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Gabon

Executive Summary

Gabon is a republic with a presidential form of government dominated by the Gabonese Democratic Party and headed by President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family has held power since 1967. Bongo Ondimba was declared winner of the 2016 presidential election. Observers noted numerous irregularities, including a questionable vote count in Bongo Ondimba’s home province. The government forcibly dispersed violent demonstrations that followed the election. In the 2018 legislative elections, the Gabonese Democratic Party won 100 of 143 National Assembly seats. The African Union observer mission did not comment on whether the elections were free and fair but noted some irregularities. Some opposition parties boycotted the elections; however, fewer did so than in the 2011 legislative elections.

The National Police Forces, under the Ministry of Interior, and the National Gendarmerie, under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for law enforcement and public security. Elements of the armed forces and the Republican Guard, an elite unit that protects the president under his direct authority, sometimes performed internal security functions. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces, and the government had mechanisms to investigate, prosecute, and punish those found responsible for abuses and corruption. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by government authorities and Gabonese peacekeepers deployed to UN missions; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners and detainees; interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and serious restrictions on freedom of movement because of COVID-19 mitigation measures; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government took some steps to identify, investigate, and prosecute officials and punish those convicted of human rights abuses; however, impunity remained a problem.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

There was one report of a disappearance during the year. On August 16, two Omar Bongo University students active in the Human Rights League were reported missing. They remained missing at year’s end.

In 2017 the government reported to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances that, despite opposition allegations of disappearances, no official complaints were filed after the 2016 elections. The committee called on the government to conduct an exhaustive inquiry into postelection violence and to update the law to comply with the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The government National Committee of Human Rights opened an inquiry during the year that was scheduled for completion in 2021.

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

The constitution prohibits such practices. There were reports of torture in prisons where unidentified personnel employed torture. For example, on January 29, the attorney of Patrichi Christian Tanasa, the former director of the Gabon Oil Company, stated in a press conference that his client was tortured by three hooded men who beat and sexually molested him at the Libreville Central Prison.

Impunity was a problem in the security forces. Nevertheless, the government took some steps to identify, investigate, and prosecute officials and punish human rights abusers. In April authorities established a national hotline to report abuses by security force members.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were 12 allegations submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by Gabonese peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. For those allegations, the number of cases and the years the incidents reportedly occurred, or ended, are: three in 2020, one in 2019, two in 2018, two in 2016, and four in 2015. There were eight open allegations from previous years. The minister of defense and the minister of justice stated that investigations of the allegations continued and the Gabonese judicial process was being followed. The current open allegations include 17 against individuals involving: an exploitative relationship with an adult (eight cases), transactional sex an adult (four cases), solicitation of transactional sex with an adult (one case), and rape of a child (four cases); one case against two individuals for transactional sex with three adults; and two cases against individuals and groups with multiple offenses. In the first of the last two cases: one individual was involved in exploitative relationships with 17 adults and the rape of a child; two individuals were involved in rape of two unknown victims, and 15 were in exploitative relationships with 17 adults. The final case involved 19 individuals accused of rape of 27 adults, 36 children, and five unknown victims.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening due to low-quality food, inadequate sanitation, lack of ventilation, gross overcrowding, and poor medical care. Conditions in jails and detention centers mirrored those in prisons. There were no specific accommodations for persons with disabilities in prisons.

Physical Conditions: Libreville’s central prison was severely overcrowded; it was built to hold 500 inmates but held approximately 4,000 inmates. There were also reports of overcrowding in other prisons.

Authorities did not provide data on the number of deaths in prisons, jails, and pretrial detention or other detention centers attributed to physical conditions or actions of staff members or other authorities.

Media reported one attempted suicide related to solitary confinement. Media reported three deaths during the year at the Libreville Central Prison attributed to inmate mistreatment. In May an inmate who attempted escape was beaten to death and another suspected of being a drug dealer was reportedly denied food and tortured. On July 24, a detainee arrested on July 16 died of an internal hemorrhage attributed to beatings.

Some prisoners and detainees were kept in solitary confinement for several months without access to exercise or use of showers and other sanitary facilities.

In some cases authorities held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and men with women. Authorities separated juvenile prisoners from adults in Libreville and Franceville prisons. There were separate holding areas within prisons for men and women, but access to each area was not fully secured or restricted. Prisoners had only limited access to food, lighting, sanitation, potable water, and exercise areas. On-site nurses were available to provide basic medical care, but prison clinics often lacked sufficient medication. For serious illnesses or injury, authorities transferred prisoners to public hospitals. Management of the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, was inadequate.

There were no reports of prisoner-on-prisoner violence or authorities’ failure to maintain control.

Administration: Prisoners filed few complaints. Observers believed the low incidence of complaints was due to ignorance of, or lack of faith in, the process, or fear of retribution. There was no prison ombudsperson or comparable independent authority available to respond to prisoner complaints. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities significantly reduced prison visits. Prisoners were limited to contacting their families through telephone calls and written correspondence.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted human rights organizations to conduct independent monitoring of prison conditions. A prominent attorney stated that beginning in March authorities cited COVID-19 policies to deny attorneys’ access to all prisoners. Except for COVID-19 limitations, representatives of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)–Malachie, the Lions Club, and the Voice of the Forgotten–visited and reported having access to prisons.

Improvements: On December 10, an addition to the central prison was opened that reduced overcrowding. In order to reduce further overcrowding, authorities undertook a review of inmate cases with the goal of identifying those eligible for release. The minister of justice stated improvement of prison conditions throughout the country was a government priority.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for detainees or persons arrested to challenge the legal basis and arbitrary nature of their detention in court; however, the government did not always respect these provisions.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Although the law requires arrest warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official to make arrests, security forces in some cases disregarded these provisions. The law allows authorities to detain a suspect up to 48 hours without charge, after which it requires the suspect be charged before a judge. Police often failed to respect this time limit.

Once a person is charged, the law provides for conditional release if further investigation is required. There was a functioning bail system. Detainees did not always have prompt access to family members and a lawyer of their choice. The law requires the government to provide indigent detainees with lawyers, but this was not always possible, often because the government could not find lawyers willing to accept the terms of payment offered for taking such cases. Arrests required warrants issued by a judge or prosecutor based on evidence.

Arbitrary Arrest: On August 19, agents from the General Directorate for Investigation of the National Gendarmerie arrested the Dynamique Unitaire Trade Union Confederation leader Jean Bosco Boungoumou without a warrant. Accused of broadcasting a video jeopardizing public order, he was detained without charge for longer than the law allows and not permitted prompt access to a lawyer. On August 24, he was charged with terrorism and conspiracy. He remained in prison pending trial at year’s end.

In 2017 authorities arrested Frederic Massavala-Maboumba, the spokesperson for the opposition Coalition for the New Republic, and Deputy Secretary General Pascal Oyougou of the Heritage and Modernity Party, and charged them with “provocation and instigation of acts likely to provoke demonstrations against the authority of the State.” In June 2019 Massavala-Maboumba was released after 20 months’ imprisonment; however, Oyougou remained in detention with no trial date set at year’s end.

Pretrial Detention: Approximately two-thirds of prison inmates were held in pretrial detention that sometimes lasted up to three years. There were instances in which the length of pretrial detention exceeded the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. Prolonged pretrial detention was common due to overburdened dockets and an inefficient judicial system. The law limits pretrial detention to six months on a misdemeanor charge and one year on a felony charge, with six-month extensions if authorized by the examining magistrate. The law provides for a commission to deal with cases of abusive or excessive detention and provides for compensation to victims, but the government had yet to establish such a commission. Detainees generally lacked knowledge of their rights and the procedure for submitting complaints and may not have submitted complaints due to fear of retribution.

On April 10, the Ministry of Justice announced the release of 680 persons from the Central Prison of Libreville, including a significant number who were long-term pretrial detainees who, had they been tried and convicted, would have been released based on time served in most cases.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides for detainees or persons arrested to challenge the legal basis and arbitrary nature of their detention. The law also provides for compensation if a court rules detention unlawful. Authorities did not always respect these rights.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary demonstrated only partial independence and only in some cases. The judiciary was inefficient and remained susceptible to government influence. The president appoints and may dismiss judges through the Ministry of Justice, to which the judiciary is accountable. Corruption was a problem. For example, individuals charged with offenses reportedly paid bribes to influence the judicial process, avoid facing trial, or both.

Authorities generally respected court orders.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial and to legal counsel, and the judiciary generally respected these rights. Trial dates were often delayed.

Criminal defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence. They have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges when booked at a police station. A panel of three judges tries defendants, who enjoy the right to be present at their trial, to communicate with an attorney of choice, and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Indigent defendants in both civil and criminal cases have the right to have an attorney provided at state expense, but the government often failed to provide attorneys because private attorneys refused to accept the terms of payment the government offered for such cases. Defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals when staff members with the required language skills are available. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses or evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal convictions.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

In September the prime minister stated there were no political prisoners in the country. According to one civil society group, however, there were six individuals it considered political prisoners. Of an estimated 60 protesters detained in 2017, opposition leader Pascal Oyougou remained in pretrial detention (see section 1.d.). According to multiple domestic and international news reports, opposition leader Landry Washington and former Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) deputy Bertrand Zibi were incarcerated for almost three years before they were tried. In April 2019 Washington was convicted of insulting the president and attempting to incite popular revolt. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and required to pay a substantial monetary fine. He was due for release in April 2019 based on time held, but the government appealed the sentence as being too lenient, and he was held for an additional eight months. On January 7, Washington was released. In July 2019 Zibi was convicted of inciting violence and possession of a firearm and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Zibi remained in prison at year’s end.

Prior to COVID restrictions, routine consular and NGO access was permitted. According to the minister of justice, subject to health-screening measures, access continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Persons or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through domestic courts or through administrative or other mechanisms established by law, although this seldom occurred.

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

Although the constitution and law prohibit such actions, the government did not always respect these prohibitions. As part of criminal investigations, police requested and easily obtained search warrants from judges, sometimes after the fact. Security forces conducted warrantless searches for irregular immigrants and criminal suspects. Authorities reportedly monitored private telephone conversations, personal mail, and the movement of citizens.

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. According to the revised penal code, conviction of contempt of the president or of any government official “committed anywhere, on any occasion, or by any means,” is punishable by six months’ to five years’ imprisonment and monetary fines. Employing its authority under the communications code, the High Authority of Communication (HAC) suspended eight print, radio, and online media outlets for libel and slander, including the radio station Radio Generation Nouvelle.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active, but authorities occasionally used libel and slander laws to restrict media criticism of the government. The country’s sole daily newspaper, LUnion, was progovernment. All newspapers, including government-affiliated ones, criticized the government and political leaders of both opposition and progovernment parties. The country had both progovernment and opposition-affiliated broadcast media.

Violence and Harassment: There were no cases of journalists being harassed or intimidated, although some journalists reported they received anonymous instructions or calls from persons suspected of being connected with the government not to report on certain issues.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most newspaper owners had either a progovernment or a pro-opposition political bias. Print journalists practiced occasional self-censorship to placate progovernment owners. In April HAC suspended the online daily Gabon Media Time for three months because it published an article authorities considered libelous.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander may be treated as either criminal or civil offenses. Editors and authors of articles ruled libelous in a court of law may be jailed for two to six months and required to pay substantial fines. Penalties for conviction of libel, disrupting public order, and other offenses also include a one- to three-month publishing suspension for a first offense and three- to six-month suspension for repeat offenses.

There was evidence that in several cases libel laws were applied to discourage or punish critical coverage of the government. For example, on January 16, HAC banned distribution of all copies of an edition of the newspaper Moutouki that included criticism of the coordinator of presidential affairs. On August 19, HAC suspended the online Kongossa News for one month for commentary it deemed critical of the president’s independence day celebration speech.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; however, the law places restrictions on freedom of assembly. The government limited freedom of peaceful assembly but not freedom of association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Some civil society activists stated they did not submit requests to hold public meetings because they expected the government would deny them. They added that authorities prevented opposition gatherings by routinely refusing to approve permits or by blocking access to planned meeting spaces. For example, on February 5, authorities prevented Dynamique Unitaire union leaders from holding a meeting at their headquarters. Some civil society activists stated that while authorities prevented opposition groups from hosting meetings due to COVID-19 restrictions, it did not prevent progovernment groups from meeting. According to pastor and civil society activist Georges Bruno Ngoussi, he was arrested, and his passport withheld for three months, for hosting a meeting that authorities asserted was in violation of COVID-19 restrictions, despite the fact that all COVID-19 provisions had been met. Ngoussi stated that the intended purpose of the meeting was to plan a protest demonstration against the government’s decision to decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct.

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 constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Nevertheless, in 2018 and 2019, the government prevented opposition leader Jean Ping from traveling abroad by court order and following expiration of the order, prevented travel during the year by refusing to renew his passport. In January authorities prevented trade union activists from Dynamique Unitaire and the Transportation and Aviation Workers Union from leaving the country under the pretext they were plaintiffs in a judicial proceeding. The law does not restrict foreign travel by plaintiffs in judicial proceedings.

In-country Movement: Although there were no legal restrictions on freedom of internal movement, military and police personnel and gendarmes stopped travelers at checkpoints to check identity, residence, or registration documents and on some occasions to solicit bribes. As a COVID-19 mitigation measure, authorities required travelers to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the preceding 14 days of internal travel. Refugees required a travel document endorsed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and government authorities to circulate freely within the country.

Foreign Travel: The law requires a married woman to have her husband’s permission to obtain a passport and to travel abroad. The law prohibits individuals under criminal investigation from leaving the country. Refugees and most holders of a residence permit need an exit visa to leave from and return to the country. Exit visas were not always issued promptly, which impeded persons’ ability to depart. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities required persons departing the country to provide a negative COVID-19 test result.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Despite efforts by the government and UNHCR to reduce discrimination, refugees complained of harassment and extortion by security force members. Some security force members harassed asylum seekers or refugees working as merchants, service-sector employees, and manual laborers and, in order to extort bribes, refused to recognize valid documents held by refugees and asylum seekers.

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.

Access to Basic Services: The law provides refugees equal access to public services, although there were reports that in some cases school and hospital employees improperly required refugees to pay additional fees. Most refugees were not registered to receive services from the National Health Insurance and Social Welfare Fund.

