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Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister elected by the parliament heads the government; the president, also elected by the parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. During December 2018 parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by acting prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. According to the assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service (NSS) is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into general civilian and military criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. The NSS and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president upon the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the SIS and Investigative Committee chiefs upon the prime minister’s recommendations. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: torture; arbitrary detention, although with fewer reports; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.

The government took steps to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities. For example, throughout the year, an investigation continued into the culpability of former high-ranking government officials surrounding events that led to the deaths of eight civilians and two police officers during postelection protests in 2008.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press.

Since the 2018 political transition, the media environment has been freer, as some outlets began to step away from the earlier practice of self-censorship; however, there were reports that some outlets avoided criticizing the authorities so as not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” In its final report on the December 2018 elections, the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission stated that while most interlocutors noted improvements in media freedom and an increase in plurality of opinions since April 2018, some also noted that the postrevolutionary public discourse was not conducive to criticism of the government, in particular, the then acting prime minister. Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of arrest. After the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” there were calls for legal measures to address hate speech following incidents of advocacy of violence targeting individuals’ political opinions, religious beliefs, as well as sexual and gender identity.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint, replacing one government perspective with another in the aftermath of the political transition. Nonetheless, public television was open and accessible to the opposition as well and covered more diverse topics of public interest than before.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the new government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited revenues from advertising.

The media advertising market did not change substantially after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most-watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders; it controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating similar to MIS. Internet advertising, although a small segment of the advertising market, increased during the year.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. Media NGOs advocated for the media sector to be included as a priority sector in the action plan and proposed changes to the Law on Television and Radio that fostered media ownership transparency.

The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. The stations did not receive government licenses to transmit digitally via the single state-owned multiplex following the 2016 national switch to digital broadcasting, and they continued to transmit via the unsupported analog broadcasting system. The heavy cost of starting and maintaining a private multiplex (which could ensure the continuity of those stations) resulted in three unsuccessful tenders with no applicants since the 2016 switchover. As a result, on January 31, the government decided to shut down “Shirak” Public Television, claiming that the station’s analog broadcast was unable to attract a wide audience and that the transfer of the station to a digital broadcast would require significant financial investment, which the government was unable to make. Media watchdogs criticized the decision and urged the government to change legislation to encourage the entrance of private multiplexers into the country and end the state’s monopoly on digital broadcasting.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported three cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. Two reporters were attacked by employees of cafes that were being dismantled by Yerevan City Hall in a crackdown against illegal buildings. No criminal charges were filed. In the third case, the bodyguard of former NSS chief Artur Vanetsyan pushed a reporter to the ground.

On February 27, the Kotayk region trial court acquitted Kotayk police department head Arsen Arzumanyan, who had been charged with abuse of office and preventing the professional activities of journalist Tirayr Muradyan in April 2018. On June 5, in answer to an appeal of the acquittal, the Criminal Appeals Court found Arzumanyan guilty and fined him 500,000 drams ($1,000).

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts raised concerns regarding the unprecedented number of libel and defamation cases launched against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 83 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year, placing a significant financial burden on media outlets.

National Security: According to media experts there was a dramatic increase in false news stories and the spread of disinformation regarding social networks and media during the year. The government claimed that former government representatives, who reportedly owned most media–including television stations with nationwide coverage–used media outlets to manipulate public opinion against authorities.

On April 4, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered the NSS to crack down on anyone using mass media or social media to “manipulate public opinion.” Media experts, including some who said there was a need to address fake news and hate speech, criticized the prime minister’s instructions as an attempt to silence free speech. On April 9, the NSS reported the arrest of a person who administered a Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated with the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party. The page spread fake news stories and incited violence, including against members of religious minorities. Although the NSS had investigated the Facebook account on charges of incitement of religious hatred since fall 2018, an arrest was made on this charge only after the prime minister’s April 4 instructions.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

In May, Facebook suspended the accounts of several prominent civil society activists for several weeks. A Facebook account called Digital Granate Civil Initiative ultimately took responsibility for blocking the activists, asserting it sought to “[clean] the internet” of civil society activists, including “foreign agents,” “corrupt politicians,” and members of the LGBTI community. Local digital media experts reinstated the blocked accounts with the help of an international digital rights group, although those behind the campaign to block the accounts remained unknown.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The government expressly supported academic freedom and took measures to depoliticize academia, including the appointment of new boards of trustees of public universities. Under pressure from the public and the government for corruption as well as their lack of support for democratic reforms, several rectors, openly or allegedly affiliated with the previous regime, resigned. This included Aram Simonyan, rector of Yerevan State University, the country’s oldest academic institution. Simonyan, a member of the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia, resigned following months of a very public and controversial standoff with the minister of education, science, culture, and sports.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly. Following the spring 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government generally respected this right.

According to the monitoring report of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, for the period from July 2018 through June, freedom of assembly improved after the political changes of spring 2018, resulting in more assemblies held during the year. The report also noted that police methods had become more restrained. The most significant problems observed related to rally participants’ and organizers’ use of hate speech aimed at a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious views.

On August 19, however, police removed peaceful rally participants from a major street in downtown Yerevan and relocated them to a nearby sidewalk. They had been protesting the exploitation of a mine in Jermuk. An August 20 statement from Transparency International Anticorruption Center and other NGOs assessed the incident as the most serious violation of the right to assembly since the 2018 revolution. According to the statement, police used force and arbitrary detention to remove the protesters standing on Baghramyan Avenue from the lanes of traffic, after the protesters were denied access to the grounds around the parliament, which had previously been open to the public. The statement averred that as a result of police actions several persons required medical attention, one in a hospital. On August 20, police asserted that the physical force used was proportionate to the situation.

The government continued to seek accountability for cases of disproportionate force used against protesters by police during the largely peaceful events of April 2018. As a result of two official investigations into police conduct, two police officers were reprimanded. On August 9, however, the government suspended a criminal case that had merged multiple episodes of police violence into a single case after investigators, who had identified 55 victims, interrogated 200 persons, reviewed video recordings, and conducted forensic examinations, stated they were unable to identify the perpetrators. Several other officers charged with abuse of power for their role in using flash grenades were included in an amnesty granted in October 2018. The trial of former chief of internal police troops Levon Yeranosyan, charged with exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences, continued. The trial in another case, involving Masis mayor Davit Hambardzumyan and seven others, charged with attacking protesters in April 2018, also continued. As a result of seven lawsuits, an investigation was underway into alleged police interference with freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, medical assistance rights, nondiscrimination, and freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

As of December 2018, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-1994 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and former refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities. The government did not have IDP-specific programs and policies aimed at promoting the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of nonsystemic discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration. Civil society contacts reported discriminatory attitudes and suspicion directed towards foreign migrants seeking employment.

In the first nine months of the year, 15 foreigners were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border via land or air, a decrease from 28 in the first nine months of 2018. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences.

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. Three years of legal residence in the country is required for naturalization of refugees who are not ethnic Armenians.

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in capacity of eligibility officers. Enhanced capacity of the judiciary resulted in an increased number of overruled State Migration Service (SMS) decisions on asylum applications. Following a 2018 administrative court judgment overruling an SMS denial of refugee status to a family from Iraq, the applicants were required to start the asylum process again. In general the courts drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than before 2018.

Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Many of the countrywide reforms such as provision of increased social services, higher pensions, and more accessible health care also benefited naturalized refugees.

While the overall quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles with non-Apostolic Christian and non-Armenian backgrounds.

Access to Basic Services: Many refugees were unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system, despite legal provisions protecting these rights.

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

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory. The SMS also offered integration programs to returnees from Western European countries who either voluntarily returned or were deported by the host country. On November 21, the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing to 112 refugee families who fled from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

According to official data, as of November 1, there were 929 stateless persons in the country, an increase from 801 in October 2018. The increase was believed to be related to the rising number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. In addition authorities considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless as of July.

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: In December 2018 the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated but free and competitive campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won more than 70 percent of the vote and most seats in parliament; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE/ODIHR December 2018 preliminary and March 7 final reports noted, “early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The final report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by the Prosperous Armenia Party, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

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

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not restrict the registration or activity of political parties.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political and economic life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected in October 2018.

The OSCE’s reports on the December 2018 parliamentary elections noted, all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender-quota requirement and that women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. The OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not provide for the same proportion of representation of women in the parliament, as half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns; women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies observed. Some women candidates were a target of disparaging rhetoric because of their gender.

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption. After the May 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” the government opened investigations that revealed systemic corruption encompassing most areas of public and private life. The government launched numerous criminal cases against alleged corruption by former government officials and their relatives, parliamentarians, and in a few instances, by members of the judiciary and their relatives, with cases ranging from a few thousand to millions of U.S. dollars. Many of those cases continued as of year’s end, and additional cases were reported regularly. The government also launched such cases against a few current government officials.

Corruption: The country has a legacy of systemic corruption in many areas, including construction, mining, public administration, the parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of grants by the state. There were allegations of embezzlement of state funds, involvement of government officials in questionable business activities, and tax and customs privileges for government-linked companies. In 2018 the government made combatting corruption one of its top priorities and continued to take measures to eliminate it during the year. Although top officials announced the “eradication of corruption” in the country, local observers noted that anticorruption measures needed further institutionalization. Criminal corruption cases were uncovered in the tax and customs services, the ministries of education and health care, and the judiciary.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in the 13 months ending in June, enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations in the amount of 110.5 billion drams (almost $230 million), constituting damages to the state, embezzlement, abuse of official duty, and bribes. Of this amount, 30.1 billon drams ($63 million) was reportedly paid to the state budget; NGOs raised concerns regarding insufficient transparency in this process.

During the year former officials made public announcements of their intent to return assets to the state, allegedly to avoid prosecution. The process by which the government accepted or negotiated such arrangements were unclear.

In December 2018 the Prosecutor General’s Office launched a criminal case against former minister of nature protection and then member of parliament Aram Harutyunyan, for bribery in especially large sums. According to the Special Investigative Service, Harutyunyan misused his position as chair of the interagency tender commission on the establishment of mining rights over the parcels of lands containing minerals of strategic importance, receiving a bribe of $14 million from a business owner in exchange for 10 special licenses for mineralogy studies in mines, further extension of those studies, and, subsequently, permission to exploit the mines. As of late November, Harutyunyan was in hiding from the prosecution.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires high-ranking public officials and their families to file annual asset declarations, which were partially available to the public on the internet. The law grants the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials the powers and tools to partially verify the content of the declarations, including access to relevant databases and the mandate to impose administrative sanctions or refer a case to law enforcement authorities when elements of criminal offenses were identified. After the May 2018 change in government, the Ethics Commission imposed penalties on officials for filing incomplete or late declarations.

By law full verification of the data as well as other functions aimed at preventing corruption is carried out by the Commission on the Prevention of Corruption. The commission, an autonomous collegial body accountable to the parliament, is authorized to have five members who are appointed for a six-year term. It replaces the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials and is broadly empowered to promote official integrity, support development of anticorruption policy, and conduct anticorruption awareness and training. On November 19, the National Assembly elected the five members of the Commission on the Prevention of Corruption by secret ballot; one member was nominated by the government, one by each of the three parliamentary factions, and one by the Supreme Judicial Council. A civil society leader nominated by an opposition party became the commission chairperson.

Under a law criminalizing illicit enrichment, many public officials, including judges and members of parliament and their spouses, disclosed large sums of unexplained income and assets, including large personal gifts and proceeds from providing loans. After the May 2018 change in government, authorities initiated several investigations of discrepancies or unexplained wealth identified in the declarations. On October 3, the government adopted an anticorruption strategy that, among other actions, envisages the creation of a separate special law enforcement body, to be called the Anti-Corruption Committee, by 2021.

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

Following the May 2018 change in government leadership, some civil society representatives joined the government. Others, however, continued to serve as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of the government. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Civil society organizations considered the government change a window of opportunity for closer collaboration. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsperson) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. The office improved its outreach to regions and collaboration with regional human rights protection organizations. During the year the office launched a public-awareness campaign on the procedures for reporting domestic violence. The office continued to report a significant increase in the number of citizen complaints and visits, which it attributed to increased public expectations and trust in the institution.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes applied to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence and carried various sentences depending on the charge (murder, battery, light battery, rape, etc.). Law enforcement bodies did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread. According to some officials, the absence of a definition of domestic violence in the criminal code hampered their ability to fight domestic violence. On October 10, the government approved a decision to create a centralized database for registering domestic violence cases.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in such cases and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to some NGO representatives, women alleging they had been raped were sometimes questioned concerning previous sexual experiences and subjected to a “virginity test.” In a few cases, if the rape victim was not a virgin, police dismissed the allegation. Most domestic violence cases were considered by law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for field work to address these crimes.

Following a June report published by the independent Hetq.am about a Czech woman who was sexually assaulted while in the country, independent journalist Lucy Kocharyan began posting anonymous stories of sexual violence survivors on Facebook that quickly went viral. The stories, sent to Kocharyan in private messages from real accounts, related cases of sexual harassment, rape, and molestation affecting men and women in both rural and urban settings, many of which had occurred when the victims were children. On July 6, police announced they could only look into reports that were specific and that they would need the victims to come forward to testify.

On May 9, police reported the death of Mariam Asatryan of Shahumyan village. According to the police report, Asatryan, who was pregnant at the time, was beaten to death with a rubber pipe and a wrench. The suspect detained for the killing, Hakob Ohanyan, was Asatryan’s partner; media outlets reported he had subjected Asatryan to violence for two years. She had sought assistance from the Women’s Support Center twice, initially after beatings causing a broken arm and many other injuries, and a second time after suffering two broken hands and additional injuries. She reported the crimes to police and was provided shelter. After Ohanyan reportedly intimidated her, however, she withdrew her complaints and law enforcement authorities dropped the case.

Activists and NGOs that promoted women’s rights and equality were frequent targets of hate speech and criticized for allegedly breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.” In one case women’s rights activist and Women’s Resource Center (WRC) chairperson Lara Aharonyan became the target of an online hate campaign after giving a March 8 speech at a civil society-parliament event on gender equality. On March 11, after she and her family received threats that they would be raped and killed, Aharonyan asked police to investigate the threats. Police launched an investigation but suspended it pending a response to an international request to identify the internet protocol addresses of the anonymous users who made the threats. In a second case, the staff of the WRC Sexual Assault Crisis Center (SACC) also faced threats during the time leading up to and after the May 4 presentation of a book, My Body is Private, aimed at educating parents and children against sexual abuse. Nationalists ambushed the book presentation and threw eggs at organizers. They later terrorized SACC staff by calling their hotline and threatening to kill, rape, and burn them, causing the SACC to temporarily halt its activities. Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan–the only female cabinet member–condemned the incident, and then became a target of gender-based hate speech herself. Police refused to launch a criminal case, claiming lack of elements of a crime.

