preventing him from contact with his supporters and constituents, and from attending party-related events. He alleged police curbed his freedom of movement at the behest of Obaidul Quader, General Secretary of the incumbent Awami League and Minister for Road Transport and Bridges, who is his electoral rival in the area. Police claimed the measures were intended to increase security at Ahmed’s home in his capacity as a senior political figure.

Foreign Travel: Some senior opposition officials reported extensive delays renewing their passports; others reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. On September 12, authorities at Shah Jalal International Airport in Dhaka delayed immigration clearance for BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.

The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.

The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel, according to government policy.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.

The IDPs in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces.

In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act to curtail the unilateral authority of the commission chair to make decisions on behalf of the commission. The amended act failed to resolve the disputes during the year as tribal leaders insisted on establishing a governing framework for the law before hearing disputes for resolution. In December 2017 the government reappointed Justice Mohammad Anwarul Haque chair of the commission for three years. The Land Ministry formulated rules for implementation of the act, but the rules have yet to be officially promulgated.

The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the task force on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Prior to the August 2017 Rohingya influx, the government and UNHCR provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and IOM provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. Since the additional influx of refugees in August 2017, approximately one million Rohingya refugees lived in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. According to the United Nations, more than half of the population is less than 18 years old. A National Task Force, established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, leads the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinates the Rohingya response with support from the Bangladesh Army and Border Guard Bangladesh. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) and the deputy commissioner provide coordination.

The government temporarily deployed the military to Cox’s Bazar District in the fall of 2017 to streamline relief and rehabilitation activities and to assist in registration of Rohingya in coordination with the civilian administration. In response to growing security concerns, the military has again become more active in the refugee camps, conducting patrols 24 hours a day. The Ministry of Home Affairs instructed law enforcement agencies to provide protection to the Rohingya people and their camps. International organizations alleged some Bangladeshi border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating the trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way” for bribes allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps to direct involvement.

Refoulement: There was no refoulement or forced repatriation. On November 15, in an effort to demonstrate it was not blocking returns as alleged by Burma, Bangladesh sent buses to selected Rohingya camps to pick up anyone ready to return. Bangladesh called off the operation when no refugees volunteered. Several times during the year, senior government officials reaffirmed Bangladesh’s commitment to voluntary, safe, and dignified refugee returns, based on informed consent.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya resident in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese address. The government is working jointly with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue ID cards that replace prior cards and provide for protection of Rohingya refugees as well as better systems for accessing services and assistance. The card also affirms the government’s commitment against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded their access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers.

Freedom of Movement: There continued to be restrictions on Rohingyas’ freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside of the two camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict Rohingya travel beyond the Ukhia and Tefnaf subdistricts.

Many camp authorities have introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.

Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work schemes for Rohingya to perform construction and maintenance tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers in the informal economy. Undocumented Rohingya also worked illegally, mostly in day-labor jobs.

Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population has occurred has strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the multitude of actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies have responded with significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remains a central issue that hinders the ability of Rohingya to have access to basic services.

Public education, while mandatory as of 2010 through fifth grade throughout the country, remained a significant challenge for those children residing in the refugee camps and makeshift settlements. According to the ISCG, the education response since 2017 has focused on the provision of preprimary and primary education for refugee girls and boys and by September had reached a total of 139,444 children. There remained a significant gap for preprimary and primary-age children in the camps as well as inadequate coverage of adolescents between 15 to 24 years of age.

Government authorities did not allow registered or unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care. The health sector maintained information about all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. There were 278 functional facilities known to the health sector, with a further 37 planned or under construction. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.

STATELESS PERSONS

The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term in an improbably lopsided December parliamentary election that was not considered free, fair, and credible and was marred by irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With more than 80 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies won only seven. During the campaign leading to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. According to data assembled by the NGO Democracy International, there were 1,324 acts of violence against the opposition BNP and its political allies and 211 acts of violence against the ruling AL and its allies during the month prior to the election.

The government did not grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). ANFREL issued a statement on December 23 noting that as of December 21, the government granted accreditation to 13 of 32 applications submitted, and due to significant delays in the accreditation approval by the EC and the ministries of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs, it was forced to terminate its observation mission on December 22. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Home Ministry, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the EC to conduct domestic election observation.

City elections held during the year in Khulna, Gazipur, Barisal, Rajshahi, and Sylhet were similarly characterized by credible reports of harassment, arrests, intimidation, and violence against opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as election-day rigging, fraud, and irregularities. The ruling AL party won four of the five elections and narrowly lost the contest in Sylhet to the BNP.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government mobilized law enforcement resources to level civil and criminal charges against opposition party leaders. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was convicted and imprisoned on February 8 based on corruption charges filed under a nonpartisan caretaker government in 2008. She was unable to take advantage of bail awarded in this case pending appeal because of more than two dozen other charges filed against her in recent years by the government. Police implicated approximately 435,000 BNP members in criminal charges in the run-up to the national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.

The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in the previous years remained unresolved. Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and throwing bombs. Other opposition activists faced criminal charges. Jamaat leaders and members could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Although Jamaat has been deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members continued to be violated. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue, and they practiced some self-censorship to avoid adverse responses from the government. AL-affiliated organizations (such as the BCL student wing) reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups.

In some instances the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted the broadcasting of opposition political events. While Jamaat’s appeal of a 2012 High Court decision canceling the party’s registration remained pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, the EC issued a notification deregistering Jamaat on October 28, disqualifying the organization from participating in the national election.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In July parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 more years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women in parliament. These female parliamentarians are nominated by the 300 directly elected parliamentarians. The seats reserved for women are distributed among parties proportionately to their parliamentary representation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Corruption remained a serious problem. According to a 2018 survey by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), law enforcement agencies were the most corrupt of 18 government departments and sectors providing services to the people. The Department of Immigration and Passports and the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority were deemed the second and third most corrupt, TIB said in its survey report published on August 30. These sectors were followed, among others, by the services related to judiciary, land, education, health, agriculture, power, gas, local government institutions, insurance companies, and taxes and duties. Overall, 66.5 percent of the households surveyed by TIB fell victim to corruption, the report said.

On August 20, the cabinet approved a law prohibiting the arrest of any public servant by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) without permission from the government. Campaigners for good governance and transparency decried the provision saying it aimed to shield corrupt officials and clip the wings of the ACC. The law still needed parliamentary approval and presidential assent to become effective.

According to ACC data, 180 of the 2,476 cases on trial were resolved (brought to completion) from January through October. Of these 110 resulted in conviction and 70 resulted in acquittal. Approximately 2,800 cases remained pending with the ACC through October.

In 2017 the ACC introduced a hotline to receive corruption complaints. The call center received 75,000 calls in the first seven days and approximately 500,000 through May 2018. Most of the complaints implicated government land offices, hospitals, railway and road transportation authorities, schools, and utility services in corruption.

From January 2016 to April, the ACC filed more than 100 cases against 759 government employees. The accused included employees to the level of Joint Secretary. The ACC filed a charge sheet or criminal complaint against 83 government employees from January to April. It filed charge sheets against 288 government employees in 2017 and 399 government employees in 2016, according to a Daily Ittefaq report.

According to its strategic plan for the year, the ACC formed 25 teams to monitor and investigate corruption in different government offices. The ACC also formed an intelligence unit so it could launch an effective campaign against corruption.

In some cases the government allegedly used the ACC as a political tool, including having the ACC launch or threaten inquiries into the activities of some businesspeople, newspaper owners, opposition political activists, and civil society members for criticizing the government. In 2017 the Supreme Court rebuked the ACC for maintaining a “pick and choose” policy with regard to pursuing corruption allegations against politically connected individuals.

The government took steps to address widespread police corruption through continued expansion of its community-policing program and through training.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires candidates for parliament to file statements of personal wealth with the EC. The law does not require income and asset disclosure by officials.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views.

Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers commented on the diminished strength of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for public criticism of government policies.

The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar. Although the ACC dropped a case against Odhikar in 2016, Odhikar representatives continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events. On June 6, Special Branch (SB) officers entered Odhikar offices demanding information on the organization’s activities. SB also requested the mobile phone numbers of the organization’s officers. On June 25, SB officers entered Odhikar offices again demanding information on the organization’s president. Family members and Odhikar staff reported additional harassment and claimed security officers constantly monitored their telephone calls, emails, and movements.

The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals. Some civil society members reported repeated audits by the National Board of Revenue in contrast with most citizens, who were almost never audited.

Numerous NGOs entered Bangladesh in response to the August 2017 Rohingya influx. During the year the NGO Affairs Bureau imposed restrictions on 41 NGOs related to the Rohingya relief effort. The 41 NGOs were permitted to finish ongoing projects, but they were denied the ability to commence new projects. The government did not disclose the names of the NGOs, nor did the government state why restrictions were imposed on the NGOs.

The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act restricts foreign funding of NGOs and includes punitive provisions for those NGOs that make “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (that is, government institutions and leaders).

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government had not responded to a UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances request to visit the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has seven members, including five honorary positions. Observers noted the NHRC’s small government support staff was inadequate and underfunded, limiting the commission’s effectiveness and independence. The NHRC’s primary activity was educating the public about human rights and advising the government on key human rights issues.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape of a female by a male and physical spousal abuse, but the law excludes marital rape if the female is older than 13. Rape can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.

There were reports of sexual violence with impunity. On August 17, police freed Awami League official Mohammed al-Helal four hours after he was arrested on charges of raping an 18-year-old girl in her home in Sherpur Upazila in 2017. Responding to the victim’s cries for help, locals restrained Helal and handed him over to police. When the victim’s family tried to file a case against Helal, Officer-in-Charge Khan Mohammed Erfan refused to file the case. Helal attempted to give the victim’s mother 18,000 BDT ($211) to refrain from pursuing a case against him. The victim’s family then filed a case against Helal with the Borga Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal-2 in 2017. In July the Borga Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal-2 issued an arrest warrant for Helal. Helal was taken into custody but was freed later, on technical grounds.

According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to furnish witnesses.

In April the High Court released a 16-point guideline on the handling of rape cases by law enforcement personnel and other parties to the matter. The guidelines came in response to a 2015 writ petition following complaints of delays in recording rape cases. According to the guidelines, the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of a police station must record any information relating to rape or sexual assault irrespective of the place of occurrence. Chemical/DNA tests are required to be conducted within 48 hours from when the incident was reported. The High Court guidelines also stipulated every police station must have a female police officer available to victims of rape or sexual assault during the recording of the case by the duty officer. The statements of the victim are required to be recorded in the presence of a lawyer a social worker or protection officer, or any other individual the victim deems appropriate. Victims with disabilities should be provided with government-supported interpretation services, if necessary, and the investigating officer along with a female police officer should escort the victim to a timely medical examination.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Some NGOs reported violence against women related to disputes over dowries. From January through September, HRSS documented 35 women killed and an additional 41 women injured as a result of dowry-related violence.

On March 6, Rima Begum died at Ujirpur Health Complex after sustaining injuries from dowry-related violence by her husband. Begum’s brother, Arif, said during his sister’s one and a half year marriage to her husband, Shipon Howlader, Begum was often subjected to violence by Howlader and his parents for insufficient dowry. Begum’s father, Akkel Ali, filed a case with the Ujirpur Police Station against Howlader and his parents for the death of his daughter.

On September 16, parliament, in an apparent bid to stop abuse of the 1980 Dowry Prohibition Act, adopted the Dowry Prohibition Act of 2018 incorporating new provisions and rearranging some of the provisions in the original law. The new law contains provisions that have imposed a maximum five years’ imprisonment or a fine of 50,000 BDT (approximately $590) or both for the filing of a false charge under the law. Anyone demanding dowry will be imprisoned for one to five years, or fined 50,000 BDT (approximately $590), or will face both punishments, according to the new law.

A Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling allows the use of “fatwas” (religious edicts) only to settle religious matters; fatwas may not be invoked to justify punishment, nor may they supersede secular law. Islamic tradition dictates only those religious scholars with expertise in Islamic law may declare a fatwa. Despite these restrictions village religious leaders sometimes made such declarations. The declarations resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.

Incidents of vigilantism against women occurred, sometimes led by religious leaders enforcing fatwas. The incidents included whipping, beating, and other forms of physical violence.

Assailants threw acid in the faces of victims–usually women–leaving them disfigured and often blind. Acid attacks were often related to a woman’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal or were related to land disputes. From January through September, HRSS documented 13 incidents of acid violence against women.

The law seeks to control the availability of acid and reduce acid-related violence directed toward women, but lack of awareness of the law and poor enforcement limited its effect. The Commerce Ministry restricted acid sales to buyers registered with relevant trade organizations.

On February 4, Sujan Chandra Paul and Arjun Chandra Paul, along with two other assailants, threw acid on the newlywed Jharna Rani, while she was riding on a motorcycle in Baliadangi Upazila with her husband, causing severe burns to her. The Paul family had proposed the marriage of their sister to Rani’s husband, Dilip Kumar, who refused. Rani’s father filed a case with the Baliadangi Police Station against the suspects for the attack on Rani. The charges against the assailants were pending at the end of the year.

Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment is prohibited by a 2009 High Court guideline, a 2016 Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA) document noted harassment remained a problem and monitoring and enforcement of the guidelines were poor, which sometimes prevented girls from attending school or work.

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

Discrimination: The constitution declares all citizens equal before the law with entitlement to equal protection of the law. It also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to those of men “in all spheres of the state and of public life.” According to human rights NGOs, the government did not always enforce the constitution or the laws pertaining to gender equality effectively. Women do not enjoy the same legal status and rights as men in family, property, and inheritance law. Under traditional Islamic inheritance law, daughters inherit only half of what sons do. Under Hindu inheritance law, a widow’s rights to her deceased husband’s property are limited to her lifetime and revert to the male heirs upon her death.

Children

Birth Registration: Individuals are born citizens if their parents were Bangladeshi citizens, if the nationality of the parents is unknown and the child is born in Bangladeshi territory, or if their fathers or grandfathers were born in the territories now part of the country. If a person qualifies for citizenship through ancestry, the father or grandfather must have been a permanent resident of these territories in or after 1971. Birth registration is required to obtain a national identity card or passport.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through fifth grade by law, and the government offered subsidies to parents to keep girls in class through 10th grade. Despite free classes, teacher fees, books, and uniforms remained prohibitively costly for many families, and the government distributed hundreds of millions of free textbooks to increase access to education. Enrollments in primary schools showed gender parity, but completion rates fell in secondary school, with more boys than girls completing that level. Early and forced marriage was a factor in girls’ attrition from secondary school.

Child Abuse: Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread problems. Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace. In 2016 the government, with support from UNICEF, launched “Child Helpline–1098,” a free telephone service designed to help children facing violence, abuse, and exploitation.

On August 4, Supreme Court Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain expressed frustration with 75 judges of 69 juvenile courts across the country for keeping more than 21,500 juvenile cases pending, including 614 cases pending for more than five years. The Children Act of 2013 calls for opening child friendly courts across the country.

Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems. Child labor and abuse at the workplace remained problems in certain industries, mostly in the informal sector, and child domestic workers were vulnerable to all forms of abuse at their informal workplaces.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. In 2017 parliament passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act, which includes a provision for marriages of women and men at any age in “special circumstances.” The government ignored the recommendations and concerns raised by child rights organizations, human rights organizations, and development partners concerning this act. In 2017 the High Court ruled that the government should explain why the provision allowing the marriage of a minor should not be declared illegal in response to a writ petition filed by BNWLA. BNWLA’s petition argued the Muslim Family Law describes marriage as a “contract,” and a minor could not be a party to a contract.

In June, Abhaynagar subdistrict officials stopped the underage marriage of 15-year-old Bonna Roy. Officials and police officers arrived at the fiance’s family’s home shortly before the ceremony after receiving an anonymous tip. The fiance fled the scene. The fiance’s father was arrested and subsequently released on bail. Roy was returned to her parents.

According to government data, 52 per cent of girls were victims of child marriage in 2011. UNICEF’s 2018 report estimated this figure at 59 per cent. The secretary of the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs disagreed with UNICEF’s findings and claimed to the Prothom Alo newspaper the rate of child marriages fell significantly in the country during the year. According to the UNICEF report, child marriage prevalence has fallen by 15 percent globally, whereas the rate of decrease in South Asia was 30 percent.

In an effort to reduce early and forced marriages, the government offered stipends for girls’ school expenses beyond the compulsory fifth-grade level. The government and NGOs conducted workshops and public events to teach parents the importance of their daughters waiting until age 18 before marrying.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penalty for sexual exploitation of children is 10 years’ to life imprisonment. Child pornography and the selling or distributing of such material is prohibited.

Displaced Children: See section 2.d.

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

There was no Jewish community in the country, but politicians and imams reportedly used anti-Semitic statements to gain support from their constituencies.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for persons with disabilities, but the government did not effectively enforce these provisions.

Although the law requires physical structures be made accessible to those with disabilities, the government did not implement the law effectively. The law calls for the establishment of local committees to expedite implementation of the law, but most committees have not yet been activated. In many cases local authorities are not aware of their responsibilities under this law. A report prepared by several NGOs in 2016 highlighted negligence in areas such as accessibility in physical structures; access to justice; rights of women with disabilities; freedom from exploitation, violence, and abuse; the right to education, health, and a decent work place; the right to employment; and political rights and representation.

The law requires persons with disabilities to register for identity cards to track their enrollment in educational institutions and access to jobs. This registration allows them to be included in voter lists, to cast votes, and to participate in elections. It states no person, organization, authority, or corporation shall discriminate against persons with disabilities and allows for fines or three years’ imprisonment for giving unequal treatment for school, work, or inheritance based on disability, although implementation of the law was uneven. The law also created a 27-member National Coordination Committee charged with coordinating relevant activities among all government organizations and private bodies to fulfill the objectives of the law. Implementation of the law was slow, delaying the formation and functioning of Disability Rights and Protection Committees required by the legislation.

According to the NGO Action against Disability, 90 percent of children with disabilities did not attend public school. The government trained teachers about inclusive education and recruited disability specialists at the district level. The government also allocated stipends for students with disabilities.

The law affords persons with disabilities the same access to information rights as nondisabled persons, but family and community dynamics often influenced whether these rights were exercised.

The law identifies persons with disabilities as a priority group for government-sponsored legal services. The Ministry of Social Welfare, the Department of Social Services, and the National Foundation for the Development of the Disabled are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

The government did take official action to investigate those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities. On February 15, the Bangladesh Police arrested Amzad Ali for the rape of a girl with disabilities. Amzad lured the girl into an open field with promises of agricultural produce. Upon cries for help, the girl’s sister rushed to the scene, and Amzad fled. Members of the community telephoned the Bangladesh National Help Desk. The family of the victim filed a case against Amzad under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act.

On January 21, Bangladesh Police arrested the father, grandparents, and aunt for the murder of one-month old Akita Khatun. Akita was born prematurely and suffered from severe disabilities. According to Assistant Superintendent of Ishwardi Police Mohammad Johurul Haque, Akita’s family did not want the burden associated with caring for a child with disabilities. The child’s relatives hid her in a cabinet away from her mother. Later, police found Akita dead in the cabinet in her home. Akita’s mother, Nishi Khatun, told police she was tortured by her in-laws for not birthing a male child and for Akita’s disabilities. The cases against Akita’s father, grandparents, and aunt remained pending.

Government facilities for treating persons with mental disabilities were inadequate. The Ministry of Health established child development centers in all public medical colleges to assess neurological disabilities. Several private initiatives existed for medical and vocational rehabilitation as well as for employment of persons with disabilities. National and international NGOs provided services and advocated for persons with disabilities. The government established 103 disability information and service centers in all 64 districts, where local authorities provided free rehabilitation services and assistive devices. The government also promoted autism research and awareness. The government inaugurated an electronic system to disburse social welfare payments, including disability allowances.