Durable Solutions: The nationality code allows refugees to apply for naturalization; however, the process is long and expensive. At age 18 children born in the country of refugee parents may apply for citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law 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; however, international monitors of the 2016 presidential election observed anomalies. The governing party has dominated all levels of government for five decades. Citizens participated in presidential, legislative, and municipal elections.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In early 2018 the Constitutional Court dissolved the National Assembly. The Senate assumed National Assembly responsibilities, and a caretaker government was installed. In late 2018 legislative elections were held. Both rounds of legislative elections were calm, with a voter turnout of 43 percent in the first round. The PDG won 100 of 143 National Assembly seats. Opposition leaders alleged irregularities such as ballot stuffing, vote buying, polling stations opening without the presence of opposition representatives, and unfair treatment of the opposition by the Gabonese Elections Center. Domestic and international organizations were not authorized to observe the elections. A limited African Union observer mission did not comment on whether the elections were free and fair but noted some irregularities.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The PDG has dominated the government since creation of the party by former president Omar Bongo in 1968. PDG membership conferred advantages in obtaining government positions. Opposition party members complained of unfair drawing of voter districts, alleging the president’s home province received disproportionately more parliamentary seats than other provinces. They also stated the PDG had greater access to government resources for campaign purposes than did other parties.

Unlike in prior years, there were no reports of restrictions on the formation of political parties.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The president of the Senate and prime minister were women. Nevertheless, cultural and traditional factors prevented women from participating in political life to the same extent as men. As of July women held 11 of 31 ministerial positions–an increase of nine from 2019–but women held only 23 of 143 National Assembly seats and 19 of 102 Senate seats.

Although members of all major ethnic groups occupied prominent government civilian and security force positions, members of indigenous populations rarely participated in the political process (see section 6, Indigenous People).

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. According to media and NGOs, officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Some police were inefficient and corrupt. There were reports of police, gendarmes, and military members seeking bribes to supplement their salaries, often while stopping vehicles at legal roadblocks to check vehicle registration and identity documents. In July taxi drivers demonstrated to protest police harassment, including exacting bribes.

According to reports from the African immigrant community, in order to exact bribes, police and other security force members often detained and falsely accused noncitizen Africans of lacking valid resident permits or identification documents.

In 2016 the government launched an anticorruption campaign. A number of former officials, including a vice president, ministers, and agency directors, were arrested on corruption charges. The former minister of economy and presidential advisor Magloire Ngambia and former minister of petroleum and hydrocarbons Etienne Dieudonne Ngoubou were arrested and charged with corruption. In 2018 Ngoubou was released on bail; he had yet to be tried by year’s end. On September 24, Ngambia was convicted of embezzlement of public funds. He was fined and sentenced to time served in pretrial detention.

Corruption: There were numerous reports of corruption by government officials during the year. For example, in September Mayor Leandre Nzue of Libreville and several city officials were arrested and charged with embezzlement and money laundering. Other government officials charged with corruption included former presidential chief of staff Brice Laccruche, several former ministers, and the director general of the Merchant Marine. None had been tried by year’s end.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires executive-level civil servants and civil servants who manage budgets to disclose their financial assets to the National Commission against Illicit Enrichment within three months of assuming office. Most officials complied, but some attempted to withhold information. The government did not make these declarations available to the public. There are administrative sanctions for noncompliance, but authorities did not provide information regarding enforcement.

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

A number of domestic human rights groups operated, albeit with government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Several human rights NGOs reported governmental intimidation and a general lack of responsiveness to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ministry of Justice coordinates government efforts to improve respect for human rights, organize human rights training for government officials, and address major human rights problems. The National Human Rights Commission, composed of representatives from civil society, media, religious groups, and the judiciary, had a degree of independence. Commission members provided basic human rights training to police and in past years inspected detention conditions at police stations in Libreville; however, it did not conduct inspections during the year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and convicted rapists face penalties of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine. Nevertheless, authorities seldom prosecuted rape cases. The law addresses spousal and intimate partner rape regardless of gender. There were no reliable statistics on the prevalence of rape, but a women’s advocacy NGO estimated it to be a frequent occurrence. Discussing rape remained taboo, and women often opted not to report it due to shame or fear of reprisal.

Although the law prohibits domestic violence, NGOs reported it was common. Penalties for conviction range from two months’ to 15 years’ imprisonment. Women rarely filed complaints, due to shame or fear of reprisal, although the government operated a counseling group to provide support for abuse victims. The government provided in-kind support to an NGO center to assist victims of domestic violence, and through the center’s work, police intervened in response to incidents of domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: NGOs reported sexual harassment of women continued to be pervasive. In June the National Assembly and the Senate enacted a revised penal code prohibiting sexual harassment. It states sexual harassment, “constitutes an offense against morals (and includes) any behavior, attitude or repeated assiduous or suggestive words, directly or indirectly attributable to a person who, abusing the authority or influence conferred on him by his functions or its social rank, aims to obtain sexual favors from an individual of one or the other sex.” Conviction of sexual harassment is punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment and a substantial monetary fine.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. However, abortion is illegal except in limited circumstances. Therapeutic termination of a pregnancy is permitted if recommended by a doctor and if the fetus has serious and irreversible physical impairments; the pregnancy seriously endangers the life of the mother; the pregnancy is a result of incest or rape; or the mother is an underage girl in a state of serious distress as defined by law.

The Ministry of Health provided guiding recommendations based on family-planning best practices to health facilities throughout the country. Sexual and reproductive health services were available to survivors of sexual violence at government and private medical facilities, and local NGOs provided support to sexual violence survivors.

The World Health Organization estimated the maternal mortality rate in 2017 at 252 deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the 2012 Gabon Demographic and Health Survey, girls and women between ages 15 and 19 were among the most affected, representing 34 percent of maternal deaths. The main causes of maternal death were hemorrhages during childbirth, high blood pressure, and infections.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Although the law does not generally distinguish between the legal status and rights of women and men, it requires a married woman to obtain her husband’s permission to receive a passport and to travel abroad. The law provides for equal treatment regarding property, nationality, and inheritance. No specific law requires equal pay for equal work. Women faced considerable societal discrimination, including in obtaining loans and credit and, for married women, opening bank accounts without their husbands’ permission and administering jointly owned assets, especially in rural areas.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived through one’s parents and not by birth in the country. At least one parent must be a citizen to transmit citizenship. Registration of all births is mandatory, and children without birth certificates may not attend school or participate in most government-sponsored programs. Many mothers could not obtain birth certificates for their children due to isolation in remote areas of the country or lack of awareness of the requirements of the law.

Education: Although education is compulsory to age 16 and tuition-free through completion of high school, it often was unavailable after sixth grade in rural areas. There was no significant difference in the rates of enrollment between boys and girls; however, due to high rates of early pregnancy, girls were less likely to complete school than boys.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal, with penalties for conviction of up to life in prison, a substantial monetary fine, or both. According to NGOs, child abuse occurred, and the law was not always enforced.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for consensual sex and marriage is 15 for girls and 18 for boys. According to the UN Population Fund, 6 percent of women between ages of 20 and 24 married before age 15.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, and authorities generally enforced the law. Perpetrators convicted of procuring a child for prostitution or a child pornography-related offense may be sentenced to between two and five years’ imprisonment. Under the revised penal code, sex trafficking is considered to be aggravated child trafficking, for which conviction is punishable by life imprisonment and substantial monetary fines. Conviction of possession of child pornography is punishable by imprisonment of six months to one year and a substantial monetary fine.

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.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish population was very small, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with “physical, mental, congenital, and accidental” disabilities and requires they have access to buildings and services, including voter access to election polling centers. Most public buildings, however, did not provide adequate access and accommodation for persons with disabilities, hindering their ability to obtain state services and take part in the judicial system. The law subsumes sensory disabilities under congenital and “accidental” disabilities but does not recognize the concept of intellectual disability. The law provides for the rights of persons with disabilities to education, health care, and transportation. Enforcement of these rights was limited–there were no government programs to provide access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Children with disabilities generally attended school at all levels, including mainstream schools. There was accommodation for persons with disabilities in air travel but not for ground transportation.

Persons with physical disabilities faced barriers in obtaining employment, such as gaining access to human resources offices to apply for jobs, because public buildings did not include features to facilitate access for persons with physical disabilities. The inaccessibility of buses and taxis complicated seeking jobs or getting to places of employment for those without their own means of transportation.

Indigenous People

The Babongo, Baghama, Baka, Bakoya, and Barimba ethnic groups are the earliest known inhabitants of the country. The law grants members of indigenous ethnic groups the same civil rights as other citizens, but they experienced societal discrimination. They remained largely outside of formal authority, keeping their own traditions, independent communities, and local decision-making structures, and did not have ready access to public services. Discrimination in employment also occurred. Indigenous persons had little recourse if mistreated by persons from the majority Bantu population, and there were no specific government programs or policies to assist them.

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

During the year parliament reversed the July 2019 revised penal code that criminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. On June 23, the National Assembly  approved a government bill decriminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; on June 29, the Senate approved the criminalization reversal; and on July 7, the president signed it into law. The law does not limit freedom of speech or peaceful assembly rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. There are no specific antidiscrimination or hate crime laws or other criminal justice mechanisms designed to aid in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes. There were reports from civil society organizations and media of LGBTI persons being targeted for abuse. Such incidents were rarely reported to police, however. A case that drew attention during the year, however, was that of a gay couple who were arrested and charged after their marriage ceremony for violating “the good morals of society” and for failing to obtain legal authority to be married. Societal discrimination in employment and housing were problems, particularly for openly LGBTI persons.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Local NGOs reported discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. Such persons encountered difficulties obtaining loans and finding employment in at least some sectors. NGOs worked closely with the Ministry of Health to combat both the associated stigma and the spread of the disease.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Ritual killings in which persons were killed and their limbs, genitals, or other organs removed were reported. In July 2019 the human trafficking provisions of the revised penal code criminalized ritual killing and organ harvesting. During the year authorities made no arrests of persons accused of ritual killing. The local NGO Association to Fight Ritual Crimes reported six victims of ritual killings and 14 disappearances from January to October. It stated that the actual number of victims was higher because many ritual killings were not reported or were incorrectly characterized. Additionally, authorities discouraged journalists from reporting ritual crimes, and most cases occurred in rural areas where media lacked access. In January mobs incited by social media reports of kidnappings of children for ritual crimes killed at least two suspected perpetrators. On January 24, a mob attacked Patrick Eyeghe as he was picking up his children from school in the Venez-voir neighborhood of Libreville. He was mistaken for a kidnapper. Eyeghe was taken to the hospital, where he later died of wounds inflicted during the attack.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law protects the rights of workers to form and join independent unions and to bargain collectively. The law provides for the right to strike, with restrictions. Antiunion discrimination is illegal, and the law provides for reinstatement for workers dismissed for union activities. Unions must register with the government to obtain official recognition, and the government routinely grants registration. Agreements negotiated by unions also applied to nonunion workers.

Strikes may be called only after eight days’ advance notification and only after mandatory arbitration fails. Public-sector employees’ right to strike could be restricted where the government determines it poses a threat to public safety. The law does not define the essential-services sectors in which strikes are prohibited; however, armed services are prohibited from unionizing and striking. The law prohibits government action against strikers who abide by the notification and arbitration provisions and excludes no groups from this protection. There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in the country’s two export-processing zones.

The government generally enforced applicable laws. Resources to protect the right to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike were adequate. Penalties for violations of these rights are compensatory, determined on a case-by-case basis, and commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were sometimes delayed.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not always respected. Some unions were politically active, and the government accused them of siding with opposition parties. The government sometimes restricted strikes.

Employers created and controlled some unions. Although antiunion discrimination is illegal, some trade unionists in both the public and private sectors complained of occasional discrimination, including the blacklisting of union members, unfair dismissals, and threats to workers who unionized. Trade union representatives complained they experienced hurdles accessing educational establishments during their efforts to represent and defend their members’ interests. Labor union leaders reported the majority of labor violations stemmed from illegal dismissals, including of workers on strike, leaving them without social security and insurance benefits.

In 2017 the Port-Gentil Court of Appeal upheld a judge’s ruling that ordered the revocation of a strike declaration by the National Organization of Oil Industry Employees (ONEP); the judge found ONEP failed to establish minimum service and that the strike constituted an unlawful disturbance. According to a government report submitted to the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019, ONEP did not seek review of the appeal ruling and legal proceedings were closed. The ILO responded with a request that the government open an independent investigation to establish the facts regarding ONEP’s allegations police and other security force members dispersed striking workers in 2017 using violent means that produced multiple injuries among striking workers. According to ONEP representatives, ONEP did not press the government on the matter during the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On September 1, gendarmes, using teargas, dispersed and reportedly beat Ministry of Water and Forestry members of the National Union of Water and Forestry Professionals (Synapef), causing severe injuries among the striking workers. During the two-month strike, the Synapef president was arrested, held for 24 hours, and released without charge.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes trafficking for the purposes of servitude or slavery. The government enforced the law more actively to combat forced labor of children. Penalties reflect the serious nature of the offense and were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes.

Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate. The lack of sufficient vehicles, budget, and personnel impeded the ability of labor inspectors to investigate allegations of forced labor. Additionally, labor inspectors found it difficult to access family-owned commercial farms and private households due to inadequate roads. The government provided trafficking-in-persons training to law enforcement officers.

Boys were subject to forced labor as mechanics, as well as in work in handicraft shops and sand quarries. Boys and men were subject to forced labor in agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, and mining. Girls and women were exploited in domestic servitude, market vending, restaurants, and commercial sexual exploitation. Conditions included very low pay and long forced hours. Migrants were especially vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.).

Limited reporting suggested that illegal and unregulated foreign fishing trawlers may have engaged in the forced labor of boys. Widespread poverty resulted in the increased risk of exploitation in the country, but the small scale of artisanal fishing suggested that trafficking was limited to foreign fishing operations. The industrial fishing fleet operating in Gabonese territorial waters was composed mostly of illegal, primarily Chinese, industrial-scale fish trawlers, with unknown status of workers on board.