In July 2018 the 2017 Law on Prevention of Family Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Family Violence, and the Restoration of Family Cohesion went into effect. According to NGOs, the government lacked resources for the full implementation of the law. On October 1, Aravot.am online and daily published the account of a domestic violence victim who described as life-saving police actions removing her from an abusive family and credited the 2017 law as the basis for police intervention.

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

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

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

Socioeconomic factors, women’s household responsibilities, as well as a lack of opportunities for women to gain leadership skills played a role in limiting women’s political participation, as did their lack of access to the informal, male-dominated communication networks that form the foundation of the country’s politics. Women also lacked the necessary sponsorships and funds to build a political career. Even when elected, the visibility of female politicians was limited in the public domain.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Despite legislative changes banning such practices and related public-awareness campaigns, data on newborns continued to indicate a skewed sex ratio. According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the boy to girl ratio at birth was 112 to 100 in 2018. Women’s rights groups considered sex-selective practices as part of a broader problem of gender inequality in the country.

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

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities and children with disabilities, lacked access to early learning programs, despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. According to the Statistical Committee, in 2018 nationwide gross preschool enrollment (of children up to age five) was 30.9 percent, including 36.6 percent in urban communities and 20.6 percent in rural communities. While there was some increase in rural enrollment, many remote rural communities, especially those with populations less than 400, did not have preschools. Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. UNICEF expressed concern regarding the integration into the local community of an increasing number of refugee children from Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine because of lack of proper support for addressing cultural and linguistic barriers.

A 2018 research project carried out by the NGO Bridge of Hope in collaboration with Enabling Education Network and OSF-Armenia’s Early Childhood Program identified difficulties in the transition of children with disabilities and special education needs through different educational levels as well as from home to schooling and from school to independent living. According to the researchers, “the transition of children with disabilities and special education needs to high school or to a vocational education setting is particularly challenging, especially in remote areas. Many high schools and vocational institutions reported being unable to offer options to children with disabilities and special education needs due to limited funding and a lack of specialists to advise and support the teachers and learners. This means children with disabilities and special education needs often end their education at ages 15 or 16, without having the possibility of obtaining specific skills for entering the labor market and thus living independently.”

In a March report on monitoring the water and sanitation situation in 121 schools and 80 preschools throughout the country, the Ombudsman’s Office raised concerns regarding poor sanitary conditions in many of the buildings and lack of accessible restrooms in most of them.

Child Abuse: According to observers, the government prioritized combatting violence against children and took steps to address it, despite insufficient official data on violence against children and gaps in legislation and practice. The Council of Justice for Children under the Ministry of Justice served as a multistakeholder platform to discuss and devise a multisectoral and coordinated national action plan for the next three to five years. The law on prevention of violence within the family covered child victims of domestic violence, envisaging cooperation between police and social services in response to cases of domestic violence. While police began implementing the law in June 2018 through the application of protection measures, services available to victims and perpetrators alike were insufficient and did not cover the entire territory of the country, making the social services’ response to domestic violence ineffective.

Along with other internal reforms, in September the Investigative Committee expanded the responsibilities of its department investigating human and drug trafficking cases to cover investigating human trafficking, child sexual assault, and drug trafficking crimes. In April the Investigative Committee began receiving reports from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on potential cyber violence against minors, based on data generated from Armenian internet addresses.

On March 4, the Ombudsman’s Office published the preliminary results of monitoring visits to eight special schools and one night-care institution, noting the office had registered children that had no legal basis for being in the institutions, violence between and toward children, labor exploitation, and other violations. The government’s deinstitutionalization program was designed to address this issue. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced a call to establish 30 day-care centers throughout the country to provide support to children who have returned to their families.

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

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

According to NGOs, although official statistics showed relatively few cases of sexual exploitation and sale of children, there were numerous undetected and unreported cases caused by gaps in legislation, training, awareness raising, detection, and reporting.

Institutionalized Children: In 2017 the family code was amended to allow for more family-based alternatives for institutionalized children, such as diversification of foster care and improved provisions on adoption; the amendments entered into force in the middle of 2018, resulting in a quadrupling in state funding for foster care. Transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care also continued. Except for children with disabilities, the number of institutionalized children continued to decrease.

The government, with support from international organizations and other partners, decreased the number of children in residential care from 2,900 in January 2018 to 2,400 in December 2018. Most children returned to their biological or extended families, while smaller numbers were provided with alternative family and community-based options. The government continued support for the development of foster care services. In part due to a fourfold increase in funding for foster care in 2018, the number of foster families funded by the state–which had been stable for more than 10 years–increased from 25 to 45 (as of August).

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

On November 14, the NSS announced that it had uncovered an organized crime ring that dealt in illegal adoption, resulting in the sale of more than 30 children to foreigners. According to the press release, the suspects used blackmail, coercion, and fraud to force mothers in vulnerable social situations to carry pregnancies to term and to give up their newborns. In some cases mothers were told that the children were born with grave health problems or were stillborn. The group first transferred the children to orphanages and then falsified documents to permit adoptions by foreign families (local law prioritizes local adoption). The investigation continued at year’s end.

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. As of early December, no anti-Semitic acts had been reported during the year, although some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media, smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not condemn such anti-Semitic comments.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with any disability in employment, education, and access to health care and other state services, but discrimination remained a problem. The law and a special government decree require both new buildings and those that are renovated, including schools, to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Very few buildings or other facilities were accessible, even if newly constructed or renovated. Many public buildings, including schools and kindergartens, were inaccessible. This inaccessibility also deterred persons with disabilities from voting, since these buildings often served as polling stations during elections.

Although the law on general education provides for a transition from general education to inclusive education for children with disabilities by 2025, and despite the increasing trend towards inclusive education, practices on the ground continued to be fragmented and discriminatory and did not lead to an extensive and sustainable change of the education system and social norms. Many NGOs continued to report that schools lacked physical accessibility and accessible learning materials and made limited effort to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities in mainstream schools. The revised funding formula covered teaching assistants’ salaries but not reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities. Inclusive teacher education programs were largely donor funded, did not equip teachers to permanently change their practices, and were not incorporated into state teacher education policy. As a result in a majority of cases, children with disabilities were physically present in integrated classrooms but did not have the tools to participate fully in learning.

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

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

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Since the 2018 political transition, the ministry has been in the process of internal restructuring to optimize the use of its resources to address the needs of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups more effectively. While the process was not finalized as of mid-December, budget reallocations had already resulted in providing more resources for persons with disabilities. For example, on August 15, the ministry announced it was able to procure 1,253 pieces of additional equipment for persons with disabilities. During the year issues of physical accessibility became part of broader public debates, for example, the public discussion of the development of a new transportation system for the capital.

During the year the Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs and Health and the charitable NGO Bari Mama signed a memorandum of cooperation to prevent abandonment and institutionalization of children with disabilities and to provide for the right of a child to live in a family, with a view to strengthening the capacities of social service professionals (neonatologists, nurses, social workers, caregivers, etc.) and improving families’ abilities to care for children with disabilities at home. UNICEF supported the process through capacity development and awareness raising.

Antidiscrimination laws do not extend protections to LGBTI persons on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were no hate crime laws or other criminal judicial mechanisms to aid in the prosecution of crimes against members of the LGBTI community. Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity negatively affected all aspects of life, including employment, housing, family relations, and access to education and health care. Anti-LGBTI sentiments and calls for violence escalated during periods of political activism. Many politicians and public figures, supporters of the former government in particular, used anti-LGBTI rhetoric, often positioning LGBTI persons as a “threat to national security.” Transgender persons were especially vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse and harassment.

Throughout November, after it became known that the government had cofunded a documentary regarding the life of transgender weightlifting champion Mel Daluzyan, the government and Daluzyan, who lived in the Netherlands, came under significant media attack. On November 13, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan condemned the hateful rhetoric against Daluzyan in an address to the National Assembly.

During the first half of the year, the human rights NGO PINK documented 24 cases of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as compared with 25 such cases reported throughout 2018. During the first half of the year, PINK also documented seven cases of violence and threats.

On November 2, former government supporters and traditional values advocates used anti-LGBTI slurs as they forcefully disrupted a street art performance in downtown Yerevan that they called feminist, satanic, and perverse (see section 6, Other Societal Violence or Discrimination).

In 2018 the NGO Right Side conducted the first survey on hate crimes against transgender persons, identifying 100 cases of hate-motivated violence in a 12-month period during 2016-17. Most incidents took place in public spaces, usually at night. Victims reported they were more likely to seek support from friends or LGBTI NGOs than from a victim support group or medical professionals. Only a small number of respondents said police were supportive. According to human rights groups, transgender women faced many barriers to accessing medical counseling and treatment, from lack of awareness to outright discrimination by medical personnel.

During April 5 public hearings before parliament on the UN Universal Periodic Review of the country’s human rights situation, Lilit Martirosyan, the chairperson of the NGO Right Side and an activist for transsexual persons, addressed hate crimes committed against transgender persons. In reaction, hearing organizer Naira Zohrabyan, a Prosperous Armenia (PA) Party member of parliament and head of the Standing Committee on Protection of Human Rights and Public Affairs, declared that the speech was out of line with the hearing agenda and asked Martirosyan to leave the hall. Zohrabyan, who later came under attack for allowing Martirosyan to “desecrate” parliament with her presence, declared that the speech was a provocation and that she considered it a great insult to parliamentarians. Other parliamentarians made similar and stronger homophobic remarks during the following days. For example, PA Party parliamentarian Vardan Ghukasyan stated such individuals should be burned, while another PA member of parliament, Gevorg Petrosyan, publicly committed to fighting “sexually deviant” persons. On social media, some users called for the physical extermination of LGBTI individuals, and there were small protests around the parliament building. After an individual posted Martirosyan’s home address on Facebook, protests around her building forced her to remain in hiding in her apartment for days. She applied for and received police protection and noted law enforcement bodies were very supportive.

The 2018 case against a transgender person on charges of hooliganism (punishable if convicted by up to seven years in prison) continued. The transgender person remained in pretrial detention for more than a year while her health deteriorated. On August 1, the trial court judge denied a motion to modify the detention. The criminal case filed against police for allegedly torturing the defendant during her arrest was dropped, citing the absence of a crime.

During the year PINK appealed a December 2018 court decision to drop the criminal case against the perpetrators of an attack by Shurnukh village residents on LGBTI activists in August 2018. In February the trial court of Syunik region granted the appeal, and on October 25, the prosecutor’s office sent the case for further investigation to the regional branch of the investigative committee.

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

On March 25, Epress.am published the story of A.A., detailing his account of getting an exemption from military service due to his sexual orientation. The experience included a mandatory check in a psychiatric hospital that violated his confidentiality as well as physical violence at the final round of examination, when the examination committee head Henrik Muradyan verbally assaulted A.A. and hit him in the face while the 15-person committee verbally abused him. A.A. received a formal diagnosis of having a psychiatric illness. Observers noted that diagnosis codes used in these cases are codes for actual psychiatric diseases–such as schizophrenia or cerebral cortex damage–that, while relieving men from mandatory military service, also impose a number of legal limitations.

According to human rights groups, persons regarded as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, such as sex workers (including transgender sex workers) and drug users, faced discrimination and violence from society as well as mistreatment by police. Such discrimination was especially noticeable when HIV-positive persons sought medical care. On August 14, the local NGO Real World, Real People reported the case of a clinic in the Shirak region that refused to register a pregnant woman who was HIV positive. According to a June 2018 UN Human Rights Council report by the rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, stigma and discrimination in health-care settings were major barriers to accessing treatment and services for persons living with HIV/AIDS. According to Real World, Real People, women living with HIV/AIDs faced double discrimination and were more at risk of becoming the subject of physical and psychological violence in their families.

On November 2, former government supporters and traditional values advocates disrupted a street art performance in downtown Yerevan aimed at challenging views of appropriate female behavior in public. The project was implemented with the support of the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport and had received permission from municipal authorities to use a public venue. The protesters disrupted both the dress rehearsal on November 1 and the performance the following day. They called the performance feminist, satanic, and perverse, used anti-LGBTI slurs, cut off the electricity to the show’s equipment, played loud traditional music, and pushed the dancers around. Police detained one of the protesters.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law protects the right of all workers to form and to join independent unions, except for noncivilian personnel of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies. The law also provides for the right to strike, with the same exceptions, and permits collective bargaining. The law mandates seven days’ notification and mandatory mediation before a strike, as well as the agreement of two-thirds of the workforce obtained in a secret vote. The law stipulates that worker rights may not be restricted because of membership in a union. The list of justifiable grounds for firing a worker, enumerated in the labor code, does not include union activity.

In 2018 a law on government structure came into force changing the Health Inspection Body, which was tasked with ensuring the health and occupational safety of employees, to the Health and Labor Inspection Body (HLIB). The HLIB had limited authority to conduct occupational safety and health inspections during that time. There were no other state bodies with inspection responsibilities to oversee and protect the implementation of labor rights. The government did not effectively enforce laws on freedom of association and collective bargaining and has not established which entity should have responsibility for enforcing these laws. On December 4, the National Assembly adopted changes to the labor code reviving the state oversight function of the HLIB and penalties for labor code violations to come into effect in July 2021.

Labor organizations remained weak because of employer resistance, high unemployment, and poor economic conditions. Experts reported that the right to strike, although enshrined in the constitution, is difficult to realize due to mediation and voting requirements. Following the “Velvet Revolution,” trade unions emerged in the areas of education and research institutions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced and compulsory labor, although it does not define forced labor. While the government effectively prosecuted labor trafficking cases, resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to identify forced labor cases at large due to absence of an effective labor inspection mechanism. Penalties for labor trafficking were sufficiently stringent to deter violations.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

There are laws and policies designed to protect children from exploitation in the workplace. The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. In most cases the minimum age for employment is 16, but children may work from age 14 with permission of a parent or a guardian. The law allows children younger than 14 to work in the entertainment sector. The maximum duration of the workweek is 24 hours for children who are 14 to 16 and 36 hours for children who are 16 to 18. Persons younger than 18 years may not work overtime; in harmful, strenuous, or dangerous conditions; at night; or on holidays. Authorities did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were insufficient to enforce compliance. The absence of worksite inspections conducted at the national level impeded the enforcement of child labor laws.

