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Albania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Albania is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution vests legislative authority in the unicameral parliament (Assembly), which elects both the prime minister and the president. The prime minister heads the government, while the president has limited executive power. In June 2017, the country held parliamentary elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported the elections respected fundamental freedoms but were marred by allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included pervasive corruption in all branches of government.

Impunity remained a problem. Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution. In response, authorities have undertaken an internationally monitored vetting of judges and prosecutors, and have dismissed a significant number of officials for unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. Authorities also undertook technical measures, such as allowing electronic payment of traffic fines and use of body cameras, to improve police accountability and punished some lower-level officials for abuses.

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 was one report that the government or its agents committed an arbitrary or unlawful killing.

In May, a young Romani man died in detention in a police facility in Korca. His family alleged that he died due to police abuse, claiming they had photos of his body showing signs of violence. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent, constitutional entity that serves as a watchdog over the government, concluded there was not enough evidence to bring charges. The Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC), however, reported irregularities in documenting the incident and providing medical assistance to the detainee. The Albanian Rehabilitation Center from Trauma and Torture (ARCT) reported that the police officers allegedly involved in the detention were transferred to other positions.

b. Disappearance

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

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

While the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were reports that police and prison guards sometimes beat and abused suspects and prisoners, usually in police stations. Through September, the Service for Internal Affairs and Complaints (SIAC) received complaints of police abuse and corruption that led to administrative sanctions and criminal prosecutions. As of July, the AHC reported one case of alleged physical violence in a police facility. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that most cases of alleged physical or psychological abuse occurred during arrest and interrogation.

In May the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released a report on its February 2017 visit to the country. The report noted that in Durres, the CPT received reports of recent physical mistreatment of several persons by police, notably of severe beatings combined with blows with a truncheon or baseball bat to the soles of the feet, which the report stated “could easily be considered to amount to torture.” In all cases, the alleged mistreatment took place during questioning by officers of the crime investigation unit at Durres Police Station, and including one particular senior officer. The CPT report noted that authorities had initiated criminal and disciplinary investigations into the allegations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Poor physical conditions and a lack of medical treatment, particularly for mental health conditions, were serious problems, as were overcrowded facilities and corruption. The AHC and ARCT reported that conditions in certain detention facilities were so poor as to constitute inhumane treatment. Conditions remained substandard in police detention facilities outside of Tirana and other major urban centers.

Physical Conditions: ARCT reported the main problems prisons faced over the year were overcrowding, increases in deaths during detention, attempted suicides, and staff turnover. The government, the Office of the Ombudsman, the AHC, and ARCT reported that prison overcrowding continued. ARCT reported acute overcrowding in facilities in Elbasan, Fier (a new facility), Rrogozhina, Lushnja, Peqin, and Lezha. Overcrowding was worse in pretrial detention centers. In some cases, prison officials placed inmates not subject to disciplinary measures in isolation cells due to a lack of space elsewhere. Conditions in prison and detention centers for women were generally better than those for men.

The official cause of death for persons who died in detention was reported to be natural causes; there were no reports, however, of investigations to verify those conclusions. In six of the 10 reported cases of death in the penitentiary system in 2017, relatives complained that state authorities closed the files immediately without further investigation.

Prison and detention center conditions varied significantly by age and type of facility. The Office of the Ombudsman, the AHC, and ARCT identified problems in both new and old structures, such as dampness in cells, poor hygiene, lack of bedding materials, and inconsistent water and electricity supply. ARCT also reported some facilities had dirty bathroom facilities, no hot water, and insects.

According to ARCT, the number of inmates with mental health issues increased during the year. The Office of the Ombudsman and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that authorities held inmates with mental disabilities in regular prisons, where access to mental health care was wholly inadequate.

In its May report, the CPT also expressed serious concern that psychiatric patients at the Zaharia Special Facility for Ill Inmates in Kruja and the Prison Hospital in Tirana continued to be held under conditions that, in the CPT’s view, “could easily be considered for many patients to be inhuman and degrading.” The report also noted that living conditions in both facilities had deteriorated since the CPT’s previous visit in 2014. The government set up a working group in March 2017 to close the Zaharia prison and transfer patients to another facility.