Government inaction limited the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in civic life, including accessibility in elections.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

There were no major attacks on religious minorities motivated by transnational violent extremism. There were, however, reports of attacks on Hindu and Buddhist property and temples for economic and political reasons. Police had not filed charges against Muslim villagers accused of vandalizing and burning approximately 30 Hindu houses in Rangpur in November 2017 in response to a rumored Facebook post demeaning Islam.

NGOs reported national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) had restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment.

Indigenous People

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) indigenous community experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education. These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which had not been fully implemented. Indigenous persons from the CHT were unable to participate effectively in decisions affecting their lands due to disagreements regarding land dispute resolution procedures under the Land Commission Act.

Indigenous communities in areas other than the CHT reported the loss of land to Bengali Muslims, and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups reported continued land encroachment by Rohingya settlers from Burma. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. According to an August 9 Daily Starnewspaper report, the last six Marma families of Saingya Marmapara village in Bandarban moved out of the village in January because influential individuals made continued land grab attempts. In this village 42 Marma families used to live; however, most have departed at the behest of “land grabbers.” According to the tribal headman, who has taken shelter at his relative’s house in a neighboring village, the land and jhum crop left behind are now under the control of Jasim Uddin Mantu, Chairman of Sylvan Wye Resorts and Spa Limited.

The central government retained authority over land use. The land commission, designed to investigate and return all illegally acquired land, did not resolve any disputes during the year.

The Chakma and Marma indigenous communities, organized under different political groups, engaged in intraindigenous community violence causing dozens of deaths. According to press accounts, at least 34 members of the two indigenous groups were killed by intraindigenous community rivals from January to August. On August 18, seven individuals, including three leaders of the United Peoples’ Democratic Forum (UPDF), were killed and six were injured in two attacks where firearms were used in Khagrachhari District. On May 28, three UPDF members were shot and killed as they were conducting a meeting at a private home in Baghaichhari Upazila of Rangamati District. On May 3, Shaktiman Chakma, chairman of Naniarchar Upazila Council in Rangamati and leader of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) (MN Larma faction), was shot and killed on his way to work. PCJSS blamed the killing on UPDF, which denied the accusation. The factional clashes between and within UPDF and PCJSS resulted mostly from the desire to establish supremacy in particular geographic areas. Media reports said many leaders of these factions are engaged in extortion of money. Meanwhile, the deaths and violence remain unresolved.

There were reports of sexual assaults on indigenous women and children by Bengali neighbors or security personnel. According to the Kapaeeng Foundation, at least 32 indigenous women and children faced sexual assaults from January to July. Of them 11 were raped and four were killed after their rape. According to media reports, two members of the Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) in Bandarban offered two minor girls belonging to the Tripura tribe money in exchange for a sexual favor. When the two minor girls refused, they allegedly raped the girls on August 22. The commanding officer of BGB battalion at Naikhangchhari dismissed the incident as a rumor but promised to “look into it.”

Police heavily guarded the hospital where the two girls were admitted and prevented media and NGO personnel from visiting the 12- and 17-year-old girls.

On January 22, security personnel allegedly raped an 18-year-old Marma girl and sexually assaulted her 13-year-old sister during a raid on the village Orachhari in Rangamati. The accused officials publically denied any incidence of rape but administratively confined to the battalion headquarters a personnel member accused of the rape. Police filed a general diary on insistence from civil society but prevented media and NGO personnel from talking to the victims.

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

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal under the Bangladesh Penal Code. The government does not actively enforce the law. LGBTI groups reported the government retains the law as a result of societal pressure. LGBTI groups reported police used the law as a pretext to harass LGBTI individuals, as well as those considered effeminate regardless of their sexual orientation, and to limit registration of LGBTI organizations. Some groups also reported harassment under a suspicious behavior provision of the police code. The transgender population has long been a marginalized, but recognized, part of society, but it faced continued high levels of fear, harassment, and law enforcement contact in the wake of violent extremist attacks against vulnerable communities.

Members of LGBTI communities received threatening messages via telephone, text, and social media, and some were harassed by police.

The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. LGBTI groups reported official discrimination in employment and occupation, housing, and access to government services.

There were no reports of incidents of involuntary, coercive medical, or psychological practices to “treat” or punish LGBTI individuals.

Organizations specifically assisting lesbians continued to be rare. Strong social stigma based on sexual orientation was common and prevented open discussion of the subject.

The case of Xulhaz Mannan, a human rights activist who was killed in 2016, remained unresolved at the year’s end.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Social stigma against HIV and AIDS and against higher-risk populations could be a barrier for accessing health services, especially for the transgender community and men who have sex with men.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Vigilante killings occurred. Local human rights organizations acknowledged the number of reported cases probably represented only a small fraction of the actual incidents. Illegal fatwas and village arbitration, which a prominent local NGO defined as rulings given by community leaders rather than religious scholars, also occurred. According to Odhikar 45 individuals suffered from vigilante killings from January through October, primarily by public lynching.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although labor rights organizations said that cumbersome requirements for union registration remained. The law requires a minimum of 20 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to agree to be members before the Ministry of Labor and Employment may grant approval for registration of a union. The ministry may request a court to dissolve the union if membership falls below 20 percent. Generally, the law allows only wall-to-wall (entire factory) bargaining units.

The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Fire-fighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants are not entitled to join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions. The Department of Labor may deregister unions for other reasons with the approval of a labor court. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the cases of dissolution or denial of registration. Export processing zones (EPZs), which do not allow trade union participation, are a notable exception to the national labor law.

Prospective unions continued to report rejections based on reasons not listed in the labor law. The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported in 2017 that the country had 7,751 trade unions, covering nearly three million workers, with 596 unions in the garment sector. This figure includes 561 new unions in the garment sector since 2013. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. According to the Solidarity Center, a significant number of the unions in the ready-made garment sector ceased to be active during the year due to factory closures or alleged unfair labor practices on the part of employers, and it has become increasingly harder to register unions in larger ready-made garment factories. After a sharp increase in trade union applications in 2014, there has been a decline every year since. During the year the number of trade-union applications declined again, but the approval rate by the Department of Labor increased.

The law provides for the right to conduct legal strikes but with many limitations. For example, the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production or if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor. Workers and union activists continued to face repercussions from widespread strikes that occurred in 2016 in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, which led to the termination of at least 1,600 workers and left approximately 25 labor leaders and activists in jail. While factories resumed operations by the end of December, labor leaders and workers continued to report police harassment, intimidation, and general antiunion behavior. Ongoing intimidation tactics included frequent police visits to union meetings and offices, police taking pictures and video recordings of union meetings, and police monitoring of NGOs involved in supporting trade unions. While most workers from the Ashulia labor unrest were reinstated, labor leaders still have cases pending against them despite international pressure to resolve these cases.

In response to unrest in the Dhaka industrial suburb of Ashulia in 2016, the government formed a permanent tripartite consultative council to address labor concerns in the garment industry. The state minister for labor and employment and the ministry’s deputy secretary serve as president and secretary of the 20-member council. The council also includes six representatives from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, six additional representatives from the government, and six worker representatives. The council was supposed to meet at least three times a year, but the president may convene meetings as needed. Labor leaders expressed concern that worker representatives were appointed, not elected, and that some of the appointed council members were either not active in the ready-made garment industry, were leaders of very small federations, or were closely aligned with industry. According to the Solidarity Center, in October government officials filed charges stemming from the 2016 Ashulia incident against 15 labor activists and political leaders despite previous government assurances that all cases would be dropped.

Legally registered unions that are recognized as official Collective Bargaining Agents (CBAs) are entitled to submit charters of demands and bargain collectively with employers. This occurred rarely, but instances were increasing. The law provides criminal penalties for unfair labor practices such as retaliation against union members for exercising their legal rights. Labor organizations reported that in some companies, workers did not exercise their collective bargaining rights due to their unions’ ability to address grievances with management informally or due to fear of reprisal.

The law includes provisions protecting unions from employer interference in organizing activities; however, employers, particularly in the readymade garment industry, often interfered with this right. Labor organizers reported acts of intimidation and abuse, the termination of employees, and scrutiny by security forces and the intelligence services. Labor rights NGOs alleged that some terminated union members were unable to find work in the sector because employers blacklisted them. The BGMEA reported that some factory owners complained of harassment from organized labor, including physical intimidation, but statistics and specific examples were unavailable.

According to the labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a Participation Committee (PC). In 2015 the government passed the Bangladesh Labor Rules calling for an amended labor law. The rules include an outline of the process for the PC’s workers representative elections.

A separate legal framework under the authority of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) governs labor rights in the EPZs, with approximately 458,000 workers. EPZ law specifies certain limited associational and bargaining rights for Worker Welfare Associations (WWAs) elected by the workers, such as the rights to bargain collectively and represent their members in disputes. The law prohibits unions within EPZs. While an earlier provision of the EPZ law banning all strikes under penalty of imprisonment expired in 2013, the law continues to provide for strict limits on the right to strike, such as the discretion of the BEPZA’s chairperson to ban any strike he views as prejudicial to the public interest. The law provides for EPZ labor tribunals, appellate tribunals, and conciliators, but those institutions were not established. Instead eight labor courts and one appellate labor court heard EPZ cases. The BEPZA has its own inspection regime with labor counselors that function as inspectors. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. There were no reports of legal strikes in the EPZs.

The government adopted standard operating procedures regarding union registration. With the exception of limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, national labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but this right was rarely exercised.

The government did not always enforce applicable law effectively or consistently. For example, labor law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. It also establishes that workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, however, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously.

Penalties for violating the law increased in 2013, enabled by the issuance of implementing rules. The maximum fine for a first violation is 25,000 BDT (approximately $300); the fine doubles for a second offense. The law also allows for imprisonment of up to three years. If a violation results in death, the law allows a fine of up to 100,000 BDT ($1,250), four years’ imprisonment, or both. Administrative and judicial appeals were subjected to lengthy delays.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses are five to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of not less than 50,000 BDT ($625). Inspection mechanisms that enforce laws against forced labor did not function effectively. Resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were inadequate. The law also provides that victims of forced labor have access to shelter and other protective services afforded to trafficking victims.

Some individuals recruited to work overseas with fraudulent employment offers subsequently were exploited abroad under conditions of forced labor or debt bondage. Many migrant workers assumed debt to pay high recruitment fees, imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies and illegally by unlicensed subagents.

Children and adults were also forced into domestic servitude and bonded labor that involved restricted movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law regulates child employment, and the regulations depend on the type of work and the child’s age. The minimum age for work is 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. The law allows for certain exceptions, permitting children who are ages 12 or 13 to perform restricted forms of light work. Minors may work up to five hours per day and 30 hours per week in factories and mines or up to seven hours per day and 42 per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through fifth grade.

The Labor Ministry’s enforcement mechanisms were insufficient for the large, urban informal sector, and authorities rarely enforced child labor laws outside the export-garment and shrimp-processing sectors. Agriculture and other informal sectors that had no government oversight employed large numbers of children.

Under the ministry’s 2012-16 child labor national plan of action, the National Child Labor Welfare Council is charged with monitoring child labor. The council met only twice, however, since its inception. The government-mandated child protection networks at district and subdistrict levels to respond to a broad spectrum of violations against children, including child labor; to monitor interventions; and to develop referral mechanisms.

The law specifies penalties for violations involving child labor, including nominal fines of less than 5,000 BDT ($63). These penalties insufficiently deterred violations. The government occasionally brought criminal charges against employers who abused domestic servants.

Child labor was widespread in the informal sector and in domestic work. According to a 2016 Overseas Development Institute report based on a survey of 2,700 households in Dhaka’s slums, 15 percent of six- to 14-year-old children were out of school and engaged in full-time work. These children were working well beyond the 42-hour limit set by national legislation.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), agriculture was the primary employment sector for boys, and services was the main sector for girls. According to Young Power in Social Action, an NGO working to protect the rights of shipbreakers in Chittagong, 11 percent of the shipbreaking workforce was under the age of 18. NGOs, such as Shipbreaking Platform, reported laborers worked long hours without training, safety equipment, holidays, adequate health care, and also without contractual agreements.

Children were engaged in the worst forms of child labor, primarily in dangerous activities in agriculture. Children working in agriculture risked using dangerous tools, carrying heavy loads, and applying harmful pesticides. Children frequently worked long hours, were exposed to extreme temperatures, and suffered high rates of injury from sharp tools. Children also worked in such hazardous activities as stone and brick breaking, dyeing operations, blacksmith assistance, and construction. Forced child labor was present in the fish-drying industry, where children were exposed to harmful chemicals, dangerous machines, and long hours of work. In urban areas street children worked pulling rickshaws, garbage picking, recycling, vending, begging, repairing automobiles, and in hotels and restaurants. These children were vulnerable to exploitation, for example, in forced begging, forced smuggling, or selling drugs.

Children frequently worked in the informal sector in areas including the unregistered garment, road transport, manufacturing, and service industries.

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

The labor law prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex or disability, but it does not prohibit other discrimination based on sex, disability, social status, caste, sexual orientation, or similar factors. The constitution prohibits adverse discrimination by the state on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth and expressly extends that prohibition to government employment; it allows affirmative action programs for the benefit of disadvantaged populations.

The lower-wage garment sector traditionally offered greater employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment-sector workers, making up approximately 56 percent of the total ready-made garment workforce, according to official statistics although statistics varied widely due to a lack of data. The ILO estimated that women made up 65 percent of the ready-made garment workforce. Despite representing a majority of total workers, women were generally underrepresented in supervisory and management positions and generally earned less than their male counterparts, even when performing similar functions. A 2017 study by Andreas Menzel (Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education Economics Institute) and Christopher Woodruff (Oxford University) during the year found that women earned lower wages in export-oriented garment factories, even after controlling for worker productivity. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of the wage gap remained even after controlling for skills, which the study attributed to higher mobility for male workers. Women were also subjected to abuse in factories, including sexual harassment.

Some religious, ethnic, and other minorities reported discrimination, particularly in the private sector (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The National Minimum Wage Board established minimum monthly wages on a sector-by-sector basis. The board may convene at any time, but it is supposed to meet at least every five years in a tripartite forum to set wage structures and benefits industry by industry. By law the government may modify or amend wage structures through official public announcement in consultation with employers and workers. In the garment industry, the board increased the minimum monthly wage from 5,300 BDT ($66) which was set in 2013, to 8,000 BDT (approximately $95). Ready-made garment industry workers conducted public protests after the announcement. They had requested a minimum wage of 16,000 BDT (approximately $190). The increase took effect on December 1. Also dissatisfied were more senior workers, whose pay was not increased at the same rate as the minimal wage. That left some of them earning only marginally more than entry-level workers.

In September a member from the country’s intelligence community threatened trade union leaders in Chittagong with bodily harm should workers protest the new minimum wage, according to Solidarity Center. Wages in the apparel sector often were higher than the minimum wage, and wages in the EPZs typically were higher than general wage levels, according to BEPZA. Among the lowest minimum wages were those for tea packaging, set in 2013 at 69 BDT ($0.86) per day as established by a memorandum of understanding. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation (which averaged 6 to 8 percent annually since 2010, according to World Bank data), but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors.

By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours, but it may be extended to 60 hours, subject to the payment of an overtime allowance that is double the basic wage. Overtime cannot be compulsory. Workers must have one hour of rest if they work for more than six hours a day or a half-hour of rest for more than five hours’ work a day. Factory workers are supposed to receive one day off every week. Shop workers receive one and one-half days off per week.

The law establishes occupational health and safety standards, and amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The law says that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year. The days and dates for such festivals are supposed to be fixed by the employer in consultation with the CBA, if any, or on the recommendation of the participation committee in absence of the CBA.

Labor law implementing rules outline the process for the formation of occupational safety and health committees in factories, and the government reported that approximately 2,175 safety committees were formed as of July. The committees include both management and workers nominated by the CBA or, in absence of CBA, workers representatives of the factory’s Worker Participation Committee (WPC). Where there is no union or WPC, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) arranges an election among the workers for their representatives.

The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards in all sectors. Although increased focus on the garment industry improved compliance in some garment factories, resources, inspections, and remediation were generally not adequate across sectors, and penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations.

DIFE’s resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. In 2017, DIFE employed 317 labor inspectors; however, this number is likely insufficient for a workforce that includes more than 83 million workers, and the DIFE lacked authority to sanction employers directly without filing a court case. The ministry nonetheless took steps to increase DIFE’s staff and technical capacity.

The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,138 workers and injured more than 2,500. In the aftermath of the collapse, private companies, foreign governments, and international organizations worked with the government to inspect more than 3,780 garment factories. Many factories began to take action to improve safety conditions, although remediation in many cases proceeded slowly due to a range of factors, including failure to obtain adequate financing. Two private buyers’ initiatives, the Alliance and the Accord, conducted initial fire and safety inspections of 2,400 factories, but government oversight and enforcement of garment factories outside of these initiatives remained limited. These initiatives also covered only the formal ready-made garment industry, leaving thousands of informal garment and nongarment factories without proper oversight. Boiler or chemical-related explosions increased the focus on nonfire industrial accidents. The Alliance terminated its operations at the end of the year, following the successful remediation of more than 400 factories under its purview. Several U.S. brands worked with a new local organization to sustain the culture of safety at remediated factories.

The court case against Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, and 40 other individuals on charges, including murder began in 2016. Rana received a maximum three-year sentence for failing to declare his personal wealth to an antigraft commission. The murder trial against Rana and others continued.

A trial against those implicated in the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire started in 2015 after charges were brought against 13 individuals, including chairman Mahmuda Akhter and managing director Delwar Hossain, in September 2015. Media reported that the trial was stalled at year’s end.

Workers’ groups stated that safety and health standards established by law were sufficient and that more factories took steps toward compliance. The law provides for a maximum fine of 25,000 BDT (approximately $300) for noncompliance, but this did not deter violations.

Legal limits on hours of work were violated routinely. In the ready-made garment sector, employers often required workers to labor 12 hours a day or more to meet export deadlines, but they did not always properly compensate workers for their time. According to the Solidarity Center, workers often willingly worked overtime in excess of the legal limit. Employers in many cases delayed workers’ pay or denied full leave benefits.

Few reliable labor statistics were available on the large informal sector in which the majority of citizens worked, and it was difficult to enforce labor laws in the sector. The BBS 2010 Labor Force Survey reported the informal sector employed 47.3 million of the 56.7 million workers in the country.

Cambodia

Executive Summary

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 National Assembly seats in the July 29 national election, having banned the chief opposition party in November 2017. Prior to the victory, Prime Minister Hun Sen had already served for 33 years. International observers, including foreign governments and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and domestic NGOs criticized the election as neither free nor fair and not representative of the will of the Cambodian people.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces, which often threatened force against those who opposed Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling CPP.

Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings carried out by the government or on its behalf; forced disappearance carried out by the government; torture by the government; arbitrary arrests by the government; political prisoners; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; censorship and selectively enforced criminal libel laws; interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.

The government did not provide evidence of having prosecuted any officials for abuses, including corruption. A pervasive culture of impunity continued.

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 reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. As of July a local human rights NGO reported four extrajudicial killings.

In March 2017 the court sentenced Oeuth Ang to life imprisonment for the 2016 murder of Kem Ley, an outspoken and popular political analyst. As of July the case remained open and the government pledged to look for coconspirators, although it took no action. Noting that the victim and killer were not acquainted and other anomalies, including the impoverished assailant’s possession of an expensive handgun, many observers believed a third party hired Oeuth Ang.