According to the Armenian National Child Labor Survey 2015 Analytical Report, conducted by the Statistical Committee and the International Labor Organization, 11.6 percent of children between ages five and 17 years were employed. Most were involved in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors, while others worked in the sectors of trade, repair, transport, storage, accommodation, and food services. Children were also involved in the trade of motor fuel, construction materials, medication, vehicle maintenance and repair works. According to the survey, 39,300 children were employed, of whom 31,200 were engaged in hazardous work, including work in hazardous industries (400 children), in designated hazardous occupations (600 children), work with long hours (1,200 children), work that involved carrying heavy loads and distances (17,200 children) and, other forms of hazardous work (23,600 children).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution and the labor code prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, skin color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion, political opinion, belonging to a national minority, property status, birth, disability, age, or other personal or social circumstances. Other laws and regulations specifically prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation based on gender. The government did not effectively enforce the law. There were no effective legal mechanisms to implement these regulations, and discrimination in employment and occupation occurred based on gender, age, presence of a disability, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status, and religion, although there were no statistics on the scale of such discrimination. Administrative penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

Women generally did not enjoy the same professional opportunities or wages as men, and employers often relegated them to more menial or lower-paying jobs. While providing for the “legal equality” of all parties in a workplace relationship, the labor code does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work. According to a gender-gap study by the UN Population Fund, Diagnostic Study of Discrimination against Women, released in 2016, the gap between the average salaries of men and women in all economic spheres was almost 36 percent. The International Monetary Fund cited the gender pay gap in the country as being strikingly large. According to World Bank data released in 2016, more than one-half of women with intermediary education and one-third of women with advanced education did not participate in paid work. According to the 2017 World Bank study, Leveling the STEM Playing Field for Women, “cultural stereotypes about the work women should engage in and their responsibilities at home present the strongest barrier to equality between women and men” in the country. Women also represented a larger share of the registered unemployed, and it took them a longer time to find work.

Many employers reportedly practiced age and gender discrimination, most commonly requiring job applicants to be of a specific gender, age, and appearance. Such discrimination appeared to be widespread, but there were no reliable surveys, and authorities did not take any action to mitigate it. While there was little awareness of and no comprehensive reporting to indicate the scale of sexual harassment in the workplace, media reports suggested such abuse was common. Vacancy announcements specifying young and attractive women for various jobs were common. Unemployed workers, particularly women, who were older than 40 had little chance of finding jobs appropriate to their education or skills. LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, as well as pregnant women also faced discrimination in employment. Religious minorities faced discrimination in public employment.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The established monthly minimum wage was above the poverty income level. The law provides for a 40-hour workweek, 20 days of mandatory paid annual leave, and compensation for overtime and nighttime work. The law prohibits compulsory overtime in excess of four hours on two consecutive days and limits it to 180 hours in a year. The government established occupational and health standards by decree.

Authorities did not effectively enforce labor standards in either the formal or the informal sectors. According to lawyers, workers’ rights remained unprotected due to the absence of a viable labor inspection regime and lack of independent trade unions. While administrative courts were mandated to rule on labor-related cases within three months, few employees sought to apply to courts to reinstate their rights, due to legal costs, the complexity of the application process, as well as distrust of the judiciary. It was unclear if the overloaded courts were able to meet the legally required three-month window for those labor disputes that were submitted.

Many employees of private companies, particularly in the service and retail sectors, were unable to obtain paid leave and were required to work more than eight hours a day without additional compensation. According to representatives of some employment agencies, many employers also hired employees for an unpaid and undocumented “probationary” period of 10 to 30 days. Often employers subsequently dismissed these employees, who were then unable to claim payment for the time they worked because their initial employment was undocumented. According to a 2018 survey carried out by the local NGO Advanced Public Research Group, among 800 respondents only 47.7 percent of those employed by small businesses (20 percent of the respondents) had contracts. The survey also revealed problems related to inability to take paid annual leave and lack of compensation for overtime work.

Managers of enterprises that were the primary employers in certain poor geographic areas frequently took advantage of the absence of alternative jobs and did not provide adequate pay or address job safety and environmental concerns. As of 2017 nearly one-half of all workers found employment in the informal sector. According to official statistics, the government’s anticorruption efforts and active efforts by the tax authorities have led to a notable increase in the number of officially registered employees in the country.

In November 2018 the NGO Helsinki Committee of Armenia presented the results of a study conducted in 2017 on labor rights of teachers working in public schools that found problems with working conditions in terms of safety and health. Some teachers said they did not feel protected from psychological pressure exerted by the school administration and teachers hired to work through nepotism. Approximately one-half of the teachers had to find students to enroll in the schools and some had to ensure the participation of children in political events. According to the teachers, the least protected teachers in their schools were representatives of religious minorities, LGBTI teachers, and former convicts. There were several reports after the revolution that teachers who had voiced corruption concerns regarding school principals faced retribution and were fired. On June 11, a new trade union of teachers (Education and Solidarity) was registered.

During the past several years, there were consistent reports of labor law violations at the company formerly responsible for waste collection in Yerevan, but there were no reports that authorities imposed penalties on the company as a result. Safety and health conditions remained substandard in numerous sectors, and according to official information there were 16 fatal workplace incidents during the year. In light of high unemployment in the country, workers generally did not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety. Authorities offered no protection to employees in these situations, and employees generally did not report violations of their rights.

On July 2, the workers of the Agarak Copper Molybdenum Mine began protests demanding compensation for overtime and for especially heavy and dangerous work, improved working conditions, and the provision of a safe working environment. According to media reports, after a long history of unaddressed grievances, the July protests were triggered by the refusal of mine leadership to address life-threatening stone falls and the demand that miners continue working despite the risk to their lives. The mine leadership claimed the strikes were illegal and demanded that protest organizers provide explanations for absence from work.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the April 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. National Assembly elections in 2015 could not be fully assessed due to the absence of an OSCE election observation mission, but independent observers alleged numerous irregularities throughout the country.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence issues. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Violence along the Line of Contact remained low throughout the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; refoulement of refugees to a country where they would face a threat to their life or freedom; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police detention and torture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered six journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli (see section 1.e. and the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).

A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on June 12, the State Security Service arrested the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com websites, Polad Aslanov, on charges of treason. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran. Aslanov remained in the pretrial detention facility of the State Security Service at year’s end.

Other such examples included opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Bakhishli was arrested in May 2018 four days after giving a speech holding President Aliyev responsible for journalist Elmar Huseynov’s 2005 killing. He was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2018 for alleged blackmail and extortion. On June 3, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years.

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

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on June 25, opposition Popular Front Party member Eldaniz Agayev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after criticizing the government in social media. Authorities also attempted to impede criticism by opening disciplinary proceedings against lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with the media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted on July 12.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. The 2019 International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index stated that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

Journalists reported that, following their coverage of the October 19 police operation, they were summoned to police precincts. Not all journalists responded to the summons, but those who did noted they were intimidated and made to justify their coverage before being released.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country.

Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: Sometimes police used force against journalists and prevented their professional activities. According to the Index on Censorship project, at least three journalists sustained minor injuries from police during an attempted unsanctioned opposition rally in downtown Baku on October 19, and one journalist, Nurlan Gahramanli, was beaten by officers in a police car after being detained.

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

Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. Civil society activists continued to call on the government to effectively investigate the high-profile killings of journalists in 2015 (Rasim Aliyev), 2011 (Rafiq Tagi), and 2005 (Elmar Huseynov).

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On February 25, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes conditionally sentenced the editor in chief of Bastainfo.com, Mustafa Hajibeyli, to five and one-half years in prison with two years’ probation on charges of calls against the state, abuse of power, and forgery after republishing articles covering the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. On March 18, Criminal.az editor Anar Mammadov received the same sentence. Both journalists asserted the charges against them were false and meant to intimidate them and others from independent journalistic activity.

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

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

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. The law imposes a fine for libel of 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880); the fine for slander is 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($590 to $1,180). Insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country and forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply.

The 2019 IREX Media Sustainability Index reported that in 2018 the number of blocked websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets including Azadliq, Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az, and the Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by authorities during the year.

Activists asserted authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs. For example, on April 21, progovernment REAL TV threatened to release intimate photographs of expatriate journalist Sevinj Osmangizi unless she stopped her online television program. Osmangizi also stated that the government intercepted her digital communications with other Azerbaijani expatriates. Activists and journalists also suspected the government was behind the hacking of social media accounts. On January 20, the Facebook page of Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was hacked and all posts since 2017 were deleted. In November hackers took control of National Council member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook account for the second time since June 2018, blocking more than 30,000 of her followers. Following both hacks, Hajibeyli lost 130,000 of her 200,000 followers.

On June 12, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes charged the editor of the realliq.info website, Ikram Rahimov, with extortion of money and sentenced him to five years and six months in prison. Rahimov stated the case was punishment for his public criticism of then presidential assistant Ali Hasanov.

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

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

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report covering the period from June 2018 through May showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. As a result, Freedom House downgraded the country’s status from “partly free” to “not free.” The report stated that the government blocked access to additional news websites and intensified cyberattacks against activists and journalists; and prosecuted online journalists and ordinary social media users, while noting the release of some who had been incarcerated in connection with their online activities.

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($295 to $590) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.

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

Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in up to 30 days of administrative detention. For example, following an approved opposition-planned rally in support of the release of blogger Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners on January 19, authorities detained and sentenced 31 individuals to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days for participating in the planning and execution of the event. Activists asserted the authorities illegally identified thousands of rally participants through facial recognition software and private cell phone data that police then used to threaten them not to associate with the political opposition.

Following the January 19 rally, authorities denied all opposition applications for public demonstrations until September 26, when the Baku mayor’s office authorized a rally in Lokbatan, a site located on the outskirts of the city and unreachable by mass transit. The Baku mayor’s office then allowed the opposition to conduct a “picket” in front of its building on October 8 to protest the unsuitability of the Lokbatan site. Police dispersed the picket when more people than expected showed up to observe.

Opposition leaders called for an unsanctioned October 19 demonstration in the Baku city center after their application was again approved only for the remote Lokbatan site. In response authorities launched a massive police operation to prevent the demonstration, during which the internet was turned off in much of Baku and a large segment of the city center was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Media outlets showed numerous examples of police detaining individuals who were not engaged in protest activity as well as examples of police punching, kicking, and committing other abuses on individuals who were already subdued. Opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli was violently taken into custody. He later reported he was placed in a bus where he was severely beaten by police who were seeking to record a video of him apologizing for political activities, and subsequently choked and beaten unconscious while in police custody. Opposition National Council of Democratic Forces board member Tofig Yagoblu was also taken into custody and sentenced to administrative detention. His family members reported that, after being taken to a Baku police station, he was similarly brutally beaten by police officers who also sought to record him repudiating the opposition. He reportedly suffered a broken rib during his beating. In a November 7 appeal, 21 civil society representatives called on the UN Committee against Torture and the CPT to investigate these and other cases of what they described as politically motivated torture. At least 100 individuals were detained during the October 19 operation, approximately 40 of whom were sentenced to administrative detention.

Opposition leaders again applied for permission to hold a rally on November 2 and again received permission only for the Lokbatan site. After initially calling for members to again attempt to gather in the city center, they canceled the unauthorized rally after credible threats of a higher level of police violence. Earlier that week the progovernment media outlet haqqin.az published an article stating the police would show less restraint than on October 19, and the nationalist “self-sacrificer” group, headed by Fuad Muradov and reputed to have close links to security services, called opposition leaders and threatened the life of Ali Kerimli should the demonstration occur.

Police summoned more than 100 members of the opposition Musavat Party around the country to police stations and warned them not to participate in a planned unsanctioned picket scheduled for November 12 in front of the Baku Executive Authority. On November 12, police prevented the picket from taking place, including by deploying large numbers of officers blocking roads and detaining dozens of party members who attempted to assemble. The government released those who had tried to gather after several hours, with the exception of one organizer who was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.

The government also disrupted events organized by opposition groups. For example, on June 28, police interrupted a fundraising event organized to pay fines for opposition activists at the Baku office of the Musavat Party. Police took Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli into custody from the event and took him to the Binagadi Police Station, where he was warned and then released.

Police also restricted freedom of assembly for events not associated with the opposition. For example, on March 8 and October 20, Baku police roughly dispersed women who had gathered to protest violence against women.

On September 10, Baku municipal authorities announced the closure of Mehsul Stadium, the only location in recent years the government had approved for public demonstrations by the political opposition, for renovation and repurposing as a fitness park. Opposition activists and others stated the project was a pretext for further restrictions on freedom of assembly.

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

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

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

The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors are required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The law makes unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidates and dissuades potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricts the ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

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

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

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. As a result, the bank accounts of the American Bar Association, IREX, and Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen and the organizations were unable to operate.

The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, one foreign NGO had been able to register under these rules.

NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on applications they submitted, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues related to democratic development. Activists asserted the development of civil society had been stunted by years of government bureaucracy that impeded registration and that the country would otherwise have more numerous and more engaged independent NGOs.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

Foreign Travel: While authorities lifted the travel bans of several opposition figures, lawyers, and journalists during the year, travel bans on others remained. Those whose travel bans were lifted included opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, former REAL Party Assembly head Azer Gasimli, 11 freelance journalists who worked with Meydan TV, and human rights lawyers Asabali Mustafayev and Emin Aslan.

Authorities continued, however, to prevent a number of other opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, journalist Shahvalad Chobanoglu, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.

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

The government reported 651,458 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Refoulement: There were no reports of refoulement, unlike in 2018, when the press reported that Turkish citizens were transferred without due process from Azerbaijan to Turkey, where they were detained by Turkish authorities who alleged they were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for all refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.

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

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,120 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

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

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

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

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

The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped 95 persons of citizenship. In October 2018 the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a statement noting the government’s 2015 deprivation of journalist Emin Huseynov’s citizenship should be viewed “as part of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Recent Elections: In February 2018 the president issued a decree advancing the presidential election from October to April 2018. Opposition parties boycotted the election, blaming a noncompetitive environment and insufficient time to prepare. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission that observed the election, the presidential election took place in a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms that are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. The ODIHR concluded that, in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition. International and local observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting, on election day.

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

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

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

The government signaled no change in its unofficial policy of preventing opposition groups from registering as political parties. In April 2018 the Republican Alternative Movement held an online party congress and subsequently announced its transformation into a political party. The group acknowledged the online congress would not meet government requirements for registration, but stated it had no choice after the Baku City Executive Authority denied the group’s repeated requests for space to hold a party congress and reportedly ordered private venues to refuse to rent space to the group.

Opposition members were more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights defenders estimated that the country’s courts sentenced activists of the Popular Front Party to periods of administrative detention 100 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, at least seven opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Fuad Ahmadli, Mirfeyzulla Seyidov, Babek Hasanov, Agil Mahrramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, and Pasha Umudov.

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

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

Women in opposition political parties often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, National Council of Democratic Forces board member Gultekin Hajibeyli stated authorities instigated a trumped-up civil suit against her and posted her contact information on websites known to facilitate prostitution after an attempted October 19 demonstration in an effort to shame her and her family members.

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 often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combatting low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels. Media reported the arrest of the mayor of Agstafa on December 19 for accepting bribes.

Transparency International and other observers described corruption as widespread. There were reports of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. For example, in six reports on visits made to the country between 2004 and 2017, the CPT noted that corruption in the country’s entire law enforcement system remained “systemic and endemic.” In a report on its most recent visit to the country in 2017, for example, the CPT cited the practice of law enforcement officials demanding payments in exchange for dropping or reducing charges or for releasing individuals from unrecorded custody.

Authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. On March 19, the Baku Court of Appeals rejected investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova’s appeal of the December 2018 decision of the Baku Economic Court to hold her accountable for 45,143 manat ($26,600) of RFE/RL’s alleged tax debt, despite RFE/RL’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit entity. On August 7, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Ismayilova’s reporting on elite corruption was widely considered the reason for the targeting, which also included her imprisonment from 2014 to 2016, subsequent travel ban, and the freezing of her bank accounts since 2017.

Corruption: In April 2018 the Council of Europe issued a report of its Independent Investigation Body on allegations of corruption within the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The findings indicated strong suspicion that certain current and former members of PACE had engaged in illicit activities, such as the giving and receiving of bribes, to inappropriately influence processes related to Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe and PACE. PACE censured 13 of its members for accepting gifts and bribes from the government, stripped their voting rights, and removed them from current and future leadership positions on PACE committees.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article on October 15 reporting on a 19-day vacation to the Greek island of Mykonos taken by a group of Azerbaijani young men whose parents were senior officials of the State Oil Company. The group reportedly spent $2.2 million on private helicopters, luxury villas, and extravagant parties. Previous OCCRP publications asserted that the children of government officials used dozens of offshore companies to obscure their investments in luxury properties, businesses, and high-end hotels in Europe and the Middle East. During the year authorities initiated some criminal cases related to bribery and other forms of government corruption, but few senior officials were prosecuted. The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that during the year it opened 25 criminal cases concerning corruption, but no senior officials were prosecuted.

There was widespread belief that a bribe could obtain a waiver of the military service obligation, which is universal for men between the ages of 18 and 35. Citizens also reported military personnel could buy assignments to easier military duties for a smaller bribe.

The government continued efforts to reduce low-level corruption and improve government services by expanding the capabilities and number of State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations service centers, which functioned as one-stop locations for government services, such as obtaining birth certificates and marriage licenses, from nine ministries.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires officials to submit reports on their financial situation, and the electoral code requires all candidates to submit financial statements. The process of submitting reports was complex and nontransparent, with several agencies and bodies designated as recipients, including the Anticorruption Commission, the National Assembly, the Ministry of Justice, and the Central Election Commission, although their monitoring roles were not well understood. The public did not have access to the reports. The law permits administrative sanctions for noncompliance, but there were no reports that such sanctions were imposed.

The law prohibits the public release of the names and capital investments of business owners. Critics continued to state the purpose of the law was to curb investigative journalism into government officials’ business interests.

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

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office separately summoned human rights defender and former political prisoner Ogtay Gulaliyev on May 6 and May 13. Gulaliyev reportedly informed independent media outlet Turan that the ministry expressed concerns about his Facebook posts on repression and torture, including the July 2018 Ganja case (see section 1.c.). According to a May 13 Turan report, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a statement that evening accusing Gulaliyev of intentionally spreading untrue information that undermined political stability and cast a shadow on law enforcement measures. According to the statement, officials had warned Gulaliyev that if he continued to do so, more serious measures within the law would be taken against him, including criminal prosecution.

On October 29, Gulaliyev was struck by a car while crossing a Baku intersection on foot, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until October 30. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his recently announced campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the July 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. Other activists said there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received the standard care from a deeply flawed health-care system. The government-controlled Heydar Aliyev Foundation covered the costs of Gulaliyev’s transfer and treatment in a private hospital in Turkey, where he remained in a coma at year’s end.

The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities and other pressure continued at the high level of recent years. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants and continued investigations into their organizations’ activities. As a result, some human rights defenders were unable to carry out their professional responsibilities due to various government obstacles, such as the travel ban on Intigam Aliyev and the frozen bank accounts of Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev.

While the government communicated with some international human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions, it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds.

Government officials and state-dominated media outlets engaged in rhetorical attacks on human rights activists and political opposition leaders (see section 3), accusing them of attempting to destabilize the country and working on behalf of foreign interests.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government objected to statements from international bodies criticizing what authorities called interference in the country’s internal affairs. For example, government officials and members of the National Assembly criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, stating it had been written in advance of the election to smear the country (see section 3).

Government Human Rights Bodies: Citizens may appeal violations committed by the state or by individuals to the ombudsman for human rights for Azerbaijan or the ombudsman for human rights of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The ombudsman may refuse to accept cases of abuse that are more than one year old, anonymous, or already being handled by the judiciary. Human rights NGOs criticized the Ombudsman’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness in cases considered politically motivated.

Human rights offices in the National Assembly and the Ministry of Justice also heard complaints, conducted investigations, and made recommendations to relevant government bodies, but they were similarly accused of ignoring violations in politically sensitive cases.

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

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

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of the domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims, occasionally resulting in the murder of women by their husbands. For example, media outlets reported that on July 27, Shahriyar Aslanov killed his wife in the city of Imishli. While Aslanov was arrested, activists asserted that police intervention after earlier episodes of domestic violence would have prevented the killing. On March 8, Baku police did not allow a rally against domestic violence (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly).

The State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA) tried to address the problem of domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. For example, on May 23, the SCFWCA and the UN Population Fund presented a joint report on the economic implications of violence against women in the country. The government also provided limited protection to women who were victims of assault. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment. In one case the State Border Service relieved Lieutenant Farid Azizli of his assignment and placed him under investigation following his accusation against a State Border Service colonel of sexual harassment. Azizli reiterated his claim publicly, stating in a YouTube post that he stood behind his claims even after the Border Service had found no wrongdoing in an internal probe.

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

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

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The gender ratio of children born in the country during the first 11 months of the year was 114 boys for 100 girls, according to the State Statistics Committee. Local experts reported gender-biased sex selection was widespread, predominantly in rural regions. The SCFWCA conducted seminars and public media campaigns to raise awareness of the problem.

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

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

Child Abuse: While there are penalties for sexual violence against children and child labor, the law does assign punishment for domestic and other violence specifically against children. To address the problem of child abuse, the SCFWCA organized multiple events. For example, it held meetings with public servants on combatting gender discrimination and child abuse in Baku, Goranboy, Ujar, and Barda.

Activists reported the Ministry of Education did not effectively address the growing problem of bullying and cyberbullying in schools. On April 3, 14-year-old Elina Hajiyeva committed suicide after being bullied by both students and teachers. According to the media, school administrators initially attempted to cover up the incident, including by not immediately calling an ambulance. The Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case and put the school principal under house arrest. On October 24, the Sabayil District Court sentenced the principal to two years and two weeks in prison and ordered her to pay 18,500 manat ($10,900) compensation to the mother of Elina Hajiyeva.

Early and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the Worlds Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before they were 18. The law provides that a girl may marry at the age of 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at the age of 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam. In July and August, media outlets reported on the suicide of a 17-year-old girl in Zagatala after her family forced her to marry an older man.

In April the SCFWCA organized awareness-raising events on prevention of early marriages in Sumgayit, Masalli, and Absheron.

The law establishes fines of 3,000 to 4,000 manat ($1,770 to $2,360) or imprisonment for up to four years for conviction of the crime of forced marriage with an underage child. Girls who married under the terms of religious marriage contracts were of particular concern, since these were not subject to government oversight and do not entitle the wife to recognition of her status in case of divorce.

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

Law enforcement agencies prosecuted cases of sexual violence against children. For example, on July 26, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Prosecutor General’s Office announced the arrest of Elsavar Malikov in Baku for sexual acts against minors.

Displaced Children: Significant government investment in IDP communities largely alleviated the problem of numerous internally displaced children living in substandard conditions and unable to attend school. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

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

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

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. In May 2018 parliament adopted the “Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” which calls for improved access to education, employment, social protection and justice, and the right to participate in political life.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. A local NGO reported there were approximately 60,000 children with disabilities in the country, of whom 6,000 to 10,000 had access to specialized educational facilities, while the rest were educated at home or not at all. The Ministries of Education and Labor and Social Protection of the Population continued efforts to increase the inclusion of children with disabilities into regular classrooms, particularly at the primary education level.

No laws mandate access to public or other buildings, information, or communications for persons with disabilities, and most buildings were not accessible. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

During the year the government continued funding construction projects to make large sections of downtown Baku’s sidewalks wheelchair accessible.

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

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.

In February the ECHR began a formal inquiry into police raids on the LGBTI community in 2017. The raids entailed arrests and detentions of more than 83 men presumed to be gay or bisexual as well as transgender women. Media outlets and human rights lawyers reported that police beat detainees and subjected them to electric shocks to obtain bribes and information about other gay men. Detainees were released after being sentenced to up to 30 days of administrative detention, fined up to 200 manat ($118), or both. In 2018 some victims of the raids filed cases against the state in the ECHR.

On April 1 and 2, police detained at least 14 transgender sex workers and forced them to undergo medical examinations. Authorities fined some and sentenced others to 10 or 15 days of administrative detention on charges of minor hooliganism. Following international outcry, the Baku Court of Appeals released those in detention on April 5.

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

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

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join independent trade unions. Uniformed military and police and managerial staff are prohibited from joining unions. While the law provides workers the right to bargain collectively, unions could not effectively negotiate wage levels and working conditions because government-appointed boards ran major state-owned firms and set wages for government employees.

The law provides most private-sector workers the right to conduct legal strikes but prohibits civil servants from striking. Categories of workers prohibited from striking include high-ranking executive and legislative officials; law enforcement officers; court employees; fire fighters; and health, electric power, water supply, telephone, railroad, and air traffic control workers.

The law prohibits discrimination against trade unions and labor activists and requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law also prohibits retribution against strikers, such as dismissal or replacement. Striking workers who disrupt public transportation, however, could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Administrative penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. There were some additional restrictions in practice, such as increased bureaucratic scrutiny of the right to form unions and conduct union activities.

Most unions were not independent, and the overwhelming majority remained tightly linked to the government, with the exception of some journalists’ unions. The Azerbaijan Trade Unions Confederation (ATUC) was the only trade union confederation in the country. Although ATUC registered as an independent organization, it was closely aligned with the government. ATUC reported it represented 1.2 million members in 27 sectors. Both local and international NGOs claimed that workers in most industries were largely unaware of their rights and afraid of retribution if they exercised those rights or initiated complaints. This was especially true for workers in the public sector.

Collective bargaining agreements were often treated as formalities and not enforced. Although the labor law applies to all workers and enterprises, the government may negotiate bilateral agreements that effectively exempt multinational enterprises from it. For example, production-sharing agreements between the government and multinational energy enterprises did not provide for employee participation in a trade union. While the law prohibits employers from impeding the collective bargaining process, employers engaged in activities that undercut the effectiveness of collective bargaining, such as subcontracting and using short-term employment agreements.

The state oil company’s 50,000 workers were required to belong to the Union of Oil and Gas Industry Workers, and authorities automatically deducted union dues from paychecks. Many of the state-owned enterprises that dominated the formal economy withheld union dues from workers’ pay but did not deliver the dues to the unions. Employers officially withheld one-quarter of the dues collected for the oil workers’ union for “administrative costs” associated with running the union. Unions and their members had no means of investigating how employers spent their dues.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except in circumstances of war or in the execution of a court decision under the supervision of a government agency. Penalties for violations, including imprisonment, were generally sufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Resources and inspections were inadequate, due in part to a moratorium on all routine and unannounced labor inspections.

Broad provisions in the criminal code provide for the imposition of compulsory labor as a punishment for expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social, or economic system. In 2018 the International Labor Organization Committee of Experts noted its concern with a growing trend of using various provisions of the criminal code to prosecute journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, and others who expressed critical opinions, under questionable charges that appeared politically motivated, resulting in long periods of corrective labor or imprisonment, both involving compulsory labor.

During the year there were anecdotal reports of workers subjected to conditions of forced labor in agriculture and the construction industry, forced begging by children, and forced domestic servitude. In 2018 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 450 children were identified as being forced by their parents to beg in the streets. Although some children were removed from the exploitative situation, in general it was treated as a family issue rather than a criminal offense.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

In most cases the law permits children to work from the age of 15 with a written employment contract; children who are 14 may work in family businesses or, with parental consent, in daytime after-school jobs that pose no hazard to their health. Children younger than age 16 may not work more than 24 hours per week; children 16 or 17 may not work more than 36 hours per week. The law prohibits employing children younger than 18 in difficult and hazardous conditions and identifies specific work and industries in which children are prohibited, including work with toxic substances and underground, at night, in mines, and in nightclubs, bars, casinos, or other businesses that serve alcohol.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor and setting a minimum age for employment. The government maintained a moratorium on routine and unannounced inspections, which prevented effective enforcement of child labor laws. Resources and inspections were inadequate to enforce compliance, and penalties for violations were insufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population was only permitted to conduct inspections based on complaints. In 2018 the State Labor Inspection Service received five child-labor complaints in the catering industry but failed to take further action on them.

There were few complaints of abuses of child labor laws during the year, although there were anecdotal reports of child labor in agriculture, in restaurants and wedding halls, forced begging, and street work, such as in bazaars and markets, auto garages and car washes, and selling fruit and vegetables on roadsides throughout the country. In agriculture there were limited, anecdotal reports of children working in the production of fruits, vegetables, and cotton and, to a lesser extent, involved in producing tea and rice. There were also reports of children subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children, and section 7.b.).

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at “http://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/” www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation, but the government did not always enforce the law effectively. Penalties for discrimination in employment existed under various articles and laws but were patchwork in nature and did not effectively deter discrimination in all its forms. The law excludes women from certain occupations with inherently dangerous conditions, such as working underground in mines. Many of these positions were higher ranked and better paid than positions that women are permitted to occupy in the same industries.

Employers generally hesitated to hire persons with disabilities, and workplace access was limited. Discrimination in employment and occupation also occurred with respect to sexual orientation. LGBTI individuals reported employers found other reasons to dismiss them because they could not legally dismiss someone because of their sexual orientation. Women were underrepresented in high-level jobs, including top business positions. Traditional practices limited women’s access to economic opportunities in rural areas. According to the State Statistics Committee, in 2018 the average monthly salary for women was 53.8 percent of the average monthly salary for men.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was increased on March 1 and again on September 1, and it was higher than the poverty level (minimum living standard), which was increased on January 1. Experts stated government employers complied with the minimum wage law but that it was commonly ignored in the informal economy. The law requires equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, age, or other classification, although women’s pay lagged behind that of men.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek. Workers in hazardous occupations may not work more than 36 hours per week. Information was not available on whether local companies provided the legally required premium compensation for overtime, although international companies generally did. There is no prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides equal rights to foreign and domestic workers.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on acceptable conditions of work, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

In 2017 the government extended its moratorium on scheduled and unannounced labor inspections until 2021. Although inspectors were still permitted to inspect private-sector workplaces after receiving a complaint and government-owned workplaces, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security did not report any inspections during the year. The ministry reportedly maintained its full staff of inspectors.

Inspection of working conditions by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection’s labor inspectorate was weak and ineffective due to the moratorium. Although the law sets health and safety standards, employers widely ignored them. Violations of acceptable conditions of work in the construction and oil and gas sectors remained problematic.