Conditions in facilities operated by the Ministry of Interior, such as police stations and temporary detention facilities, were inadequate, except for regional facilities in Tirana (excluding its commissariats, which are smaller units falling under regional police directorates), Durres, Gjirokaster, Kukes, Fier, and Korca. Some detention facilities were unheated during the winter, and some lacked basic hygienic amenities, such as showers or sinks. Facilities were cramped, had limited access to toilets and little or no ventilation, natural light, or beds and benches. Camera monitoring systems were nonexistent or insufficient in the majority of police stations.

Prisoners serving sentences for terrorism convictions in Fushe-Kruja were frequently isolated without adherence to a clear process governing their detention or a deradicalization or rehabilitation program.

Administration: The Office of the Ombudsman reported prison and police officials generally cooperated with investigations. The General Directorate for Prisons (GDP) received 77 complaints through July, while the Office of the Ombudsman received 276 complaints from detainees and inmates through August. The majority concerned the quality of health care, prisoner welfare, and overcrowding. The Office of the Ombudsman, however, did not refer any cases for prosecution.

Corruption continued to be a serious problem in detention centers, particularly in connection with access to work and special release programs. In May, the former general director of prisons, Artur Zoto, was convicted for his involvement in creating fake procurement documents for food-supply companies. On September 19, however, the Serious Crimes Court of Appeals reversed the verdict. In July the former deputy general director of prisons, Iljaz Labi, was convicted on similar corruption charges and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and banned from public office for five years. During the year, several other senior prison staff were arrested and convicted for supplying drugs to prisoners or demanding payment for family visits.

Independent Monitoring: The government allowed local and international human rights groups, the media, and international bodies such as the CPT to monitor prisons and detention facilities. In 2017 the Office of the Ombudsman conducted frequent unannounced inspections of detention facilities. The Office of the Ombudsman inspected two detention centers during the year. ARCT reported that the government favored some NGOs over others.

Improvements: The GDP reported that, as of July, overall prison overcrowding had dropped to 3 percent from 4 percent in 2017. Both the Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported a decrease in cases of physical and psychological abuse in prisons.

A new EU-funded prison in Shkoder for 180 pretrial detainees and 600 inmates opened on August 3.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law and constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Ministry of Interior oversees the Guard of the Republic and the State Police, which includes the Border and Migration Police. The State Police is primarily responsible for internal security. The Guard of the Republic protects senior state officials, foreign dignitaries, and certain state properties. The Ministry of Defense oversees the armed forces, which also assist the population in times of humanitarian need. The State Intelligence Service (SIS) gathers information, carries out foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities, and is responsible to the prime minister. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2016 require the government to create a new investigation service, the National Bureau of Investigation, to work with a special prosecution office to investigate corruption and organized crime.

While the government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, police corruption remained a problem. SIAC received 3,832 telephone complaints through the anticorruption “green line” through August and 6,439 telephone complaints in 2017. The service also received 1,217 written complaints through August and 1,048 in 2017. The majority of the complaints alleged a failure to act, arbitrary action, abuse of office, or a violation of standard operating procedures. Through August, SIAC filed 77 administrative violations, recommending 133 police officers for disciplinary proceedings, and referred six cases for prosecution. The Office of the Ombudsman also processed complaints against police officers, mainly concerning problems with arrests and detentions.

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over police, the Guard of the Republic, the armed forces, and SIS, although officials periodically used state resources for personal gain and members of the security forces committed abuses.

Police did not always enforce the law equitably. Personal associations, political or criminal connections, poor infrastructure, lack of equipment, and inadequate supervision often influenced law enforcement. Poor leadership contributed to continued corruption and unprofessional behavior. Authorities continued to make efforts to address these problems by renovating police facilities, upgrading vehicles, and publicly highlighting anticorruption measures. The Ministry of Interior has established a system of vetting security officials, but the Assembly has not appropriated funds to support it.