On March 8, violence broke out in Kratie Province when security forces opened fire on persons protesting the transfer of land, decades before, to a rubber plantation. Several media outlets reported a death toll of two to six persons with another 40 injured. Shortly after the violence occurred, the government ordered local media to “correct” its news reports. Four NGOs and the UN Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) formed an investigation committee to tour the site. They found that on March 7, the company began demarcating its land and that a day later 150 soldiers, military police, and police burned down villagers’ houses, leading the villagers to block the main road and demand an immediate stop to the arson. According to the OHCHR report, the security forces opened fire to disperse the villagers. OHCHR acknowledged that, because the security forces closed off the site of the shooting, there were no reliable counts of the dead or injured.

After the incident Kratie governor Sar Chamrong denied reports that security forces shot the protesters. National Police spokesperson Kirt Chantharith claimed villagers with homemade rifles injured as many as seven police officers while only two villagers were slightly injured, not by gunfire, but by bamboo sticks.

b. Disappearance

The Venerable Meas Vichet, a well known monk and social activist who disappeared in June 2017 in Krobei Riel commune, Siem Reap Province, after security officials beat him, remained missing, and no new information on his case arose during the year to October.

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

The constitution prohibits such practices; however, beatings and other forms of physical mistreatment of police detainees and prison inmates reportedly continued during the year.

There were credible reports military and police officials used physical and psychological abuse and occasionally severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation. As of July a local NGO observed physical assaults against detainees and prisoners in nine cases. Journalist Kim Sok told local media following his release from detention that prison guards beat him whenever he disobeyed an order or opened books. Other detainees reported authorities forced them to walk for up to an hour with a bucket of water on their heads, or forced them to stand in the hot sun for several hours.

As of July a local NGO reported nine physical assaults against civilians not in detention by local authorities, government agents, or the private bodyguards of government officials.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh and in many cases life threatening. In February the International Labor Organization (ILO) requested the government to defend its practice of compulsory labor for detainees and urged the government to amend several laws to ensure they did not lead to incarceration involving forced labor.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. According to the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons (GDP), in July 2017 authorities held more than 26,000 prisoners and detainees in 29 prisons designed to hold a maximum 11,000 prisoners. GDP officials reported the government’s “war on drugs” had exacerbated overcrowding. The GDP declined to release updated figures.

In most prisons there was no separation of adult and juvenile prisoners; of male and female prisoners; or of persons convicted of serious crimes, minor offenses, or in pretrial detention. According to the GDP, in 2016 approximately 34 percent of detainees were in pretrial detention and 29 percent had received a final verdict, approximately 8 percent of prisoners were women, and 4 percent were minors. A local NGO indicated it witnessed pregnant women in prison as well as children living with incarcerated mothers. The same NGO reported that the number of infants and toddlers living with their mothers in prison had increased sharply since 2016 due to the government’s campaign against drugs. According to one local NGO, the number of infants in prison rose from 30 in 2015 to 149 as of March.

During the year to October, the GDP did not report how many prisoners died in prison. In 2016, the most recent year on record, 76 died. Local NGOs maintained that allowances for food and other necessities were inadequate in many cases. Observers continued to report that authorities misappropriated allowances for prisoners’ food, exacerbating malnutrition and disease. Authorities did not provide updated figures on the number of prisons in which inmates had access to clean water, although as of 2016, 18 of 29 prisons provided clean water. Prisons did not have adequate facilities for persons with mental or physical disabilities. NGOs also alleged prison authorities gave preferential treatment, including increased access to visitors, transfer to better cells, and the opportunity to leave cells during the day, to prisoners whose families could pay bribes. According to a local NGO, “prisoner self-management committees,” groups of inmates organized and directed by prison guards, sometimes violently attacked other prisoners. NGOs reported significant drug use by prisoners, made possible by bribing guards.

The country has seven government and three private drug rehabilitation centers. Most observers agreed the majority of detainees in such facilities were there involuntarily, committed by police or family members without due process. According to the National Authority for Combating Drugs, no detainee was younger than age 18. Observers noted employees at the centers frequently controlled detainees with physical restraints and subjected them to intense exercise.

Administration: There were no legal provisions establishing prison ombudspersons. Prisoners could submit uncensored complaints about alleged abuse to judicial authorities through lawyers, but a large number of prisoners and detainees could not afford legal representation. The government stated it investigated complaints and monitors prison and detention center conditions through the GDP, which reportedly produced biannual reports on prison management. The GDP, however, did not release the reports despite frequent requests by civil society organizations.

Authorities routinely allowed prisoners and detainees access to visitors, although rights organizations confirmed families sometimes had to bribe prison officials to visit prisoners or provide food and other necessities. There were credible reports officials demanded bribes before allowing prisoners to attend trials or appeal hearings, before releasing inmates who had served their full term of imprisonment, or before allowing inmates to exit their cells. Kung Raiya, a student who served one year in prison for a politically sensitive Facebook posting, said he had to bribe prison guards approximately one dollar each time he met with imprisoned politicians or human rights activists.

Independent Monitoring: The government allowed, subject to preconditions and restrictions, international and domestic human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and OHCHR, to visit prisons or provide human rights training to prison guards. Some NGOs reported limited cooperation from local authorities, but it was difficult to gain access to pretrial detainees. This was particularly true in high-profile cases such as that of opposition leader Kem Sokha, released on September 10 after a year in pretrial detention while authorities permitted visits only by his wife and defense lawyers. Despite the family’s requests for visits by the ICRC, the terms under which the government would allow such visits–including no direct access to the detainee–were unacceptable to the family.

The Ministry of Interior required lawyers, human rights monitors, and other visitors to obtain permission prior to visiting prisoners–often from multiple government agencies depending on the individual case–and sometimes the government required NGOs to sign a formal memorandum of understanding delineating their “roles” during prison visits.

Although some local independent monitoring groups were able to meet privately with prisoners, others were not. A local human rights NGO that provides medical care to prisoners reported the government periodically refused requests to visit convicted prisoners who were members of a political opposition party. Another NGO reported the government accused it of harboring political bias and using its visits to embolden political prisoners. OHCHR representatives reported they were usually able to visit prisons and hold private meetings when interviewing a particular prisoner of interest.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the government did not respect these prohibitions, notably with the arbitrary detention of five Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) staffers for 427 days on politically motivated charges. ADHOC is one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights NGOs. Authorities released the ADHOC staffers on bail in July 2017; in September 2018 hearings on their case reconvened.

The government’s pursuit of criminal defamation cases also led to a number of arrests. Provincial labor leader Sam Sokha, for example, was tried and found guilty in absentia in January of defaming Hun Sen after she was filmed throwing a shoe at his photograph. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave her refugee status in Thailand, the Thai government repatriated her involuntarily at the Cambodian government’s request in February, and she was serving a two-year prison sentence.

In February the government adopted a new “lese-majeste” (royal insult) law, which had led to the arrest of at least three citizens.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The General Commissariat of the National Police, under Ministry of Interior supervision, manages all civilian police units. Police forces are organized into those with authority to make arrests, those without such authority, and judicial police, whose authority only extends to enforcing court warrants. The government permitted military police to arrest civilians if the officers met the training and experience requirements to serve as civilian police, if civilians were on military property, or when authorized by local governments. The military police, however, sometimes engaged in civilian law enforcement activities under the authority and direction of provincial or local governments, often in support of civilian police unable to exercise effective crowd control.

There were credible reports that police officials committed abuses with impunity, and in most cases, the government took little or no action. Government officials and their family members were generally immune to prosecution.

From January to July, one local human rights organization tracked nine instances of impunity affecting 10 victims. The NGO claimed the number of instances might be far higher, but victims feared filing reports ahead of the politically sensitive election. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for evaluating security force killings, and the law requires police, prosecutors, and judges to investigate all complaints, including those of police abuse. Judges and prosecutors, however, rarely conducted independent investigations. If abuse cases came to trial, presiding judges usually passed down verdicts based only on written reports from police and witness testimony. In general police received little professional training on protecting or respecting human rights.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The law requires police to obtain a warrant from an investigating judge prior to making an arrest, unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. Authorities frequently cited this exception when arresting opposition political figures, even if the alleged offenses occurred years before. Critics accused the government of employing this practice to circumvent laws providing lawmakers with parliamentary immunity. The law allows police to take a person into custody and conduct an investigation for 48 hours, excluding weekends and government holidays, before police must file charges or release a suspect. In felony cases of exceptional circumstances prescribed by law, police may detain a suspect for an additional 24 hours with the approval of a prosecutor. Nevertheless, authorities routinely held persons for extended periods before charging them.

There was a bail system, but many prisoners, especially those without legal representation, had no opportunity to seek release on bail. Authorities routinely denied bail for cases considered politically motivated.

Under the law police may arrest and detain accused persons for a maximum of 24 hours before allowing them access to legal counsel, but authorities routinely held prisoners incommunicado for several days before granting them access to a lawyer or family members. According to government officials, such prolonged detention was frequently the result of the limited capacity of the court system. The government did not provide free access to lawyers for indigent detainees.

Arbitrary Arrest: As of July, one local human rights NGO reported at least six new cases of arbitrary arrest. The actual number of arbitrary arrests and detentions was likely higher, since many victims in rural areas did not file complaints due to the difficulty of traveling to human rights NGO offices or due to concern for their family’s security. Authorities took no legal or disciplinary action against persons responsible for the illegal detentions.

As of July authorities at the crowded Prey Speu social affairs center reported 585 persons still in detention following the Phnom Penh city government’s 2017 roundup of 1,727 homeless persons, beggars, persons with mental disabilities, and persons engaged in prostitution. Authorities initially placed 1,560 detainees, including 262 children, in Prey Speu without adequate medical treatment or food. The facility, operated by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth, was notorious for abuses that led to the death of two detainees in 2015. According to Prey Speu authorities, 585 detainees remained in the facility following reintegration into the community of 1,100 of the original detainees.

Pretrial Detention: The law allows for a maximum pretrial detention of six months for misdemeanors and 18 months for felonies. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees without legal representation. NGOs reported that authorities held many accused of minor crimes in pretrial detention for longer than six months.

Detainees’ Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: A backlog of court cases and long delays in obtaining judicial rulings interfered with a person’s right to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of his or her detention.

Amnesty: The government traditionally offers a number of royal pardons during important national festivals. As of September the government had not timed any pardons to coincide with national festivals; however, the government offered several royal pardons to political prisoners following the July national elections. In August the government pardoned 14 opposition party leaders and four land activists. The government made clear through public pronouncements and allegedly through private harassment, however, that all of those pardoned could face rearrest if they engaged in activities the government deemed problematic.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government generally did not respect judicial independence. The courts were subject to influence and interference by the executive branch, which has the authority to promote, dismiss, and discipline judges at will. Judicial officials, up to and including the chief of the Supreme Court, often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party, and observers alleged only those with ties to the CPP or the executive received appointments to the judiciary. Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was very inefficient and could not assure due process.

Observers alleged the Bar Association of Cambodia (BAC) heavily favored admission of CPP-aligned members at the expense of nonaligned and opposition attorneys and at times admitted unqualified individuals to the bar solely due to their political affiliation. Impartial analysts revealed that many applicants to the bar paid high bribes for admittance. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined. For example, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared shortly before the November 2017 Supreme Court hearing on the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), that he was “99.99 percent certain” the court would decide to dissolve the opposition party.

A shortage of judges and courtrooms delayed many cases, according to NGO reports. In August, BAC reported there were only 151 judges in the country. NGOs also believed court officials focused on cases that might benefit them financially. Court delays or corrupt practices often allowed accused persons to escape prosecution. As in past years, NGOs asserted that rich or powerful defendants, including members of the security forces, often paid money to victims and authorities to drop criminal charges. Authorities sometimes urged victims or their families to accept financial restitution in exchange for dropping criminal charges or for failing to appear as witnesses.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary rarely enforced this right.

Defendants are by law presumed innocent and have the right of appeal, but they often resorted to bribery rather than rely on the judicial process. Trials are often public and frequently face delays due to court bureaucracy. Court staffers reportedly undertook efforts to speed case processing. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney, confront and question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. In felony cases, if a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the law requires the court to provide the defendant with free legal representation; however, the judiciary was not able to provide legal counsel, and most defendants sought assistance from NGOs, pro bono representation, or “voluntarily” proceeded without legal representation. In the absence of required defense attorneys in felony cases, trial courts routinely adjourned cases until defendants could secure legal representation, a process that often took months. Trials were typically perfunctory, and extensive cross-examination usually did not take place. The courts offered free interpretation. The law extends these rights to all defendants.

There was a critical shortage of trained lawyers, particularly outside the capital. The right to a fair public trial often was denied de facto for persons without means to secure counsel. A report by the International Commission of Jurists indicated the high cost of bribes needed to join the bar association was partly responsible for keeping the number of trained lawyers low, which helped raise lawyers’ income whether earned through legal or illegal means.

NGOs reported sworn written statements from witnesses and the accused usually constituted the only evidence presented at trials. Authorities sometimes allegedly coerced confessions through beatings or threats, or forced illiterate defendants to sign written confessions without informing them of the contents. Courts accepted such forced confessions as evidence during trials despite legal prohibitions against doing so. According to a human rights NGO, which observed the appellate courts from November 1, 2016, to October 31, 2017, while they heard 340 cases involving 558 defendants, 20 defendants were threatened and 40 defendants were tortured to confess. The difficulty in transferring prisoners from provincial prisons to the appeals court in Phnom Penh meant that defendants were present at less than one-half of all appeals.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

As of August 1, a local human rights NGO estimated authorities held 21 political prisoners or detainees. In September, following the postelection pardons and several grants of bail, the same NGO estimated the number at five.

Among those released after the election was Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition CNRP. In September 2017 police arrested him on charges of treason. Several high-ranking CNRP officials went into hiding and most fled abroad. The government’s case against Kem Sokha centered on a four-year-old video of the CNRP leader telling an audience in Australia of his party’s work in grassroots organizing with advice from foreign experts. The government claimed this amounted to Kem Sokha “confessing” that a foreign country had instructed him on how to foment a “color revolution” in the country. Although authorities held him for one year, Kem Sokha’s lawyers said there was no progress in the government’s investigation, even though the court had questioned 13 witnesses, including various human rights activists, many of them claiming no relationship to Sokha. On September 10, the government transferred Sokha to what effectively amounted to house arrest, although there is no legal basis for “house arrest” under the country’s law. Authorities prevented Sokha from leaving an estimated three-block radius surrounding his house; meeting with former CNRP leaders, journalists, and foreigners; and participating in any political activity or gatherings.

In April the appeals court upheld the conviction of 11 CNRP activists on charges of insurrection and sentenced them from seven to 20 years in prison. Authorities charged the 11 with participating in a 2014 protest that resulted in injury to six protesters and 39 Daun Penh District security guards.

In September Hun Sen released former CNRP National Assembly member Sam An along with 13 other CNRP leaders through royal pardons. They were arrested as long ago as 2016, convicted on various charges seen as politically motivated, and sentenced to prison terms as long as 30 months.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The country has a system in place for hearing civil cases, and citizens are entitled to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Both administrative and judicial remedies generally were available; however, authorities often did not enforce court orders.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

Forced collectivization and the relocation of much of the population under the Khmer Rouge left land ownership unclear. The land law states that any person who peacefully possessed private or state land (excluding public lands, such as parks) or inhabited state buildings without contest for five years prior to the 2001 promulgation of the law has the right to apply for a definitive title to that property. Most citizens, however, continued to lack the knowledge and means to obtain formal documentation of land ownership.

Provincial and district land offices continued to follow pre-2001 land registration procedures, which did not include accurate land surveys or opportunities for public comment. Land speculation, in the absence of clear title, fueled disputes in every province and increased tensions between poor rural communities and speculators. Some urban communities faced forced eviction to make way for commercial development projects.

Authorities continued to force inhabitants to relocate, although the number of cases declined in recent years. Some persons also used the threat of legal action or eviction to intimidate poor and vulnerable persons into selling their land at below-market values. As of June a local NGO reported 27 new cases of land grabbing and forced evictions, affecting 1,647 families. Another NGO reported 39 new property-related conflicts between businesspersons and villagers, including accusations of land grabbing, theft of natural resources, economic land concessions, social land concessions, and evictions. Some of those evicted successfully contested the actions in court, but the majority of cases remained pending.

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

Although the law provides for the privacy of residence and correspondence and prohibits illegal searches, NGOs reported police routinely conducted searches and seizures without warrants. The government installed closed-circuit television cameras in the National Election Committee (NEC). It also routinely leaked personal correspondence and surreptitiously recorded telephone calls of opposition and civil society leaders to government-aligned media. Police, who arrested Kem Sokha in September 2017, reportedly entered his house by force without a warrant. Local authorities entered and searched community-based organizations and union offices with increasing regularity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including the press; however, in 2017-18 the government carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media in the country, and most individuals and institutions reported on the need for self-censorship.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, during the year the government spent much effort to weaken the independent press and enacted ever greater restrictions on free expression.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution grants freedom of expression except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares that the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive implementing the criminal defamation law reiterates these limits and prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame the king, government leaders, and public institutions.

Election laws require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaigns and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties in the media. Although campaign laws require news outlets to give equal coverage to each party participating in an election, there was no evidence of the law’s enforcement during the year, and news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties.

The government used the penal code to prosecute citizens on disinformation and incitement charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Courts interpreted “incitement” broadly, and senior government officials threatened to prosecute opposition figures on incitement charges for acts including calling for a “change in government” by electoral means.

In February the government amended the law to criminalize royal insult. As of September the government had arrested at least three persons for insulting the monarch. On October 4, a court in Siem Reap convicted barber Ban Samphy, a member of the dissolved CNRP, to seven months’ imprisonment after he allegedly shared a Facebook post about King Norodom Sihamoni in May. It was the first such conviction since the government adopted the royal insult law.

A statement released by 117 NGOs in June expressed concern over government suppression of their freedom of expression and privacy rights due to government monitoring of their private telephone calls and social media.

Press and Media Freedom: A majority of Khmer-language newspapers were either owned directly by or received financial support from persons closely associated with the ruling CPP. The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to influence broadcast media. The great majority of domestic radio and television stations operated under the control or influence of the CPP. The three largest pro-CPP newspapers never criticized the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. As of August no pro-opposition newspapers published regularly, and authorities never permitted the CNRP to open a television station, despite a 2014 agreement to allow it.

In May the NEC issued a code of conduct for the September election, telling reporters they would face a maximum penalty of a 30 million riel ($7,500) fine if they interviewed any voter near a polling station, or if they published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election. Also in May the government appeared to engineer the sale of the country’s last remaining independent newspaper to a Malaysian businessperson who advertised his business as “covert public relations.”

In September 2017 the Cambodia Daily, one of two independent English-language newspapers, closed its offices after 25 years of operation. The government accused the newspaper of evading taxes amounting to 25.2 billion riel ($6.3 million). Tax authorities, however, did not present detailed information about the charges, and information about the tax arrears leaked quickly to government-controlled media–despite legal requirements on the government to resolve tax noncompliance cases privately. In August 2017 the government shuttered 32 FM radio frequencies across 20 provinces, affecting stations relaying independent news–Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America, and the Voice of Democracy.

Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. According to the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), 38 percent of reporters said government authorities either verbally attacked or physically assaulted them in 2017.

In the May 2017 communal elections, authorities charged two Cambodia Daily reporters with “incitement” and violation of voter rights for allegedly asking individuals about their voting preferences. Both reporters fled the country; the case against them continued in absentia.

Authorities released two former RFA journalists on bail in September, after their November 2017 arrest on charges of treason, to which authorities later added charges of distribution of pornography.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government increasingly used other means to suppress traditional and social media. In addition to threats, violence, harassment, arrests, and surveillance, the government used its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or CPP. Private media admitted to practicing some degree of self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. According to the CCIM, 67 percent of reporters felt afraid to report on political and human rights issues.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests. On August 17, authorities released Kim Sok after he served an 18-month prison sentence following a complaint lodged by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen claimed that Sok accused him of responsibility for the killing of Kem Ley. As of September, Kim Sok had not yet paid 800 million riels ($200,000) in fines and compensation to the prime minister; failure to pay could result in another two years’ imprisonment. Sok also faced charges of defaming the CPP, whom he accused of hiring murderers.