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

Child labor remained a problem. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 16 without the expressed consent of the Ministry of Employment, Public Administration, Labor, and Professional Training; the Ministry of Education; and the Ministry of Health. By law children younger than age 16 may perform light work with parental permission, but the law does not define the activities considered light work, establish a minimum age for light work, or set hour limits. The law provides for penalties commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes but does not cover children in informal employment.

The Ministry of Employment, Public Administration, Labor, and Professional Training is responsible for receiving, investigating, and addressing child labor complaints through inspectors. The Interministerial Committee for the Fight against Child Trafficking is responsible for filing and responding to complaints, but it was inactive during the year. Children were sometimes subject to forced and exploitive labor in markets, restaurants, and handicraft shops, as well as on farms and in sand quarries. Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as of October the government had not organized the repatriation of any foreign children exploited in trafficking.

Noncitizen children were more likely than were children of citizens to work in informal and illegal sectors of the economy, where laws against child labor were seldom enforced. An unknown number of children, primarily noncitizens, worked in marketplaces or performed domestic labor. Many of these children were the victims of child trafficking (see section 7.b.). According to NGOs, some citizen children, particularly street children, also worked in the informal sector.

Child laborers generally did not attend school, received only limited medical attention, and often experienced exploitation by employers or foster families. In an effort to curb the problem, police often fined the parents of children who were not in school. Laws forbidding child labor covered these children, but abuses often were not reported.

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 labor code prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and work conditions based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, disability, national origin or citizenship, or social background. It does not address discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or language. The government did not effectively enforce the law. No specific law requires equal pay for equal work, and women’s pay lagged behind that of men. Employment discrimination occurred with respect to indigenous persons, persons with disabilities, persons with HIV/AIDS, and LGBTI persons. There were reports of labor exploitation of indigenous persons by their Bantu neighbors, who paid them much less than the minimum wage. Undocumented foreign workers frequently experienced wage discrimination and poor working conditions.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government established a national monthly minimum wage that was above the official poverty line. Authorities did not enforce wage laws adequately, although workers could file suit if they received less than the minimum wage. Labor inspections were infrequent. Minimum wage laws were not enforced in the informal sector, which accounted for the vast majority of workers.

The labor code stipulates a 40-hour workweek with a minimum rest period of 48 consecutive hours. The law also provides for paid annual holidays. Employers must compensate workers for overtime work as determined by collective agreements or government regulations. By law the daily limit for compulsory overtime may be extended from 30 minutes to two hours to perform specified preparatory or complementary work, such as starting machines in a factory or supervising a workplace. It also may be extended for urgent work to prevent or repair damage from accidents. The daily limit does not apply to establishments in which work is continuous or to establishments providing retail, transport, dock work, hotel and catering services, housekeeping, security services, medical establishments, domestic work, and journalism.

The Ministry of Health establishes occupational safety and health standards. The Ministry of Employment, Public Administration, Labor, and Professional Training is responsible for enforcing minimum wage, overtime, and safety and health standards in the formal sector. The number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance and COVID-19-mitigation measures further limited enforcement action. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and recommend that sanctions be imposed. Employers generally respected minimum wage standards. Formal-sector employees could submit complaints regarding overtime or health and safety standards, and the ministry’s labor inspectors investigated such complaints. The government penalized violations with a range of fines that were commensurate with those for similar crimes. In the formal sector, workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in this situation.

The government did not enforce labor code provisions in the informal economy or in sectors where the majority of the labor force was foreign, such as in the mining and timber sectors and domestic work. Employers obliged foreign workers to work under substandard conditions, dismissed them without notice or recourse, and often physically mistreated them. Employers frequently paid noncitizens less than they paid citizens for the same work and required them to work longer hours, often hiring them on a short-term, casual basis to avoid paying taxes, social security contributions, and other benefits.

The government does not provide data on industrial accidents; however, several accidents occurred during the year, including train derailments that resulted in four deaths and many serious injuries.

Gambia

Executive Summary

The Gambia’s constitution enumerates a full range of provisions and assurances for a multiparty democratic republic. In 2016 Adama Barrow, the consensus candidate of a coalition of seven opposition political parties, defeated incumbent president Yahya Jammeh in what international observers deemed a peaceful and credible election. Barrow was initially sworn into office in January 2017 in Dakar, Senegal, during a six-week political impasse when Jammeh refused to cede power. President Barrow was sworn into office again in The Gambia the following month after a peaceful regional and international intervention, led by Economic Community of West African States member countries, resulted in the former president departing for exile. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the United Democratic Party won 31 of the 53 seats contested. International and domestic observers considered these elections to be free and fair.

The Gambia Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the minister of interior. The Gambia Armed Forces consist of four branches: the Gambia National Army, the Gambia Navy, the Republican National Guard, and the Gambia Air Force. The Gambia Armed Forces’ principal responsibilities are to defend the territorial integrity of the country, to aid civil authorities in emergencies, and to provide natural disaster relief assistance in agriculture, engineering, health, and education. The chief of the defense staff administers the Gambia Armed Forces and reports through the minister of defense to the president as commander in chief. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; trafficking in persons; and existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although the law was rarely enforced.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, or otherwise hold accountable some officials who committed abuses. Nevertheless, impunity and a lack of consistent enforcement continued to occur.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

Families of individuals detained during the Jammeh regime continued to demand information on their missing relatives and that those responsible for killings, disappearances, and other serious crimes be held accountable. In July and August 2019, the general location of the remains of U.S.-Gambian dual nationals Alhagie Ceesay and Ebrima Jobe–kidnapped by government agents in 2013–was revealed during public testimony by members of former president Jammeh’s “Junglers” hit squad at the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparation Commission (TRRC). The TRRC was established in 2017 to address human rights abuses during the 22-year rule (1994-2016) of former president Jammeh. According to TRRC testimonies, Ceesay and Jobe are buried at the former president’s expansive farm near Kanilai. The government officially requested and received international forensics assistance to locate and identify their remains, assistance that at year’s end continued to be provided.

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

The constitution and the law prohibit such practices. There was one report of inhuman and degrading treatment by a police officer of a detainee during the year. The incident was investigated and the officer sanctioned.

According to the online newspaper Gainako, on July 25, Commander Gorgi Mboob of the Police Anti-Crime Unit struck the genitals of detainee Ebrima Sanneh with a hoe at the unit’s prison farm in Bijilo. Sanneh was hospitalized due to genital bleeding. Although police initially refuted media reports of the incident as “false, and intended to mislead the public,” on July 25, he Ministry of Interior ordered an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission and placed Mboob on administrative leave. On October 8, the commission determined that Mboob had assaulted and wounded Sanneh and recommended disciplinary measures be taken against him, his removal from the Anti-Crime Unit, and monetary compensation for Sanneh.

According to the online portal Conduct in UN Field Missions, there is one open allegation (submitted in 2018) of sexual exploitation and abuse by a Gambian peacekeeper deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult in 2013-15. The United Nations completed its investigation and is awaiting additional information from the government. At year’s end authorities had yet to provide the additional information or accountability measures taken.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem, particularly in the remand wing of the state central prison, Mile 2 Prison in Banjul, where detainees were held pending trial. According to the NGO World Prison Brief, authorities in 2019 held 691 prisoners in facilities designed for 650. Food quality and access to potable water, sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and medical care remained inadequate. There were credible reports teenagers as young as age 15 were held with adults in pretrial detention facilities.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment (see section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

Independent Monitoring: The government granted unrestricted access to all prisons to the Office of the Ombudsman, the TRRC, and local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements; there were no reports of arbitrary arrest during the year.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires authorities to obtain a warrant before arresting a person, but police officers often arrested individuals without a warrant. Military decrees enacted prior to the adoption of the constitution in 1997 give the National Intelligence Agency and the interior minister broad powers to detain individuals indefinitely without charge “in the interest of national security.” Although these detention decrees are inconsistent with the constitution, they were not legally challenged. The government claimed it no longer enforced the decrees.

Periods of detention before being brought before and judicial official and charged generally ranged from two to 72 hours, the legal limit after which authorities are required by law to charge or release detainees; however, there were numerous instances of detentions exceeding the 72-hour limit. There was a functioning bail system; however, two guarantors and advance remittance were generally required to obtain bail.

Officials in some cases did not allow detainees prompt access to a lawyer or family members. The judiciary provided lawyers at public expense only to indigent persons charged with capital crimes such as murder, for which a conviction includes the death penalty. Suspects were not detained incommunicado.

Pretrial Detention: Backlogs and inefficiency in the justice system resulted in lengthy pretrial detentions. Many inmates in the remand wing of Mile 2 Prison awaited trail, in some instances for several years. According to the Gambia Prison Services, approximately one-half of the prison population was in pretrial detention. The introduction of virtual courts, created in June in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was part of the government’s effort to reduce overcrowding, particularly among the remand population.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Criminal defendants were presumed innocent until proven guilty. Officials did not always promptly inform defendants of the charges against them. The law provides for a fair, timely, and public trial without undue delay; however, case backlogs hampered the right to a timely trial. Defendants enjoyed the right to be present at trial and to communicate with an attorney of their choice or if indigent and charged with a capital crime to have a lawyer at public expense. Defendants had adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Officials provided free interpretation in defendants’ local languages as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants and their lawyers had the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. They may appeal verdicts to a higher court.

On May 3, the Gambia Bar Association and the National Agency for Legal Aid signed a memorandum of understanding to provide free legal services to prisoners. By year’s end it was providing legal services to defendants incarcerated in the country’s three prisons and to remand and juvenile inmates.

The judicial system also recognizes customary law and sharia (Islamic law).

Customary law covers marriage and divorce for non-Muslims, inheritance, land tenure, tribal and clan leadership, and other traditional and social relations. District chiefs preside over local tribunals that administer customary law at the district level. Customary law recognizes the rights of all citizens regardless of age, gender, and religion.

For persons of Muslim faith, sharia applies in domestic matters, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Qadi courts (traditional Muslim courts that settle issues of divorce and inheritance) and district tribunals do not involve standard legal representation because lawyers are not trained in Islamic or customary law.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The High Court hears civil and human rights cases. Individuals may also seek assistance concerning violations of human rights law from the Office of the Ombudsman, which has a mandate to investigate such cases and recommend remedies for judicial consideration.

Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.

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

The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect those prohibitions.

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. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Nevertheless, on January 26, police closed local radio stations King and Home Digital FM. Police arrested and charged the stations’ owners and managers with broadcasting incendiary messages and inciting violence, and police held them for more than 48 hours before their release on bail. Ministry of Justice prosecutors found no factual basis on which to support the charges and dismissed them. The stations’ broadcasting licenses were suspended for one month.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected the right of peaceful association. Nevertheless, there were restrictions placed on the right of peaceful assembly.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

By law the Gambia Police Force must grant a permit for all public meetings and gatherings. The inspector general of police has the authority to approve or disapprove permits and is required to communicate his decision to the requester in writing. Requests are generally approved unless there is concern regarding the peaceful nature of a proposed protest. Due to training provided by the government of France, security forces’ capability to employ effective, nonviolent crowd-control techniques improved during the year.

Media reported that on January 26, police arrested 137 demonstrators during a protest organized by the Three Years Jotna Movement that began peacefully but turned violent. A total of 131 police and protesters were injured. The Three Years Jotna Movement called for the president to honor the commitment he made during his 2016 campaign to step down after three years, with some persons affiliated with the movement advocating violence to forcibly remove the president from office. Violence erupted when a group of protesters allegedly deviated from the negotiated area approved by authorities for the protest and police moved to disperse protesters. Police used tear gas against stone throwing protesters, a small group of whom set fire to a bus-stop shelter. Most injuries suffered by protesters were respiratory due to tear gas; however, some protesters and police sustained serious lacerations from thrown rocks and debris. On January 26, protest organizers Abdou Njie, Ebrima Kitim Jarju, Sheriff Sonko, Hagi Suwaneh, Fanta Mballow, Karim Touray, Yankuba Darboe, and Muctarr Ceesay were charged with unlawful assembly and rioting. On February 24, the protest organizers were released on bail. At year’s end they had yet to be tried.

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.

In-country Movement: Police and immigration personnel frequently set up security checkpoints. Individuals found to be without proper identification documentation were subject to detention or forced to pay bribes.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The Gambia Commission for Refugees worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on protection of refugees.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting refugee status.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held a presidential election in 2016, in which Adama Barrow, the candidate of an opposition coalition, defeated Yahya Jammeh, the incumbent. The election was largely peaceful and considered credible. The defeated incumbent initially accepted the results before declaring them “null and void,” alleging irregularities in the process. This led to a six-week political impasse before Jammeh dropped his claims and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea, bowing to regional and international pressure and the threat of military force from the Economic Community of West African States, the member states of which had massed soldiers on the country’s borders.

The country also held legislative elections in 2017 that were described by domestic and international observers as mostly free and fair. Mama Kandeh, leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress, rejected the results, claiming to have evidence that would expose the unfairness of the entire process. Kandeh, however, did not provide any evidence to substantiate his claim.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Evidence suggested cultural constraints limited women’s participation in the political process; men greatly outnumbered women in the cabinet and parliament. Only five women hold seats in the 58-member National Assembly.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by government officials, and the government generally implemented the law.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires income and asset disclosure statements from both appointed and elected public officials; however, it does not stipulate sanctions for noncompliance. No government agency is mandated to monitor and verify financial disclosures. Declarations are not released to the public.

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

Several domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Among these were the #Jammeh2Justice campaign to have the Ghanaian and Gambian governments try former president Jammeh for the 2005 killings of irregular migrants–among them 44 Ghanaians–and the Victims Center that supports the TRRC and assists victims of Jammeh-era human rights abuses.

Government officials were usually cooperative and responsive to human rights issues raised by human rights groups during the year. The law continues to require NGOs to register with the National Advisory Council that has the authority to deny, suspend, or cancel the right of any NGO (including international NGOs) to operate in the country. The council did not take actions against any NGO during the year.

In September the TRRC resumed hearings after a six-month suspension from March to September due to COVID-19 restrictions. TRRC witnesses testified to multiple instances of human rights abuses by the Jammeh government, including killings, torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and forced disappearances. Witnesses included members of the Junglers hit squad who admitted to committing gross human rights abuses.

The National Human Rights Commission was active in addressing and investigating human rights abuses, and publicly called for government actions to address human rights issues such as the continued criminalization of homosexuality.