Impunity remained a serious problem, although the government made greater efforts to address it, in particular by increasing the use of camera evidence to document and prosecute police misconduct.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The law requires that, except for arrests made during the commission of a crime, police arrest a suspect on criminal grounds with a warrant issued by a judge and based on sufficient evidence. There were no reports of secret arrests. By law, police must immediately inform the prosecutor of an arrest. The prosecutor may release the suspect or petition the court within 48 hours to hold the individual further. A court must also decide within 48 hours whether to place a suspect in detention, require bail, prohibit travel, or require the defendant to report regularly to police. Prosecutors requested, and courts ordered, detention in many criminal cases, although courts sometimes denied prosecutors’ requests for detention of well-connected, high-profile defendants.

By law, police should transfer detainees to the custody of the Ministry of Justice, which has facilities for detention exceeding 10 hours. Due to overcrowding in the prison system, detainees, including juveniles, commonly remained in police detention centers for periods well in excess of the mandated 10-hour maximum.

There was one reported case of police failing to bring suspects before a judge within the required time. On March 31, Kukes police arrested 23 protesters (and issued warrants for 30 others) for burning toll booths on the Durres-Kukes National Highway. Police brought the detainees to court more than 48 hours after they arrested them. The Office of the Ombudsman criticized police for recording the time they processed the protestors, rather than the time of arrest. The Office of the Ombudsman recommended that the general prosecutor pursue administrative measures against the prosecutors handling the case.

The constitution requires authorities to inform detained persons immediately of their rights and the charges against them. Law enforcement authorities did not always respect this requirement. The law provides for bail and a system is operational; police frequently release detainees without bail, on the condition they report regularly to the police station. Courts also often ordered suspects to report to police or prosecutors on a weekly basis. While the law gives detainees the right to prompt access to an attorney, at public expense if necessary, NGOs reported interrogations often took place without the presence of a lawyer. Authorities placed many suspects under house arrest, often at their own request, because, if convicted, they receive credit for time served.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. Although the government generally observed these prohibitions, there were instances when police detained persons for questioning for inordinate lengths of time without formally arresting them.

Pretrial Detention: While the law requires completion of most pretrial investigations within three months, a prosecutor may extend this period. The law provides that pretrial detention should not exceed three years. Extended pretrial detention often occurred due to delayed investigations, defense mistakes, or the intentional failure of defense counsel to appear. The law enables judges to hold offending attorneys in contempt of court. Limited material resources, lack of space, poor court-calendar management, insufficient staff, and failure of attorneys and witnesses to appear prevented the court system from adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. As of July, 39.4 percent of the prison and detention center population was in pretrial detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, widespread corruption, and limited resources sometimes prevented the judiciary from functioning independently and efficiently. Court hearings were often not open to the public. Court security officers frequently refused to admit observers to hearings and routinely telephoned the presiding judge to ask whether to admit an individual seeking to attend a particular hearing. Some agencies exhibited a pattern of disregard for court orders.

The government implemented an internationally monitored process to vet judges and dismiss those with unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. As of August, 44 percent of judges and prosecutors who had undergone vetting had failed and been dismissed. As a result, only two of nine judges remained on the Constitutional Court; the others had been dismissed during the vetting process or resigned before undergoing vetting, which deprived the court of a quorum. As of August, 15 of the 19 seats on the Supreme Court were also vacant, and the court faced a considerable case backlog. The politicization of appointments to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of these institutions.

The Ministry of Justice generally did not vigorously pursue disciplinary measures against judges. When it did, the High Council of Justice (HCJ) was reluctant to enact the measures. As of August, the Ministry of Justice had initiated disciplinary proceedings against four judges. The HCJ rejected the request to dismiss them, and issued a public reprimand for one. The HCJ ordered the suspension of four appellate-court judges following investigations for corruption. One was arrested after a search of his home revealed cash in different currencies worth 250,000 euros ($288,000). His trial was ongoing at year’s end, although he accepted the evidence against him, which would result in some leniency during sentencing. A second case involved appeals judges who accepted trips to expensive soccer matches in Western Europe from litigants. The accused judges had been changing lawyers frequently to delay the start of trial.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and law provide for a fair and public trial. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until convicted. It provides for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary, and to have a fair and public trial without undue delay. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial, consult an attorney, and have one provided at public expense if they cannot afford one. The law provides defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to interpretation free of charge. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The government generally respected these rights, although trials were not always public and access to a lawyer was at times problematic. To protect the rights of defendants and their access to the evidence against them, a prosecutor must apply to a preliminary hearing judge and make a request to send the case to trial.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

While individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations, courts were susceptible to corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and political tampering. Judges held many court hearings in their offices, demonstrating a lack of transparency and professionalism and providing opportunities for corruption. These factors undermined the judiciary’s authority, contributed to controversial court decisions, and led to an inconsistent application of civil law. Despite the statutory right to free legal aid in civil cases, NGOs reported that very few individuals benefitted from this during the year.