Local human rights groups, including the Oil Workers Rights Defense Organization, an NGO dedicated to protecting worker rights in the petroleum sector, maintained that employers, particularly foreign oil companies, did not always treat foreign and domestic workers equally. Domestic employees of foreign oil companies reportedly often received lower pay and worked without contracts or private health-care insurance. Some domestic employees of foreign oil companies reported violations of the national labor code, noting they were unable to receive overtime payments or vacations.

According to official statistics, 63 workers died on the job during the year, including six in the oil and gas sector. Workers may not remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety, as there is no legal protection of their employment if they did so. On July 16, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) reported the death of worker Seymur Valikhanov, stating the cause of death was trauma to the head from a fall in the bathroom. Media outlets reported that the real cause of death was a falling bucket of acid that hit Valikhanov in the head and throat, and that SOCAR had covered up the incident to avoid paying compensation to the family of the deceased.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The Kyrgyz Republic has a parliamentary form of government designed to limit presidential power and enhance the role of parliament and the prime minister. During presidential elections in 2017, the nation elected former prime minister and member of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, to succeed outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the elections as competitive and well administered, but it noted room for improvement in the legal framework to prevent misuse of public resources in election campaigns and to deter vote buying more effectively.

The investigation of general and local crimes falls under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while certain crimes such as terrorism and corruption fall under the authority of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which also controls the presidential security service. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) prosecutes both local and national crimes. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: law enforcement and security services’ use of torture and arbitrary arrest; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including site blocking and criminal libel in practice; significant acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons (LGBTI); and use of forced child labor.

While the government took steps to investigate and prosecute or punish officials known to have committed human rights abuses, especially those involved in corrupt activities, official impunity remained a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. NGO leaders and media rights advocates acknowledged a more relaxed press environment under the Jeenbekov administration, noting a clear drop in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and the withdrawal of existing cases launched under the previous administration. Self-censorship continued to be prevalent, and pressure reportedly existed from editors and political figures to bias reporting.

Freedom of Expression: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of Article 299 of the criminal code on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted Article 299 to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. According to NGOs, virtually all arrests under Article 299 resulted in convictions in 2018. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm violations of Article 299 arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional. Article 314 of the penal code that came into force in January requires an intent to distribute extremist materials be proven in order to convict of a crime. Article 314 replaces the provisions found previously in Article 299.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: As in earlier years, some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. The trend was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets.

In recent years the government, security services, and oligarchs attempted to prevent independent media from operating freely in the country. The government continued its tight controls over news content on state television.

On August 14, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir expressed his concern over the closure of the television channel April TV in Bishkek and called for respect for diversity in media. On August 9, the security services sealed off channel April TV’s headquarters in Bishkek as part of a security operation, shutting it down. “I am concerned by the seizure of assets of the television channel April and the suspension of its operations,” the representative said. “While I am fully aware of the exceptional circumstances under which this decision was taken, I call on the relevant authorities to review this decision.” The representative also said the safety of journalists who cover political events must be respected by all actors, after media worker Aida Djumashova was injured during the raid on former president Atambaev’s home on August 7 and protesters attacked reporters with Vesti.kg, April and Kloop.kg in Bishkek on August 8. On November 21, April TV received permission to resume broadcasting, but on December 7, the Military Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit to prevent April TV from broadcasting further. The Media Policy Institute appealed to the court, asking that the ban on broadcasting be reversed. The institute released a statement asserting the Military Prosecutor’s Office did not have the authority to ban April TV from broadcasting.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists, especially those who are ethnic Uzbeks, reported harassment by police, and continuing pressure by local and national authorities to avoid reporting on sensitive issues, including ethnic conflicts, corruption, and political figures. Media members also reported that nonstate actors, particularly politically well connected and wealthy individuals, harassed them for reporting on those individuals’ alleged corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing. Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship to avoid reprisals for their reporting.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: As in previous years, journalists and NGO leaders alleged some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials. The sources also reported some news outlets received requests from offices of the government to report in a particular way or to ignore specific news stories.

NGO leaders and media sources reported state-owned broadcasters remained under pressure to transmit stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.

As the government transitions from an analog to a digital broadcasting system starting this year, individuals and news organizations can submit requests to the government to get a license for a television channel. The government controlled the licensing process, and civil society reported the government abused the licensing process by revoking licenses to individuals or organizations which broadcast content the government disagrees with. The government’s revocation of a license to operate a television channel can financially decimate a news outlet and shutter their operations.

Libel/Slander Laws: While libel is not a criminal offense except in narrowly prescribed instances, NGO leaders described the False Accusations Amendments, passed in 2014 as a practical “recriminalizing of libel.” Journalists noted the law exposed media to libel suits in civil courts that could bankrupt the outlets or journalists in their defense attempts. In 2015 the Constitutional Chamber narrowed the reach of the law, holding that henceforth it would apply only in cases of knowingly making false statements in a police report but not to statements in media, although subsequent decisions appeared to contradict that ruling. While slander and libel are not criminal offenses, civil lawsuits can result in defendants paying compensation for moral harm, which the law does not limit in size. Observers stated courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.

In the first half of the year, press reported that, despite the improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. The Supreme Court upheld a decision in the suit of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament (MP) Kozhobek Ryspaev against the newspaper Achyk Sayasat. The newspaper had to pay Ryspaev 300,000 soms ($4,300) in compensation. The newspaper editor in chief Nazgul Mamytova said the newspaper was likely to close. MP Ryspaev sued the newspaper due to an article that was published in August 2018, which stated Ryspaev was moving from one political party to another, and the author called him a “chameleon.”

The Adilet Legal Clinic reported the organization defended journalists and media outlets charged with libel and slander and that members of media regularly feared the threat of lawsuits.

The government generally allowed access to the internet, including social media sites. There were no public credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. There were no reports during the year that the government blocked websites spreading “extremist” and terrorist materials without a court order. Media reported that, in August, courts blocked five social-media accounts and eight online-media channels, due to extremist content. In September, the Civic Initiative on Internet Policy reported on 359 internet resources that are subject for blockage by the government, including archive.org, soundcloud.com, and numerous links to Facebook and YouTube.

On November 24, the GKNB arrested Aftandil Jorobekov, a blogger and administrator of the popular Facebook page BespredelKG (LawlessnessKG), after he posted statements critical of President Jeenbekov and his relationship with former deputy state customs service head Raimbek Matraimov. The GKNB charged Jorobekov with inciting interregional discord under the criminal code. The charges against Jorobekov also cited posts written in response to his initial post by other users as evidence of his crime. According to the GKNB, “[Jorobekov’s posts] divided the users into opposing groups, provoked mutual insulting comments, which ultimately led to arousal in people of hatred towards each other in the form of inciting interregional hatred,” and it claimed that Jorobekov posted false and provocative information alleging the president was an accomplice in corruption. Jorobekov was released under house arrest on December 5. Numerous human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, criticized the arrest, calling it a blatant attempt to stifle criticism of the president.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Institutions providing advanced religious education must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The constitution provides for this right, although it took steps to limit peaceful assembly in Bishkek and Talas. Organizers and participants are responsible for notifying authorities of planned assemblies, but the constitution prohibits authorities from banning or restricting peaceful assemblies, even in the absence of prior notification. Local authorities, however, have the right to demand an end to a public action and, in the event of noncompliance, are empowered to take measures to end assemblies. In September the Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek announced a ban on public assemblies in the center of Bishkek from September 17 to October 15. Press reported that in late September the GKNB investigated protesters in Talas under the criminal article forbidding the planning of violent activities against the state during preparations for peaceful protest on the environmental effects of mining.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. NGOs, labor unions, political parties, and cultural associations must register with the Ministry of Justice. NGOs are required to have at least three members and all other organizations at least 10 members. The Ministry of Justice did not refuse to register any domestic NGOs. The law prohibits foreign-funded political parties and NGOs, including their representative offices and branches, from pursuing political goals.

The government continued to maintain bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Kurdish People’s Congress, the Organization for the Liberation of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Union of Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A. A. Tihomirov, also known as Said Buryatsky.

As in recent years, numerous human rights activists reported continued arrests and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature (see section 1.d.). Most arrests of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members occurred in the southern part of the country and involved ethnic Uzbeks. The government charged the majority of those arrested with possession of illegal religious material. In some cases NGOs alleged police planted Hizb ut-Tahrir literature as evidence against those arrested.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

Foreign Travel: The law on migration prohibits travel abroad by citizens who have or had access to information classified as state secrets until the information is declassified.

Citizenship: The law on combating terrorism and extremism revokes the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist and extremist activities. The government did not use the law during the year.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations to provide some protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In April the State Migration Service reported there were 193 refugees in the country, including 87 from Afghanistan.

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 law on refugees includes nondiscrimination provisions covering persons who UNHCR did not grant refugee status to when they left their country of origin and extends the validity of documents until a final decision on status is determined by a court.

Employment: The government grants legal permission to work to individuals UNHCR has determined are refugees and to whom the government has granted official residency status in the country. Not all refugees qualify for residency status according to the government. Individuals who UNHCR has determined are refugees, but to whom the government has not conferred legal residency, are not legally permitted to work, access medical services, or receive identity documents. Therefore, they are susceptible to exploitation by employers paying substandard wages, not providing benefits, and not complying with labor regulations. They could not file grievances with authorities.

Access to Basic Services: The government deemed individuals whom UNHCR determined ineligible for refugee status, as well as asylum seekers who lacked official status, as ineligible to receive state-sponsored social benefits. Refugees with official status in the country have access to basic services.

In July, UNHCR confirmed the country did not have any stateless individuals documented within its borders. During the year the remaining 50 stateless persons living in the country received local passports and acquired similar rights to citizens. UNHCR reported the government had issued approximately 13,431 individuals local passports since 2014.

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. In practice authorities and party officials responsible for administering elections engaged in some procedural irregularities.

Recent Elections: In October 2017 voters elected former prime minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov as president, with approximately 55 percent of the total vote. The OSCE deemed the elections competitive with 11 candidates who were generally able to campaign freely. Misuse of administrative resources, pressure on voters, and vote buying remained a concern.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Members of parliament are selected through a national “party list” system.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The election code requires the names of male and female parliamentary candidates be intermixed on party lists and that no more than 70 percent of candidates on a party list can be of the same gender. After voting occurred, party leaders regularly reordered the lists, often to the disadvantage of women. A 2017 amendment to the law on elections requires that MPs who resign their mandate be replaced by persons of the same gender. Women held fewer than 10 percent of parliamentary seats.

By law women must be represented in all branches of government and constitute no less than 30 percent of state bodies and local authorities. The law does not specify the level of the positions at which they must be represented.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for public officials convicted of corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Civil society and media reported numerous incidents of government corruption during the year. According to Transparency International, the government appears to selectively investigate and prosecute corruption cases. The practice of officials in all levels of law enforcement accepting the payment of bribes to avoid investigation or prosecution is a major problem. Law enforcement officers, particularly in the southern part of the country, frequently employed arbitrary arrest, torture, and the threat of criminal prosecution as a means of extorting cash payments from citizens (see section 1.d.).

Corruption: The GKNB’s anticorruption branch is the only government body formally empowered to investigate corruption. It is not an independent government entity; the branch’s work is funded from the GKNB’s operating budget. The branch limits its cooperation with civil society. The State Service to Combat Economic Crimes, also known as the Financial Police, investigates economic crimes, which sometimes includes corruption-related crimes.

On August 9, the government charged former president Atambaev with corruption for his alleged actions related to the modernization of the Bishkek Combined Heating and Power Plant and the ownership of property using a front person. Prior to his arrest, Atambaev refused to be interrogated by authorities about his role in a number of criminal cases. Atambaev’s arrest followed a GKNB raid on his compound that resulted in the death of one member of the Special Forces and injuries to more than 170 people. The government accused Atambaev of using violence against representatives of the authorities, organizing mass unrest, hostage taking, and murder in the wake of the raid.

Atambaev’s arrest followed the 2018 arrests of several high-profile political figures in connection to the Combined Heating and Power Plant, including two former prime ministers, the mayor of Bishkek, and the chief of the State Customs Service. On December 6, the Sverdlov District Court of Bishkek sentenced the two former prime ministers Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiev to 15 and 7.5 years in prison, respectively, for corruption and abuse of power related to the modernization of the Bishkek Combined Heating and Power Plant. The prosecution argued that Isakov and Satybaldiev knew the proposal to modernize the facility was contrary to the interests of the Kyrgyz Republic due to technical and technological shortcomings. Some Atambaev supporters alleged the two former prime ministers might have been prosecuted due to their connections with the former president.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all public officials to publish their income and assets. The State Personnel Service is responsible for making this information public. Officials who do not disclose required information may be dismissed from office, although the government did not regularly enforce this punishment.

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

Numerous domestic and international human rights organizations operated actively in the country, although government officials at times were uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.

Government actions at times appeared to impede the ability of NGOs to operate freely.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government permitted visits by representatives of the United Nations and other organizations in connection with the investigation of abuses or monitoring of human rights problems in the country, including those of the OSCE, ICRC, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and International Organization for Migration. The government provided international bodies largely unfettered access to civil society activists, detention facilities and detainees, and government officials.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman acts as an independent advocate for human rights on behalf of private citizens and NGOs and has the authority to recommend cases for court review. Observers noted the atmosphere of impunity surrounding the security forces and their ability to act independently against citizens, factors that limited the number and type of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman’s Office.

Although the Ombudsman’s Office exists in part to receive complaints of human rights abuses and pass the complaints to relevant agencies for investigation, both domestic and international observers questioned the office’s efficiency and political independence.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal. As in previous years, the government failed to enforce the law effectively, and many rape victims did not report their rape or sexual assault to police or NGOs. Penalties for conviction of sexual assault range from three to eight years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors rarely brought rape cases to court. Police generally regarded spousal rape as an administrative rather than criminal offense.

While the law specifically prohibits domestic violence and spousal abuse, violence against women and girls remained a significant yet underreported problem. Penalties for domestic violence convictions range from fines to 15 years’ imprisonment, the latter if abuse resulted in death. In May, HRW criticized the government for failing to prevent and punish violence against girls. In 2017 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that the number of registered cases of domestic violence was more than 7,000. In 2018 this figure increased by 14 percent to approximately 8,000 cases. According to the Women Democratic League, domestic abusers in 2018 killed 62 women and injured 288 women. HRW reported that, in the first three months of the year, police registered 2,701 cases of domestic violence, although data on injuries or deaths were not available. Among the domestic violence cases brought to court in 2018, prosecutors classified a significant number as administrative offenses or misdemeanors, which carry a lighter sentence. A January revision to the Code of Misdemeanors, however, does include a provision that criminalizes domestic violence.