National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ rights to criticize government policies and officials. In particular the government routinely threatened to prosecute and arrest anyone who questioned the demarcation of the country’s border with Vietnam or suggested the government had ceded national territory to Vietnam.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were credible reports of government entities monitored private online communications. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 34 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

The telecommunications law was widely criticized by leading civil society and human rights activists, who stated it provides the government broad authority to monitor secretly online public discussion and communications using private telecommunication devices. The law gives the government legal authority to monitor every telephone conversation, text message, email, social media activity, and correspondence between individuals without their knowledge or consent. Any opinions expressed in these exchanges that the government deemed to violate its definition of national security could result in a maximum 15 years’ imprisonment.

In May the government issued an interministerial regulation entitled “Publication Controls of Website and Social Media Processing via Internet in the Kingdom of Cambodia.” The regulation gives the government authority to shut down any social media page or website that published information leading to “turmoil in the society that undermined national defense, national security, national relations with other countries, economy, social order, discrimination or national culture or tradition.” The regulation was invoked for the first time three days before the July 29 national election, when the government ordered local telecommunication companies to block several independent news websites, including Voice of America in KhmerRFA Khmer, and Voice of Democracy.

A “Cyber War Team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit was responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. The Quick Reaction Unit published several videos claiming civil society, independent media, and the opposition were colluding with foreign powers to overthrow the government. The government often used these videos as justification to crack down on those who opposed the rule of the prime minister. During the 2018 election campaign, the prime minister regularly threatened that his cyber experts could identify the telephone of anyone who posted a defamatory Facebook post within four minutes and to a range of five feet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

In general there were no formal or overt government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although scholars tended to exercise caution when teaching political subjects due to fear of offending politicians. Many individuals in academia resorted to self-censorship or expressed their opinions anonymously. In July civil society activists criticized the government for vote buying when the Ministry of Education ordered schools shut for three days to allow students to return to their home provinces to vote. Critics considered the move significant in the context of an election where the government openly sought to boost voter turnout to bolster the election’s legitimacy because it did not apply this policy equally across sectors. For example the government did not give factory workers extra days off work to vote.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not always respect this right.

The Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO) requires all groups to register and requires advance notification for meetings, training, protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments may issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party.

There were credible reports the government prevented associations and NGOs from organizing human rights-related events and meetings, because those NGOs failed to receive permission from local authorities; however, the law does not require preapproval any such events. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security–terms left undefined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation–as reasons for denying permits. Government authorities occasionally cited the LANGO simply to break up meetings and trainings deemed hostile to the government.

Despite these restrictions the press reported numerous public protests, most related to land or labor disputes. In some cases police forcibly dispersed peaceful groups assembled without a permit, sometimes causing minor injuries to demonstrators. In other cases police used force against demonstrators after they interfered with traffic, made threats or carried out acts of violence, or refused orders to disperse.

According to a joint report released in August by the CCHR, ADHOC, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, from April 2017 to March, there were 48 incidents of NGOs prevented by authorities from holding meetings, training, or gatherings due to LANGO provisions. The report also recorded 539 restrictions of fundamental freedoms by the government and third-party entities linked to the government between April 2017 and March, a 52 percent increase from the previous year. Although the vast majority of restrictions occurred in Phnom Penh, restrictions were documented in every province except Prey Veng and Kep. The government sometimes took legal action against peaceful protesters. On February 14, authorities arrested four union leaders and charged them with organizing an illegal strike at the Cosmo Textile Factory in Kandal Province. In October 2017 authorities arrested five persons who planned to distribute leaflets during the Water Festival to call for demonstrations to demand the government release political prisoners. On the same day, the Phnom Penh municipal court summoned Leng Seng Hong, president of the Cambodian Democratic Student Intellectual Federation, to appear in court on charges of incitement to commit felony for appealing to the public to protest if the CNRP was dissolved.

Senior government and military officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Phnom Penh Governor Khoung Sreng, CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan, and armed forces Commander in Chief Pol Sarouen, warned the public not to gather or demonstrate in the capital during the trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha following his arrest in September 2017.

In April the NEC threatened to prosecute anyone who urged voters to boycott the elections. In June it sent a message to mobile phone subscribers forbidding “criticizing, attacking, or comparing their party policies to other parties.” Government officials threatened that persons who boycotted the election but inked their fingers to indicate they had voted would receive punishment.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect this right, particularly with regard to workers’ rights (see section 7.a.). The law requires all associations and NGOs to be politically neutral, which not only restricts the right to association but also restricts those organizations’ rights to free expression.

In June 2017 Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the Ministry of Interior to dissolve the Situation Room, a consortium of 40 of the country’s prominent human rights NGOs, after it issued findings on the conduct of the June 4 communal elections. The Situation Room was charged with violating the LANGO for failing to register as an NGO (although each of the 40 constituent NGOS were registered individually) and for violating the LANGO provisions on political neutrality. After COMFREL, the lead NGO in the Situation Room, announced it would unofficially observe election-day atmospherics without entering polling stations, it received a warning from the Ministry of Interior that any COMFREL volunteers found observing the election would be subject to legal penalties.

In September 2017 the government dissolved environmental NGO Mother Nature without explanation, simply issuing a letter stating the Interior Ministry’s power to do so: “The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior (Sar Kheng) decides to cancel the Mother Nature organization…from the list of the nongovernmental organizations of the Ministry of Interior.”

In August 2017 authorities forced the National Democratic Institute to cease operations in the country, after authorities found it did not properly register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (despite a valid memorandum of understanding with the NEC).

In September 2017 the Ministry of Interior also suspended the operations of land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia due to what the ministry alleged were violations of the organization’s own bylaws and failures to update the ministry with the most recent staff roster. The ministry finally permitted the NGO to reopen in February.

Vaguely worded provisions in several laws prohibit any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and the culture of Cambodian society.” Civil society organizations expressed concern these provisions created a substantial risk of arbitrary restriction of the right of association. According to critics, the laws on associations and trade unions (see section 7.a.) establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, rendering registration processes vulnerable to politicization. These laws also impose burdensome reporting obligations on activities and finances, including the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts.

The local NGO consortium Cooperation Committee for Cambodia reported in July that NGOs generally lacked guidance from the government on how to comply with the requirements.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

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

Exile: In previous years government critics and opposition politicians often went into self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return. Thai authorities forcibly returned one local labor activist with refugee status in Thailand to Cambodia in February.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Refoulement: Alleging that their claim to asylum was weak and that they were “economic migrants,” the government began deportation proceedings against 29 Vietnamese Christian Montagnards. These were the latest cases in the refoulement of at least 140 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam since 2015. Some NGOs attributed this policy to pressure from the Vietnamese government. Following a critical August 2017 statement by Rhona Smith, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, in which she acknowledged the legitimacy of the asylum claims of 36 Vietnamese Christian Montagnards, the Cambodian government sent seven of the Montagnards to a third country. The government also dismissed the special rapporteur’s statement and condemned her for interference in the country’s domestic affairs.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The system, however, is not equally accessible to all refugees and asylum seekers (see above).

Employment: Persons granted refugee status do not have the right to work.

Access to Basic Services: Persons granted refugee status do not have access to basic services, including public and banking services.

Durable Solutions: By agreement with Australia, in 2014 the government began accepting for domestic resettlement seven refugees detained while seeking asylum in Australia. The last refugee arrived in April 2017. Of the seven, three who were Rohingya from Burma remained in the country, while the other four–one from Burma and three Iraqis–chose to return to their home countries. Although the three Rohingya refugees decided to stay in the country, no effective pathway to citizenship existed for them. During the year one of the remaining refugees threatened a hunger strike unless authorities reunited him with his family.

STATELESS PERSONS

The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless. There were no recent, reliable data on the number or demography of stateless persons; however, UNHCR reported they were primarily ethnic Vietnamese. The government did not effectively implement laws or policies to provide such persons the opportunity to gain nationality (see section 6, Children). The most common reason for statelessness was lack of proper documents from the country of origin.

According to an NGO, individuals without proof of nationality often did not have access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the courts, or the right to own land.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Parliament amended the Law on Political Parties twice in 2017, expanding the grounds on which the government could dissolve parties and ban individuals from party leadership positions and political life more broadly. The amendments also bar parties from using any audio, visual, or written material from a convicted criminal.

In November 2017 the Supreme Court cited the new amendments in its decision to dissolve the opposition CNRP; distribute its existing seats in parliament and local government to other parties, primarily the ruling CPP; and bar 118 named leaders of the CNRP from participating in political activity for five years. The prime minister claimed this redistribution upheld the country’s constitutional commitment to multiparty democracy. A number of observers, however, accused the Supreme Court, whose chief justice was a CPP party leader, of political bias and questioned its decision and lack of adherence even to flawed legal norms. For instance the decision to ban the CNRP came before a court convicted its leader on any charges.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent election occurred on July 29 and included participation by 20 political parties; however, the election excluded the country’s main opposition party, the CNRP. In addition the 19 opposition parties that competed in the election had limited support, and many were newly established.

Given the decline in independent media outlets, government-controlled news outlets provided the majority of content and coverage prior to the election. This was particularly the case in rural areas, where voters had less access to independent media via the internet and received most of their news from media outlets owned or controlled by the Hun family and the CPP.

More voters chose to invalidate their ballots rather than vote for any opposition party. According to government figures, nearly seven million citizens, representing 83 percent of eligible voters, went to the polls. The ruling CPP received 4.8 million votes, winning all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Authorities deemed approximately 600,000 of the ballots cast invalid, compared with approximately 100,000 in the 2013 election.

Although six countries accepted the election as free, fair, and transparent, most observers considered the entire election process seriously flawed. Most diplomatic missions to the country declined to serve as official observers in the election. Major nonstate election observation bodies, including the Carter Center and Asian Network for Free Elections, also decided against monitoring the election because those organizations determined the election lacked basic credibility. The NEC accused the international community of bias, arguing the international community supported the NEC only when the CNRP was on the ballot. With no credible, independent observers present, election results could not be independently verified.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Similar to the CPP, political parties suffered from a wide range of legalized discrimination, selective enforcement of the law, intimidation, and biased media coverage. These factors contributed significantly to the CPP’s effective monopolization of political power. Many observers complained the first-past-the-post system and the splintering of the opposition facilitated the CPP’s absolute control of the National Assembly. Membership in the CPP was a prerequisite for many government positions.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of ethnic minorities in the political process, but cultural traditions limited women’s role in politics and government. Despite repeated vows by the CPP to increase female representation, the number of female candidates elected in the July national election declined from 20 percent in 2013 to 15 percent. The June 2017 local elections saw participation for the first time of the Cambodia Indigenous People’s Democracy Party.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: The penal code defines various corrupt acts and specifies penalties for them. The anticorruption law establishes the National Council against Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to receive and investigate corruption complaints. The ACU did not collaborate frequently with civil society and was considered ineffective in combating official corruption. Instead, the ACU actively headed corruption investigations against members of the political opposition, leading to a widespread perception the unit served the interests of the ruling CPP. The ACU had never investigated a high-level member of the ruling party, despite widespread allegations of corruption at senior levels of the party and government. For example, according to a July al-Jazeera investigative report, the director-general of the country’s taxation department violated the Australian Corporations Act and evaded Australian tax on major petroleum holdings, but Cambodian authorities neither investigated nor prosecuted him. Civil servants must seek clearance and permission from supervisors before responding to legislative inquiries about corruption allegations.

Corruption was endemic throughout society and government. There were reports police, prosecutors, investigating judges, and presiding judges took bribes from owners of businesses, both legal and illegal. Citizens frequently and publicly complained about corruption. Meager salaries contributed to “survival corruption” among low-level public servants, while a culture of impunity enabled corruption to flourish among senior officials.

Transparency International’s 2017 Global Corruption Barometer report noted the judiciary remained the most corrupt sector of government for the fourth year in a row, followed by law enforcement.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public servants, including elected and appointed officials, to disclose their financial and other assets. The ACU is responsible for receiving the disclosures, with penalties for noncompliance ranging from one month to one year in prison. Senior officials’ financial disclosure statements were not publicly available and remained sealed unless allegations of corruption were filed. Only one financial disclosure statement had ever been unsealed, that of then CNRP vice president Kem Sokha.

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

There were multiple reports of a lack of official cooperation with human rights investigations and, in some cases, intimidation of investigators by government officials.

Domestic and international human rights organizations reported intensifying harassment, surveillance, threats, and intimidation from local officials and persons with ties to the government. Several civil society and labor organizations reported after the July election that police raided their offices and the taxation department investigated their accounts.

Approximately 25 human rights NGOs operated in the country, and a further 100 NGOs focused on other areas included some human rights matters in their work, but only a few actively organized training programs or investigated abuses.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government generally permitted visits by UN representatives. In March Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, conducted a 10-day mission to the country. In her meetings with the National Assembly, the NEC, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), and NGOs, she raised serious concerns about restrictions on the media, political participation, freedom of expression, and the redistribution of CNRP seats to the ruling party contending that “peace, stability, and development” cannot be separated from human rights obligations. The government often turned down high-level meetings with UN representatives and denied them access to opposition officials, including Kem Sokha. Government spokespersons regularly chastised UN representatives publicly for their remarks on a variety of human rights problems.

Government Human Rights Bodies: There were three government human rights bodies: separate committees for the Protection of Human Rights and Reception of Complaints in the Senate and National Assembly and the CHRC, which reported to the prime minister’s cabinet. The CHRC submitted government reports for participation in international human rights review processes, such as the Universal Periodic Review, and issued responses to reports by international organizations and government bodies, but it did not conduct independent human rights investigations. Credible human rights NGOs considered the government committees of limited efficacy and criticized their role in vocally justifying the government crackdown on civil society and the opposition.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), created in 2006, continued to investigate and prosecute the most senior leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime who were most responsible for the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979, when nearly one-quarter of the country’s population was killed. The ECCC is a hybrid tribunal, having both domestic and international jurists and staff, and is governed by both Cambodian domestic law and an agreement between the government and the United Nations. On November 16, the ECCC convicted former Khmer Rouge senior leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan of genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The court’s guilty verdicts were the first official acknowledgement that the Khmer Rouge regime’s crimes constituted genocide as defined under international law. As many as two million persons were believed to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape and domestic violence were significant problems. The law criminalizes rape and assault. Rape is punishable by five to 30 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not specifically mentioned in the penal code, but the underlying conduct can be prosecuted as “rape,” “causing injury,” or “indecent assault.” Charges for spousal rape under the penal code or domestic violence law were rare. The domestic violence law criminalizes domestic violence but does not set out specific penalties. The penal code assigns penalties for domestic violence ranging from one to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Local and international NGOs reported violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, was common. Victims of rape and domestic violence likely underreported it due to fear of reprisal by perpetrators, discrimination from the community, and their distrust of the judiciary system. Women comprised a very small proportion of judicial officials: 14 percent of judges, 12 percent of prosecutors, and 20 percent of lawyers, which likely was a mitigating factor for reporting by female survivors of rape and domestic abuse. NGOs reported authorities inadequately enforced domestic violence laws against perpetrators and avoided involvement in domestic disputes. Only 20 percent of domestic violence cases monitored from 2014 to 2016 resulted in criminal proceedings.

Rape and domestic violence frequently ended in death: a local NGO reported 10 killings in a January-June investigation of 39 cases of domestic violence and 18 of rape. Of all 57 cases, authorities arrested only 23 perpetrators. According to a 2017 report by a human rights NGO, neither the authorities nor the public generally regarded domestic violence as a criminal offense.

In July 2017 the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs began to implement a code of conduct for all media outlets for reporting on violence against women. The code banned publication of a survivor’s personal identifiable information, as well as photographs of victims, depictions of a woman’s death or injury, depictions of nudity, and the use of certain offensive or disparaging words against women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also announced a reporting system within the government to increase accountability and transparency in the government’s response to violence against women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs continued to coordinate with NGOs and local media outlets to produce radio and television programming on topics related to women.

Sexual Harassment: The penal code criminalizes sexual harassment, imposing penalties of six days’ to three months’ imprisonment and fines of 100,000-500,000 riels ($25-$125). A study by CARE International in 2017 found that nearly one-third of female garment workers experienced sexual harassment at their workplace during the last 12 months.

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

Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal rights for women, equal pay for equal work, and equal status in marriage. For the most part, women had equal property rights, the same legal status to initiate divorce proceedings, and equal access to education; however, cultural traditions and child-rearing responsibilities limited the ability of women to reach senior positions in business and government or even participate in the workforce (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: By law a child derives citizenship by birth to a mother and father who are not ethnic Khmer if both parents were born and living legally in the country or if either parent acquired citizenship through other legal means. Indigenous Khmer are considered citizens. The Ministry of Interior administered an updated birth registration system, but not all births were registered immediately, primarily due to lack of public awareness of the importance of registering births and rampant corruption in local government. As of January the government no longer charged a fee to register births.

Failure to register births resulted in discrimination, including the denial of public services. Children of ethnic minorities and stateless persons were disproportionately unlikely to be registered. NGOs that service disenfranchised communities reported authorities often denied books and access to education and health care for children without birth registration. NGOs stated such persons, when adults, were often unable to gain employment, own property, vote, or access the legal system.

Education: Education was free, but not compulsory, through grade nine. Many children left school to help their families in subsistence agriculture or work in other activities. Others began school at a late age or did not attend school at all. The government did not deny girls equal access to education, but families with limited resources often gave priority to boys, especially in rural areas. According to international organization reports, enrollment dropped significantly for girls after primary school in urban areas, while secondary school enrollment for boys dropped significantly in rural areas.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was common and legal action against perpetrators was rare, according to observers. According to UNICEF’s Violence Against Children Report, approximately one in two Cambodian children had experienced extreme violence. Child rape continued to be a serious problem, and reporting of the crime had risen in the past several years.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both men and women is 18 years; however, children as young as age 16 may legally marry with parental permission. Parents, community members, and politicians did not consider child marriage a problem.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual intercourse with a person younger than age 15 is illegal. The government continued to raid brothels to identify and remove child sex-trafficking victims, although the majority of child sex trafficking was clandestine, occurring indirectly in beer gardens, massage parlors, beauty salons, karaoke bars, and noncommercial sites. Police continued to investigate cases of child sex trafficking occurring in brothels or cases where victims filed complaints directly, but police did not typically pursue more complicated cases, for example, those involving online sexual exploitation. Undercover investigation techniques were not allowed in trafficking investigations, which impeded officials’ ability to hold child sex traffickers accountable.

The country remained a destination for child sex tourism. The government used the law to prosecute both sex tourists and citizens for exploiting children through sex trafficking. The law provides penalties ranging from two to 20 years in prison for commercial sexual exploitation of children. While the law also prohibits the production and possession of child pornography, it does not criminally prohibit offering a child for pornographic performances.

According to a local human rights organization, perpetrators with ties to the government were not held accountable under the law, and local experts reported concern regarding the government’s failure to impose appropriate punishments on foreign residents and tourists who purchase or engage in sex with children. Endemic corruption at all levels of the government severely limited the ability of officials to hold child sex traffickers accountable, and the government took no action to investigate or prosecute complicit officials.

Displaced Children: The government offered limited, inadequate services to street children at a rehabilitation center. Displaced children represented a serious and growing problem–particularly because outward migration of workers continued, and greater numbers of children were left behind. A local NGO estimated there were 1,200 to 1,500 displaced street children in Phnom Penh with no relationship to their families and 15,000 to 20,000 children who worked on the streets but returned to families in the evenings.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs and other observers alleged many private orphanages were mismanaged and populated by sham orphans to lure donations from foreigners. From 36,000 to 49,000 children lived in residential care institutions or orphanages, according to UNICEF and research conducted by Columbia University. Approximately 80 percent of these children had at least one living parent. Residential care resulted in lower developmental and health outcomes for children and put them at higher risk for future exploitation. There was no state-supported or -implemented child protection program that provided safe alternatives for children.