Persons who had exhausted remedies in domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In many cases, authorities did not enforce ECHR rulings, especially those concerning the right to a fair trial.

Persons who were political prisoners under the former communist regime continued to petition the government for compensation. The government made some progress on disbursing compensation during the year.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

The Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported that some claimants still struggle to obtain due process from the government for property claims. Thousands of claims for private and religious property confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved with the Agency for Property Treatment. Claimants may appeal to the ECHR; many cases are pending ECHR review. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that as of August, the ECHR had tried seven cases that involved millions of Euros in claims. The Office of the Ombudsman repeated that the government, generally, paid out according to the timeframe that the ECHR determined.

The country endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. It does not have any restitution or compensation laws relating to Holocaust-era confiscations of private property. Under the law, religious communities have the same restitution and compensation rights as natural or legal persons. The government reported no property claims had been submitted by victims of the Holocaust.

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

The constitution and laws prohibit such actions, but there were reports the government failed to respect those prohibitions. As of August, the Office of the Ombudsman had received 30 citizen complaints against local Inspectorates for the Protection of Territory and nine against the National Inspectorate for the Protection of Territory (NIPT), which regulate construction, domestic development, and water resources. The Office of the Ombudsman noted there was an increase in the number of complaints for illegal, irregular, or overdue actions of local and national inspectorates. Residents in Shkoza complained that NIPT had begun to demolish their properties even though they had already started the legalization process. Some of them had documents showing legal title to the property but had not received compensation when the demolition started. The Albanian Islamic Community received similar complaints from frustrated citizens due to a lack of results in receiving compensation from the process.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. There were reports that the government, business, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, although there were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption. Business owners freely used media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at most media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity.

NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 700-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial or political interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views.

In its annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI), the International Research and Exchanges Board indicated that free speech, plurality of news sources, and supporting institutions experienced a slight increase, but professionalism and business management decreased. Economic crisis and management practices in Albanian media have reduced finances and the quality of reporting in media outlets. The MSI noted that strain on media finances has led to cutbacks in newsrooms and has fostered self-censorship.

The independence of the Audiovisual Media Authority, the regulator of the broadcast media market, remained questionable, but the role of the authority remained limited.

Violence and Harassment: There were multiple reports of violence and intimidation against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure.

On August 30, an unknown assailant shot 10 times at the home of crime reporter Klodiana Lala’s parents. No injuries were reported, but Lala’s two daughters were in the home at the time of the attack. Lala often reported on organized crime and law enforcement matters, including judicial reform. In a Facebook post after the attack, Lala stated she believed the attack was linked to her reporting. Police were investigating the attack.

In September the chair of the Union of Albanian Journalists stated that 12 journalists had filed asylum requests in EU member states, citing threats due to their jobs.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment and as a response to pressure from publishers and editors seeking to advance their political and economic interests. A 2015 survey by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Albania, an organization that focuses on investigative journalism, found that large commercial companies and important advertisers were key sources of pressure. A study published by the Union of Albanian Journalists in April cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines, which could be as much as three million leks ($27,800), were excessive and, combined with the entry of a conviction into the defendant’s criminal record, undermined freedom of expression. In April the Union of Albanian Journalists expressed concern that during the first four months of the year, judges and politicians had initiated 14 lawsuits against journalists.

In 2017 a member of the High Council of Justice, Gjin Gjoni, filed defamation lawsuits against two BIRN journalists and two journalists of the daily Shqiptarja.com for their coverage of his asset declaration, which prosecutors were investigating. Gjoni was seeking seven million leks ($64,800) from BIRN and four million leks ($37,000) from Shqiptarja.com, claiming the stories damaged his reputation. After several hearings, the court ruled in March to drop the Shqiptarja case because Gjoni and his lawyers had failed to appear at five of the 11 hearings. In June the court dismissed the case against BIRN. Gjoni appealed both decisions and the cases are pending.