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

The constitution and law provide for equality of all persons; no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner because of race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Legal provisions against discrimination do not apply to adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, and inheritance of property. The law prohibits discrimination in employment, access to credit, owning and managing a business, or in housing or education.

There were no reports the government failed to enforce the law.

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes the rape of individuals–without reference to gender–and domestic violence. The penalty for conviction of rape is life imprisonment. The maximum penalty for conviction of attempted rape is seven years’ imprisonment. Spousal and intimate-partner rape was widespread and not illegal; police officers generally considered it a domestic issue outside of their jurisdiction. Rape and domestic violence were widespread problems that often went unreported due to victims’ fear of reprisal, unequal power relationships, stigma, discrimination, and pressure from family and friends not to report abuses. Conviction of domestic violence carries a sentence of two years’ imprisonment, a substantial monetary fine, or both.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Children, and Social Welfare operates a shelter and cooperates with UN agencies and civil society organizations to address sexual- and gender-based violence. In November a campaign of inclusive events was conducted to address issues of sexual- and gender-based violence in the country. The vice president led a march to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage victims of sexual- and gender-based violence to report abuse in order for perpetrators to be charged and prosecuted.

FGM/C is a deeply rooted practice in society. FGM/C cases are very seldom reported, either because individuals do not agree with the law or because they are uncomfortable reporting family or community members engaged in the practice to authorities. According to UNICEF and NGOs, 76 percent of girls and women between ages 15 and 49 had been subjected to FGM/C. NGOs, including the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, Wassu Gambia Kafo, Safe Hands for Girls, and Think Young Women, were at the forefront of combatting FGM/C in the country.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and stipulates a one-year mandatory prison sentence for conviction. Sexual harassment was prevalent but not commonly reported due to discrimination, social stigma, and unwillingness to challenge the offenders due to unequal power relationships and fear of reprisal.

Reproductive Rights: By law couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. They had access to the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Abortion is illegal and criminalized, including in cases of rape. According to the UN Population Fund, 41 percent of married or in-union girls and women ages 15 to 49 made their own decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health, including deciding on their health care, the use of contraception, and whether to have sex. According to UNICEF, 88 percent of births were attended by a skilled health-care professional.

The government provides access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

According to the World Health Organization, the country’s maternal mortality rate in 2020 was 597 per 100,000 live births. It identified hemorrhage, anemia, early pregnancy, and obstructed labor as the main causes of maternal mortality. FGM/C negatively impacted reproductive and maternal morbidity.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equality of all persons, including with regard to race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, and birth. The law prohibits discrimination in employment, access to credit, owning and managing a business, or in housing or education. Nevertheless, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women regarding adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, and inheritance of property. During the year there were no reports the government failed to enforce the law effectively.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth in the country’s territory or through either parent. Not all parents registered births, but this did not preclude their children from receiving public health and education services. Birth certificates were easily obtained in most cases.

Education: The constitution and law mandate compulsory, tuition-free primary- and lower-secondary-level education. Families often must pay fees for books, uniforms, lunches, school fund contributions, and examination fees. An estimated 75 percent of primary school-age children enrolled in primary schools. Girls comprised approximately one-half of primary school students but only one-third of high school students.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: By law children younger than age 18 may not marry; however under customary or sharia, 34.2 percent of girls younger than 18 were married, and 9.5 percent younger than 15 were married. Government sensitization campaigns in several areas of the country, particularly in remote villages, sought to create awareness of the law.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The penalties for conviction of sex trafficking are 50 years’ to life imprisonment and a substantial monetary fine. The law provides for 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment for conviction of commercial sexual exploitation of children, depending on the type of offense, 10 years’ imprisonment for conviction of procurement of a child for prostitution, and five years’ imprisonment for conviction of child pornography.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. For information, 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.

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits discrimination against or exploitation of persons with disabilities, although it does not stipulate the kinds of disabilities protected, particularly regarding access to health services, education, and employment. There are no explicit legal provisions that require access to transportation, buildings, and information or communications for persons with disabilities.

There are three separate schools for students with visual, hearing, or learning disabilities. Other students with physical disabilities may attend mainstream schools, but there are no programs or facilities to address specific needs. Children with disabilities attended school through secondary education at a lower rate than other children.

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

Citing more pressing priorities, the president dismissed homosexuality as a nonissue in the country. In 2018 the country’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council stated the government did not plan to reverse or change the law. Although the law was rarely enforced, on July 1, local media reported that a Senegalese national was arrested in Kotu for engaging in same-sex relations with another adult. He was initially reported to police for stealing a cell phone of a Gambian man with whom he had sexual relations.

The law does not address discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals (LGBTI) persons in essential goods and services such as housing, employment, and access to government services such as health care. There was strong societal discrimination against LGBTI individuals.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although there were no reports to authorities of HIV-related stigma and discrimination in employment, housing, or access to education or health care, it existed. Societal discrimination against persons infected with HIV/AIDS and fear of rejection by partners and relatives sometimes hindered identification and treatment of persons with the disease. The government’s Gambia National Health Strategic Plan 2014-2020 provides for the care, treatment, and support of persons with or affected by HIV/AIDS. The multisectoral plan includes HIV-prevention programs for high-risk populations.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides that workers, except for civil servants, domestic workers, court officers and certain other categories of workers, are free to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. A broad range of essential service employees, including in the military, police, health, ambulance, prison, water and electricity services, and radio and telecommunication services sectors, are prohibited from forming unions or going on strike. Additionally, the law authorizes the minister responsible for labor matters to exclude any other category of workers from the protection of the law. Unions must register to be recognized. The law requires a minimum membership of 50 workers for the registration of a trade union, a threshold few workplaces could meet. The law also provides that the registrar of unions may examine without because the financial accounts of workers’ associations.

The law restricts the right to strike by requiring unions to give the commissioner of labor written notice 14 days before beginning an industrial action (28 days for actions involving essential services). Police and military personnel had access to a complaints unit, and civil servants could take union complaints to the public service commission or the government’s personnel management office. An employer may apply for a court injunction to prohibit industrial action deemed to be in pursuit of a political objective. The court also may forbid action judged to be in breach of a collectively agreed procedure for settlement of industrial disputes. The law prohibits retribution against strikers who comply with the law regulating strikes. Employers may not fire or discriminate against members of registered unions for engaging in legal union activities, and the law provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law also sets minimum contract standards for hiring, training, and terms of employment and provides that contracts may not prohibit union membership.

The government did not effectively enforce the law; however, there were no official reports of persistent abuses of workers’ right of freedom of association. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar violations and were rarely applied. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Although trade unions were small and fragmented, collective bargaining took place. Union members were able to negotiate without government interference; however, they lacked experience, organization, and professionalism and often turned to the government for assistance in negotiations. The Department of Labor registered most collective agreements, which remained valid for three years and were renewable.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, including that of children, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. The law sets forth general employment protections, including contractual rights, freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and disciplinary procedures in the workplace, among other important labor regulations. Domestic laborers were not protected under the national labor law, however, which rendered them vulnerable to exploitation. The penalties for forced labor were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but were seldom applied.

Military service members may be compelled to undertake work that is not purely military in character, including in agriculture, engineering, health, and education. Women and children were subjected to forced labor primarily for domestic labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Contrary to International Labor Organization conventions, the law permits compulsory labor for prisoners convicted of possession of prohibited publications, seditious statements or writings, and publishing rumors or false statements.

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

The law does not prohibit all the worst forms of child labor. The constitution prohibits economic exploitation of children younger than age 16, and regulations prohibit children younger than 18 from engaging in exploitive labor or hazardous employment, including mining and quarrying, going to sea, carrying heavy loads, operating heavy machinery, and working in establishments serving alcohol. The law sets the minimum age at 16 for light work but allows children as young as 12 to apprentice in the informal sector.

The Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and conventions on the worst forms of child labor, but it did not effectively do so. The government took few actions to prevent or combat child labor during the year. The penalties for conviction of child labor laws were commensurate with those for similar serious crimes but were seldom applied. The labor commissioner registered employee labor cards, which include a person’s age; the law authorizes the commissioner to enforce child labor laws. Enforcement inspections rarely took place and when they took place, no one was prosecuted.

Child labor occurred primarily in the informal sector and was largely unregulated. Rising school fees combined with stagnating incomes prevented some families from sending their children to school, contributing to the vulnerability of children to child labor. Additionally, many children completed nine years of compulsory schooling at age 14, rendering them vulnerable to child labor. In urban areas some children worked as street vendors, domestic laborers, or taxi and bus assistants. There were instances of children begging on the streets, including cases of forced begging. Children between ages 14 and 17 also worked in carpentry, masonry, plumbing, tailoring, and auto repair. Children in rural areas worked on family farms, often under hazardous conditions.

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 constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, sex, property, or birth. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, sexual orientation, or gender identity but prohibits discrimination based on other status. The law defines the criteria that prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation, and the government enforced the law inconsistently, applying it in the formal sector but not in the large informal sector. Penalties were commensurate with those for other similar violations.

Employment in the formal sector was open to women at the same salary rates as men, and no statutory discrimination existed in other kinds of employment; however, societal discrimination lingered, and women generally worked in such low-wage pursuits as food vending and subsistence farming. The law also prohibits discrimination in private companies certified by the Department of Labor.

During the year the government did not report any cases of discriminatory practices with respect to employment or occupation.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Collective bargaining, arbitration, or agreements reached between unions and management determined union members’ wages, and the minimum wage was generally less than the World Bank’s international poverty line, although it was above the government’s national poverty baseline. Employers paid most workers above the minimum wage. Most citizens did not live on a single worker’s earnings and shared resources within extended families. The Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage; however, the government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties for wage and hour violations were rarely enforced. Most workers were employed in the private sector or were self-employed, often in agriculture and other informal sectors where labor laws were not enforced.

The basic legal workweek is 48 hours within a period not to exceed six consecutive days. The government’s workweek consists of four eight-hour workdays Monday through Thursday and a four-hour workday on Friday. The private sector typically operates from Monday through Saturday. Regulations mandate a 30-minute lunch break. Regulations entitle government employees to one month of paid annual leave after one year of service. The government does not pay most government employees overtime compensation. Government workers holding temporary positions and private-sector workers, however, receive overtime pay calculated at time and a half per hour. There is no exception for foreign or migrant workers.

The law specifies appropriate safety equipment an employer must provide to employees working in designated occupations. The law also authorizes the Department of Labor to regulate factory health and safety, accident prevention, and dangerous trades and to appoint inspectors to conduct unannounced inspections, identify unsafe conditions, and issue sanctions to enforce compliance. Workers may demand protective equipment and clothing for hazardous workplaces and have recourse to the Labor Department for violations of occupational safety and health standards. Workers could not remove themselves from unsafe conditions without possible jeopardy to their jobs. The law protects foreign workers employed by the government; however, it provides protection for privately employed foreigners only if they have valid work permits.

The government did not effectively enforce the law on occupational health and safety. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar violations and were seldom applied. Court remedies were lengthy, expensive, and generally ineffective. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Wage and safety standards were not enforced in the informal sector, which included most workers.

Violations of health and safety standards were common in the service, construction, agricultural, and domestic labor sectors. According to Forbes’ 2020 report, The Worlds Most Dangerous Countries for Workers, 64 percent of Gambian workers stated they had been injured on the job. In February, two sanitation workers died inside a sanitation sewer at a local restaurant.

Georgia

Executive Summary

Georgia’s constitution provides for an executive branch that reports to the prime minister, a unicameral parliament, and a separate judiciary. The government is accountable to parliament. The president is the head of state and commander in chief. Under the constitution that came into force after December 2018, future presidents are not elected by popular vote, but by members of parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deployed a limited number of observers for the October 31 parliamentary elections due to COVID-19; in a preliminary assessment, the observers stated the first round of the elections was competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected, but “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process.”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of public order. The ministry is the primary law enforcement organization and includes the national police force, the border security force, and the Georgian Coast Guard. The State Security Service of Georgia is the internal intelligence service responsible for counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and anticorruption efforts. There were indications that at times civilian authorities did not maintain effective control of domestic security forces. Members of the security forces allegedly committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious problems with the independence of the judiciary along with detentions, investigations and prosecutions widely considered to be politically motivated; unlawful interference with privacy; limited respect for freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took steps to investigate some officials for human rights abuses, but impunity remained a problem, including a lack of accountability for the inappropriate police force used against journalists and protesters during June 2019 demonstrations and the 2017 abduction and rendition from Georgia of Azerbaijani journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli.

Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside central-government control and de facto authorities were supported by Russian forces. The 2008 ceasefire remained in effect, but Russian guards restricted the movement of local populations. Significant human rights issues in the regions included: unlawful killing, including in South Ossetia; unlawful detentions; restrictions on movement, especially of ethnic Georgians; restrictions on voting or otherwise participating in the political process; and restrictions on the ability of ethnic Georgians to own property or register businesses. While there was little official information on the human rights and humanitarian situation in South Ossetia, de facto authorities refused to permit most ethnic Georgians driven out by the 2008 conflict to return to their homes in South Ossetia. De facto authorities did not allow most international organizations regular access to South Ossetia to provide humanitarian assistance. Russian “borderization” of the administrative boundary lines increased, further restricting movement and separating residents from their communities and livelihoods. Russian and de facto authorities in both regions committed abuses with impunity.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The State Inspector’s Service investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions. There was at least one report that de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of the country committed an arbitrary or unlawful killing.

On July 7, Rustavi City Court convicted three Internal Affairs Ministry police officers, Mikheil Ghubianuri, Dimitri Dughashvili, and Davit Mirotadze, for deprivation of liberty and sentenced Dughashvili to nine years in prison and Mirotadze and Ghubianuri to a maximum of 10 years in prison. The convictions followed the October 2019 discovery of the body of David Mumladze, who disappeared earlier that month. Authorities arrested the three officers and charged them with illegally detaining Mumladze. The officers allegedly delivered Mumladze to members of a criminal group, who stabbed him and threw his body into a river.