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

A small Jewish foreign resident community lived in Phnom Penh. 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, neglect, exploitation, or abandonment of persons with disabilities, including mental and intellectual disabilities. The law does not address accessibility to transport. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth has overall responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, although the law assigns specific tasks to other ministries, including the Ministries of Health, Education, Public Works and Transport, and National Defense. The government requested all television stations to adopt sign-language interpretation for all programming. As of June, two major television stations–one state run and one private–had done so in their news programming.

Persons with disabilities faced significant societal discrimination, especially in obtaining skilled employment.

Children with limited physical disabilities attended regular schools. According to a Ministry of Education report, approximately 19,000 children with disabilities attended primary schools in the academic year 2015-16. The ministry worked on training teachers how to integrate students with disabilities into the class with nondisabled students.

Children with more significant disabilities attended separate schools sponsored by NGOs in Phnom Penh; education for students with more significant disabilities was not available outside of Phnom Penh.

There are no legal limits on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote or participate in civic affairs, but the government did not make any concerted effort to assist their civic engagement.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Experts acknowledged an increasing backlash against the growing Chinese economic role and rising number of Chinese in the country. Khmer-language newspapers were filled with stories of crimes committed by Chinese residents and business owners, including gang violence, counterfeiting, pornography, drunk driving, and drug possession. In September the Ministry of Interior announced it would design a task force to cope with Chinese-dominated crime.

Indigenous People

In November a local NGO reported that only 26 of 458 indigenous communities had received land titles from the government.

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

No law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, nor was there official discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; however, societal discrimination persisted, particularly in rural areas.

In general LGBTI persons had limited job opportunities due to discrimination and exclusion. LGBTI persons were occasionally harassed or bullied for their work in the entertainment and commercial sex sectors. There were no reports of government discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, citizenship, access to education, or health care. During the year the visibility of lesbian women in media increased.

A local LGBTI rights organization reported more than 100 incidents of violence or abuse against LGBTI persons, including domestic violence by family members. Stigma or intimidation may have inhibited further reporting of incidents.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Studies showed a significant share of the population held discriminatory attitudes towards persons with HIV/AIDS.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, the right to strike, and the right to bargain collectively. The law, however, limits the right to strike, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, and permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, while imposing only minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices.

Onerous union registration rules amount to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. Union registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The law forbids unregistered unions from operating. The law also specifies that only unions that have “most representative status” (MRS)–the largest union in a workplace, provided it also represents at least 30 percent of workers in an enterprise–may represent workers in collective bargaining. Civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health care, and informal sectors may form only “associations,” not trade unions, affording them fewer worker protections than unionized trades.

As of September the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training had issued eight sets of implementing regulations to the 2016 Law on Trade Unions; at least one more remained unissued. In July, for example, the ministry issued a regulation clarifying that all trade unions can represent their members in collective dispute resolution processes. The ministry also issued a regulation on the election of shop stewards, as well as regulations requiring unions and employer associations to submit two annual reports to their members and the ministry, one on finance and one on its activities. Many unions expressed concern they would not be able to comply with the financial reporting regulations, which require all local unions to maintain daily, weekly, and annual financial records, as well as physical copies of all receipts. Union representatives feared local chapters would not have adequate capacity to meet the requirements.

The law stipulates workers can strike only after several requirements have been met, including the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as conciliation, mediation, and arbitration); completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the union membership; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers are liable to criminal penalties if they block entrances or roads, or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. Once a union has successfully carried out a strike vote, which requires the consent of a majority of voting members, with 50 percent of union members forming a quorum, the court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers.

Government enforcement of the right to association, including freedom from antiunion discrimination, and of collective bargaining rights, was highly inconsistent. Close relationships among government officials, employers, and union leaders, particularly those operating progovernment unions, limited the government’s willingness to address violations of workers’ rights. These relationships hampered the independent operation of unions, since the majority of the country’s union federations had affiliation with the ruling party, and only a minority were affiliated with opposition parties or worked independently.

The resolution of collective disputes was also inconsistent, largely due to a provision in the Law on Trade Unions that was interpreted to allow only MRS unions to represent members in collective disputes. After the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued a regulation in July clarifying minority unions could represent their members in collective dispute resolution procedures, the Arbitration Council–an independent body that hears and resolves collective labor disputes–resolved at least one collective dispute brought by a non-MRS union; however, some activists complained the regulation goes too far in interpreting the law, to the point of contradicting it. Prior to July the number of cases reaching the independent Arbitration Council had dropped from more than 30 per month prior to the Law on Trade Unions being passed to approximately two per month afterwards, causing many outside observers to express concerns.

Individual labor disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent. There is no specialized labor court. The Arbitration Council requested that the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training permit it to run a pilot project adjudicating certain types of individual disputes, although unions expressed concern the government considers collective disputes as individual disputes in order to diminish the value of union membership.

Workers reported various obstacles while trying to exercise their right to free association. There were reports of government harassment targeting independent labor leaders, including the use of spurious legal charges. Several prominent labor leaders associated with the opposition or independent unions had charges pending against them or were under court supervision; the Cambodian Labor Confederation reported at least 20 union leaders faced criminal charges.

In July the Phnom Penh municipal court dropped “breach of trust” charges against prominent labor activist Mouen Tola, which outside observers believed were politically motivated, and for which he faced a large fine and a maximum three years’ imprisonment. The court dismissed the case after an international outcry.

Reports continued of other forms of harassment; for instance police raided at least one labor advocacy NGO twice since July, reportedly searching for registration papers, tax documents, foreign worker visas, and proof of a building lease. Some unions and NGOs reported that government officials pressured their property owners to break the organization’s lease. Several unions reported harassment and intimidation from local government officials while attempting to hold routine meetings and workshops–particularly in the period preceding the July election.

Some employers reportedly refused, with impunity, to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew the short-term contract employees who had joined unions (approximately 80 percent of workers in the formal manufacturing sector were on short-term contracts). Employers and local government officials often refused to provide necessary paperwork for unions to register. Labor activists reported that many banks refused to open accounts for unregistered unions, although unions are unable by law to register until they provide banking details. Provincial-level labor authorities reportedly kept registration applications in abeyance indefinitely by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice had decreased by midyear, particularly for garment and footwear sector unions. The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Confederation (BWTUC), on the other hand, successfully registered in August on its fifth attempt, after having initially filed its application in January. As of November only 12 of its 42 local union members had been able to register.

Unionization rates varied across economic sectors. In the hospitality industry, it approached 20 percent. In the formal apparel and footwear sector, despite the great number of unions, unionization rates were estimated at only 20-30 percent. Many of these unions represented the interests of factory owners and the CPP over those of workers. In 2017 a BWTUC study showed only 9 percent of 1,010 construction workers across Phnom Penh worksites belonged to a union or association.

There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. While the majority of strikes were illegal, participating in an illegal strike was not by itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers failed to renew the short-term contracts of active unionists; in others they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. The union movement did not generally find government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals effective.

The ILO noted reports of antiunion discrimination by employers through interference with and dismissal of members of independent unions, as well as through the creation of employer-backed unions. Although the law affords protection to union leaders, many factories successfully terminated elected union officials prior to the unions’ attainment of formal registration.

The ILO-International Finance Corporation Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program found ongoing concerns with workers’ ability to form and join unions freely, management interference with unions, and employer control of unions. The BFC’s coverage was limited to the export sector, so the actual level of union harassment was likely significantly higher, particularly in unregistered factories.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Officials reported particular difficulties in verifying working conditions and salaries in the informal fishing, agricultural, construction, and domestic service sectors. Legal penalties for forced labor were stringent, including imprisonment and fines.

Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor domestically, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear. Moreover, there was some evidence employers worked with local law enforcement authorities to subject workers to bonded labor, including in the brick industry. For example a 2016 report from the local human rights NGO LICADHO highlighted reports of child and bonded labor in brick kilns, including some evidence that employers used local authorities to keep workers in bonded labor. Although the government initially denied the reports and threatened to prosecute individuals for defamation if the report was proven untrue, in May the National Committee for Counter Trafficking reported it had shut down three brick factories for child labor violations and was investigating as many as 100 more.

Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to the findings of a BWTUC survey conducted in 2017, 48 percent of 1,010 construction workers in Phnom Penh had debts; 75 percent of the debtors owed money to microfinance or banks, and 25 percent owed money to family members.

Forced labor, usually related to overtime work, occurred in six of 395 export-sector textile and apparel factories, approximately the same rate as in 2017. Workers were required to obtain written approval from foreign supervisors before they could leave the factory and complained they feared termination if they refused to work overtime.

Children were also at risk of forced labor (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 law establishes 15 years as the minimum age for employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. The law permits children between ages 12 and 15 to engage in “light work” that is not hazardous to their health and does not affect school attendance; an implementing regulation provides an exhaustive list of activities considered “heavy work.” These include agriculture, brickmaking, fishing, tobacco, and cassava production. The law limits work by children between ages 12 and 15 to a maximum of four hours on school days and seven hours on nonschool days, and it prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Minimum age protections do not apply to domestic workers.

The law stipulates fines of 31 to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions. In 2017 the Department of Child Labor, part of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, received funding from the government for the first time. The government appropriated 40 million riel ($10,000) for child labor enforcement operations and implementation of the National Social Protection Strategy, although none of the stakeholders involved in counter-child labor efforts believed this amount was sufficient. The department employed 33 inspectors based in Phnom Penh and one child labor inspector in each of the country’s 25 provinces. Child labor inspections were concentrated in Phnom Penh and provincial, formal-sector factories producing goods for export, rather than in rural areas where the majority of child laborers work. The department began unannounced complaints-based and follow-up inspections during the year, although these were infrequent. In 2017 the government imposed penalties on 42 occasions for child labor violations, which was significantly lower than the reported prevalence of child labor in the country.

Inadequate training limited the capacity of local authorities to enforce these regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors, and the thoroughness of inspections was questionable. For example ministry inspectors visited various brick factories in 2017 but found no child labor violations, despite numerous reports of children working in brick factories. In addition sanctions for labor violations, including those related to child labor, were rarely imposed in accordance with the law.

Children were vulnerable to involvement in the worst forms of child labor, including in agriculture, brick making, and commercial sex (also see section 6, Children). Poor access to basic education and the absence of compulsory education contributed to children’s vulnerability to exploitation. Children from impoverished families were at risk because some affluent households reportedly used humanitarian pretenses to hire children as domestic workers whom they abused and exploited. Children were also subjected to forced begging.

Child labor in export-sector garment and footwear factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from the BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC had found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 800 factories. In its latest synthesis report for May 1, 2017-June 30, 2018, the BFC discovered 10 cases of children younger than age 15 working in factories.

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

The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, political opinion, birth, social origin, or union membership. Two separate laws explicitly prohibit discrimination against HIV-positive persons. The law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or communicable disease. The constitution stipulates that citizens of either sex shall receive equal pay for equal work.

The government generally did not enforce these laws. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines, civil, and administrative remedies. Fines for workplace discrimination ranged from 2.5 to 3.6 million riels ($625 to $900).

Women and men continued to face employment discrimination in various industries. According to a BWTUC survey, daily wages for male construction workers was 20.2 percent higher than for women performing similar work. In the garment and footwear sector, the BFC reported factory management discriminated heavily against men in hiring and benefits due to perceived behavioral problems, and generally without legal consequence. The BFC reported 7 percent of export-licensed factories discriminated based on gender in their hiring decisions, while 2 percent reportedly terminated or forced pregnant women to resign.

In a January report, the BFC found that 37 factories (8 percent of the national total) had negligible discriminatory practices, 10 factories did not dismiss pregnant women, and eight factories did not discriminate against workers based on union membership.

Harassment of women was widespread. A large-scale research project conducted by Care International found that one-third of women in the garment industry suffered some form of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months. According to a BFC report in March, more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in the factory, and 40 percent of workers did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Prior to June the law did not mandate a minimum wage for any sector except the garment sector. The Law on the Minimum Wage passed in June expands the minimum wage to cover new sectors or the entire formal economy, although there are no time-bound requirements for the law to do so; the new provisions had not entered into effect during the year. The Law on Minimum Wage also establishes a National Minimum Wage Council with representatives from the government, unions, and employer organizations to conduct research into and provide recommendations on the minimum wage. As of November the government had not clarified how membership of the new tripartite wage body would be chosen. Informal-economy worker associations and civil society organizations criticized the law for failing to cover workers in the informal economy. The minimum wage for 2019, however, was set in October under the old Labor Advisory Council system, which sets wages only for the garment and footwear sector. The minimum wage was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.

The law provides for a standard legal workweek of 48 hours, not to exceed eight hours per day. The law establishes a rate of 130 percent of daytime wages for nightshift work and 150 percent for overtime, which increases to 200 percent if overtime occurs at night, on Sunday, or on a holiday. Employees may work a maximum two hours of overtime per day. The law prohibits excessive overtime, states that all overtime must be voluntary, and provides for paid annual holidays. Workers in marine and air transportation are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from limitations on work hours prescribed by law.

In June, after at least nine factories shut their doors abruptly in the first half of the year without paying more than 88 billion riel ($22 million) in wages due or required severance payments to workers, the government amended the law to eliminate severance for employees on unlimited duration contracts. Instead, the amended law requires payments equal to 15 working days’ wages, paid every six months, to all employees on unlimited duration contracts.

Workplace health and safety standards must be adequate to provide for workers’ well-being. Labor inspectors assess fines according to a complex formula based on the severity and duration of the infraction, as well as the number of workers affected. Labor ministry inspectors are empowered to assess these fines on the spot, without the necessary cooperation of police, but there are no specific provisions to protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to conduct thorough inspections. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. The government did not effectively enforce working-hour and overtime regulations. Outside the garment industry, the government rarely enforced working-hour regulations. The government enforced standards selectively due to poorly trained staff, lack of necessary equipment, and corruption. Ministry officials admitted their inability to carry out thorough inspections on working hours and implicitly relied upon the BFC to do so in export-oriented garment factories.

Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10 including overtime. Workers often faced fines, dismissal, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime. Workers and labor organizations raised concerns that the use of short-term contracts (locally known as fixed duration contracts) allowed firms, especially in the garment sector where productivity growth remained relatively flat, to avoid certain wage and legal requirements. Fixed duration contracts also allowed employers greater freedom to terminate the employment of union organizers and pregnant women simply by failing to renew their contracts. The law limits such contracts to a maximum of 24 months. Employers regularly hired workers on fixed duration contracts–most often of three-month duration–indefinitely. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training interpreted the law to allow for such serial short-term contracts, provided there was some break in employment every 24 months. The Arbitration Council and the ILO disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee must be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract.” (Also see section 7.a.).

An April 2017 survey conducted by the BWTUC estimated there were 200,000 citizens working in the construction industry; 89 percent of 1,010 respondents did not have contracts, most never received bonuses or severance pay, and only 9 percent were enrolled with the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). Work-related injuries and health problems were common. Most large garment factories producing for markets in developed countries met relatively high health and safety standards as conditions of their contracts with buyers. Working conditions in small-scale factories and cottage industries were poor and often failed to meet international standards. The Department of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) reported 2,533 work-related injuries in the first six months of the year, up slightly from 2017; of these injuries, 444 were the result of road accidents, since employers often transported garment workers to and from work in the back of unsafe open-bed trucks.

Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF reported 1,350 workers fainted in 13 factories in the first six months of the year, up from 415 workers fainting in eight factories in the same period in 2017. There were no reports of serious injuries due to fainting. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticide in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from the production process all contributed to mass fainting.

The BFC reported that complying with OSH standards was a growing challenge in the garment export sector largely due to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities. The BFC reported increased noncompliance in every OSH variable measured, including exposure to chemicals and hazardous substances, emergency preparedness, OSH management systems, welfare facilities, worker environment, worker protection, and worker accommodations.

Vietnam

Executive Summary

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), and led by General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in 2016, were neither free nor fair, despite limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; torture by government agents; arbitrary arrests and detentions by the government; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; arbitrary arrest and prosecution of individuals critical of the government, including online, and of journalists and bloggers, monitoring communications of journalists, activists, and individuals who question the state’s authority, censorship, unjustified internet restrictions such as site and account blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association including detention, arrest and prosecution of individuals seeking to assemble freely and form associations; significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including exit bans on activists; restrictions on political participation; corruption; and outlawing of independent trade unions.

The government sometimes took corrective action, including prosecutions, against officials who violated the law, but police officers sometimes acted with impunity.

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

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

There were multiple reports indicating officials or other agents under the command of the Ministry of Public Security or provincial public security departments committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including reports of at least 11 deaths implicating police officers on duty. In most cases authorities either provided little information on investigations into the deaths or stated the deaths were the result of suicide or medical problems. Authorities sometimes harassed and intimidated families who questioned the police determination of cause of death. In a small number of cases, the government held police officials responsible, typically several years after the death. Despite guidance from the Supreme People’s Court to charge police officers responsible for causing deaths in custody with murder, such officers typically faced lesser charges. Family members of individuals who died in police custody reported harassment and abuse by local authorities.

On August 2, Hua Hoang Anh died after local police officers in Chau Thanh district, Kien Giang Province, interrogated him concerning his participation in mass demonstrations in June against a draft law on Special Administrative Economic Zones (SAEZ) and a new cybersecurity law. Social media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that there were many injuries to his body, including to his head, neck, and belly, possibly indicating torture. State-run media only stated that he died.

In some cases the government held security officers responsible for arbitrary deprivation of life. On September 13, a court in Ninh Thuan Province sentenced five former police officers to between three and seven years in prison on charges of “use of corporal punishment” for beating a drug user to death in the police station in 2017. The court also banned these police officers from holding any law enforcement positions for one to three years after finishing their jail terms.

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 physical abuse of detainees, but suspects commonly reported mistreatment and torture by police, plainclothes security officials, and compulsory drug-detention center personnel during arrest, interrogation, and detention. Police, prosecutors, and government oversight agencies seldom conducted investigations of specific reports of mistreatment. Some activists reported receiving death threats from plainclothes individuals they said were associated with the government.

On August 12, over 200 individuals receiving treatment at a drug treatment center in Tien Giang Province broke out of the center, according to state-run media. The individuals said they were forced to work eight hours per day without compensation and were subject to punishment, including beatings, if they “misbehaved.”

Police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those involved in demonstrating against the government; for example in June Ho Chi Minh City police beat and detained some 180 individuals at a stadium related to anti-SEAZ and cybersecurity law demonstrations. There were also numerous reports of police mistreatment and assaults against individuals who were not activists or involved in politics. On March 1, Nguyen Cong Chi was hospitalized with a brain injury after going to the local police station in Chu Puh district, Gia Lai Province, the day before for a traffic violation. Chi’s family accused local police of beating him; they denied the accusation and said they were looking into the case.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions varied substantially by prison and province. In most cases they were austere but generally not life threatening. Insufficient diet and unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to potable water, and poor sanitation remained serious problems. Prison officials singled out political prisoners for harsher treatment and often held them in small groups separate from the general inmate population, and subjected them to extreme harassment from both prison authorities and other inmates.

Physical Conditions: Authorities generally held men and women separately, with some reported exceptions in local detention centers. Although authorities generally held juveniles in prison separately from adults, on rare occasions authorities reportedly held juveniles in detention with adults for short periods. Authorities sometimes kept children in prison with their mothers until age three, according to a former political prisoner.