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.

The Authority for Electronic and Postal Communications decreed on October 15 that 44 media web portals had 72 hours to obtain a tax identification number and publish it on their web pages or the government would shut them down. The list included several investigative news sites, including BIRN. At year’s end, the government had not shut down noncompliant portals.

According to March data from Internet World Stats, approximately 66 percent of the population used the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the processing, detention, and deportation of some migrants, especially in southern Albania.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR reported a few cases of police intimidation and reluctance to accept requests for asylum. UNHCR received only one report of violence. It shared the report with the government, which took measures to address the complaint.

Authorities often detained irregular migrants who entered the country. As of August 23, authorities had detained approximately 67 migrants, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. UNHCR reported that conditions at the Karrec center were unsuitable, particularly for families and children.

Through July, the Ministry of Interior reported there were 2,328 asylum seekers, including 184 boys and 105 girls, in the National Center for Asylum Seekers in the Babrru open detention center. UNHCR reported there were 2,947 asylum seekers in total through August, more than 50 percent of all migrants tracked passing through the country.

In-country Movement: To receive government services, individuals changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many persons could not provide proof and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register, and many lacked the motivation to go through the process.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the system. UNHCR, Caritas, and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.

The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country. UNHCR reported that the asylum system lacked effective monitoring.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law prohibits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or refugee status. UNHCR reported, however, that no asylum requests had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.

Employment: The law permits refugees to work. The limited issuance of refugee identification cards and work permits, however, meant few refugees had employment opportunities.

Access to Basic Services: The law provides migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance. Migrants and asylum seekers often required the intervention of UNHCR or local NGOs to secure these services.

STATELESS PERSONS

The government does not have reliable data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country.

In July, UNHCR and its partner, the Tirana Legal Aid Society, published a report mapping the population at risk of statelessness in the country. The report identified 1,031 persons at risk of statelessness, 97 percent of whom were children. The report concluded that most of those at risk of statelessness were entitled to nationality under the law on citizenship, but exercising this right was difficult. Most of the persons at risk were Roma or Balkan-Egyptian children. Unregistered children born abroad to returning migrant families were at risk of statelessness, although the law affords the opportunity to obtain nationality.

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.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national parliamentary elections took place in June 2017. The OSCE observer mission for the elections reported, “Contestants were able to campaign freely and fundamental freedoms were respected.” The OSCE further noted, “Continued politicization of election-related bodies and institutions as well as widespread allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters detracted from public trust in the electoral process.” Regarding voting itself, the OSCE mission noted “an overall orderly election day” but found that “important procedures were not fully respected in a considerable number of voting centers observed.”

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Following the June 2017 elections, the number of Assembly members who were women increased to a record 29 percent, while the share of ministers who were women was 47 percent. The law governing the Assembly election requires that 30 percent of candidates be women and that they occupy 30 percent of appointed and elected positions. According to the OSCE final report on the elections, however, the largest parties did not always respect the mandated 30 percent quota in their candidate lists. The Central Election Commission fined these parties but nonetheless accepted their lists.

Members of national minorities stood as candidates in both minority and mainstream parties, and campaigning in both the Greek and Macedonian languages was observed without incident. Nevertheless, observers reported that some minorities remained vulnerable to vote buying. As of September, there were no Romani ministers or members of the Assembly.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corruption was pervasive in all branches of government. The law prohibits individuals with criminal convictions from serving as mayors, parliamentarians, or in government or state positions.

The constitution requires judges and prosecutors to undergo vetting for unexplained wealth, ties to organized crime, and professional proficiency. Vetting was conducted by the Independent Qualification Commission, and appeals were heard by an appeals chamber. The process was overseen by the International Monitoring Operation, which was composed of international judicial experts from the United States and the EU. As of October 24, the commission had dismissed 25 judges and prosecutors and confirmed 28, while 16 others had resigned from duty rather than undergo vetting.