On January 25, the Prosecutor General’s Office terminated its investigation into the 2018 death of 18-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili from gunshot wounds inflicted by security forces during a 2017 counterterrorism raid in the Pankisi Gorge. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the investigation was terminated due to the absence of a crime. In her annual report covering 2019, released on April 2, the public defender stated that after reviewing the case file in February, she had asked the prosecutor general to reopen the investigation. She considered it “imperative” to reopen the investigation as “several important investigative actions” had not been conducted. Machalikashvili’s father, Malkhaz, alleged the killing was unjustified. The Public Defender’s Office emphasized the importance of a transparent, objective, and timely investigation; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the subsequent investigation as lacking integrity. In August 2019 Malkhaz Machalikashvili began a nationwide campaign to collect signatures to force parliament to establish a fact-finding commission. In 2019 the public defender asked parliament to question the Prosecutor General’s Office regarding the investigation, stating this would “demonstrate systemic problems” in the office. In October 2019 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) opened discussion of the case.

The trial for the 2008 death of Badri Patarkatsishvili continued as of August. The trial began in March 2019, following an investigation begun in 2018 by the Prosecutor General’s Office (then known as the Chief Prosecutor’s Office) after releasing audio tapes dating back to 2007 in which former government officials were heard discussing methods of killing Patarkatsishvili that would make death appear natural. A former official of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Constitutional Security Department, Giorgi Merebashvili, was charged with participating in planning the killing. In November 2019 authorities charged four former officials of the department–Gia Dgebuadze, David Kokiashvili, Ilia Gamgebeli, and Levan Kargadava–with abuse of power and illegal detention for allegedly arranging the arrest of Jemal Shamatava, an Ureki police chief, after Shamatava warned Patarkatsishvili of a potential attack in 2006. On July 27, the Tbilisi City Court found the four defendants guilty. Levan Kargadava and Gia Dgebuadze each received seven years and six months’ imprisonment, and David Kokiashvili and Ilia Gamgebeli entered a plea agreement and received 18 months’ imprisonment.

In November 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office charged former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili and the leader of opposition party Victorious Georgia, Irakli Okruashvili, with abuse of power in connection with the 2004 killing of Amiran (Buta) Robakidze. The trial at Tbilisi City Court–which began later that month–continued as of December. On December 2, hearings in the cases of Okruashvili and several other high-profile defendants were postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

There was at least one report that de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied regions of the country committed an unlawful killing. On August 28, Inal Jabiev, age 28, reportedly died in the custody of de facto South Ossetian police and was allegedly tortured to death. He was detained on August 26 on charges of attempting to assault de facto “minister of internal affairs” Igor Naniev on August 17. No one was injured during the incident. Jabiev’s reported death sparked widespread protests in occupied South Ossetia leading to the removal of Naniev, the resignation of the de facto “prime minister,” and the dissolution of the “government” by the de facto “president.”

b. Disappearance

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

The government’s investigation into the reported abduction and forced rendition of Azerbaijani freelance journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli from Georgia to Azerbaijan by government officials, begun in 2017, remained stalled. During the year the Public Defender’s Office, local and international NGOs, and the international community continued to express concerns regarding impunity for government officials in connection with the Mukhtarli case. Following Mukhtarli’s March 17 release from Azerbaijani prison and arrival in Germany where his family resided in exile, the Prosecutor General’s Office sought German approval to interview Mukhtarli. On October 1, the Prosecutor General’s Office received the results of a July 27 German police interview, and the investigation continued as of December. In her April report, the public defender noted that after Mukhtarli’s release from prison, he attributed his abduction to an agreement between senior Azerbaijani and Georgian government officials. Concerns of government involvement in Mukhtarli’s disappearance from Tbilisi and arrest on the Azerbaijan-Georgia border therefore continued.

More than 2,300 individuals remained missing following the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia and the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). During the year the government did not make significant progress on investigating the disappearances of ethnic Ossetians Alan Khachirov, Alan Khugaev, and Soltan Pliev, who disappeared in 2008.

In October 2019 the government created the Interagency Commission on Missing Persons in line with ICRC recommendations. The government convened the first meeting of the commission but suspended subsequent sessions due to COVID-19.

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

While the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports government officials employed them. In her July 9 report to the United Nations in advance of Georgia’s Universal Periodic Review, the public defender described effective investigation into alleged mistreatment as “a systemic problem.” She reported that of 107 requests for investigation her office sent to the Prosecutor’s Office between 2013 and 2019, the responsible person was not identified in any of the cases.

As of December the Public Defender’s Office asked the State Inspector’s Service to investigate 40 alleged cases of human rights violations in government institutions, 19 of which concerned violations allegedly committed by Internal Affairs Ministry personnel, 18 involved alleged crimes committed by penitentiary department staff, and one allegedly involved Justice Ministry staff. In two of the 40 requests, the responsible agency was not clear. The State Inspector’s Service opened investigations into 256 cases. Eleven investigations were in response to the Public Defenders Office’s request. The State Inspector’s Service directed five investigations to other investigative agencies and did not identify elements of a crime in four cases. An investigation of one case continued at year’s end.

As of October the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) reported it consulted on six allegations and submitted one complaint of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in prisons or by law enforcement agencies to the Prosecutor General’s Office for investigation, compared with 25 for 2019.

Trials against three police officers stemming from the June 2019 protests were underway at year’s end. The officers were charged with exceeding authority by using violence or weapons, which is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment and deprivation of the right to hold public office for up to three years (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).

The trial of Detective Investigator Konstantine Kochishvili for allegedly physically assaulting a minor by spitting in his face and beating him in February 2019 continued as of December. During the course of the beating, Kochishvili reportedly broke the minor’s arm. In May 2019 authorities arrested Kochishvili and charged him with degrading and inhuman treatment. On February 26, the Rustavi City Court released the defendant on bail of 5,000 lari ($1,500).

As of year’s end, several former officials remained on trial at Tbilisi City Court in various cases of torture and other crimes allegedly committed under the former government. The officials included the former deputy chief of the general staff, Giorgi Kalandadze; the former deputy culture minister, Giorgi Udesiani; and the former director of Gldani No. 8 prison, Aleksandre Mukhadze (see section 1.d.).

On September 7, police officer Mariana Choloiani was convicted in the Tbilisi City Court of obtaining testimony under duress during a December 2019 interrogation and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Choloiani used threats and intimidation to extract self-incriminating testimony from 15-year-old Luka Siradze regarding vandalism of a school. After his interrogation, Siradze committed suicide.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

While overall prison and detention facility conditions were adequate, conditions in some older facilities lacked sufficient ventilation, natural light, minimum living space, and adequate health care. Prison conditions in Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia were reported to be chronically substandard.

Physical Conditions: The public defender’s 2019 report, released in April, noted overcrowding remained a problem in some prison facilities, especially prisons 2, 8, 14, 15, and 17.

In previous years’ reports, NGOs expressed serious concern regarding a tendency of prisons visited to place prisoners in “de-escalation rooms” for up to 72 hours or shorter time intervals over a number of days. The same problem was highlighted in multiple “prison visit” reports and an annual report of the public defender’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). According to the Public Defender’s Office, “de-escalation rooms” were used as punishment, and their use was considered mistreatment of inmates.

While physical conditions in temporary detention isolators were “on the whole acceptable,” the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on its 2018 visit to the country also highlighted several other deficiencies, including minimum living space, and the placement of remand prisoners with inmates at large facilities (prisons 2 and 8). Inmate-on-inmate violence, criminal subcultures, and informal management by selected prisoners remained persistent problems.

The Public Defender’s Office reported an increase in inmate-on-inmate violence, which in most cases was underreported and never investigated.

The NPM’s annual report identified informal management by “strong inmates” (“watchers”), as one of the most concerning issues. Some members of prison management acknowledged the problem. The Public Defender’s Office raised the issue and requested assistance from the administration at public hearings. Subsequently, the Special Penitentiary Service began restricting the public defender’s staff’s access to prisons. According to the public defender and NGOs, the Ministry of Justice refused to acknowledge the “watchers” and the danger they represented to inmates and the outside world upon release. The Public Defender’s Office reported such informal control “often leads to interprisoner violence and bullying,” and “watchers” controlled prisoners’ access to clothing, food, medicine, and packages sent from their families. Some prisoner victims of “watchers” requested transfer to high-risk prisons or self-isolation to escape, increasing risks of mental health issues among the prison population. In December members of the Public Defender’s Office reported being verbally and physically harassed by a “watcher” in prison number 8. Although number 8 was a “closed” prison, “watchers” roamed freely outside their cells.

The Public Defender’s Office 2019 annual report, released in April, stated cell toilets for detainees generally were only partially screened, and criminal suspects had limited access to a shower, outdoor exercise, as well as no family contacts or telephone calls. Lack of fresh air and activities were problematic at closed institutions. Inmates in “closed” prisons (2 and 8) were locked up for 23 hours a day with limited or no access to rehabilitation and resocialization services; this was especially problematic for inmates with mental health issues.

While the Ministry of Justice maintained a special medical unit for prisoners with disabilities, the Public Defender’s Office reported prisons and temporary detention centers did not take into account the needs of persons with disabilities, including for medical services. The office also noted the majority of institutions failed to compile data on and register the needs of persons with disabilities. According to the Special Penitentiary Service, some facilities began to adapt their infrastructure to accommodate persons with disabilities (see section 6, Persons with Disabilities).

Mental health care remained inadequate within the penitentiary system. There was no national strategy for treating prisoners with mental disabilities. Initial screening of prisoners’ mental health using a specialized instrument occurred only at prisons 2 and 8; multiple screenings did not happen at any institution. The system lacked qualified social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and ward-based staff.

In its 2018 visit to three psychiatric hospitals, the CPT found many patients lived in “woefully dilapidated and sometimes overcrowded dormitories, which lacked privacy and failed to ensure patients’ dignity.” The CPT also reported a shortage of psychiatrists and ward-based staff. There were no significant changes or improvements reported since this assessment.

Administration: The Public Defender’s Office noted there was only one ombudsperson authorized to respond to complaints by prisoners and reported that obstacles, such as a lack of information on their rights, fear of intimidation, distrust of the outcome, and lack of confidentiality, could deter prisoners from filing complaints with judicial authorities. According to the NPM’s 2019 annual report, the number of complaints from semiopen prisons decreased, which may be explained by the informal “watcher” system. Staffing levels of one security officer to more than 100 inmates were inadequate at semiopen facilities and created an insecure environment for both inmates and administration. According to the office, records on registering and distributing detainees in temporary detention centers were often incomplete or erroneous.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by international prison monitoring organizations, including the CPT, the International Corrections Management Training Center, and some local and international human rights groups. The NPM had access to penitentiaries, conducted planned and unscheduled visits, and was allowed to take photographs during monitoring visits. NPM members, however, did not have unimpeded access to video recordings of developments in penitentiaries and inmate medical files, as well as some disciplinary proceedings for inmates.

The law prohibits video or audio surveillance of meetings between the Public Defender’s Office and prison inmates. Within hours of Public Defender Nino Lomjaria’s January 21 special report on prisons, however, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani released a video recording of a Public Defender’s Office representative’s prison visit. The public defender and NGOs questioned how the Justice Ministry acquired the recording, given the prohibition on surveillance of the office’s representatives’ meetings with inmates. The Justice Ministry’s Special Penitentiary Service also informed journalists the public defender met with three named prisoners, including two former senior opposition figures, on January 23. The public defender asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate, but the office refused to do so.

The ICRC had full access to prisons and detention facilities in undisputed Georgian territory and some access to facilities in South Ossetia. The ICRC originally did not have access to Zaza Gakheladze, who was detained July 11 by Russian “border guards” along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line, but the ICRC reported access multiple times as of year’s end. Gakheladze suffered a leg wound during detention and was hospitalized. On July 27, de facto authorities transferred him to a pretrial detention facility in occupied South Ossetia. The ICRC generally did not have access to prisons and detention facilities in Abkhazia. The ICRC reported it had an ad hoc visit to one detainee in Abkhazia during the year.

Improvements: An October 2019 report supported by the UN Development Program on Georgia’s implementation of the National Strategy for the Protection of Human Rights 2014-2020 noted there was “significant improvement” in resolving prison overcrowding during this period.

The role of social work significantly increased following the July 2018 merger of the penitentiary system into the Ministry of Justice. Recent reforms clearly defined the terms of reference for case managers (professional social workers responsible for risks and needs assessment of inmates and provision of relevant interventions/services) and case administrators (responsible for technical assistance and coordination of low-risk cases). The goal of separating the two functions was to promote professional social work and stop employing representatives of other professions as “social workers” with multiple job functions.

The penitentiary system revised its risk and needs assessment with the support of the EU-funded Penitentiary and Probation Support Project. The assessment was piloted in penitentiary establishments and probation bureaus and was fully implemented in prisons 5, 11, and 16 by mid-December.

During the year the Ministry of Justice replaced its Prison and Probation Training Center with the new Vocational and Educational Center for Offenders, which focused on creating “out of cell” activities for inmates, helping inmates develop necessary skills to find jobs in prisons and outside, and working with the private sector to introduce prison industries into the penitentiary system. The penitentiary service also established a new escort unit to provide safe and secure transportation of inmates within the country.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government’s observance of these prohibitions was uneven, and reports of arbitrary arrests continued.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Law enforcement officers must have a warrant to make an arrest except in limited cases. The criminal procedure code provides that an arrest warrant may be obtained only where probable cause is shown that a person committed a crime for which conviction is punishable by imprisonment and that the individual may abscond or fail to appear in court, destroy evidence, or commit another crime. GYLA noted the law did not explicitly specify the role and powers of a judge in reviewing the lawfulness of arrests and that courts often failed to examine the factual circumstances of the detention.

Upon arrest a detainee must be advised of his or her legal rights. Any statement made after arrest but before a detainee is advised of his or her rights is inadmissible in court. The arresting officer must immediately take a detainee to the nearest police station and record the arrest, providing a copy to the detainee and his or her attorney. The Public Defender’s Office reported, however, maintenance of police station logbooks was haphazard and that in a number of cases the logbooks did not establish the date and time of an arrest.

Detainees must be indicted within 48 hours and taken to court within 72 hours. Anyone taken into custody on administrative grounds has the right to be heard in court within 12 hours after detention. Violating these time limits results in the immediate release of the person.

The law permits alternatives to detention. NGOs and court observers reported the judiciary failed to use alternative measures adequately. The government also lacked a monitoring mechanism for defendants not in custody.