In March 2017 the Ministry of Public Security released a five-year review of its execution of criminal judgements covering 2011-16, the most recent period for which such information was available. The report acknowledged lack of quality infrastructure and overcrowded detention centers were ongoing challenges. The report stated the average floor space was 5.44 square feet per prisoner compared with the standard requirement of 6.6 square feet per prisoner.

As of November at least 11 deaths of persons in custody were reported; many were presumed to have been the result of abuse. On August 24, Hoang Tuan Long died in Ha Dong hospital approximately a week after local police in Tho Quan ward, Dong Da district, Hanoi held him in custody for drug-related allegations. Authorities conducted an autopsy and found that he suffered multiple injuries, including a hole in the head and four broken ribs. Local police said he committed suicide by chewing his own tongue; the family said they believed police beat him.

Former political prisoners reported that police beat individuals in custody with books to prevent visible bruising. Prison officials failed to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence and in some cases encouraged prisoners to physically assault and harass political prisoners. In late July political prisoner Tran Thi Nga reported that a fellow inmate at Gia Trung detention facility, Gia Lai Province, had severely beat her. On November 18 prison officials allowed her partner to visit for the first time in two years, but they denied visits by her two minor children.

Activist Le Dinh Luong’s family said he was held for one year in solitary confinement at the Nghe An Provincial Detention Center in Nghe An province with no access to sunlight prior to his August conviction and sentencing to 20 years in prison for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

Some former and existing political prisoners and their families reported prisoners received insufficient, poor quality food. Former prisoners reported they received only two small bowls of rice and vegetables daily, often mixed with foreign matter such as insects or stones. Family members continued to make credible claims prisoners received extra food or other preferential treatment by paying bribes to prison officials. Prisoners had access to basic health care, although there were instances of officials preventing family members from providing medication and of prison clinics not reviewing predetention health records of prisoners. Family members of many imprisoned activists who were or became ill claimed medical treatment was inadequate and resulted in long-term health complications. Tran Thi Xuan’s health deteriorated after her transfer in October to Thanh Hoa Detention Facility No. 5, according to her family, who said she suffered from edema related to a kidney disease.

Authorities placed prisoners in solitary confinement for standard periods of three months, although officials often subjected political prisoners to more extended periods of solitary confinement. An American citizen imprisoned for a nonpolitical charge reported he was only allowed out of his cell for five minutes per day during a continuous 39-month period except to meet with consular officials.

Prison authorities reportedly also placed some transgender individuals in solitary confinement due to confusion regarding whether to place them with men or women. Ministry of Public Security officials sometimes prohibited reading and writing materials. In January the Law on Temporary Detention and Custody came into effect, which transferred authority for approving such materials for those in temporary detention to the “agency handling the case” (i.e. the courts) rather than the prison authorities. Pham Van Troi said he was not able to receive reading materials at the B14 detention facility in Hanoi after the new law came into effect. Prison authorities said they were working to address implementation gaps and acknowledged that the law provides prisoners the right to receive gifts, books, newspapers, and documents.

Prison authorities often held political prisoners far from their homes, making family visits difficult and routinely did not inform family members of prison transfers. On July 5, Truong Minh Duc was transferred to Detention Facility No. 6 in Thanh Chuong district, Nghe An Province, 870 miles from his home in Ho Chi Minh City. On November 18, Nguyen Viet Dung’s father went to Nghi Kim prison in Nghe An Province to visit Dung who was serving a six-year prison term. Prison authorities informed him then that Dung had been transferred to Nam Ha prison in Ha Nam Province.

Administration: There was no active system of prison ombudsmen with whom prisoners could file complaints, but the law provides for oversight of the execution of criminal judgments by the National Assembly, people’s councils, and the CPV’s Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF), an umbrella group that oversees the country’s government-sponsored social organizations. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc reported he was not permitted to send a petition to government officials asking that he be released because under the new penal code the crime he was convicted of is only punishable by five years’ imprisonment. Thuc had served nine years of his 16-year sentence for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

Authorities limited prisoners to one family visit of no longer than an hour per month and generally permitted family members to provide various items, including money, supplemental food, and bedding to prisoners. Political prisoners and their family members reported that prison authorities at times revoked, denied, or delayed visitation rights and did not allow them provide items to family members. Imprisoned Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton’s family said prison authorities at Gia Trung detention center in Gia Lai routinely required additional procedures and paperwork to approve what should be routine prison visits with family as provided for by law.

In July and August respectively, political prisoners Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc conducted lengthy hunger strikes to protest prison conditions. Thuc, whose hunger strike lasted 34 days, told family members that authorities at the Number 6 detention facility in Nghe An province also restricted the number of letters he could send after some of his letters from jail were publicized on Facebook.

While government-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha monks were able to visit prisoners according to state-run media, Roman Catholic democracy activist Ho Duc Hoa said he was repeatedly denied a visit by a priest for confession. Prison authorities at the Nam Ha detention facility in Ha Nam Province said they did not have a chapel and therefore could not facilitate such a visit.

Family members of prisoners and former prisoners reported certain prison authorities did not permit prisoners to have religious texts in detention, despite provisions in the law for access to such materials. Ho Duc Hoa said he had access to a Bible and “Pure” Hoa Hao Buddhist Bui Van Trung Tham was allowed to have a censored version of the “Pure” Hoa Hao Buddhist scripture, according to an NGO.

Independent Monitoring: Local and regional International Committee of the Red Cross officials neither requested nor carried out prison visits during the year. Diplomatic representatives conducted supervised visits to several political prisoners at both temporary and long-term detention facilities. The visits were monitored and did not afford the opportunity for independent assessment of the prisoners or prison conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution states that a decision by a court or prosecutor is required for the arrest of any individual, except in the case of a “flagrant offense.” The law allows the government to arrest and detain persons “until the investigation finishes” for particularly serious crimes, including national security cases. Those detained may question the legality of their detention with the body responsible, but officials denied this right to political prisoners.

According to an NGO, between June and September authorities imprisoned 14 activists for social media posts and charged three for “abusing democratic freedom” and three with “making, storing, and spreading information, materials, and items for the purpose of opposing the state.” Authorities routinely subjected activists and suspected criminals to de facto house arrest without charge.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for internal security and controls the national police, a special national security investigative agency, and other internal security units. The Bureau of Investigation of the Supreme People’s Procuracy (national-level public prosecutor’s office) examines allegations of abuse by security forces. The ministry had a substantial voice in national policymaking; three of the 17 members of the Politburo were actual or former Ministry of Public Security officials.

People’s committees (the executive branch of local governments) had substantial authority over police forces and prosecutors at the provincial, district, and local levels. Provincial and local police often had, consequently, significant independence in their activities.

Although the Supreme People’s Procuracy had authority to investigate security force abuse, police organizations operated with little legal restraint or transparency, and no public oversight. Police officers sometimes acted with impunity. At the commune level, guard forces composed of residents or members of government-affiliated social organizations commonly assisted police and sometimes committed human rights abuses.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

In January a number of criminal laws including the 2015 Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), 2015 Penal Code, and 2015 Law on Custody and Detention went into effect.

The new CPC introduced adversarial elements into civil and criminal trial proceedings. The CPC also provides a full chapter on the roles and responsibilities of defense attorneys, which includes attorneys’ right of access to evidence and access to the accused at the time of arrest.

Activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials assaulted political prisoners to exact confessions or used other means to induce written confessions, including instructing fellow prisoners to assault them or making promises of better treatment. Some activists also reported routine police interrogations to obtain incriminating information concerning other human rights activists.

By law police usually need a warrant issued by the People’s Procuracy to arrest a suspect, although in some cases a decision from a court (different from the procuracy) is required. There were numerous instances where activists were taken into custody by plainclothes individuals without an arrest warrant. The new CPC allows police to “hold an individual” without a warrant in “urgent circumstances,” such as when evidence existed that a person was preparing to commit a crime or when police caught a person in the act of committing a crime. Police may hold a suspect for 72 hours without an arrest warrant. In such cases the People’s Procuracy must approve or disapprove the arrest within 12 hours of receiving notice from police.

Police frequently used excessive force when making an arrest. There were cases where plainclothes individuals attempted to instigate an altercation in order to arrest an individual. On April 1, plainclothes officers arrested former political prisoner Vu Van Hung on the street near his house after he attended an unsanctioned meeting. Two plainclothes officers reportedly followed him from the meeting and beat Hung when he resisted their attempts to arrest him. Hung was ultimately charged and convicted of “deliberately inflicting injuries against others.”

The People’s Procuracy must issue a decision to initiate a formal criminal investigation of a detainee within three days of arrest; otherwise, police must release the suspect. The law allows the People’s Procuracy to request two additional three-day extensions allowing for an extension of the custody time limit to a maximum of nine days.

The new criminal code reduces the time limit for detention while under investigation, including for “serious” and “particularly serious” crimes. For the latter an individual may be held for 20 months. The law, however, allows the Supreme People’s Procuracy to detain an individual “until the investigation finishes” in cases of “particularly serious crimes,” including national security cases. The government in some cases exceeded these limits for both activists and those accused of other crimes. On October 5, Luu Van Vinh, Phan Trung, and Nguyen Van Duc Do were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being held in pretrial detention for almost two years. Consistent with a pattern of increasingly lengthy sentences for human rights activists, Luu Van Vinh received a 15-year sentence for conviction of “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration”.

During the period of detention, authorities may deny family visits, which they routinely did for those arrested under national security and related articles such as “disrupting public order.”

The law allows for bail as a measure to replace temporary detention, but authorities seldom granted bail. Investigators, prosecutors, or courts may allow the depositing of money or valuable property in exchange for bail.

The law requires authorities to inform persons held in custody, accused of a crime, or charged with a crime, of their legal rights, including the right to an attorney. The law provides for legal aid services for persons younger than age 18, those with disabilities, or to those accused of a capital crime.

The law affords detainees access to counsel from the time of their detention, but authorities continued to use bureaucratic delays to deny timely access to legal counsel. In many cases authorities only permitted attorneys access to their clients or the evidence against them immediately before the case went to trial, denying them adequate time to prepare their cases.

In cases investigated under national security laws, the government has and routinely used authority to prohibit access by defense lawyers to clients until after officials complete an investigation and formally charge the suspect with a crime.

Authorities did not allow Le Dinh Luong to meet with his lawyer until July, approximately a year after his arrest. On August 18, a court in Nghe An Province sentenced Luong to 20 years in prison, consistent with a pattern of increasingly lengthy sentences for human rights activists.

Suspects routinely were not brought promptly before a judicial officer. Before a formal indictment, detainees have the right to notify family members. Although police generally informed families of detainees’ whereabouts, the Ministry of Public Security held a number of blogger and activist detainees suspected of national security violations incommunicado. On September 2, blogger Ngo Van Dung disappeared; his family did not receive informal confirmation of his whereabouts until mid-October. As of November the whereabouts of more than a dozen other bloggers taken into custody across the country at the same time remained unknown.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly for political activists and individuals protesting land seizures or other injustices, remained a serious problem.

During the year security officers abducted activist Pham Doan Trang and questioned her for multiple times. On February 24, security officers took her from her house to the Security Investigation Agency of Ministry of Public Security, interrogating her for hours regarding her book titled “Politics for the Masses”.

Authorities subjected many religious and political activists to varying degrees of arbitrary detention in their residences, in vehicles, at local police stations, at “social protection centers,” or at local government offices. Officials also frequently detained human rights activists upon their return from overseas trips.

The government arrested numerous individuals for expressing political views or protesting economic conditions, including dozens arrested in June in the aftermath of nationwide demonstrations against a draft special administrative economic zone and the new cybersecurity law. Authorities said three of those were arrested for “abusing freedoms and democratic rights to infringe upon the State’s interests or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals,” which carries a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment; two others were arrested for “producing, storing, spreading or disseminating information, documents or objects to oppose the State,” which carries a sentence of up to 20 years’ imprisonment; and one was arrested for “intentionally inflicting injury to or causing harm to the health of other persons.”

Taken into custody on September 2 for comments made on Facebook, activist Doan Thi Hong remained in detention without charge at year’s end; friends say she disappeared after dropping off her toddler with a friend. Her family had no information concerning her whereabouts for several weeks, but they eventually located her in Binh Thanh Ward, Ho Chi Minh City; they have not been allowed to meet with her.

Pretrial Detention: The allowable time for temporary detention during an investigation, equivalent to pretrial detention, varies depending on the offense: three months for less serious offenses, 16 months for the most serious cases, and 20 months for “especially serious” crimes. These limits were exceeded with impunity, including for cases not involving activists. Police and prosecutors used these lengthy periods of pretrial detention to punish or to pressure human rights defenders to confess to crimes, activists said. By law authorities must provide justification for detention beyond the initial four months, but there were reports that court officials routinely ignored the legal requirement of providing such justification.

Lengthy pretrial detention was not limited to activists. The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Procuracy reported that as of May 2017, 452 persons had been in custody for more than 12 months without trial and police had detained seven persons past the maximum period allowed by law. The Ho Chi Minh City’s People’s Procuracy attributed the delays to disagreements among the police investigation agency, the People’s Court, and the People’s Procuracy on whether to charge detainees under criminal or civil codes.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained may request that the agency responsible review the decision. If a decision is deemed improper by that body, the individual may be eligible for appropriate compensation.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary and lay assessors, but the judiciary was effectively under the control of the CPV, exercised through the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). During the year there were credible reports that political influence, endemic corruption, bribery, and inefficiency strongly distorted the judicial system. Most if not all judges were members of the CPV and underwent screening by the CPV and local officials during their selection process to determine their suitability for the bench. Judges are reappointed every five years, following review by party officials. The party’s authority was particularly notable in high-profile cases and other instances in which authorities charged a person with corruption, challenging or harming the party or state, or both. Defense lawyers routinely complained that, in many cases, it appeared judges made a determination of guilt prior to the trial.

There continued to be credible reports that authorities pressured defense lawyers not to take religious or democracy activists as clients and questioned their motivations for so doing. Authorities also restricted, harassed, and disbarred, human rights attorneys who represented political activists. While the new penal code maintained the requirement for attorneys to violate attorney client privilege in cases relating to “national security,” or other “serious crimes,” it did away with such requirements for other, less “serious” offenses.

On March 12, the Ho Chi Minh City bar association disbarred lawyer Pham Cong Ut, who frequently defended human rights activists and “victims of injustice,” in many cases at no charge. The bar association said he had violated its code of ethics. State media accused him of failing to fully refund a legal consulting fee, while social media stated that such claims were spurious and the disbarment was instead related to his defense of “victims of injustice.”

By law authorities must request the local bar association, legal aid center, or the VFF appoint an attorney for criminal cases involving juveniles, individuals with mental or physical disabilities, and persons formally charged with capital crimes. In many such cases, however, authorities did not provide attorneys access to their clients until immediately before the case went to trial, depriving them of adequate time to prepare cases. In August authorities informed lawyer Nguyen Kha Thanh of the appeal trial of his client, Nguyen Viet Dung, only 24 hours in advance. Thanh said he did not have sufficient time to travel to attend the trial, and the court denied his request for a delay. Dung was not represented by an attorney. The court upheld his conviction for “conducting propaganda against the state” but reduced his seven-year sentence by one year.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

While the constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, this right was not evenly enforced. The law states that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed information of the charges levied against them, but defendants rarely experienced such treatment. Defendants have the right to a timely trial, and public trials generally were open to the public, but in sensitive cases, judges closed trials or strictly limited attendance.

Authorities generally upheld the rights of defendants to be present at their trial. The court sometimes denied the suspect the right to his/her own choice of attorney and assigned one. The new CPC modified the courtroom setting to have defendants seated adjacent their defense attorney. Defendants have the right to communicate with a lawyer at trial for a criminal charge that could result in a 15-year or longer sentence, although not necessarily with the lawyer of their choice.

Although the defense has the right to cross-examine witnesses, there were multiple instances in which neither defendants nor their lawyers knew which witnesses would be called, nor were they allowed to cross-examine witnesses or challenge statements against them. In political trials neither defendants nor their attorneys were allowed to examine or review evidence relied upon by the prosecution. A defendant has the right to present a defense, but the law does not expressly state that the defendant has the right to call witnesses. Judges presiding over politically sensitive trials often did not permit defense lawyers and defendants to exercise their legal rights.

Police and prosecutors attempted to coerce confessions by offering lighter sentences in some sensitive cases. On January 31, Vu Quang Thuan stated at trial that investigators told him while he was in pretrial detention that he would receive only 16 months in prison if he cooperated with the investigation. He was charged with antistate propaganda, convicted, and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.

The law stipulates that the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings is Vietnamese, but the state provides interpretation if participants in a criminal procedure use another spoken or written language. The law did not specify whether such services are free of charge.

The court uses an inquisitorial system, in which the judge plays the primary role of asking questions and ascertaining facts in a trial. Authorities permitted foreign diplomats to observe via closed circuit television four high-profile cases and one regular criminal trial during the year, including three involving individuals charged under national security articles. In most of those trials, defense attorneys were given time to address the court and question their clients, but they were not permitted to call official witnesses or examine evidence used to prosecute the defendants. The Hanoi appellate court permitted a defendant to answer only questions posed by his attorneys rather than the judges. In other cases involving individuals charged under national security articles, judges occasionally silenced defense lawyers who were making arguments on behalf of their clients in court. Convicted persons have the right to at least one appeal.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

According to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other NGOs, more than 100 persons were in prison in the country for political or religious reasons in 2018. One NGO stated that as of September 22, courts had convicted 36 “activists and bloggers” for exercising internationally recognized human rights, including freedom of expression and association.

Between April 4 and September 12, courts sentenced nine members of the Brotherhood for Democracy to lengthy prison terms for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.” Nguyen Trung Truc and Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton both received 12-year sentences, and land and religious freedom activist Nguyen Bac Truyen, was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment. Hoang Duc Binh, an environmental and labor activist, was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment, and activist Le Dinh Luong received a 20-year sentence for “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties,” “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” and “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The constitution provides that any person illegally arrested and detained, charged with a criminal offense, investigated, prosecuted, brought to trial, or subjected to judgment enforcement illegally has the right to compensation for material and mental damages and restoration of honor. The law provides a mechanism for pursuing a civil action to redress or remedy abuses committed by authorities. Administrative and civil courts heard civil suits, with legal procedures being similar to criminal cases and using members of the same body of judges and people’s assessors to adjudicate the cases. Administrative and civil courts continued to be vulnerable to corruption and outside influence, lack of independence, and inexperience. Very few victims of government abuse sought or successfully received redress or compensation through the court system.

The government continued to prohibit class action lawsuits against government ministries, thus rendering ineffective joint complaints from land rights petitioners.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

By law all land belongs to the government (“all the people of Vietnam”) which has granted considerable decision-making authority for land pricing, allocation, and reclamation to local people’s committees and people’s councils, which has contributed to unfair business practices and corruption.

There were numerous reports of clashes between local residents and authorities at land expropriation sites during the year. Disputes regarding land expropriation for development projects remained a significant source of public grievance. Many whose land the government forcibly seized protested at government offices for failure to address their complaints. Some coercive land seizures resulted in violence and injury to state officials and residents. There were also reports of suspected plainclothes police officers and “thugs” hired by development companies to enforce government seizures by intimidating and threatening residents or breaking into their homes. Authorities arrested and convicted multiple land rights protesters on charges of “resisting persons on duty” or “causing public disorder.”

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

The law prohibits such actions, but the government did not consistently protect these rights and at times violated them.

By law, security forces need public prosecutorial orders for forced entry into homes, but Ministry of Public Security agents and local police officers regularly entered homes, particularly of activists, without legal authority. They often intimidated residents with threats of repercussions for failure to allow entry.

According to social media, on July 6, three plainclothes individuals broke into the home of Tran Van Chuc in Loc Thang town, Bao Lam district, Lam Dong province and beat him badly with wooden sticks, breaking his arm and causing multiple injuries. Activists reported that the assault was retaliation for attendance at a mass demonstration on June 10.