A number of government agencies investigated corruption cases, but limited resources, investigative leaks, real and perceived political pressure, and a haphazard reassignment system hampered investigations. In selective instances involving international actors, anticorruption agencies cooperated with civil society.

Corruption: Between January and June, the prosecutor general’s office registered 83 new corruption investigations. During the same period, 29 individuals were convicted on corruption charges, and trials began against an additional 28 individuals. . Through August, 19,295 complaints had been submitted to authorities through the online portal stopkorruption.al, 1,396 of which contained information on alleged corrupt practices. A former interior minister remained under investigation for ties to organized crime and abuse of office.

While prosecutors made significant progress in pursuing low-level public corruption cases, including corrupt prosecutors and judges, prosecution of higher-level crimes remained rare due to investigators’ fear of retribution, a general lack of resources, and corruption within the judiciary itself.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to disclose their assets to the High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflict of Interest (HIDAACI), which monitored and verified such disclosures and made them available to the public. The law authorizes HIDAACI to fine officials who fail to comply with disclosure requirements or refer them to the prosecutor.

HIDAACI reported that through August it had referred 25 new cases for prosecution involving six Assembly members, one deputy minister, one mayor, six tax inspectors, six customs officials, and 11 other government officials on charges including refusing to declare, hiding, or falsifying asset declarations, money laundering, falsification of documents, and corruption. In 2017 HIDAACI fined 296 individuals for not disclosing their assets or conflicts of interest or for violating the law on whistleblower protection.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman is the main independent institution for promoting and enforcing human rights. It is authorized by law to monitor and report on prisons and detention centers. The Office may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the Office of the Ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights violations. The Office of the Ombudsman was underfunded and understaffed.

The Assembly has a committee on legal issues, public administration, and human rights, which reviews the annual report of the Office of the Ombudsman. The committee was engaged and effective in legislative matters.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime. Penalties for rape and assault depend on the age of the victim. For rape of an adult, the prison term is three to 10 years. The law includes provisions on sexual assault and criminalizes spousal rape. The government did not enforce the law effectively, and officials did not prosecute spousal rape. The concept of spousal rape was not well understood, and authorities often did not consider it a crime.

In spite of legal protections for victims, abuses and allegations of political cover-up still occurred. For example, Xhisiela Maloku alleged that Rexhep Rraja, her boyfriend and son of Socialist Party Assembly member Rrahman Rraja, had burned and kicked her in a hotel on July 19. Forensic experts verified the nature of the wounds. Maloku later claimed she fabricated the allegations because she was jealous, but members of the opposition Democratic Party asserted Rrahman Rraja had pressured police to force Maloku to recant, citing claims by former police officer Emiliano Nuhu. The opposition also alleged the police covered up Rexhep Rraja’s sexual assault of Maloku. The judge in the case approved the prosecutor’s request to proceed to trial. Rexhep Rraja is in pretrial detention.

On July 23, the Assembly amended the law on domestic violence to extend protection to victims in an active relationship or civil union. The amendments created a protective order that automatically protects children as well.

Domestic violence against women remained a serious problem. For example, in August 2017, Judge Fildez Kasemi was fatally shot by her ex-husband in Shkoder, even as she was seeking a protection order for abuse. As of December, the ex-husband, Fadil Kasemi, was on trial for murder.

A 2017 UN Development Program (UNDP) and state statistical agency (INSTAT) report estimated that more than 53 percent of women and girls in the country had been victims of domestic violence during the previous year and stated that more than 60 percent reported they had been victims of violence at some point in their lives. Police often did not have the training or capacity to deal effectively with domestic violence cases.

The government operated one shelter to protect survivors of domestic violence and three shelters for victims of human trafficking that accommodated victims of domestic violence as well.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, although officials rarely enforced it. The commissioner for protection against discrimination generally handled cases of sexual harassment and could impose fines of up to 80,000 leks ($741) against individuals or 600,000 leks ($5,550) against enterprises.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Women were under-represented in many fields at the highest levels. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, although many private employers did not fully implement this provision. In many communities, women experienced societal discrimination based on traditional social norms subordinating women to men.