Many women did not report crimes against them due to psychological pressure, economic dependence, cultural traditions, fear of stigma, and apathy among law enforcement officers. Civil society and media reported instances of spouses retaliating against women who reported abuse. The government provided offices to the Sezim Shelter (Sezim is the Kyrgyz word for crisis) in Bishkek for victims of domestic abuse and paid some of its expenses. International NGOs and organizations contributed funding to other shelters throughout the country. Despite this funding, NGOs such as Human Rights Watch questioned the government’s commitment to address the problem.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Although prohibited by law, the practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued. In 2018 the United Nations estimated kidnappers forced 13.8 percent of girls younger than age 24 into marriage. Men married to kidnapped brides were more likely to abuse their wives and limit their pursuit of education and employment. The negative effect of the practice extended to children of kidnapped brides. Observers reported there was a greater frequency of early marriage, polygamy, and bride kidnapping in connection with unregistered religious marriages. This also affected data availability on such marriages. In 2018 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that over the five past years, 895 individuals complained to the law enforcement authorities regarding bride kidnapping. In 727 cases victims did not file criminal cases against the perpetrators. Police and prosecutors criminally investigated 168 cases.

Some victims of bride kidnapping went to the local police to obtain protective orders, but authorities often poorly enforced such orders. NGOs continued to report that prosecutors rarely pursue kidnappers for bride kidnapping. Provisions of the penal code that entered into force in April establish penalties for bride kidnapping of 10 years in prison and a fine of 210,000 soms ($3,000).

In October local press reported on a video of the bride kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl in Talas. According to press, the girl in the video was forced to marry a 35-year-old man. After the release of the video on social media and in local media, the Talas police launched an investigation into the case.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits physical sexual assault but not verbal sexual harassment. Police did not actively enforce these laws. Media reported on widespread sexual harassment in the workplace and on public transportation.

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

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women and men, but enforcement of the law was poor, and discrimination against women persisted.

As in previous years, data from NGOs working on women’s issues indicated women were less healthy, more abused, less able to work outside the home, and less able than men to determine independently the disposition of their earnings.

Birth Registration: Although the law provides that every child born in the country has the right to receive a birth certificate, local registration, and citizenship, some children were stateless (see section 2.d.). Children of migrant parents who moved to and acquired citizenship of another country had to prove both of their parents were Kyrgyz citizens to acquire Kyrgyz citizenship.

Education: The law provides for compulsory and free education for the first nine years of schooling or until age 14 or 15. Secondary education is free and universal until age 17. The government did not provide free basic education to all students. The system of residence registration restricted access to social services, including education for children who were refugees, migrants, or noncitizens. Families of children in public school often paid burdensome and illegal administrative fees.

Child Abuse: No specific law covers child abuse in the country. The Children Code regulates the role of different state institutions in ensuring, providing, and protecting children’s rights. According to NGO and UN reports, child abuse, including beatings, child labor, and commercial sexual exploitation of boys and girls continued to occur. According to the National Statistics Committee, more than 277,000 children are left without parental care due to labor migration from to Russia and other countries. The Child Protection League stated that violence against children left under guardianship of the migrants’ relatives occurs in almost all cases.

Early and Forced Marriage: Children ages 16 and 17 may legally marry with the consent of local authorities, but the law prohibits civil marriages before age 16 under all circumstances. Although illegal, the practice of bride kidnapping continued (see section 6, Women). The kidnapping of underage brides remained underreported.

In 2018 UNICEF estimated that 12.7 percent of married women between the ages of 20 and 49 married before age 18. A 2016 law criminalizes religious marriages involving minors; however, prosecutors did not file any cases of criminal charges for religious marriages involving minors.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sale of children younger than age 18, child trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography, as well as other sexual crimes against children. The law criminalizes the sale of persons and forced prostitution. It provides penalties for conviction of up to 15 years in prison if the victim is a child. The law also makes it a crime to involve someone in prostitution by violence or the threat of violence, blackmail, destroying or damaging property, or fraud. The government made limited efforts to enforce the law.

The criminal code prohibits the distribution of child pornography and the possession of child pornography with the intent to distribute. The law does not specifically define child pornography, and the criminal code does not fully criminalize computer-related use, access to child pornography online, or simple possession of child pornography.

According to UNICEF and local observers, children younger than age 18 in Bishkek were involved in prostitution. Although precise figures were not known, police stated that typical cases of children in prostitution involved young girls from rural areas who relocated to Bishkek for educational opportunities or to flee from an abusive family environment. Once in the capital, they entered the sex trade because of financial need. NGOs and international organizations reported law enforcement officials’ complicity in human trafficking by accepting bribes to drop cases, warning suspected traffickers prior to raids, and allowing traffickers to avoid punishment by offering victims payment to drop cases. Police allegedly threatened, extorted, and raped child sex-trafficking victims. The government reportedly did not investigate allegations of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. Under the criminal code, it is illegal for persons ages 18 and older to have sexual relations with someone younger than age 16.

Displaced Children: As in previous years, there were numerous reports of child abandonment due to parents’ lack of resources, and large numbers of children lived in institutions, foster care, or on the streets. Approximately 80 percent of street children were internal migrants. Street children had difficulty accessing educational and medical services. Police detained street children and sent them home if an address was known or to a rehabilitation center or orphanage.

Institutionalized Children: State orphanages and foster homes lacked resources and often were unable to provide proper care. This sometimes resulted in the transfer of older children to mental health-care facilities even when they did not exhibit mental health problems. In August 2018 the Office of the Ombudsman called for the closure of the country’s sole children’s detention center, but as of September, the government had not closed the detention center. The ombudsman stated the center did not respect the right of juvenile detainees to education and medical services.

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

The Jewish population in the country was approximately 460. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, requires access to public transportation and parking, authorizes subsidies to make mass media available to persons with hearing or vision disabilities, and provides free plots of land for the construction of a home. The government generally did not ensure proper implementation of the law, and discrimination persisted. In addition persons with disabilities often had difficulty finding employment due to negative societal attitudes and high unemployment among the general population.

A lack of government resources made it difficult for persons with disabilities to receive adequate education. Although children with disabilities have the right to an education, the Association of Parents of Children with Disabilities stated schools often denied them entry. The government funded programs to provide school supplies and textbooks to children with mental or physical disabilities. The Association of Parents of Children with Disabilities reported efforts by the Ministry of Education and Science to improve the situation by promoting inclusive education for persons with disabilities.

According to UNICEF, the government and families institutionalized one-third of children with disabilities. As in previous years, psychiatric hospitals provided substandard conditions to their patients, stemming largely from inadequate funding. The government did not adequately provide for basic needs, such as food, water, clothing, heating, and health care, and did not adequately address overcrowded conditions.

Authorities usually placed children with mental disabilities in psychiatric hospitals rather than integrating them with other children. The government and families also committed other residents involuntarily, including children without mental disabilities who the government determined are too old to remain in orphanages.

The PGO is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with mental disabilities. According to local NGO lawyers, members of the PGO had no training and little knowledge of the protection of these rights and did not effectively assist citizens with disabilities. Most judges lacked the experience and training to make determinations whether it was appropriate to mandate committing persons to psychiatric hospitals, and authorities institutionalized individuals against their will.

Observers noted authorities had not implemented a 2008 law requiring employers to fulfill special hiring quotas for persons with disabilities (approximately 5 percent of work positions).

Tensions between ethnic Uzbeks–who comprised nearly 15 percent of the population–and ethnic Kyrgyz remained problematic, particularly in Southern Osh Oblast where ethnic Uzbeks make up almost one-half the population. Discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in business and government, as well as harassment and reported arbitrary arrests, illustrated these tensions. Ethnic Uzbeks reported that large public works and road construction projects in predominantly ethnic Uzbek areas, often undertaken without public consultation, interfered with neighborhoods and destroyed homes. Additionally, according to HRW, a 2016 Supreme Court study found that a majority of suspects prosecuted for terrorism and extremism, including under Article 299, were ethnic Uzbeks from the south.

The country does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults or speech that supports LGBTI issues. LGBTI persons whose sexual orientation or gender identity was publicly known risked physical and verbal abuse, possible loss of employment, and unwanted attention from police and other authorities. Inmates and officials often openly victimized incarcerated gay men. Forced marriages of lesbians and bisexual women to men also occurred. The Labrys Public Foundation noted the continued practice of “corrective rape” of lesbians to “cure” their homosexuality. LGBTI NGOs reported harassment and continuing surveillance of their workers by security services.

In 2014 HRW released a report based on interviews with 40 LGBTI persons chronicling instances of official extortion, beatings, and sexual assault. The report described in detail how police patrolling parks and bars frequented by gay men would threaten them with violence and arrest or threaten to reveal their homosexuality to their families if they did not pay bribes. These practices, according to representatives of the LGBTI community, continued during the year. NGO leaders in the southern part of the country reported an even greater threat. During the year members of the LGBTI community reported that authorities regularly monitored chatrooms and dating sites in an effort to punish and extort those who were seeking homosexual sex through online venues.

On March 8, LGBTI groups participated in a march through Bishkek celebrating International Women’s Day. In the aftermath of the march, LGBTI participants reported receiving death threats in social media. Additionally, one parliamentarian used social media to call on people to beat homosexuals, claiming that their sexual orientation was in conflict with Kyrgyz traditions. The two largest LGBTI NGOs shuttered their offices for multiple weeks after threats against their workers.

On May 1, two attacks against members of the 8/365 Feminist/LGBTI Movement were organized by members of Kyrk-Choro, a nationalist movement. According to 8/365 activists, the first attack happened during a picnic of the 8/365 members at a stadium in Bishkek. They reported 10 to 12 Kyrk-Choro members threatened the 8/365 workers with violence. The second attack happened after 8/365 members left the stadium for Popeda Park in Bishkek. Upon arriving at the park, Kyrk-Choro pelted the 8/365 activists with eggs. In both incidents police refused to intervene, despite complaints against Kyrk-Choro. The leader of Kyrk-Choro, Zamirbek Kochorbaev, stated his group did not care about the law and was willing to use violence against LGBTI activists in the future.

While the law protects against discrimination and stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, persons with HIV continued to encounter high levels of stigma and discrimination. According to 2015 Stigma Index data, HIV-positive persons felt fear or experienced verbal abuse, harassment, and threats, with some reporting incidents of physical abuse and assault. Civil society reported that social stigma of positive HIV/AIDS status led to loss of employment and a lack of access to housing for individuals with such a status or LGBTI persons. A recent study conducted by Kyrgyz Indigo, an LGBTI advocacy organization, found that more than 70 percent of gay and bisexual men did not know their HIV/AIDS status.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides workers the right to form and join trade unions. The government effectively enforced these rights. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference and provides them the right to organize and bargain collectively. Workers may strike, but the requirement to receive formal approval made striking difficult and complicated. The law on government service prohibits government employees from striking, but the prohibition does not apply to teachers or medical professionals. The law does not prohibit retaliation against striking workers.

Many unions reportedly operated as quasi-official institutions that took state interests into consideration rather than representing workers’ interests exclusively. The Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) remained the only umbrella trade union in the country. The government did not require unions to belong to the FTU. Labor rights advocates reported the existence of several smaller unaffiliated unions.

Workers exercised their right to join and form unions, and unions exercised the right to organize and bargain collectively. Union leaders, however, generally cooperated with the government. International observers judged that unions represented the interests of their members poorly. In past years some unions alleged unfair dismissals of union leaders and the formation of single-company unions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law specifically prohibits the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sex or labor exploitation and prescribes penalties that were sufficient to deter violations. Forced labor is also prohibited by the labor code and the code on children. The government did not fully implement legal prohibitions, and victim identification remained a concern.

The 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor reported cases of forced labor, mostly involving children in the agricultural sector, specifically cotton and tobacco (see section 7.c.).

See also the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods  and the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum legal age for basic employment at 16, except for work performed without a signed employment contract or work considered to be “light,” such as selling newspapers, in which children as young as 14 may work with the permission of a parent or guardian. The law prohibits employment of persons younger than age 18 at night, underground, or in difficult or dangerous conditions, including in the metal, oil, and gas industries; mining and prospecting; the food industry; entertainment; and machine building. Children ages 14 or 15 may work up to five hours a day, not to exceed 24 hours a week; children ages 16 to 18 may work up to seven hours a day, not exceeding 36 hours a week. These laws also apply to children with disabilities. Violations of the law incur penalties, which are sufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce the law and a lack of prosecution of violations continued to pose challenges to deterrence. Almost all child labor was in agriculture based on the 2014-2015 National Child Labor Survey.

Despite some advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, it remained a problem. According to recent reports, children continued to be engaged in agricultural work in cotton cultivation; tobacco production; growing rice, potatoes, sugar beets, and wheat; and raising cattle and sheep. Reports indicated children worked in the industrial and services sectors as well. With regard to the industrial sector, children engaged in coal mining; brick making; and construction, including lifting and portering construction materials and cutting metal sheets for roofs. In the services sector, children worked in bazaars, including by selling and transporting goods; washing cars; working in restaurants and cafes; begging and shoe shining as part of street work; and providing domestic work, including child care. Examples of categorical worst forms of child labor in the country included: forced labor in raising cattle and sheep, sometimes as the result of human trafficking; commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking; and illicit activities, including trafficking drugs, as a result of human trafficking (see section 7.b.).

The PGO and the State Inspectorate on Ecological and Technical Safety (Inspectorate) are responsible for enforcing employers’ compliance with the labor code. According to the Inspectorate, inspectors conducted infrequent and ineffective child labor inspections to ensure appropriate enforcement of the labor laws. Since many children worked for their families or were self-employed, the government found it difficult to determine whether work complied with the labor code.

See also the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, language, origin, property, official status, age, place of residence, religion, and political convictions, membership in public organizations, or other circumstances irrelevant to professional capacities. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and the nature of penalties was insufficient to deter violations. Ethnic Uzbeks in the south also complained that discriminatory practices in licensing and registering a business with local authorities made starting a small business difficult.

On average employers paid women substantially lower wages than they paid to men. Women made up the majority of pensioners, a group particularly vulnerable to deteriorating economic conditions. In rural areas traditional attitudes toward women limited them to the roles of wife and mother and curtailed educational opportunities. Members of the LGBTI community reported discrimination in the workplace when they publicly disclosed their sexual orientation. Persons with HIV/AIDS-positive status faced discrimination regarding hiring and security of employment. Employers discriminated against persons with disabilities in hiring and limited their access to employment opportunities in the workplace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage, which is less than the official government’s 2015 poverty line. The law on minimum wage states it should rise gradually to meet the cost of living. The government did not effectively enforce laws related to the minimum wage. The Ministry of Social Development worked on increasing minimum wage to the minimum living wage, which is 5,292 soms ($76) per month. Recent reforms to administrative and criminal codes eliminated employer liability for late payment of wages, allowance, and other social benefits. It also eliminated liability for violating labor protections and safety regulations.

The standard workweek is 40 hours, usually with a five-day week. For state-owned industries, there is a mandated 24-hour rest period in a seven-day workweek. According to the labor code, overtime work cannot exceed four hours per day or 20 hours per week. The labor code also states workers engaged in overtime work must receive compensatory leave or premium pay of between 150 and 200 percent of the hourly wage. Compliance with these requirements differed among employers. For example, large companies and organizations with strong labor unions often abided by these provisions. Employers of small or informal firms where employees had no union representation often did not enforce these legal provisions.