Detainees have the right to request immediate access to a lawyer of their choice and the right to refuse to make a statement in the absence of counsel. An indigent defendant charged with a crime has the right to counsel appointed at public expense. As a result of government income requirements, however, many low-income defendants were ineligible for government aid but could not afford counsel during critical stages of criminal proceedings.

Detainees facing possible criminal charges have the right to have their families notified by the prosecutor or the investigator within three hours of arrest; persons charged with administrative offenses have the right to notify family upon request. The public defender’s 2018 report noted improvement in the observance of this right: families were notified within three hours of arrest in 82 percent of cases examined in 2018, compared with 71 percent of cases in 2017. The law requires the case prosecutor to approve requests by persons in pretrial detention to contact their family.

Witnesses have the right to refuse to be interviewed by law enforcement officials for certain criminal offenses. In such instances prosecutors and investigators may petition the court to compel a witness to be interviewed if they have proof that the witness has “necessary information.” The Public Defender’s Office reported that police continued to summon individuals as “witnesses” and later arrested them. According to the defender’s office, police used “involuntary interviews” of subjects, often in police cars or at police stations. The public defender’s annual report for 2019 noted that police regularly failed to advise interviewees of their rights prior to initiating interviews and failed to maintain records of individuals interviewed in police stations or vehicles.

Concerns persisted regarding authorities’ use of administrative detention to detain individuals for up to 15 days without the right to an effective defense, defined standards of proof, and the right to a meaningful appeal.

Arbitrary Arrest: Reports of arbitrary detentions continued. In one example, on October 7, authorities arrested two former members of the government Commission on Delimitation and Demarcation, Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova. The Prosecutor General’s Office charged them with attempting to violate the country’s territorial integrity during the commission’s work in 2005-07 on the state border with Azerbaijan. On October 8, they were remanded to two months of pretrial detention. Georgian NGOs and political opposition contacts described the “cartographers’ case” as politically motivated, highlighting the timing of the investigation in the pretrial period. Partisan statements by senior ruling party officials linking the case to the elections reinforced these concerns. On November 30, the Tbilisi City Court upheld the pretrial detention sentence, which the defendants’ attorneys said they would appeal. The case occurred during the violent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, increasing tension in the country’s already destabilized border region.

The Public Defender’s Office and local NGOs issued reports describing unsubstantiated detentions of demonstrators in connection with the June 2019 protests (see section 2.b.). For example, in the annual report covering 2019 released in April, the public defender stated the majority of protesters who were arrested were charged with violations of the code of administrative offenses; the public defender described the contents of the violations and arrest reports as “mostly identical and…formulaic.” On June 24, the Human Rights Center reported the court agreed to the pretrial detention of “all accused protesters based on banal, abstract, and often identical solicitations of the prosecutors.”

As of year’s end, the trial of former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili continued in the Tbilisi City Court. In 2016 the Chief Prosecutor’s Office charged Adeishvili in absentia in connection with the alleged illegal detention and kidnapping of a former opposition leader, Koba Davitashvili, in 2007.

There were frequent reports of detentions of Georgians along the administrative boundary lines of both the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For example, de facto South Ossetian authorities unlawfully detained Genadi Bestaev in November 2019, Khvicha Mghebrishvili on July 3, and Zaza Gakheladze on July 11. Khvicha Mghebrishvili was released on September 25, but Bestaev and Gakheladze remained in custody as of December 31.

Pretrial Detention: According to Supreme Court statistics, during the first nine months of the year, of 7,507 defendants presented to the court for pretrial detention, trial courts applied pretrial detention in 47.9 percent of cases, compared with 48.3 percent for the same period in 2019.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There is no meaningful judicial review provided by the code of administrative violations for an administrative detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, there remained indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality. Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside the judiciary.

The Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to raise concerns regarding a lack of judicial independence. During the year they highlighted problems, including the influence of a group of judges primarily consisting of High Council of Justice members and court chairs that allegedly stifled critical opinions within the judiciary and obstructed proposals to strengthen judicial independence. NGOs referred to this group of influential and nonreformist judges as the “clan.” Other problems they highlighted included the impact of the High Council’s powers on the independence of individual judges, manipulation of the case distribution system, a lack of transparency in the High Council’s activities, and shortcomings in the High Council’s appointments of judges and court chairpersons.

The Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to highlight shortcomings in the 2017 legislative package informally known as the “third wave of judicial reform.” They pointed to problems in the laws’ implementation and highlighted challenges to judicial independence, including flawed processes for selecting judges at all court levels, many to lifetime appointments, which left the judiciary vulnerable to political influence.

In December 2019 parliament passed a “fourth wave” of judicial reform. The legislation incorporated several key provisions, based on best international practices, that aim to create greater transparency, accountability, and independence in the judiciary, in areas such as judicial discipline, appointment, and caseload management. The package, however, left the authority to select individual court chairs with the High Council of Justice; NGOs warned this power would allow the High Council to continue to influence individual judges. NGOs reported one of the levers court chairs used to influence the outcomes of cases was creating narrowly specialized chambers in larger courts to manipulate the randomized case assignment process. At their sole discretion, court chairpersons assigned judges to narrowly specialized chambers without any clear rules or pre-established criteria. A court chairperson could at any time reshuffle the composition of narrowly specialized chambers and change the specialization of a judge. Chairpersons were not legally required to substantiate such a decision.

The long-standing practice of transferring judges from one court to another also remained a problem. The decisions regarding transfers were made by the High Council of Justice; however, these decisions were unsubstantiated. NGOs warned of transfers of judges without competition to the administrative chambers and boards two months prior to the October 31 parliamentary elections in the three most strategic and overcrowded courts, the Tbilisi and Kutaisi Courts of Appeal and the Tbilisi City Court.

Administrative chambers adjudicate election disputes. Most of the judges transferred to administrative chambers panels were affiliated with the “clan,” and almost all of them were associated with high-profile cases.

NGOs reported the courts did not serve as an effective check over election administration bodies following the October 31 parliamentary elections while reviewing appeals against decisions made by the Precinct and District Election Commission. According to statistics published on November 12 by the High Court of Justice, 96 election disputes reached the court system. The courts sustained only 16 percent of them.

In one case, Bolnisi Court, followed by the Tbilisi Court of Appeals, declined to annul the votes in a precinct or order a repeat vote after video evidence showed that one person illegally voted in the same precinct several times in Bolnisi.

NGOs alleged the High Council of Justice purposefully failed to address the problematic caseload backlog in courts in order to maintain a powerful lever for influencing judges. Because of the backlog, the vast majority of judges failed to comply with statutory terms for case review, which can be subject to judicial discipline. According to the Office of the Inspector for Judicial Discipline under the High Council of Justice, 40 of 60 complaints reported in the first quarter of the year concerned case delays.

Despite these “waves” of reforms, on June 23, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary stated, “During almost 30 years since the declaration of Georgia’s independence, the country still has not managed to build an independent judiciary. Regrettably, we are still talking about political influences and corruption in the courts. The latter still do not manage to restrain and control the other branches of government, while judicial decisions do not essentially comply with human rights standards and fairness.” The coalition blamed what it described as “clan-based governance” within the judiciary for the failure of the “waves” of reforms to alter the court system significantly.

According to the law, the Conference of Judges is a judicial self-governing body composed of all judges in the country’s courts. During a convocation of the body that convened on October 30, participants elected two new judge-members and a secretary of the High Court of Justice. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary criticized the decision to hold the session a day before the parliamentary elections and select two new members and a secretary, stating the timing raised concerns regarding “the judicial clan’s” intention to occupy strategically important and influential positions in the court system with an aim to ensure the four-year presence of members loyal and acceptable to the clan in the High Council of Justice.

In May 2019 parliament adopted amendments regulating the selection of Supreme Court judges. In September 2019 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) released a report critical of the amendments and the High Council’s Supreme Court judge selection process. The ODIHR concluded the amendments fell short of providing for an open, transparent, and merit-based selection system and were not fully in line with international standards. The ODIHR identified several shortcomings in the High Council of Justice’s selection process and criticized its interviews of Supreme Court nominees as “highly dysfunctional and unprofessional.” It also noted the lack of transparency in the process could violate Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides basic provisions for an independent and impartial tribunal.

Following a lengthy process of public hearings, during which a number of candidates had difficulty demonstrating expertise or independence, in December 2019 parliament appointed 14 of the High Council’s 20 nominees to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary described the 14 appointed judges as “loyal to the clan.”

In a case submitted to the Constitutional Court in November 2019, the Public Defender’s Office challenged the constitutionality of the amendments regulating the Supreme Court selection process, arguing they violated the right to a fair trial. On July 30, by a split vote of four to four, the Constitutional Court Plenum rejected the office’s claim and ruled the High Council’s selection process was constitutional. The Public Defender’s Office responded that the decision violated the principle of transparency and further eroded trust in the judiciary. On September 16, the independent media outlet Civil.ge reported, “The July 30 ruling confirmed yet again the nearly complete takeover of all instances and branches of the Georgian judicial system by the ruling Georgian Dream party.” On October 23, Transparency International (TI) Georgia reported the judiciary had become fully controlled by a group of judges referred to as the “clan.”

During the period from April to May, the Supreme Court Plenum appointed two controversial judges to the Constitutional Court. NGOs criticized the opaque process and noted the selection decisions took place behind closed doors, candidate information was not shared prior to appointment, and the public did not have a chance to comment about candidates’ fitness for the job.

Several NGOs noted public confidence in the appointments required open processes that allowed for public comment. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary expressed “serious concerns” about the qualifications and integrity of the two judges and attributed their appointment to their “loyalty to the clan.”

In June the High Council of Justice announced an open competition for 99 vacant judicial positions. The High Council had not used open competition to fill trial court and Court of Appeals vacancies since 2018. On November 18, the High Council of Justice concluded the competition by filling only 36 judicial vacancies. As a result of the competition, 24 new judges, who were High School of Justice graduates, entered the system. Moreover, the High Council of Justice reappointed four sitting and eight former judges. Three candidates were appointed in appellate courts, leaving 10 positions vacant, and 33 candidates were appointed in the courts of the first instance, leaving 53 vacancies. Under the “fourth wave” of judicial reform legislation, the High Council of Justice is required to provide reasoning for the appointment or rejection of judicial candidates. By year’s end it had not done so.

On September 30, parliament amended the Law on Common Courts to improve the controversial selection process for Supreme Court judges by requiring the High Council of Justice to provide justification at several stages of the selection process, while also providing the right to appeal High Council decisions. Parliament’s Georgian Dream ruling party had requested a Venice Commission opinion on the amendments but approved the amendments rather than wait for the commission’s opinion. An EU representative described the parliament’s vote as a missed opportunity to foster public confidence in the selection process. The amended law went into effect on October 5.

Access to court decisions was restricted. Despite a June 2019 constitutional ruling that obliged parliament to provide public access to court decisions by the standards established by the Constitutional Court, parliament failed to comply with the obligation. Courts stopped publishing decisions on May 1.

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial. The Public Defender’s Office reported numerous violations of the right to a fair trial, and NGOs noted this right was not enforced in some high-profile, politically sensitive cases (see Political Prisoners and Detainees below). NGOs reported courts were inconsistent in their approaches to closing hearings to the public and at times did not provide an explanation for holding a closed hearing.

Defendants are presumed innocent and must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have a right to be present at their trial and to have a public trial except where national security, privacy, or protection of a juvenile is involved.

The law allows for trial in absentia in certain cases where the defendant has left the country. The code on administrative offenses does not provide the necessary due process provisions, especially when dealing with violations that could result in a defendant’s loss of liberty.

On March 21, the president declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the state of emergency, remote court hearings via electronic means of communication were possible. In May parliament amended the criminal procedure code (CPC) to permit remote criminal court hearings until July 15. In July amendments were made to permit remote criminal hearings until January 2021. December amendments permitted remote criminal hearings until July 1, 2021. The use of remote litigation was not consistently applied. Some judges and court users opposed any form of video conferencing in court proceedings. The low quality of voice and image transmission during video conferences, an insufficient number of properly equipped courtrooms, and the small number of video rooms in places of detention made remote proceedings difficult. During this time NGO representatives, who were largely barred from monitoring court proceedings, and legal professionals expressed concerns that remote litigation posed challenges for the right of the accused to a public hearing and impeded secure, confidential communication with defendants and access to evidence. They also noted remote litigation caused delays due to technical difficulties and witness intimidation when witnesses were physically present in a police station.

The law does not prescribe a maximum period for investigation of cases but stipulates a maximum period, nine months, for pretrial detention. If courts do not complete a case within this period, defendants must be released from pretrial detention pending completion of the trial. The criminal procedure code requires trial courts to issue a verdict within 24 months of completing a pretrial hearing.

In its report covering March 2019 through February, GYLA noted unreasonable delays in cases and court hearings were a serious factor in limiting the right to timely justice. The requirement of a continuous trial was met only in jury trial cases. GYLA also reported weak reasoning in court judgments and judges’ inability to maintain order in many cases. In its annual report for 2019 released in April, the Public Defender’s Office highlighted consideration of criminal cases was often delayed, going unreasonably beyond the terms determined by legislation, particularly in appeals courts and in administrative cases appealed by prisoners. The office also highlighted unreasonable delays–sometimes for five months–in courts’ handing decisions to parties and shortcomings in the examination of civil and administrative cases by appellate courts within the statutory time limit.

Examples of delayed proceedings included the cases of Temur Barabadze and founding Millennium Challenge Fund Georgia CEO Lasha Shanidze and his father, Shalva. The Shanidzes were convicted of embezzlement in 2011 after Barabadze testified against them. Barabadze later recanted his testimony, but a judicial review of the Shanidzes’ case continued to await the resolution of Barabadze’s case, also on charges of embezzlement. Hearings for Barabadze, however, did not begin until 2017. The trial court acquitted him in 2018, but the appellate court convicted him on the less serious charge of abuse of power following an appeal. In April 2019 prosecutors appealed the Tbilisi Appellate Court decision convicting Barabadze on lesser charges to the Supreme Court. The case was awaiting a Supreme Court decision as of year’s end.