Without legal warrants, authorities regularly opened and censored targeted private mail; confiscated packages and letters; and monitored telephone conversations, email, text messages, blogs, and fax transmissions. The government cut telephone lines and interrupted cell phone and internet services of a number of political activists and their family members.

The Ministry of Public Security maintained a system of household registration and block wardens to monitor unlawful activity. While this system was less intrusive than in the past, the ministry closely monitored individuals engaged or suspected of engaging in unauthorized political activities. Local officials in several provinces in the Central Highlands, including Doan Ket village, Dak Ngo commune, Tuy Duc district, Dak Nong province, denied registration to 700 Hmong Christians who had migrated there in recent years, according to an NGO. As a result school officials did not allow their children to attend to school.

Family members of activists reported numerous incidents of physical harassment, intimidation, and questioning by Ministry of Public Security officials. Such harassment included harassment at the work place, and denying education and employment to family members of former or existing political prisoners or activists.

The constitution stipulates that society, families, and all citizens implement “the population and family planning program,” which allows couples or individuals the right to have one or two children, with exceptions based on government decree. There is no legal provision punishing citizens who have more children than the program allows; however, there were reported instances where local authorities imposed administrative fees on families in Nghe An province who had more than two children.

The CPV and certain ministries and localities issued their own regulations on family size for their staff. A decree issued by the Politburo, for example, subjects CPV members to reprimand if they have three children, removes them from a ranking position if they have four children, and expels them from the CPV if they have five children. Violating the decree also decreases the likelihood of promotion and may lead to job termination. The CPV did not enforce these provisions consistently.

CPV membership remained a prerequisite to career advancement for employees in nearly all government and government-linked organizations and businesses. Economic diversification, however, continued to make membership in the CPV and CPV-controlled mass organizations less essential for financial and social advancement.

Representatives from state-run organizations and progovernment groups visited activists’ residences and attempted to intimidate them into agreeing that the government’s policies were correct, according to social media and activists’ reports. For example on August 8, a group of injured veterans surrounded the private residence of activist Nguyen Lan Thang, calling him names and playing loud music for hours, according to social media. The group repeated the harassment for several days and authorities did not intervene despite repeated requests.

Family members of activists reported numerous and sometimes severe instances of harassment by Ministry of Public Security officials and agents, ranging from threatening telephone calls and insulting activists in local media and online to attacks on activists’ homes with rocks, shrimp paste, and gasoline bombs. There were reports that such abuses caused injury and trauma requiring hospitalization.

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; however, in practice the government did not respect these rights in practice, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict these freedoms. The law defines the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. It also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”

Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders, criticized the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China. The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists and activists, including in academic institutions.

On June 12, the National Assembly adopted the Law on Cybersecurity which included vague national security provisions prohibiting “distortion of history, denial of revolutionary achievements, undermining national solidarity, taking advantage of cybersecurity protection activities to violate national security, national interests or sovereignty, or disrupt public order.” The law states any violation of its regulations would be subject to criminal prosecution.

Numerous groups and individuals criticized current and former local and national officials or members of government affiliates on social media, particularly Facebook.

On July 5, Hanoi authorities arrested blogger Le Anh Hung and charged him with “abusing democratic freedom” for online posts criticizing political leaders. Hung was a regular political writer for the Vietnamese programs of Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and also contributed to the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam’s blog.

Press and Media Freedom: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. The law authorizes the government to fine journalists and newspapers, with fines ranging from five million to 10 million Vietnamese dong (VND) ($220 to $440) for journalists who fail to cite their sources of information and for journalists and newspapers that “use documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.” In July the Ministry of Information and Communications ordered a three-month suspension and 220 million VND ($10,000) fine on Tuoi Tre Online, the online version of top daily Tuoi Tre, for attributing untrue remarks to the president and “disrupting national unity.” The suspension was one of the harshest punishments in years and had a chilling effect throughout the journalism sector.

Many nongovernmental entities produced and distributed publications in a variety of forms, e.g. by subcontracting, joint-publishing, or buying permits from government or public entities that were entitled to media activities and publishing. State-run media reported that private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house remained prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.

On March 11, the government consolidated several circulars implementing revised Decree 72 which governs on the management, supply, and use of internet services and online information. Decree 72 continues to require media to register and store user’s personal information, facilitate the removal of information that violated laws, and allow the revocation of licenses of violators, among other provisions.

The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.

The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to be able to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.

The government permitted foreign-based media outlets although the law requires foreign television broadcasts to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. Such channels ran on a 10-minute delay, however. Viewers reported obstruction of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or events in China and Venezuela.

Major foreign media outlets reported the government delayed or refused to issue visas for reporters who previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. In November consular officials did not issue a visa to a BBC journalist who intended to report on the anniversary of relations between the UK and Vietnam. His visa application remained pending in December.

Government regulations authorize the information ministry to revoke the licenses of foreign publishers, and each foreign publisher must reapply annually to maintain its license.

Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking, threatening, or arresting journalists and independent bloggers because of their coverage of sensitive stories.

Plainclothes security officials detained and beat a prominent independent journalist and author Pham Doan Trang with their motorcycle helmets after she attended an unsanctioned concert in Ho Chi Minh City. She sustained a concussion.

Foreign journalists said they continued to be required to notify authorities about travel outside Hanoi when it was to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or involved a story the government otherwise might consider sensitive.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly to dictate or censor a story.

Propaganda officials forced editors of major press outlets to meet regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, enabled the party and government to control media content. The government continued its practice of penalizing journalists for failing to self-censor, to include revoking journalists’ press credentials.

In August a managing editor at a leading state-run daily said he was warned that he could be disciplined for what he wrote on Facebook. The newspaper said the contents he posted “undermined national unity” and provided fabricated and libelous information about organizations and individuals. He had written posts about state conglomerate Vinashin’s losses, among other issues.

National Security: The law tightly restricts media freedom and stipulates fines of 20 million to 30 million VND ($880 to $1,330) for journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests and up to 50 million dong ($2,200) for information considered as distorting history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases these “violations” may be subject to criminal proceedings.

Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and charged journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers (ISPs) were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On September 22, in separate trials, the People’s Court of Cai Rang district, Can Tho City, convicted Facebook users Nguyen Hong Nguyen and Truong Dinh Khang of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced them to two years’ and one year’ imprisonment respectively. The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned ISPs routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform.

The law requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. The government also required such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate requests for information from the government and store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.

The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign ISPs, requires domestic ISPs to store information transmitted on the internet for at least 15 days, and requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cyber cafes, to register the personal information of their customers, to store records of internet sites visited by customers, and to participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored selectively.

On June 12, the National Assembly adopted a Law on Cybersecurity–scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019–that requires foreign firms to store personal data locally and to open offices in the country. Members of the public protested the law and shared concerns that the law would make it easier for the state to pressure social media platforms to remove user-generated content or to hand over user information to security officials. Critics said it could undermine local businesses, which rely heavily on firms providing cross-border services online such as cloud-computing services.

The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. On July 9, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced that Google removed nearly 6,700 video clips, YouTube blocked six YouTube channels, and Facebook blocked nearly 1,000 links, 107 fake accounts, and 137 accounts that defamed the CPV and government.

Force 47, a special unit within the Ministry of National Defense monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.

Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of computers and cell phones of activists and family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported that the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. On September 17, the People’s Court of Tu Son town convicted citizen journalist Do Cong Duong of “disrupting public order” for filming a forced eviction, according to an NGO. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Duong was subsequently convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced on October 12 to an additional five years in prison.

Social network and blog users are required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 49.6 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could discuss nonpolitical topics widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and nationals. The government continued to require international and domestic organizations to obtain advance approval for conferences involving international sponsorship or participation. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.

The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.

The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring significant permission procedures.

Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops, although their political activities were peaceful. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them or their children to graduate due to their advocacy of human rights. In March at Hanoi Noi Bai airport authorities denied exit permission to a student from Song Ngoc parish in Nghe An province who was traveling to study overseas due to his involvement in Formosa-related protests.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Law and regulations require persons wishing to gather in a group to apply for a permit, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits, however, and persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations perceived to be political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials.

The Ministry of Public Security and local police routinely prevented activists from peacefully assembling. There were numerous reports of police dispersing gatherings of environmental activists, anti-China activists, land rights advocates, human rights defenders, bloggers and independent journalists, women’s rights, and former political prisoners.

Social media and multiple activists reported that on June 17, authorities took some 180 people, including those who were involved in protesting the draft SAEZ and cybersecurity laws and those observing the demonstrations, to Tao Dao stadium in Ho Chi Minh City. Some activists including Phan Tieu May said they were not protesting but were taken by authorities from their homes or cafes to the stadium Authorities searched, and beat those detained. Many of those involved said they sustained injuries to the head, and some lost consciousness. One individual required long-term hospitalization for his injuries.

On August 15, Ho Chi Minh City police and plainclothes individuals beat musician Nguyen Tin and other activists at Casanova Cafe in District 3 in Ho Chi Minh City after Nguyen Tin held an unregistered concert. They tied him to a chair and beat him over the head with his guitar, according to other activists.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government restricted freedom of association severely. The country’s legal and regulatory framework establishes mechanisms for restricting freedom of NGOs to act and organize, including by restricting freedom of association. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF. The government used complex and politicized registration systems for NGOs and religious organizations to suppress unwelcome political and religious participation.

Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political issues, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also do not permit them to engage in the public distribution of policy advocacy positions.

The Law on Belief and Religions, which came into effect January 1, still requires religious groups to register with authorities and to inform officials of activities. Authorities had the right to approve or refuse religious activities. Some unregistered religious groups reported an increase in government interference.

Some registered organizations, civil society organizations including governance and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some limits on the movement of certain individuals, especially those convicted under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.

Religious and ethnic minority groups, including Hmong and Montagnards who fled the Central Highlands for Cambodia or Thailand, some reportedly due to abuse (see Section 6), asserted that authorities pressured them to return by threatening their families that remained in-country. Authorities then abused, detained, or questioned them upon their return.

In-country Movement: Several political activists, amnestied with probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions were officially restricted in their movements, including Bui Thi Minh Hang and Dinh Nhat Uy. Authorities continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of many prominent activists and religious leaders including Nguyen Dan Que, Pham Chi Dung, Pham Ba Hai, Nguyen Hong Quang, Thich Khong Tanh, Le Cong Cau, and Duong Thi Tan. Several activists reported authorities had confiscated their national identification cards, preventing them from traveling domestically by air or conducting routine administrative matters.

Some activists reported authorities prevented them and their family members from leaving their homes during politically sensitive events, (see also section 1.d.).

A government restriction regarding travel to certain areas required citizens and resident foreigners to obtain a permit to visit border areas, defense facilities, industrial zones involved in national defense, areas of “national strategic storage,” and “works of extreme importance for political, economic, cultural, and social purposes.”

Local police required citizens to register when staying overnight in any location outside of their own homes; the government appeared to enforce these requirements more strictly in some Central and Northern Highlands districts. Foreign passport holders also needed to register to stay in private homes, although there were no known cases of local authorities refusing to allow foreign visitors to stay with friends or family. There were multiple reports of police using the excuse of “checking on residency registration” to intimidate and harass activists and prevent them from traveling outside of their place of registration (see sections 1.d. and 1.f.).

Authorities did not strictly enforce residency laws for the general population, and migration from rural areas to cities continued unabated. Moving without permission, however, hampered persons from obtaining legal residence permits, public education, and health-care benefits.

Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists, at times indefinitely. There were multiple reports of individuals crossing the land borders with Laos or Cambodia illegally because they were unable to obtain passports or exit permission; in some cases this included persons sought for alleged crimes or wanted for political or other activism.

The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders, including Bui Minh Quoc, Dinh Huu Thoai, Do Thi Minh Hanh, Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Hong Quang, and Le Cong Dinh. Authorities banned and prevented dozens of individuals from traveling overseas, withheld their passports on vague charges, or refused to issue passports to certain activists or religious leaders without clear explanation. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.

On September 17, authorities prevented Nguyen Quang A from traveling to Geneva to attend a hearing with members of civil society for Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council. In October Nguyen Quang A was able to travel to Brussels to testify to the EU’s International Trade Committee, but reported having been intimidated by security officials the day of his departure.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to the government, at the end of 2017 there were approximately 29,500 recognized stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality living in the country. This was a substantial increase from the estimated 11,000 stateless persons acknowledged in 2016 and was due to increased government effort to identify such persons. The bulk of this population lived in border areas, but it also included a number of women who lost their citizenship after marrying a foreigner but then lost their foreign citizenship, primarily because of divorce. In the past the government naturalized stateless ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Cambodia, but there was no information on naturalization efforts or options for those identified as stateless persons during the year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly. By law National Assembly elections take place once every five years by secret ballot. The constitution sets the voting age at 18 and allows candidates to run for election to the National Assembly or People’s Council at 21. Nonetheless, the ability of citizens to change their government democratically was severely limited. Constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly of political power for the CPV; the CPV was the only party allowed to put forward candidates for office and it oversaw all elections.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent elections to select members of the National Assembly in 2016 allowed limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates but were neither free nor fair, and the government did not allow NGO monitoring. The CPV’s Fatherland Front chose and vetted all candidates through an opaque, multistage process. CPV candidates won 475 of the 496 seats. The remaining 21 were non-CPV candidates unaffiliated with any party. There were no candidates from a party other than the CPV.

According to the government, 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 election, a figure activists and international observers considered improbably high. Voters may cast ballots by proxy, and officials charged local authorities with assuring that all eligible voters cast ballots by organizing group voting and verifying that all voters within their jurisdiction had voted. There were numerous reports throughout the country that election officials had stuffed ballot boxes and created the illusion of high turnout.

The law allows citizens to “self-nominate” as National Assembly candidates and submit applications for the VFF election vetting process. In the months leading up to the 2016 National Assembly elections, an informal coalition of legal reformers, academics, activists, and human rights defenders attempted to register as self-nominated, non-CPV “activist independent” candidates. In contrast to the party’s candidates, these candidates actively used Facebook and social media to advertise their policy platforms. VFF officials refused, however, to qualify any activist independent candidates, and authorities instructed official media to criticize certain activist independent candidates. According to press reports, the VFF allowed two self-nominated candidates on final ballots, but both individuals were party members.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political opposition movements and other political parties are illegal. The constitution asserts the CPV’s role as “vanguard of the working class and of the Vietnamese nation” and the “leading force in the state and society,” a broad role not given to any other constitutional entity. Although the constitution states that “all Party organizations and members of the CPV operate within the framework of the constitution and the laws,” the CPV Politburo in fact functioned as the supreme national decision-making body, although technically it reported to the CPV Central Committee.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of woman or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The law set a target of 35 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly and provincial people’s councils to be women and 18 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly to be from minority groups.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There was also a noticeable increase in the number of high-profile arrests and prosecutions of high-ranking officials for corruption. This included existing and retired officials from the Politburo, Central Party, military, public security services.

Corruption: The lack of public consultation on land use plans and government land compensation frameworks was the primary driver of corrupt land transfers and source of land conflicts. Corruption in financial, banking, natural resource mining and public investment sectors also remained significant political and social problems.

The MPS reported it processed 185 corruption cases in 2017, the most recent data available. In a June speech, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said the CPV had punished nearly 1,300 members in the prior two years for corruption. The great majority of these cases were handled within the Party and could not be independently confirmed.

According to a government report, in 2017 39 leaders were punished for allowing corruption to occur within their agencies compared with only 11 in 2016. The report stated the government prosecuted 136 corruption cases, up 177 percent from the previous year, and the police investigated 354 cases of which 345 were prosecuted. These resulted in the government recovering more than 1.52 trillion VND ($65 million) and 7.7 hectares (19 acres) of land.

In August Tran Trung Chi Hieu, former chairman of PetroVietnam, was convicted of bribery and corruption and sentenced to 28 years’ imprisonment, while Trinh Xuan Thanh, former chairman of PetroVietnam Construction, received a life sentence in January for embezzlement, and Dinh La Thang, a former politburo member and chairman of PetroVietnam, received in May an 18-year sentence for mismanagement and a separate 13-year sentence for embezzlement in January.

Corruption among police remained a significant problem at all levels as illustrated by the April 6 arrest of former MPS director general Phan Van Vinh on bribery charges, and police sometimes acted with impunity. Internal police oversight structures existed but were subject to political influence.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires senior government officials and National Assembly members to disclose to their agency their income and assets and explain changes from the previous year’s disclosure. In some cases these declarations were publicly declared to be correct or not. In addition supervisors have the right to question an employee’s disclosure. The law provides for reprimand, warning, suspension, or removal for noncompliant civil servants for corruption.

A 2017 government report stated that more than 1.1 million government workers disclosed their finances, but only 78 were verified, of which five were identified as incorrect. Media highlighted examples of civil servants driving luxury cars, using houses given to them by enterprises, or sending children to study overseas while ostensibly only earning small official salaries.

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

The government did not permit independent, local human rights organizations to form or operate, nor did it tolerate attempts by organizations or individuals to criticize its human rights practices publicly. The government used a wide variety of methods to suppress domestic criticism of its human rights policies, including surveillance, detention, prosecution, and imprisonment, interference with personal communications, and limits on the exercise of the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. The government occasionally allowed representatives of international human rights organizations to visit the country but usually strictly controlled their itineraries. The government denied access to the senior director of global operations at Amnesty International and the secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights, precluding their participation in the September 9 World Economic Forum meetings in Hanoi.The government did not permit independent, local human rights organizations to form or operate, nor did it tolerate attempts by organizations or individuals to criticize its human rights practices publicly. The government used a wide variety of methods to suppress domestic criticism of its human rights policies, including surveillance, detention, prosecution, and imprisonment, interference with personal communications, and limits on the exercise of the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. The government occasionally allowed representatives of international human rights organizations to visit the country but usually strictly controlled their itineraries. The government denied access to the senior director of global operations at Amnesty International and the secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights, precluding their participation in the September 9 World Economic Forum meetings in Hanoi.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits using or threatening violence against women or taking advantage of a person who cannot act in self-defense. It also criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, for men and women. The new penal code added to the section on rape “other sexual contacts” and “forced sex crimes” in addition to “sexual intercourse.” This expanded the range of prohibited acts to include vaginal, anal, and oral penetration of a sexual nature of the body of another person with any bodily part or object.

Conviction for rape is punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years, depending on the severity of the case. Authorities prosecuted rape cases but did not release arrest, prosecution, conviction, or punishment statistics.

Authorities treated domestic violence cases as civil cases unless the victim suffered injuries to more than 11 percent of the body. The law specifies acts constituting domestic violence and stipulates punishments for convicted perpetrators ranging from warnings through probation to imprisonment for up to three years.

Domestic violence against women was common. A 2015 NGO survey, the most recent available, reported 59 percent of married women had suffered physical or sexual abuse at least once in their lives, typically from a male partner or member of the family.

Officials acknowledged domestic violence as a significant social concern, and the media discussed it openly. Social stigma prevented many survivors from coming forward due to fear of harassment from their spouses or family.

While police and legal systems generally remained unequipped to deal with cases of domestic violence, the government with the help of international and domestic NGOs continued to train police, lawyers, community advocates, and legal system officials in the law and continued to support workshops and seminars that aimed to educate women and men about domestic violence and women’s rights and highlight the problem through public awareness campaigns.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Publications and training on ethical regulations for government and other public servants did not mention the problem of sexual harassment. In serious cases victims may sue offenders under a provision that deals with “humiliating other persons” and specifies punishments for conviction that include a warning, noncustodial reform for up to two years, or a prison term ranging from three months to two years. As of November there were no reports of prosecutions or sexual harassment lawsuits. A study determined 83 percent of women and girls in Hanoi and 91 percent of those in Ho Chi Minh City had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment during their lives.