The National Statistics Committee defined informal economic activity as household units that produce goods and services primarily to provide jobs and income to their members. In 2017 the government estimated that only 28.8 percent of the population worked in the formal sector of the economy, while the rest worked in the informal economy.

Factory operators often employed workers in poor safety and health conditions. The law establishes occupational health and safety standards that were appropriate to main industries, but the government generally did not enforce them. Penalties for violation of the law range from community service to fines and did not sufficiently deter violations. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment. The State Inspectorate on Ecological and Technical Safety (Inspectorate) is responsible for protecting workers and carrying out inspections for all types of labor problems. The government does not effectively enforce the law because it is not conducting labor inspections following a moratorium on all state inspections that went into force on January 1, 2019, and is set to expire on December 21, 2020. Even prior to the moratorium, the Inspectorate limited labor inspectors’ activities. The Inspectorate did not employ enough inspectors to enforce compliance. According to the International Labor Organization, the Inspectorate also lacked sufficient funding to carry out inspections. The law does not provide for occupational health and safety standards for workers in the informal economy.

Government licensing rules placed strict requirements on companies recruiting citizens to work abroad, and the Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Youth licensed such companies. The government regularly published a list of licensed and vetted firms. Recruiters were required to monitor employer compliance with employment terms and the working conditions of labor migrants while under contract abroad. Recruiters were also required to provide workers with their employment contract prior to their departure.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

Tajikistan is an authoritarian state dominated politically by President Emomali Rahmon and his supporters. The constitution provides for a multiparty political system, but the government has historically obstructed political pluralism and continued to do so during the year. Constitutional amendments approved in a 2016 national referendum outlawed nonsecular political parties and removed any limitation on President Rahmon’s terms in office, allowing him to further solidify his rule. The most recent national elections were the 2015 parliamentary elections, which lacked pluralism and genuine choice, according to international observers, many of whom called the process deeply flawed. The most recent presidential election, which took place in 2013, also lacked pluralism and genuine choice, and did not meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Drug Control Agency, Agency on State Financial Control and the Fight against Corruption (Anticorruption Agency), State Committee for National Security (GKNB), State Tax Committee, and Customs Service share civilian law enforcement responsibilities. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is primarily responsible for public order and manages the police. The Drug Control Agency, Anticorruption Agency, and State Tax Committee have mandates to investigate specific crimes and report to the president. The GKNB is responsible for intelligence gathering, controls the Border Service, and investigates cases linked to alleged extremist political or religious activity, trafficking in persons, and politically sensitive cases. The Customs Service reports directly to the president. Agency responsibilities overlap significantly, and law enforcement organizations defer to the GKNB. Civilian authorities only partially maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by prison authorities; forced disappearance by the government in collusion with foreign governments; torture and abuse of detainees by security forces; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; censorship, blocking of internet sites, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including through the prevention of genuine, free, or fair elections; significant acts of corruption and nepotism; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and forced labor.

There were very few prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses. Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government acted with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.

Freedom of Expression: The authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets. By law a person may be imprisoned for as long as five years for insulting the president.

In 2016 the Parliament amended Article 137 of the Criminal Code, originally passed in 2007 which provides for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander, including on the internet, against the president. The amendment, Article 137(1), also criminalizes such speech against the “leader of the nation.” Such an offense in both instances can carry an imprisonment term of up to five years.

In December 2018 authorities established a recommended list of 70 topics that state-run television stations were encouraged to analyze and criticize. The recommendations followed President Rahmon’s call in October 2018 for journalists to write more articles about problems facing society. According to media reports, the recommended topics for discussion included construction, education, water problems, garbage collection, factory malfunctioning, bad roads, obesity, extremism and radicalism in society, and land disputes, among others.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats on media outlets. Although some print media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president or content regarding the banned IRPT.

Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs, stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”

On June 26, the Foreign Ministry denied video journalist Barotali Nazarov’s press accreditation during a meeting in Dushanbe between the Foreign Ministry and Nazarov’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service (Radio Ozodi). According to a statement from the news outlet, security services ordered the journalist’s credential temporarily revoked after Nazarov published stories mentioning the banned opposition party IRPT. In addition six employees of Radio Ozodi have been unable to renew their accreditation through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the year, a factor that effectively barred these individuals from working as journalists in the country. Three other accreditations for newly hired Ozodi journalists were pending, and the credentials of two other journalists expired on November 1, leaving Radio Ozodi with insufficient staff to continue functioning at its current level. In a July 3 press statement, the Foreign Ministry stated its analysis of Radio Ozodi content showed that instead of reporting important news, the broadcaster was instead engaging in the publication of “sensational and inaccurate information.” The statement also accused Radio Ozodi of acting as a “propaganda wing” for banned opposition groups such as the IRPT and the banned opposition movement Group 24. As of November 21, the Foreign Ministry had partially renewed accreditation for seven Radio Ozodi journalists, leaving 11 unaccredited.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Although the government decriminalized libel in 2012, state officials regularly filed defamation complaints against news outlets in retaliation for publishing stories critical of the government.

On January 11, the Khujand city court sentenced in absentia independent journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov, who resides outside of the country, to eight months in prison for “nonexecution of a previous court ruling” and unauthorized travel, after Mirsaidov left his place of residence without notifying the court. Mirsaidov told media he was forced to leave the country because he could not find a job to pay the fines and court-ordered restitution fees. Mirsaidov was sentenced in June 2018 to 12 years in a high-security penal colony, after the Khujand city court found him guilty of “embezzlement of public funds,” “forgery of documents,” and “dissemination of false information.” Following an appeal, the court in August 2018 released Mirsaidov and reduced the charges after he spent more than eight months incarcerated.

In June, Humayro Bakhtiyor, a prominent local journalist in self-imposed exile in Europe, wrote on social media that authorities were pressuring her to return to the country. She claimed that if she did not return, her 57-year-old father, Bakhtiyor Muminov, would be arrested. According to Bakhtiyor, police summoned Muminov on June 12 and told him that he had to convince his daughter to return to the country or he would lose his job as a schoolteacher. According to Bakhtiyor, police told her father that “he had no moral right to teach children if he was unable to raise his own daughter properly.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called upon the authorities to investigate reports of Muminov’s harassment.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.

Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an excessively complex application process. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.

Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail. Nevertheless, libel judgments were common, particularly against newspapers critical of the government.

Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals, and used temporary full blackouts of internet services and messaging to suppress criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities periodically cut access to mobile and messaging services when critical statements about the president, his family, or the government appeared online.

There were sporadic government restrictions on access to internet websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Google services, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Asia-Plus although some of the restrictions were lifted during the year. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.

In 2017 the Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, passed a law giving law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet. According to the new law, the security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information about which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. In June 2018 the Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of the parliament adopted amendments to the Criminal Code, making those who use the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics subject to up to 15 years in jail. Members of Parliament amended Article 179 that provides, “Public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes and (or) publicly justifying terrorist activities,” adding “via the internet” to the second part of this article.

The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress during the academic year.

Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a large fine and six months imprisonment. In addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing. In February librarian Malika Sanginova sued the Medical University of Tajikistan for dismissing her for wearing a headscarf. The university alleged she was fired for being rude to students and other issues.

A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than age 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.

The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.

The Ministry of Education reportedly issued a regulation in 2018 requiring students and academic staff to request government permission before any education-related travel abroad. The ministry issued an amendment to the regulation this year which requires students who wish to travel abroad for educational purposes to provide detailed personal information about close relatives but does not specify consequences for noncompliance. Civil Society organizations requested the ministry to exclude the data requirement as it allegedly violates the provisions of Articles 8, 10, 16 and 21 of the Law of Tajikistan “On Personal Data,” but the ministry has not yet responded.

There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because of possible government retribution.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.

The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.

On April 22, according to media reports, police forcibly confiscated signed petitions from more than 200 opponents of a proposed price hike for mobile internet usage.

The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities. In January President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Public Associations (PAs), which require all PAs to post detailed financial reports on their websites and potentially imposes burdensome reporting requirements, according to civil society sources.

The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, nonsecular political parties became illegal.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to Article 14 of the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.

The government rarely cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or other persons.

In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.

Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country without arbitrary restrictions. Civil society organizations asserted that a new regulation requiring the Ministry of Education’s approval for all students wishing to study abroad is a restriction of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement inside and outside the country and is a violation of the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the ministry stated that the decree is necessary to better regulate international education programs, safeguard students, and better maintain education statistics.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The government in some cases forced asylum seekers or refugees to return to countries where they may face persecution or torture. There were eight refugee families (32 persons total) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation for alleged violation of Resolution 325, a law that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. The cases of revoked status exhausted all available local judicial remedies and were under appeal in regional court with the support of UNHCR. In July media reported that authorities transferred to Kabul 80 Afghanistan citizens who were serving their sentences in local prisons. These were mainly drug smugglers and violators of the state border of the country. Among those transferred to Kabul was a UNHCR “mandate refugee” who was serving his sentence after being convicted of theft.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum and granting of refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nevertheless, the process for making refugee status determinations lacked transparency, and administrative and judicial procedures did not comply with international standards. Although not required by law, government officials required refugees and asylum seekers to obtain a visa and a valid travel document before entering the country. Government officials without due process detained and deported individuals not in possession of a visa.

The government processed asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and granted applicants documents to regularize their stay and prevent deportation. Government-recognized refugees enjoy socioeconomic rights on par with local nationals and can legally reside in the country. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications. In some instances, when denying claimants asylum status, officials cited, in broad terms, a lack of evidence of persecution in the refugee’s home country or “malpractice” on the part of refugees applying to renew their status, such as violation of the prohibition of living in big cities, including Dushanbe.

The government continued to place significant restrictions on claimants, and officials continued to enforce a law decreed in 2000 prohibiting asylum seekers and refugees from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.

During the year the government brought an increased number of administrative cases against refugees and asylum seekers due to a regulation that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In many cases prosecutions to enforce this regulation–codified in Government Resolution 325–were carried out retroactively and due to the city of Dushanbe’s annexation of land that had previously fallen outside the definition for a major urban area.

Local law grants refugee status for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must check-in annually with authorities to verify their address, but this is not a reregistration of their status. According to government statistics, there was a significant increase in the number of newly arrived asylum seekers in the first half of the year. The country has 2,130 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghan.

Freedom of Movement: According to Government Resolution 325, refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, which restricts their ability to find work and go to school.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to education and health services alongside local citizens. The Ministry of Education allowed Afghan parents to send their children to local schools without paying fees. UNHCR partners provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to these children. The law provides registered refugees with equal access to law enforcement, health care, and the judicial system, although in practice refugees did not always have equal access. Vulnerable refugee families received assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers face legal issues, UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.

Durable Solutions: Following the amended Constitutional Law on Nationality adopted in 2015, the government removed provisions for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship.

The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners is 39,031 persons (11,622 men and 27,409 women). The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality–such as former USSR citizens–in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Soghd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). UNHCR, NGOs, and local authorities worked together to find solutions–including confirming nationalities and issuing citizenship and identification documents–for 33,062 persons, both adults and children. Some registered individuals, however, struggled to achieve a durable solution because they lived in remote areas and lacked the financial means to pay for transportation and fees associated with confirming their citizenship. As a result, UNHCR assisted a total of 6,841 individuals residing in remote districts in the three separate pilot areas in covering their legal fees and the administrative costs associated with nationality confirmation.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government restricted this right. The president and his supporters continued to dominate the government while taking steps to eliminate genuine pluralism in the interest of consolidating power. The president’s political party, the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), dominated both houses of parliament. PDPT members held most government positions. The president had broad authority, which he exercised throughout the year, to appoint and dismiss officials.

Recent Elections: The most recent national elections were the 2015 parliamentary elections, which lacked pluralism and genuine choice, according to international observers, many of whom called the process deeply flawed and noted significant shortcomings such as multiple voting and ballot box stuffing. The most recent presidential election, which took place in 2013, also lacked pluralism and genuine choice, and did not meet international standards.

Of 41 amendments approved by referendum in 2016, three were significant changes to the constitution: one institutionalized the title of “Leader of the Nation” upon President Rahmon, removed his term limits, and gave him lifelong immunity from judicial and criminal prosecution. A second amendment lowered the eligible age to run for president from 35 to 30 years, and the third amendment banned all nonsecular political parties.

Political Parties and Political Participation: There were seven legal major political parties, including the PDPT. Opposition political parties had moderate popular support and faced high levels of scrutiny from the government. All senior members of President Rahmon’s government were PDPT members. Most members of the country’s 97-seat parliament were members of the PDPT, progovernment parties, or PDPT affiliates.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women were underrepresented in decision-making processes at all levels of political institutions. Female representation in all branches of government was less than 30 percent. There was one female minister but no ministers from minority groups. Cultural practices discouraged participation by women in politics, although the government and political parties made efforts to promote their involvement, such as the 1999 presidential decree that mandated every ministry or government institution have at least one female deputy. Civil society criticized this decree as a barrier to women holding top government positions.

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. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of corruption, nepotism, and regional hiring bias at all levels of government throughout the year.

Corruption: Amendments adopted in 2017 give the state Anticorruption Agency the authority to inspect the financial activities of political parties, international organizations, and local public associations. Previously, the agency had the authority only to check and audit governmental bodies. According to the new requirements, political parties must submit corruption risk assessment reports to the Anticorruption Agency annually. Political parties and in-country political experts raised concerns that empowering the Anticorruption Agency to investigate the activities and budget of political parties would tighten control over their activities.

Corruption in the Education Ministry was systemic. Prospective students reportedly were required to pay thousands of somoni (hundreds of dollars) in bribes to enter the country’s most prestigious universities, and provincial colleges reportedly required several hundred somoni for entrance. Students reportedly often paid additional bribes to receive good examination grades. According to the Anticorruption Agency, there were 85 registered corruption cases in the education sector during the first six months of the year.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Anticorruption Agency, and the Prosecutor General’s Office are responsible for investigating, arresting, and prosecuting suspected corrupt officials. The government acknowledged a problem with corruption and took some steps to combat it, including putting lower-level officials on trial for taking bribes.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Anticorruption Agency submit cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office at the conclusion of their investigations. In some instances the agency collaborated with the Prosecutor General’s Office throughout the entire process.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws.

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

Domestic human rights groups encountered increased difficulty monitoring and reporting on the general human rights situation. Domestic NGOs and journalists were careful to avoid public criticism of the president or other high-ranking officials and refrained from discussing issues connected to the banned IRPT. Human rights and civil society NGOs faced increasing pressure from the government. Authorities investigated a number of NGOs for alleged registration problems and administrative irregularities.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government facilitated visits to prison facilities by high-ranking officials from the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations but continued to deny access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman made little effort to respond to complaints from the public. The ombudsman’s office met with NGOs to discuss specific human rights cases and general human rights problems in the country, but no government action resulted.