Defendants have the right to meet with an attorney of their choice without hindrance, supervision, or undue restriction. Defendants enjoy the right to have an attorney provided at public expense if they are indigent, but many defendants and their attorneys did not always have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. In April the Public Defender’s Office reported positive changes made by the state in 2019 resulted in more frequent involvement of a lawyer in a case within the first 24 hours.

GYLA monitored online criminal trials during the March-June period. According to GYLA’s report, plea agreement court hearings, as well as pretrial and merits hearings, showed the defense was unable to establish effective communication with defendants remanded in penitentiary institutions due to emergency state restrictions. During virtual court hearings, several lawyers requested permission to have a conversation with the accused privately, yet the secretary of the session explained he or she would not be able to ensure the confidentiality of the conversation with the accused.

In criminal proceedings defendants and their attorneys have the right of access to prosecution evidence relevant to their cases no later than five days before the pretrial hearing and may make copies. Defendants have the right to question and confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf at trial. Defendants have the right to refuse to testify or incriminate themselves.

The Public Defender’s Office, civil society, and the international community recognized the administrative code lacked some due process provisions, since the law allows for those found guilty of administrative offenses to be punished with imprisonment without the due process provisions afforded to defendants charged under the criminal code.

Although a defendant generally has the right to appeal a conviction, making an effective appeal under the administrative code is difficult. By law defendants have 30 days to file an appeal once they receive the court’s written and reasoned judgment. Administrative sentences that entail incarceration must be appealed within 48 hours and other sentences within 10 days.

On May 22, parliament amended the code of administrative offenses to conform with standards set by the Constitutional Court. The amendments made it easier to appeal administrative penalties, including appeals of 15-day administrative detentions. These amendments followed a previous round of November 2019 administrative code amendments in response to an April 2019 Constitutional Court ruling which stated that requiring a defendant to appeal a court decision within 10 days after the issuance of that decision was unconstitutional. Parliament accordingly amended the code of administrative offenses by permitting an appeal within 10 days of the defendant’s receipt of the court’s decision containing the reasoning for the ruling. The amendments also introduced a new rule that if the circumstances do not allow the court decision to be handed to the defendant, it will be made public and will be considered to have been submitted to the defendant on the third day of its publication.

By law a court must certify that a plea bargain was reached without violence, intimidation, deception, or illegal promise and that the accused had the opportunity to obtain legal assistance. Plea bargaining provisions in the criminal procedure code provide safeguards for due process. The evidentiary standard for plea agreements stipulates that evidence must be sufficient to find a defendant guilty without a full trial of a case and must satisfy an objective person that the defendant committed the crime. In a report covering March 2019 through February, GYLA stated its monitors attended 527 plea agreement court hearings against 558 defendants. In four cases only, the court did not grant the motion submitted by the Prosecutor General’s Office on a plea agreement. In 190 (34 percent) of the observed court hearings, judges did not fully inform the defendants of their rights relating to the plea agreement. In 52 (10 percent) of the cases, the judge did not ask the accused whether he had been subjected to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment by law enforcement officials.

Based on the monitoring of criminal cases related to the June 2019 protests outside parliament, on June 24, the Human Rights Center reported defendants accepted unfair plea deals and often admitted guilt only to avoid a lengthy and delayed criminal process against them. This often happened when defendants were placed in pretrial detention. When making a decision on the plea agreement, the court is required to examine whether the accusation is substantiated, whether the requested punishment is just, and whether there is valid evidence to prove the guilt of the defendant. According to the Human Rights Center, however, these requirements were not met in the criminal cases related to the June 2019 protests.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

In a joint September 2019 statement, 16 local NGOs expressed alarm concerning what they termed an “increased number of politically motivated criminal investigations and prosecutions.” They cited as examples the criminal case against the two founders of TBC Bank (see section 4), the criminal cases against the former director of the television station Rustavi 2 and against the father of the owner of TV Pirveli (see section 2.a.), and some cases of incarceration of those who in June 2019 protested Russia’s occupation of parts of the country’s territory, including opposition party leader Irakli Okruashvili (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly).

Opposition party members and family members of prisoners stated the government held political prisoners. On May 15, President Salome Zourabichvili pardoned and released from incarceration European Georgia leader Gigi Ugulava and Victorious Georgia founder Irakli Okruashvili. Opposition parties had demanded their release based on a March 8 pre-election agreement with the ruling Georgian Dream party. Opposition parties and the international community welcomed the pardons.

The opposition continued to urge the release of opposition figure Giorgi Rurua, characterizing him as a political prisoner whose release was envisioned under the March 8 political agreement between ruling and opposition parties. In addition to election system changes, the agreement contained a provision that the government would address the appearance of political interference in the judicial system. On July 30, Rurua was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on two charges. On August 4, nine NGOs expressed concerns the case against Rurua was politically motivated and stated, “Prosecution on political grounds has recently become a weapon to influence political opponents or critical media outlets.”

The government permitted international and domestic organizations to visit persons claiming to be political prisoners or detainees, and several international organizations did so.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The constitution provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, but there were concerns regarding the process of assigning civil judges to narrow specializations, based on their loyalty to certain influential judges or others, and transparency of rulings. The constitution and law stipulate that a person who suffers damages resulting from arbitrary detention or other unlawful or arbitrary acts, including human rights violations, is entitled to submit a civil action. Individuals have the right to appeal court decisions involving alleged violation of the European Convention on Human Rights by the state to the ECHR after they have exhausted domestic avenues of appeal.

There were reports of lack of due process and respect for rule of law in a number of property rights cases. NGOs also reported several cases in which groups claimed the government improperly used tax liens to pressure organizations. For example, prior to its July 2019 change in ownership, the then opposition-oriented Rustavi 2 television station claimed it was unfairly targeted for its failure to pay taxes, while progovernment media did not experience similar scrutiny.

Since 2012 the government made it a priority to reduce the national caseload in the docket of the ECHR. The Justice Ministry reported that as of July, 52 cases were filed against Georgia at the ECHR, compared with 131 cases in all of 2019. According to the ministry, since 2012 a total of 86 cases were resolved with a settlement between parties, and 43 were resolved with the government’s acknowledgement of a violation.

Courts continued to suffer from excessive caseload and failed to dispose of civil cases within the fixed statutory terms. According to the civil procedure code, courts are required to hear civil cases within two months after receiving an application. A court that hears a particularly complex case may extend this term by up to five months, except for claims involving maintenance payments, compensation of damages incurred as a result of injury or other bodily harm or the death of a breadwinner, labor relations, and use of residences, which must be reviewed within one month.

The backlogs worsened during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courts heard a small number of civil cases remotely. According to NGOs monitoring the courts, the fact that the respondent rarely agreed to electronic proceedings prevented systematic use of remote hearings in civil cases.

Property Restitution

In Russian-occupied Abkhazia, the de facto legal system prohibits property claims by ethnic Georgians who left Abkhazia before, during, or after the 1992-93 war, thereby depriving internally displaced persons of their property rights. In April 2019 the de facto parliament of Abkhazia passed “legislation” that also deprived family members of those “who fought against the sovereignty of Abkhazia, participated in the hostilities against Abkhazia, or assisted occupational forces” of the right of inheritance.

In a June 29 report on human rights, Abkhaz “ombudsperson” Asida Shakryl addressed rights violations of the ethnic Georgian population residing in occupied Abkhazia. She particularly highlighted that the law neglects the rights of the “indigenous” population. For example, persons permanently residing in the Gali district, whose ancestors were born in Abkhazia and own property, have no right to elect members of, or be elected to “local government” bodies. They also have no right to sell or buy real estate.

In a 2010 decree, de facto South Ossetian authorities invalidated all real estate documents issued by the Georgian government between 1991 and 2008 relating to property in the Akhalgori Region. The decree also declared all property in Akhalgori belongs to the de facto authorities until a “citizen’s” right to that property is established in accordance with the de facto “law,” effectively stripping ethnic Georgians displaced in 2008 of their right to regain property in the region.

On November 27, the Georgian Democracy Research Institute (DRI) reported de facto South Ossetian authorities were using a “family reunification program” to relocate residents of South Ossetia to live with family members in Tbilisi-administered territory. Persons accepted to the “program” reportedly received “exit documents” from the de facto authorities, according to which they would not be allowed to return and reclaim property in South Ossetia. DRI raised particular concerns about the long-term effects of this program on residents of Akhalgori.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions without court approval or legal necessity and prohibit police from searching a residence or conducting nonconsensual electronic surveillance or monitoring operations without a warrant. NGOs, media, and others asserted the government did not respect these prohibitions. For example, there were widespread reports that the government monitored the political opposition. Local and international NGOs also reported government officials monitored independent Azerbaijani journalists and activists residing in the country. TI Georgia and the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center continued to raise concerns regarding the State Security Service of Georgia’s secret surveillance system and its lack of political neutrality and weak oversight.

During the year the Constitutional Court continued to review a case submitted by Member of Parliament Eka Beselia regarding the January 2019 release of a secretly recorded videotape of her private life. At the time of the videotape’s release, Beselia had been a Georgian Dream member of parliament advocating the strengthening of judicial independence. The president, the Public Defender’s Office, NGOs, and others urged law enforcement officials to prevent illegal surveillance and hold accountable those responsible for circulating such recordings. In January 2019 the Public Defender’s Office and the nongovernmental “This Affects You Too” campaign separately noted such recordings had been previously released with impunity and emphasized the practice mainly targeted politically active women. The campaign stated in part, “It is very alarming that the timing of the circulation of illegal recordings coincides with the critical statements of Eka Beselia in relation to the processes in the judiciary. It is of deep concern if certain individuals used the illegal recordings as a means to stall reforms in the judiciary and protect the interests of the clan of judges that wield significant power within the judiciary.” The videotape’s release occurred in the context of contentious parliamentary debate concerning draft legislation regulating the process for selecting Supreme Court justices. As of year’s end, two new Constitutional Court judges were studying the case file.

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 citizens generally were free to exercise this right, although there were allegations the government at times did not adequately safeguard that freedom. During the year journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised serious concerns regarding the environment for media pluralism. In addition to raising such concerns, the Public Defender’s Office noted in its April parliamentary report covering 2019 that the country continued to lack proper statistics on offenses committed against journalists.

Freedom of Speech: NGOs accused the justice minister of attempting to restrict freedom of speech by suspending notary Bachana Shengelia from office on June 19 for comments he posted on Facebook regarding the controversial 2018 death of his mother, school principal Ia Kerzaia (see the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia, section 3). GYLA described the suspension as a restriction on freedom of expression and submitted a case on Shengelia’s behalf to the Constitutional Court on July 6.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. NGOs continued to express concern regarding the close relationship between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, the public broadcaster’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party, decreased media pluralism, and a number of criminal prosecutions against owners of media outlets that appeared politically motivated.

In June parliament appointed Bondo Mdzinarishivli as a member of the nine-member Georgian Public Broadcaster Board of Trustees. Many media watchers expressed concern about Mdzinarishvili’s appointment, as he was known for his homophobic rhetoric at TV Obiektivi.

Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding decreased media pluralism and continuing political influence in media. Concerns also persisted regarding government interference with some media outlets. Persistent allegations of political pressure on public broadcasters remained. During the year civil society groups alleged the ruling party continued to attempt to gain undue influence over Adjara Public Broadcaster following the controversial dismissal of Natia Kapanadze, the former director of Adjara Television, in April 2019. Kapanadze appealed the decision in court but lost. After several attempts, in November 2019 the Adjara Public Broadcaster Advisory Council elected a new director, Giorgi Kokhreidze, who fired and harassed dozens of employees who were vocally critical of the management.

On February 2, Natia Zoidze, deputy director of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, resigned as a result of what Reporters without Borders termed “political pressure.” Approximately one-third of the station’s employees (100) founded an alternative trade union to protect their rights. Solidarity rallies were held in several cities, including Batumi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi, in support of Adjara Public Broadcaster’s employees and editorial policy. In March the public defender expressed concern regarding the possible negative effect the developments might have on freedom of expression, as did Reporters without Borders; Harlem Desir, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media; and 33 local NGOs. Former employees of Adjara Public Broadcaster and their respective trade unions filed several lawsuits and applied to the Prosecutor’s Office alleging harassment, interference with journalistic activities, and unlawful termination by Giorgi Kokhreidze.

Concerns continued regarding decreased media pluralism and an increase in the concentration of media outlets in favor of the ruling party following the July 2019 ECHR ruling in favor of a former owner of Rustavi 2, Kibar Khalvashi. Whereas the previous owner had been affiliated with the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, Khalvashi was affiliated with the ruling party. During the year some journalists who had been fired due to changes of management and staff sought to defend their labor rights in court. Many media watchers expressed concern and called upon international watchdog groups to monitor thoroughly developments around the station. As of December, Rustavi 2’s reporting critical of the government had softened, particularly in the pre-election period. Rustavi 2’s former general director, Nika Gvaramia, and many journalists who formerly worked for Rustavi 2 moved to media outlet Mtavari Arkhi, which was established in September 2019 and was aligned with the opposition UNM party and one of the harshest critics of the ruling party. Other journalists who had worked at Rustavi 2 joined Formula TV, launched in August 2019, or TV Pirveli.

The Public Defender’s Office, some media watchers, NGOs, and opposition parties expressed suspicion that a number of criminal prosecutions against critical media outlets or their owners were politically motivated. On July 9, for example, the public defender stated that multiple criminal cases against owners of independent television companies raised questions about “attempts to persecute independent and critical media in the country.” On August 4, nine NGOs questioned the legality of the July 30 Tbilisi City Court criminal conviction of Giorgi Rurua, a shareholder of Mtavari Arkhi, and four-year prison sentence on charges related to the illegal purchase, storage, and carrying of firearms and ammunition. They also stated they saw reason to suspect the case was politically motivated. Several rights groups and opposition parties attributed the criminal proceedings against Rurua, and the verdict against him, to his activism during the June 2019 protest rallies (see Section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly) and his acquisition of a share in the opposition television station.