Coercion in Population Control: The government continued to encourage couples to have no more than two children. While the law does not prohibit or provide penalties for those having more than two children, some CPV members and activists reported informally administered repercussions for doing so, including restrictions on job promotion (see section 1.f).

Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality, but women continued to face societal discrimination. Despite the large body of law and regulation devoted to protecting women’s rights in marriage and the workplace, as well as provisions that call for preferential treatment, women did not always receive equal treatment in employment, education, or housing, particularly in rural areas.

Gender gaps in education declined, but certain gaps remained. There were substantial differences in the education profile of men and women at the postsecondary level. The number of female students enrolled in higher education applied technology programs was much smaller than the number of men enrolled.

Although the law provides for equal inheritance rights for men and women, women continued to face cultural discrimination. A son was more likely to inherit property than a daughter, unless otherwise specified by a legal document such as a will.

The Women’s Union and the government’s National Committee for the Advancement of Women continued to promote women’s rights, including political, economic, and legal equality, and protection from spousal abuse.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The national average male-female sex ratio at birth in 2018 was 115.1 boys to 100 girls, up three percentage points from 2017 and falling short of the target of 112.8 boys to 100 girls, according to the General Office for Population and Family Planning, under the Ministry of Health. The government acknowledged the problem, highlighted reduction of the ratio as a goal in the national program on gender equality, and continued to take steps to address it.

Children

Birth Registration: By law the government considers anyone born to a citizen parent to be a citizen. Persons born to non-Vietnamese parents may also acquire citizenship under certain circumstances. The law requires a birth certificate to access public services, such as education and health care. Nonetheless, some parents, especially from ethnic minorities, chose not to register their children and local authorities prevented some parents from registering children to discourage migration.

Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through age 14, although many families were required to pay a variety of school fees. Under a government subsidy program, ethnic-minority students were exempt from paying school fees. Nevertheless, authorities did not always enforce required attendance or enforce it equally for boys and girls, especially in rural areas, where government and family budgets for education were limited and children’s labor in agriculture was valuable.

Child Abuse: The government did not effectively enforce existing laws on child abuse and physical and emotional mistreatment was common.

According to 2016 reports from UNICEF, violence against children occurs in many settings including schools and homes, and is usually inflicted by someone known to the child. The most common types of school violence are bullying and corporal punishment by teachers. The number of reported cases of child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, was increasing. UNICEF stated there were no effective inter-disciplinary and child and gender sensitive procedures and processes for handling child abuse reports, and the responsibilities of the responsible agencies were unclear. The child protection workforce, especially at local levels, from social workers to relevant professionals such as police, judges, prosecutors, teachers, and medical experts, was poorly trained, uninformed, and generally insufficient to address the problem.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18 for girls and 20 for boys, and the law criminalizes organizing marriage for, or entering into marriage with, an underage person.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual exploitation of children younger than age 16 is illegal. The law criminalizes all acts of sale or deprivation of liberty of children as well as all acts related to child prostitution and forced child labor. Sentences of those convicted range from three years’ to life imprisonment, and fines range from five million to 50 million VND ($220 to $2,200). The law also specifies prison sentences for conviction of acts related to child prostitution, including harboring prostitution (12 to 20 years), brokering prostitution (seven to 15 years), and buying sex with minors (three to 15 years). The production, distribution, dissemination, or sale of child pornography is illegal and conviction carries a sentence of three to 10 years’ imprisonment. The country is a destination for child sex tourism.

The law prohibits all acts of cruel treatment, humiliation, abduction, sale, and coercion of children into any activities harmful to their healthy development and provides for the protection and care of disadvantaged children.

The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Conviction of statutory rape may result in life imprisonment or capital punishment. Penalties for sex with minors between ages 16 and 18, depending upon the circumstances, vary from five to 10 years in prison. The penalty for rape of a child between ages 13 and 16 is seven to 15 years’ imprisonment. If the victim becomes pregnant, the rape is incestuous, or the offender is in a guardianship position to the victim, the penalty increases to 12 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law considers all cases of sexual intercourse with children younger than age 13 child rape, with sentences ranging from 12 years’ imprisonment to death. The government enforced the law, and convicted rapists received harsh sentences.

Displaced Children: Media reported that approximately 21,000 children lived on the streets and sometimes experienced police harassment or abuse.

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://www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/forC-Afor-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

There were small communities of Jewish foreigners in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City; 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 constitution provides for the protection of persons with mental and physical disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination against or mistreatment of persons with physical, mental disabilities, or both, and protects their right to access education and other state services, but the government struggled to enforce these provisions.

The law protects persons the rights of persons with disabilities including the right to access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transport, judicial system, and other state services; however, the majority of persons with disabilities faced challenges in exercising their rights and could not access government services due to lack of policy implementation and social stigma.

In prior years, representatives from a broad range of ministries–construction, finance and planning, transport–have begun incorporating accommodations for persons with disabilities in joint planning. While the law requires that new construction or major renovations of government and large public buildings include access for persons with disabilities, enforcement continued to be sporadic, particularly for projects outside of major cities.

Access to education for children with disabilities, particularly deaf children and children with intellectual disabilities, remained extremely limited.

There is no legal restriction on the right to vote for persons with disabilities, although many polling stations were not accessible, especially to persons with physical disabilities.

While the provision of social services to persons with disabilities remained limited, the government made some efforts to support the establishment of organizations of persons with disabilities and consulted them in the development or review of national programs, such as the National Poverty Reduction Program, vocational laws, and various education policies. The National Committee on Disabilities, the Vietnam Federation on Disability, and their members from various ministries worked with domestic and foreign organizations to provide protection, support, physical access, education, and employment. The government operated a small network of rehabilitation centers to provide long-term, in-patient physical therapy.

NGOs reported they continued to face challenges applying for funding and offering training for disability-related programs from certain provincial governments, which hampered access for international experts to conduct training.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The law prohibits discrimination against ethnic minorities, but societal discrimination was longstanding and persistent. Local officials in some provinces, notably in the highlands, discriminated against members of ethnic and religious minority groups. Despite the country’s significant economic growth, the economic gap between many ethnic minority communities and ethnic majority communities persisted, although ethnic minority group members constituted a sizable percentage of the population in certain areas, including the Northwest, Central Highlands, and portions of the Mekong Delta.

International human rights organizations and refugees continued to allege authorities monitored, harassed and intimidated members of certain ethnic minority groups, particularly ethno-religious minorities, including Christian Hmong and groups collectively referred to as Montagnards. Some members of these groups fled to Cambodia and Thailand, seeking refugee status as victims of oppression; the government claimed these individuals were illegal migrants who left the country in pursuit of economic opportunities. Human rights groups stated the government pressured Cambodia and Thailand to deny these individuals refugee or temporary asylum seeker status and to return them to Vietnam.

Authorities used national security provisions of the law to impose lengthy prison sentences on members of ethnic minorities for connections to overseas organizations that the government claimed espoused separatist aims. In addition activists often reported an increased presence of Ministry of Public Security agents on historically significant days and holidays throughout the region.

The government continued to address the socioeconomic gap between ethnic minorities and the majority community through programs to subsidize education and health facilities and expand road access and electrification to rural communities and villages. The government also continued to allocate land to ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.

The government operated 300 boarding schools in 50 provinces for ethnic minority children, mostly in the Northwest and Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta. The government also worked with local officials to develop local-language curricula. Implementation was more comprehensive in the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta than in the Northwest Highlands. The government also subsidized several technical and vocational schools for ethnic minorities.

The government granted preferential treatment to domestic and foreign companies that invested in highland areas populated predominantly by ethnic minorities. The government also supported infrastructure development programs that targeted poor, largely ethnic-minority areas, and established agricultural extension programs for remote rural areas though land expropriation in these areas was also common.

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

The law does not prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government service. The civil code gives individuals who have undergone a “sex change” the right to register their new status. Sexual orientation and gender identity were still a basis for stigma and discrimination.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

HIV and AIDS social stigma and discrimination hindered HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

According to the 2015 Stigma Index, the latest available data, 11.2 percent of persons with HIV, 16.6 percent of female sex workers, 15.5 percent of persons who inject drugs, and 7.9 percent of men who have sex with men reported having experienced violations of their rights within the 12 months prior to the survey. Individuals with HIV continued to face barriers accessing and maintaining employment.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution affords the right to association and the right to demonstrate but limits the exercise of these rights, including preventing workers from organizing or joining independent unions of their choice. While workers may choose whether to join a union and at which level (local or “grassroots,” provincial, or national), the law requires every union to be under the legal purview and control of the country’s only trade union confederation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), a CPV-run organization. Only citizens may form or join labor unions.

The law gives the VGCL exclusive authority to recognize unions and confers on VGCL upper-level trade unions the responsibility to establish workplace unions. The VGCL’s charter establishes the VGCL as the head of the multilevel unitary trade union structure and carries the force of law. The law also stipulates that the VGCL answers directly to the CPV’s VFF, which does not protect trade unions from government interference in or control over union activity.

The law also limits freedom of association by not allowing trade unions full autonomy in administering their affairs. The law confers on the VGCL ownership of all trade-union property, and gives it the right to represent lower-level unions. By law trade union leaders and officials are not elected by union members but are appointed.

The law requires that if a workplace trade union does not exist, an “immediate upper-level trade union” must perform the tasks of a grassroots union, even where workers have not so requested or have voluntarily elected not to organize. For nonunionized workers to organize a strike, they must request that the strike “be organized and led by the upper-level trade union,” and if non-unionized workers wish to bargain collectively, the upper-level VGCL union must represent them.

The law stipulates that trade unions have the right and responsibility to organize and lead strikes, and establishes certain substantive and procedural restrictions on strikes. Strikes that do not arise from a collective labor dispute or do not adhere to the process outlined by law are illegal. Contrary to international standards, the law forbids strikes regarding “rights-based” disputes. This includes strikes arising out of economic and social policy measures that are not a part of a collective negotiation process, as they are both outside the law’s definition of protected “interest-based” strikes.

The law prohibits strikes by workers in businesses that serve the public or that the government considers essential to the national economy, defense, public health, and public order. “Essential services” include electricity production; post and telecommunications; maritime and air transportation, navigation, public works, and oil and gas production. The law also grants the prime minister the right to suspend a strike considered detrimental to the national economy or public safety.

The law prohibits strikes among workers across different employers, resulting in a ban on sector- and industry-level protests and prohibits workers and unions from calling for strikes in support of multiemployer contracts.

The law states that the executive committee of a trade union may issue a decision to go on strike only when at least 50 percent of workers support it.

Laws stipulate an extensive and cumbersome process of mediation and arbitration before a lawful strike over an interest-based collective dispute may occur. Unions or workers’ representatives may either appeal decisions of provincial arbitration councils to provincial people’s courts or strike. The law stipulates strikers may not be paid wages while they are not at work. The law prohibits retribution against strikers. By law individuals participating in strikes declared illegal by a people’s court and found to have caused damage to their employer are liable for damages.

The laws include provisions that prohibit antiunion discrimination and interference in union activities while imposing administrative sanctions and fines for violations. The laws do not distinguish between workers and managers, however, and fail to prohibit employers’ agents, such as managers who represent the interests of the employer, from participating or interfering in union activity. Penalties were not adequate to deter violations.

According to the VGCL, more than 73 percent of the 189 strikes that occurred in the first eight months of the year occurred in foreign direct-investment companies (mainly Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Chinese companies), and nearly 40 percent occurred in the southern economic zone area in Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Ba Ria Vung Tau provinces and Ho Chi Minh City. None of the strikes followed the authorized conciliation and arbitration process, and thus authorities considered them illegal “wildcat” strikes. The government, however, took no action against the strikers and, on occasion, actively mediated agreements in the workers’ favor. In some cases the government imposed heavy fines on employers, especially of foreign-owned companies, that engaged in illegal practices that led to strikes.

Because it is illegal to establish or seek to establish independent labor unions, there were no government-sanctioned domestic labor NGOs involved in labor organizing. Local labor NGOs, however, supported efforts to raise awareness of worker rights and occupational safety and health issues and to support internal and external migrant workers. Multiple international labor NGOs collaborated with the VGCL to provide training to VGCL-affiliated union representatives on labor organizing, collective bargaining, and other trade union issues. The International Labor Organization (ILO)-International Finance Corporation (IFC) Better Work project reported management interference in the activities of the trade union was one of the most significant issues in garment factories in the country.

Labor activists and representatives of independent (non-VGCL) worker organizations faced antiunion discrimination. Independent labor activists seeking to form unions separate from the VGCL or inform workers of their labor rights sometimes faced government harassment. In February a court convicted and sentenced peaceful labor and environmental activist Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years’ imprisonment under vague articles of the penal code. Binh, who was arrested in 2017, advocated for compensation for fishermen affected by the 2016 Formosa spill, and posted online content about the government’s response to the spill that significantly affected workers (also see section 1.d.). In July a crowd attacked the house of Do Thi Minh Hanh, chairwoman of the independent Viet Labor Movement, pelting it with stones, fish sauce, and petrol bombs. In addition authorities continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against labor activists, including Do Thi Minh Hanh (also see section 2.d.).

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit forced or compulsory labor. The labor code’s definition of forced labor, however, does not explicitly include debt bondage. In January penal code amendments entered into effect that criminalized all forms of labor trafficking of adults and prescribed penalties of five to 10 years’ imprisonment and fines of 20 to 100 million VND. The amendments also criminalized labor trafficking of children younger than age 16 and prescribed penalties of seven to 12 years’ imprisonment and fines of 50 to 200 million VND. The law does not provide any penalty for violation of the labor code provisions prohibiting forced labor. ,NGOs continued to report the occurrence of forced labor of men, women, and children within the country (see also section 7.c.).

Labor recruitment firms, most of which were affiliated with state-owned enterprises, and unlicensed brokers reportedly charged workers seeking international employment higher fees than the law allows, and they did so with impunity. Those workers incurred high debts and were thus more vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The constitution prohibits “the employment of persons below the minimum working age.” The law defines underage employees as anyone younger than age 18. The law prohibits children under 18 from working heavy, hazardous, and dangerous jobs. The law limits children between ages 15 and 18 to working a maximum of eight hours per day and 40 hours per week. Children between ages 13 and 15 may work only in light jobs, as defined by the Ministry of Labor, and considerations must be made for schooling, working conditions, labor safety, and hygiene. The law permits children to register at trade training centers, a form of vocational training, from age 14 without parental consent. While the law generally prohibits the employment of children under 13, it allows those under 13 to engage in sectors not deemed to be harmful as regulated by the ministry.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and policies. Government officials may fine and, in cases of criminal violations, prosecute employers who violate child labor laws. As part of the government’s 2016-20 National Plan of Action for Children and National Program for Child Protection, the government continued efforts to prevent child labor and specifically targeted children in rural areas, disadvantaged children, and children at risk of exposure to hazardous work conditions.

Per the Vietnam National Child Labor Survey 2012, the most recent data available, 1.75 million working children were categorized as “child laborers”, accounting for 9.6 percent of the national child population or 62 percent of children engaged in economic activities. Of child laborers, 40 percent were girls, nearly 85 percent of these children lived in the rural areas and 60 percent belonged to the 15-17 age group. Some children started work as young as age 12 and nearly 55 percent did not attend school (5 percent of whom would never attend school). Agriculture was the most common field for child laborers, with 67 percent of the total population, while 15.7 percent worked in construction/manufacturing and 16.7 percent in services.

There were reports of children between ages 10 and 18–and some as young as six–producing garments under conditions of forced labor. The most recently available information from government raids, NGOs, and media reports indicated that groups of children were laboring in small, privately owned garment factories and informal garment workshops. Reports indicated that these employers were beating or threatening the children with physical violence. In addition, there was evidence that children as young as 12 were working while confined in government-run rehabilitation centers. Employers forced these children to sew garments without pay under threat of physical or other punishments.

International and domestic NGOs noted successful partnerships with provincial governments to implement national-level policies combatting child labor.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment, labor relationships, and work but not explicitly in all aspects of employment and occupation. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, disability, color, social class, marital status, belief, religion, HIV status, and membership in a trade union or participation in trade union activities. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on political opinion, age, language, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

No laws prohibit employers from asking about family or marital status during job interviews.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to employment discrimination. The government took some action to address employment discrimination against persons with disabilities. Companies with a workforce composed of at least 51 percent employees with disabilities may qualify for special government-subsidized loans.

Discriminatory hiring practices existed, including discrimination related to gender, age, disability, and marital status. Women in the public sector were expected to retire at age 55, compared with age 60 for men, affecting women’s ability to rise to managerial ranks and have higher incomes and pensions.

Women-led enterprises continued to have limited access to credit and international markets. A 2017 report by Oxfam estimated male workers earned on average 33 percent more than their female counterparts. Skilled female workers with university degrees earned 80 percent of male university graduates’ wages. Many women older than age 35 found it difficult to find a job, and there were reports of women receiving termination letters at age 35. The VGCL’s Institute of Workers and Trade Unions noted that women older than age 35 accounted for roughly half of all unemployed workers in the country.

Social and attitudinal barriers and limited access to the workplace remained problems in the employment of persons with disabilities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage for enterprises ranged from 2.76 million VND ($117) per month to 3.98 million VND ($170) per month, depending on the region. In August the National Wages Council agreed to a 5.3 percent increase in the minimum wage, to take effect in 2019, raising the minimum wage range to 2.92 million VND ($124) – 4.18 million VND ($178). The minimum wage exceeds the General Statistics Office-World Bank official poverty income level.

The law limits overtime to 50 percent of normal working hours per day, 30 hours per month, and 200 hours per year, but it provides for an exception in special cases, with a maximum of 300 overtime hours annually, subject to stipulation by the government after consulting with the VGCL and employer representatives.

The law provides for occupational safety and health standards, describes procedures for persons who are victims of labor accidents and occupational diseases, and delineates the responsibilities of organizations and individuals in the occupational safety and health fields. The law provides for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The law protects “labor subleasing”, a pattern of employment, and thus extends protection to part-time and domestic workers.

The Ministry of Labor is the principal labor authority, and it oversees the enforcement of the labor law, administers labor relations policy, and promotes job creation. The Labor Inspections Department is responsible for workplace inspections to confirm compliance with labor laws and occupational safety and health standards. Inspectors may use sanctions, fines, withdrawal of operating licenses or registrations, closures of enterprises, and mandatory training. Inspectors may take immediate measures where they have reason to believe there is an imminent and serious danger to the health or safety of workers, including temporarily suspending operations, although such measures were rare. The ministry acknowledged shortcomings in its labor inspection system and emphasized the number of labor inspectors countrywide was insufficient.

Government enforcement of labor laws and standards, including in the informal economy, was irregular for many reasons, including low funding and a shortage of trained enforcement personnel.

Credible reports, including from the ILO-IFC Better Work 2017 Annual Report, indicated that factories exceeded legal overtime thresholds and did not meet legal requirements for rest days. The ILO-IFC report stated that, while a majority of factories in the program complied with the daily limit of four hours overtime, 77 percent still failed to meet monthly limits (30 hours) and 72 percent exceeded annual limits (300 hours). In addition and due to the high prevalence of Sunday work, 44 percent of factories failed to provide at least four days of rest per month to all workers.

Migrant workers, including internal economic migrants, were among the most vulnerable workers, and employers routinely subjected them to hazardous working conditions. Members of ethnic minority groups often worked in the informal economy and, according to the ILO, informal workers typically had low and irregular incomes, endured long working hours, and lacked protection by labor market institutions. On-the-job injuries due to poor health and safety conditions and inadequate employee training remained a problem. In 2017, the government reported 8,956 occupational accidents with 9,173 victims, including 898 fatal incidents with 928 deaths.