The government’s Office for Constitutional Guarantees of Citizens’ Rights continued to investigate and answer citizens’ complaints, but staffing inadequacies and inconsistent cooperation from other governmental institutions hampered the office’s effectiveness.

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

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, which is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. There was no separate statute for spousal rape. Law enforcement officials usually advised women not to file charges but registered cases at the victim’s insistence. Most observers believed the majority of cases were unreported because victims wished to avoid humiliation.

Domestic violence does not have its own statute in the criminal code. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a widespread problem. Women underreported violence against them due to fear of reprisal or inadequate response by police and the judiciary, resulting in virtual impunity for the perpetrators. Authorities wishing to promote traditional gender roles widely dismissed domestic violence as a “family matter.”

The government Committee for Women’s Affairs had limited resources to assist domestic violence victims, but local committee representatives referred women to crisis shelters for assistance.

In 2016 the government adopted official guidelines for the Ministry of Internal Affairs on how to refer and register cases of domestic violence, while not having a particular criminal statute to draw from to do so. Domestic violence incidents were registered under general violence and hooliganism, with a special notation in paperwork indicating a distinction for domestic violence.

Authorities seldom investigated reported cases of domestic violence, and they prosecuted few alleged perpetrators. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is authorized to issue administrative restraining orders, but police often gave only warnings, short-term detentions, or fines for committing “administrative offenses” in cases of domestic violence.

A Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence noted violence against women is “pervasive” and emphasized a failure to investigate reports of domestic violence in rural areas.

Sexual Harassment: No specific statute bans sexual harassment in the workplace. Victims often did not report incidents because of fear of social stigma. Women reporting sexual harassment faced retaliation from their employers as well as scrutiny from their families and communities.

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

Discrimination: Although the law provides for men and women to receive equal pay for equal work, cultural barriers restricted women’s professional opportunities. The law protects women’s rights in marriage and family matters, but families often pressured female minors to marry against their will. Religious marriages were common substitutes for civil marriages, due to the high marriage registration fees associated with civil marriages and the power afforded men under religious law.

A fatwa promulgated by the Council of Ulema in 2005 continued to prohibit Hanafi Sunni women–constituting the vast majority of the female population–from praying in mosques. Religious ceremonies also made polygyny possible, despite the illegality of the practice. NGOs estimated that up to 10 percent of men practiced polygyny. Many of these polygynous marriages involved underage brides. Unofficial second and third marriages were increasingly common, with neither the wives nor their children having legal standing or rights.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country’s territory or from their parents. There were no reports of birth registration being denied or not provided on a discriminatory basis. The government is required to register all births.

Education: Free and universal public education is compulsory until age 16 or completion of the ninth grade. UNICEF reported school attendance generally was good through the primary grades, but girls faced disadvantages, as parents often give priority in education to their sons whom they regard as future breadwinners.

Child Abuse: The Committee on Women and Family Affairs and regional child rights protection departments are responsible for addressing problems of violence against children.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage of men and women is 18 years. Under exceptional circumstances, which a judge must determine, such as in the case of pregnancy, a couple may also apply to a court to lower the marriageable age to 17. Underage religious marriage was more widespread in rural areas.

The law expressly prohibits forced marriages of girls younger than age 18 or entering into a marriage contract with a girl younger than 18. Early marriage carries a fine or prison sentence of up to six months, while forced marriage is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Because couples may not register a marriage where one of the would-be spouses is younger than age 18, many simply have a local religious leader perform the wedding ceremony. Without a civil registration certificate, the bride has few legal rights. According to the Office of Ombudsman for Human Rights, in 2018 there were 30 recorded cases of illegal marriage of underage persons in the country, with poverty reported as the main cause for early marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. In January the government amended its criminal code to conform with international law; Article 167 now prohibits the buying and selling of children and outlines a provision that requires an exploitation act to qualify as human trafficking. The minimum age of consensual sex is 16 years. According to an NGO working with victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking, there were several cases in which family members or third parties forced children into prostitution in nightclubs and in private homes.

Displaced Children: On April 30, 84 children whose mothers are imprisoned in Iraq for belonging to ISIS were returned to the country, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Media and civil society contacts reported the children were not reintegrated with family members willing to foster them. Instead, government authorities assigned these children, depending on their age and other factors, to government-run boarding schools, orphanages, or sanitariums. Civil society organizations reported that the children had limited or no access to psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, nutritionists, or medical professionals since their return. According to the Ombudsman for Children, not all children will be handed over to relatives at the end of rehabilitation, and the government will study on a case-by-case basis whether the families are capable of taking in the 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/reported-cases.html.

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. The small Jewish community had a place of worship and faced no overt pressure from the government or other societal pressures. Emigration to other countries continued.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law on social protection of persons with disabilities applies to individuals having physical or mental disabilities, including sensory and developmental disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, and provision of other state services, but public and private institutions generally did not commit resources to implement the law. The law requires government buildings, schools, hospitals, and transportation, including air travel, to be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions.

Many children with disabilities were not able to attend school because doctors did not deem them “medically fit.” Children deemed “medically unfit” were segregated into special state-run schools specifically for persons with physical and mental disabilities. Doctors decided which subjects students were capable of studying, and directors of state-run schools could change the requirements for students to pass to the next grade at their discretion.

The government charges the Commission on Fulfillment of International Human Rights, the Society of Invalids, and local and regional governmental structures with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Although the government- maintained group living and medical facilities for persons with disabilities, funding was limited, and facilities were in poor condition.

There were occasional reports that some law enforcement officials harassed those of Afghan nationality and Uzbeks.

While same-sex sexual conduct is legal in the country, and the age of consent is the same as for heterosexual relationships, the law does not provide legal protection against discrimination. Throughout the country there were reports LGBTI individuals faced physical and psychological abuse, harassment, extortion, and exploitation for revealing their LGBTI status to their families. On January 31, the then Ombudsman for Human Rights Zarif Alizoda, announced the country would not implement the recommendations of international organizations on LGBTI rights, because they conflict with local moral values. Earlier, the chief psychiatrist Khurshed Qunghurotov said in a media interview that bisexuality, lesbianism, and homosexuality are all “pathologies of character” and that the LGBTI community is “mentally ill.”

There is no law against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and LGBTI persons were victims of police harassment and faced threats of public beatings by community members. LGBTI representatives claimed law enforcement officials extorted money from LGBTI persons by threatening to tell their employers or families of their activities.

In some cases LGBTI persons were subjected to sex trafficking. Hate crimes against members of the LGBTI community reportedly went unaddressed. LGBTI representatives claimed health-care providers discriminated against and harassed LGBTI persons. LGBTI advocacy and health groups reported harassment from government officials and clergy, to include violent threats, as well as obstruction of their activities by the Ministry of Health.

Government authorities reportedly compiled a registry of hundreds of persons in the LGBTI community as part of a purported drive to promote moral behavior and protect vulnerable groups in society. In 2017 the Interior Ministry and General Prosecutor’s Office drew up the list, which included 319 men and 48 women.

It was difficult for transgender persons to obtain new official documents from the government. The law allows for changing gender in identity papers if a medical organization provides an authorized document. Because a document of this form does not exist, it was difficult for transgender persons to change their legal identity to match their gender. This created internal problems involving any activity requiring government identification, including the acquisition of a passport for international travel.

There was societal discrimination against individuals with HIV/AIDS, and stigma and discrimination were major barriers for persons with HIV to accessing prevention, treatment, and support.

The government offered HIV testing free of charge at 140 facilities, and partner notification was mandatory and anonymous. The World Health Organization noted officials systematically offered HIV testing to prisoners, military recruits, street children, refugees, and persons seeking visas, residence, or citizenship.

Women remained a minority of those infected with HIV, although their incidence of infection was increasing.

As of June 30, the Ministry of Health officially registered 8,308 HIV-infected individuals, including 3,365 women and 4,943 men. During the first six months of the year, the ministry registered 694 new HIV-positive individuals, including 283 women and 411 men.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right to form and join independent unions but requires registration for all NGOs, including trade unions. The law also provides that union activities, such as collective bargaining, be free from interference except “in cases specified by law,” but the law does not define such cases. Workers have the right to strike, but the law requires that meetings and other mass actions have prior official authorization, limiting trade unions’ ability to organize meetings or demonstrations. The law provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively, but it does not specifically prohibit antiunion discrimination. Penalties are insufficient to deter violations, and the government did not effectively enforce the law.

Workers joined unions, but the government used informal means to exercise considerable influence over organized labor, including influencing the selection of labor union leaders. The government-controlled umbrella Federation of Trade Unions of Tajikistan did not effectively represent worker interests. There were reports the government compelled some citizens to join state-endorsed trade unions and impeded formation of independent unions. According to International Labor Organization figures, 1.3 million persons belonged to unions. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination during the year.

Anecdotal reports from multiple in-country sources stated that citizens were reluctant to strike due to fear of government retaliation. Police reportedly arrested 15 agricultural workers, charging them with organizing an illegal event, after an April 29 protest outside the Dushanbe headquarters of Faroz, a company belonging to President Rahmon’s family. Dozens of workers had gathered around the gates of the company to object to proposed lower wages for harvesting the medicinal plant ferula. Police did not comment on the arrests.

On May 9, the Shahrituz District Court imprisoned Karomatullo Shekhov, a local trader, for six days of “administrative arrest” for protesting against tax inspectors. An acquaintance of Shekhov told media that the court found him guilty of “disturbing public order.” On May 7, a group of traders, including Shekhov, protested against an additional tax imposed on them by local tax authorities. The protesters filmed their conversation with tax officers and posted the video on social media. Following the protest, three other unnamed protesters were accused of disturbing public order and disobedience to tax inspectors.

Collective bargaining contracts covered 90 percent of workers in the formal sector.

The government fully controlled trade unions. There were no reports of threats or violence by government entities toward trade unions; however, unions made only limited demands regarding workers’ rights repeatedly because they feared the government reaction. Most workers’ grievances were resolved with union mediation between employee and employer.

Labor NGOs not designated as labor organizations played a minimal role in worker rights, as they were restricted from operating fully and freely.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The January criminal code provisions are consistent with international law regarding the prohibition of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, including that of children, except in cases defined in law. The government did not effectively enforce the law to prohibit compulsory labor, and resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to address concerns over forced labor. While penalties to discourage the practice of forced labor were stringent and commensurate with other serious crimes, such as rape, the government investigated, prosecuted, and convicted fewer individuals suspected of trafficking persons for forced labor than in prior years. Two cases involving nine individuals were dismissed by presidential amnesty. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued to investigate three Dushanbe-based employment agencies that sent several citizens to Saudi Arabia where they were forced to work in homes of Saudi citizens.

The government continued to implement its national referral mechanism that has formal written procedures for identification, referral, and assistance to victims of trafficking. Law enforcement reported screening for victims when making arrests for prostitution. NGOs reported that in many cases when victims were identified by authorities, they were detained but not put in jail.

See also the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law outlaws all of the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for children to work is 16 years, although children may work at age 15 with permission from the local trade union. By law children younger than age 18 may work no more than six hours a day and 36 hours per week. Children as young as age seven may participate in household labor and agricultural work, which is separately classified as family assistance. Many children younger than age 10 worked in bazaars or sold goods on the street. The highest incidences of child labor were in the domestic and agricultural sectors.

Enforcement of child labor laws is the responsibility of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Welfare, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and appropriate local and regional governmental offices. Unions also are responsible for reporting any violations in the employment of minors. Citizens can bring unresolved cases involving child labor before the prosecutor general for investigation. There were few reports of violations because most children worked under the family assistance exception. There were reports that military recruitment authorities kidnapped children younger than age 18 from public places and subjected them to compulsory military service to fulfill local recruitment quotas.

The government enforced child labor laws and worked with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to prevent the use of forced child labor. IOM and local NGOs noted that penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Nevertheless, there were isolated reports some children were exploited in agriculture. The U.S. Department of Labor’s 2019 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor reported cotton harvest as a good produced by child labor. The overall instances of forced child labor in the cotton harvest decreased dramatically after 2013; the 2015 IOM annual assessment showed local or national government authorities responded to most cases. During the 2015 harvest, the government levied two fines against employers using child labor and collected a total of 1,800 somoni ($190) from violators.

The Interministerial Commission to Combat Trafficking in Persons disseminated a directive to local officials reiterating prohibitions and ordered the Labor Inspector’s Office to conduct a monitoring mission of the cotton-picking season. According to the IOM, however, no independent monitoring of the cotton harvest was conducted during the year.

Also see the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation on the basis of race, sex, gender, disability, language, HIV-positive status, other communicable diseases, or social status. The law does not expressly prohibit worker discrimination on the basis of color, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, or age.

In June 2017 parliament approved amendments to the Law on Police, which bans persons with dual citizenship, foreign nationals, and stateless persons from serving in the police force. In March 2017 the Council of Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of parliament, approved amendments to the Law on Public Service prohibiting dual citizenship for any persons in public service. In 2016 lawmakers approved amendments to the law banning individuals with dual citizenship from serving in the country’s security services and requiring knowledge of the Tajik (state) language.

Employers discriminated against individuals based on sexual orientation and HIV-positive status, and police generally did not enforce the laws. LGBTI persons and HIV-positive individuals opted not to file complaints due to fear of harassment from law enforcement personnel and the belief that police would not take action.

The law provides that women receive equal pay for equal work, but cultural barriers continued to restrict the professional opportunities available to women.

The government did not effectively enforce discrimination laws, and penalties were not adequate to deter violations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

World Bank data reveals that almost one-third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line of 18 somoni ($1.90) per person per day. The monthly minimum wage of 400 somoni ($42) is below the poverty line. The State Inspectorate for Supervision of Labor, Migration, and Employment under the Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Employment is responsible for the overall supervision of enforcing labor law in the country. The Ministry of Finance enforces financial aspects of the labor law, and the Agency of Financial Control of the presidential administration oversees other aspects of the law. There is no legal prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime. The law mandates overtime payment, with the first two hours paid at a time-and-a-half rate and the remainder at double the rate. Resources, inspections, and remediation to enforce the law were inadequate. The State Inspectorate conducts inspections once every two years. Penalties for violations are adequate to deter violations, but the regulation was not enforced, and the government did not pay its employees for overtime work. Overtime payment was inconsistent in all sectors of the labor force.

The State Inspectorate for Supervision of Labor, Migration, and Employment is also responsible for enforcing occupational health and safety standards. The government did not fully comply with these standards, partly because of corruption and the low salaries paid to inspectors. The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions without fear of loss of employment, but workers seldom exercised this right.

Farmers and agricultural workers, accounting for more than 60 percent of employment in the country, continued to work under difficult circumstances. There was no system to monitor or regulate working conditions in the agricultural and informal sectors. Wages in the agricultural sector were the lowest among all sectors, and many workers received payment in kind. The government’s failure to ensure and protect land tenure rights continued to limit its ability to protect agricultural workers’ rights.

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