On December 1, Mtavari Arkhi’s general director Nika Gvaramia was notified a court case against him would resume on December 7. The opposition perceived this as the ruling party’s retribution for Mtavari Arkhi’s favorable coverage of the UNM. The case involved allegations that Nika Gvaramia exchanged advertising for two vehicles from Porsche Center Tbilisi. In summer 2019 Gvaramia was charged with abuse of power, misappropriation of property, and commercial bribery. The public defender stated that holding a company director civilly liable for the company’s decision should apply only in exceptional circumstances and that criminal liability should be even rarer. Gvaramia and a number of media advocacy groups disputed the charges, claiming they were politically motivated. Earlier in the year, Gvaramia claimed to have been physically assaulted and his family surveilled. His trial date remained postponed at year’s end.

In early January journalists from a business program at Maestro, a member of Imedi Media Holding, alleged censorship and political interference from Imedi TV’s director shortly before the program was shut down in March. The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics (GCJE) described the case as a violation of the charter’s principle providing noninterference with journalists’ work.

Media rights groups alleged the GNCC sought to restrict freedom of the broadcast media through controversial amendments passed by parliament to the electronic communication law. The amendments, which were adopted on July 17, allow the GNCC to appoint special “media managers” to telecommunications companies–which include a number of broadcasters that operate as electronic communication companies through multiplexes–to enforce GNCC decisions. Local telecommunication companies also criticized the amendments, as did Reporters without Borders, which characterized the amendments as a government attempt to control radio stations and television channels.

Passage of the July amendments occurred in the context of concerns the GNCC sought to restrict freedom of expression through its online platform, Media Critic, created in December 2019. The platform was designed to examine and guide media content, and many media watchers voiced concern that the GNCC had overstepped its operational mandate. Mediachecker, a self-regulatory media monitoring platform, asserted Media Critic’s main activity was to criticize independent media outlets.

On November 1, the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission reported that during the parliamentary election campaign the diverse and pluralistic media were highly polarized, and there was little analytical reporting and policy-based discussion, detracting from the voters’ ability to make a fully informed choice. The November 9 monitoring report on parliamentary elections by the GCJE stated the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s newscasts dedicated the largest portion of the time to the ruling party and that the government enjoyed the highest indicators of positive coverage.

By law media outlets are obligated to disclose information concerning their owners.

Violence and Harassment: There were attacks on journalists during the October election campaign allegedly by political party representatives. The GCJE, in a statement released in November, complained of verbal and physical abuse against media on Election Day by unknown assailants. On one occasion at a voting precinct, a journalist from online Publika.ge was assaulted and injured and his camera was broken. A criminal investigation was underway. In addition, a TV Pirveli journalist was hit in the face, and an On.ge reporter’s camera was damaged.

The GCJE also reported disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials at a rally near the Central Election Commission. According to media reports, police injured four journalists and damaged their equipment. The GCJE alleged police intentionally targeted the media representatives with water cannons.

Throughout the year the Prosecutor General’s Office repeatedly claimed it continued to investigate attacks on journalists by law enforcement officers during the June 2019 protests in which several journalists were injured. Some journalists and NGOs claimed these injuries occurred as a result of the deliberate targeting of journalists. For example, GYLA stated law enforcement officers “deliberately fired rubber bullets” at media representatives, despite their identification badges. According to the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, 39 journalists were among the 240 injured, and GYLA and TI Georgia asserted they should be recognized as victims. The Prosecutor General’s Office questioned several journalists as witnesses. As of year’s end, the Prosecutor General’s investigation continued.

On June 12, the State Security Service of Georgia arrested a Russian citizen suspected in an alleged plot to kill Giorgi Gabunia, a Mtavari Arkhi journalist who in July 2019 insulted President Putin on a live show. The station’s general director and local media said the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, ordered the killing. The latter denied his involvement. The Media Advocacy Coalition and Reporters without Borders urged the government to investigate the incident in a timely manner. On November 27, Gabunia received victim status. As of year’s end, the investigation continued.

There were some reports of harassment against media. For example, NGOs considered the State Security Service of Georgia’s investigation of Mtavari Arkhi for a report it broadcast to constitute harassment. On June 20, a number of media observers announced they considered the investigation gross interference in the editorial independence of the media, creating a risk of self-censorship. TI Georgia and the Media Advocacy Coalition advised the government to use the GCJE or a self-regulatory body operating at the television channel instead of opening a criminal investigation. The investigation was opened under the charge of discrediting the government, inflaming mistrust toward the authorities, which is punishable under the criminal code.

On June 24, the general secretary of the ruling party, Mayor Kakha Kaladze, posted to Facebook a photograph depicting three opposition-leaning media outlets (Mtavari Arkhi, Formula TV, and TV Pirveli) as generators of lies. The page referred to “Mtavari (main) Lie,” “Formula of the Lie,” and “Pirveli (first) Lie.” The post advertised a new initiative from the mayor of Tbilisi’s office, “Truth Punch,” a Facebook live series that was intended to combat disinformation in the media. On June 25, the Media Advocacy Coalition along with 11 member rights groups characterized the mayor’s post as an attempt “to use his political power to intensify attacks on media.” The mayor’s office took down the Truth Punch platform after two live streams, attributing the move to the summer season and criticism by media experts.

On October 21, a few days before parliamentary elections, Avtandil Tsereteli, father of the TV Pirveli owner, stated his life was threatened by some unknown persons if he did not change the station’s editorial policy.

Some watchdog groups, such as TI Georgia, expressed concern that law enforcement bodies summoned journalists for questioning and asked them to identify their sources. The law allows journalists to maintain the anonymity of their sources and not to be compelled to testify as a witness.

Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged Georgian Dream party chair and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continued to exert a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in government actions against the owner of TV Pirveli and the general director of Mtavari Arkhi.

On May 5, Facebook removed a network of pages, groups, and accounts linked to news agency Espersona, a media organization owned by a former Georgian Dream public relations consultant, claiming these were “fake news” pages. At the same time, Facebook took down a set of assets connected to the UNM party. Both parties denied any connection to the pages in question.

While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by Russian and de facto authorities.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but concerns remained regarding unauthorized surveillance. Insufficient information was available regarding general internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In February a number of governments criticized Russia for launching disruptive cyberattacks in Georgia in October 2019. The cyberattacks directly affected the population, several thousand government and privately run websites, and interrupted the broadcast of at least two major television stations. In October, according to the Georgian Public Broadcaster website, a “cyberattack” caused it to stop broadcasting in the early evening on election day. It resumed broadcasting shortly after polls closed.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

On August 25, the Board of Appeals held a hearing on terminating the authorization of the Shota Rustaveli School-Lyceum. The board upheld a March decision citing numerous academic, managerial, and facility violations. The school’s representative appealed, highlighting ethnic Azeri children who would be deprived of education and the disproportional nature of the decision compared to similar cases. In March government education officials had terminated the authorization of the school, which was alleged to be affiliated with exiled Turkish Islamic scholar and cleric Fethullah Gulen, without giving the school time to redress shortcomings. The school’s authorization had been valid until 2023. A monitoring team from the Education Ministry’s National Center for Education Quality Development, however, visited the school in February and in March released a report asserting the school did not meet one of three standards required by law. The Authorization Board of General Education Institutions used the report as grounds immediately to terminate the school’s authorization without allowing school representatives to respond to and resolve the cited shortcomings. The board had given other schools a deadline for resolving deficiencies rather than issuing an immediate revocation of authorization. According to civil.ge, the school was the third alleged Gulen-affiliated educational institution closed by the Ministry of Education since 2017.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; government respect for those rights was uneven.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of assembly. Human rights organizations expressed concern, however, regarding provisions in the law, including the requirement that political parties and other organizations give five days’ notice to local authorities to assemble in a public area, thereby precluding spontaneous demonstrations. The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported that police sometimes restricted, or ineffectively managed, freedom of assembly.

To combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the government instituted a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. In the context of this state of emergency, on March 21, the president issued a decree restricting freedom of assembly. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the Law on Public Health giving the government power to restrict movement and gatherings, and to implement other measures without a state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until July 15. On July 14, parliament extended the amendments until the end of the year. On December 29, parliament extended the amendments to the Law on Public Health for six months, allowing the government to restrict rights without declaring a state of emergency and parliamentary oversight until July 1, 2021. There were no significant reports that the government abused its powers under the state of emergency.

While a number of protests took place during the year, there were reports that police restricted freedom of assembly at times. For example, the public defender and NGOs criticized police use of water cannons to disperse protesters outside of the Central Election Commission on November 8, after protesters tried to breach a metal fence around the commission. The public defender and the Georgian Democracy Initiative characterized this use of force as disproportionate. GYLA called it illegitimate and cited film footage showing that in some cases water cannons were directly targeted against peaceful protesters, resulting in injuries.

There were reports police continued to employ the administrative offenses code to restrict freedom of assembly. For example, in its December 10 report, Georgian Democracy Initiative stated authorities engaged in arbitrary administrative detention at a November 28 rally. In its June 19 report, GYLA stated police used the code to engage in the mass arrest of protesters in June 2019. The association described this as “unjustifiably restricting the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration.”

During the year the Public Defender’s Office and NGOs continued to report on the police response to the June 2019 protests outside parliament and the lack of accountability for police abuses. The protests proceeded peacefully until some protesters attempted to force their way into the parliament building. Police then used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons without warning to break up the protests, injuring more than 200 persons, according to the Public Defender’s Office.

In its annual report on 2019 released in April, and on June 20, the Public Defender’s Office stated the force used in dispersing the rally could not be considered proportionate. The office also highlighted police failure to warn the protesters as required by law and give them adequate time to leave the area prior to the use of force and special equipment, such as rubber bullets. There also were widespread accusations by NGOs that police used disproportionate and excessive force. In a June report, GYLA concluded the events of June 2019 remained uninvestigated by authorities and accused the Internal Affairs Ministry of having used “mostly illegal and disproportionate force” to disperse protesters and “excessive and unnecessary force” against individuals in police custody. The association reported that police subjected some individuals to mistreatment during and after their detention.

Following the events of June 2019, the Special Tasks Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs abandoned the use of rubber bullets in its less-lethal munitions arsenal.

In connection with the June 2019 events, the Prosecutor General’s Office filed charges against one Internal Affairs Ministry Special Tasks Department officer for intentionally targeting nonviolent protesters and two criminal police officers for abuse of power–one officer was accused of beating a prisoner while arresting him, and another of beating a protester held in a detention facility. The Tbilisi City Court was trying the three cases separately. The three defendants were charged with exceeding authority by using violence or weapons, a crime punishable by five to eight years of imprisonment and deprivation of the right to hold public office for up to three years. All three defendants were released on bail, and their trials continued as of year’s end.

In a special March 31 interim report, the Public Defender’s Office stated the prosecutor’s investigation of law enforcement actions in dispersing the protests was “still far from establishing the truth.” The office particularly faulted the Prosecutor General’s Office for the investigation’s lack of timeliness and thoroughness, including failing to provide a systemic legal analysis of events, failing to objectively or fully assess the responsibility of senior officials, and not fully implementing the Public Defender Office’s recommendations.

Three law enforcement officials were prosecuted in connection with the June 2019 events. As of June authorities had charged 17 activists with engaging in violence during the protests. Noting a substantially higher number of activists than police officers were injured, GYLA and the Human Rights Center raised concerns regarding the impartiality of the Prosecutor’s Office and termed the disparity in prosecutions “selective” in their June reports.

In its June 24 report, the Human Rights Center highlighted problems in the prosecution of a number of criminal cases against activists, including Morris Machalikashvili (also see section 1.e.). Machalikashvili, a nephew of Malkhaz Machalikashvili (see section 1.a.), was arrested following the June 20 protests and charged with “participation in group acts of violence against government officers.” He was previously detained in July 2019. Although investigators published video purporting to show Morris pushing police officers, the Human Rights Center reported the video did not show him engaging in violence against police. Malkhaz Machalikashvili and the Human Rights Center claimed Morris was only trying to exit the crowd and alleged the government was using Morris’ arrest to pressure Malkhaz Machalikashvili to drop his campaign for an investigation into his son’s death. On February 6, the court approved a plea agreement with Morris Machalikashvili that provided for a two-year conditional sentence.

The public defender reported violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem to which the government had not appropriately responded. As an example, she cited the government’s failure to take adequate measures to prevent homophobic groups from violently restricting the freedom of assembly of peaceful LGBTI activists in 2019. In October the Public Defender’s Office held a meeting with members of Tbilisi Pride and governmental offices to discuss the numerous vandalism attacks on Tbilisi Pride’s office over the summer. Civil society representatives at the meeting claimed police were not doing enough to prevent the attacks from happening and not investigating persons they believed were directing these attacks.

Freedom of Association

There were reports that some government representatives and supporters of the ruling party pressured political opposition figures and supporters (see sections 1.d. and 1.e.).

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 of citizens, but de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces limited this freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In-country Movement: There were substantial impediments to internal movement due to a lack of access to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The majority of the approximately 290,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and South Ossetia wished to return to their areas of origin but lacked adequate security provisions and political, human, economic, and movement protections absent a political resolution to the conflicts.

Foreigners were restricted from moving in and out of Russian-occupied South Ossetia but could access Russian-occupied Abkhazia with approval from the de facto authorities. The law prohibits entry into and exit from the Russian-occupied regions through the territory of neighboring states (i.e., Russia). There were reports in 2018 that Russia prohibited citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States countries from entering Abkhazia except from Russia, which violated Georgian law. These citizens, however, were at times able to enter from Tbilisi-administered territory if they were staff members of international organizations or if there was a request from an international organization such as the United Nations.

Russia and de facto Abkhaz authorities limited international organizations’ ability to operate in Abkhazia. Russia and de facto South Ossetian authorities limited access of international organizations, including humanitarian organizations, to South Ossetia. Before COVID-19, the cochairs of the Geneva International Discussions (GID)–representing the United Nations, the OSCE, and the EU–visited South Ossetia and Abkhazia approximately quarterly prior to most rounds of the GID. The ICRC office in Tskhinvali was the only international organization represented in South Ossetia.

De facto authorities and Russian forces in the Russian-occupied territories also restricted the movement of the local population across the administrative boundary lines. Although they showed some flexibility for travel for medical care, pension services, religious services, and education, in several instances during the year, de facto authorities hindered access to medical care in Tbilisi-administered territory for residents in the occupied territories. On July 7, media outlets reported the death of Akhalgori resident Gela Gariev at the Tskhinvali hospital after several failed attempts to cross the South Ossetia administrative boundary line to receive medical treatment in Tb