There were reports of discrimination in employment. In one case, a 55-year-old woman complained in May to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination (CPD), alleging the Vlora prison director fired her because of her age and gender. The CPD ruled in August the woman had been subjected to discrimination based on gender but not on age, recommended the prison rescind her dismissal, and hire her back. The prison did not hire her back, so the CPD imposed a fine.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to INSTAT, the ratio of boys to girls at birth in 2017 was 109 to 100. There were no government-supported efforts to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent. There were no reports of discrimination in birth registration, but onerous residency and documentation requirements for registration made it more difficult for the many Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents who lacked legally documented places of residence to register their children.

Children born to internal migrants, including some Romani families, or those returning from abroad frequently had no birth certificates or other legal documents and consequently were unable to attend school or have access to services.

Education: School attendance is mandatory through the ninth grade or until the age of 16, whichever occurs first, but many children, particularly in rural areas, left school earlier to work with their families. Parents must purchase supplies, books, uniforms, and space heaters for some classrooms; these were prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly Roma and other minorities. Many families also cited these costs as a reason for not sending girls to school.

The government issued an order before the beginning of the academic year providing that children from first to the fourth grade would receive free books if they returned them at the end of the school year. It was not clear whether parents would pay a fine if the books were returned damaged. Some NGOs expressed concern that this would place a greater burden on families receiving economic aid, especially in the Romani community.

Child Abuse: Observers believed that child abuse was increasing, especially in schools. According to a national survey taken in 2013, the last year for which data was made available, by the UNDP and INSTAT, 57.7 percent of children surveyed said they had experienced violence at some point in their lives from at least one family member. According to a 2017 report by World Vision, 70 percent of children in the country reported experiencing some type of violence. The definition of violence in both these surveys included psychological violence, and was not limited to physical abuse. Services for abuse victims were not readily available.

On September 23, the Council of Europe commissioner on human rights reported her concern about the high levels of physical and psychological violence against children, including in educational settings and at home.

Early and Forced Marriage: Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities did not always enforce the law. Underage marriages occurred mostly in rural areas and within Romani communities. According to data released by the INSTAT, the number of early marriages (younger than the age of 19) decreased significantly in 2017 from 2016.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Penalties for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child range from eight to 15 years’ imprisonment. The country has a statutory rape law, and the minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for statutory rape is a prison term of five to 15 years. In aggravated circumstances, the penalty may increase to life imprisonment. The law prohibits making or distributing child pornography; penalties are a prison sentence of three to 10 years. Possession of child pornography is also illegal.

Authorities generally enforced laws against the rape and sexual exploitation of minors effectively, but NGOs reported that they rarely enforced laws prohibiting child pornography. The government reported that, as of July, three children had been sexually exploited, but there were no cases involving pornography.

Displaced Children: There were many displaced and street children, particularly in the Romani community. Street children begged or did petty work. These children were at highest risk of trafficking, and some became trafficking victims. Since the law prohibits the prosecution of children younger than 14 for burglary, criminal gangs at times used displaced children to burglarize homes.

The State Agency for the Protection of Children’s Rights reported that, as of June, authorities had assisted 109 street children. Some 67 children were referred to shelters. CPUs reported 422 cases of economic exploitation of children through June.

Institutionalized Children: UNHCR considered the migrant detention facility in Karrec to be unsuitable for children and families. The government made efforts to avoid sending children there, sending them instead to the open migrant facility in Babrru.

According to a September report from the Council of Europe commissioner on human rights, approximately 700 children lived in public and private residential care institutions, some of them for long periods, without a clear prospect for leaving the institution before they became adults.

Some NGOs raised concerns about the transparency of the treatment of children who were under state residential care. Media outlets reported several instances of teachers physically abusing children in state residential institutions, and several incidents were filmed and broadcast. In one case, a news broadcast aired a video of staff of the Vlora residential center abusing children. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection fired the staff members involved and referred the case for prosecution.

The law allows for moving children out of residential centers and into the care of foster families, but the government and the municipalities have not used this option frequently.

The country lacked adequate facilities for pretrial detention of children. According to the NGO Terre des Hommes, as of July, 17 children were in pretrial detention and nine were incarcerated.

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

Anti-Semitism

Reports indicate that there were only 40 to 50 Jews living in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, employers, schools, health-care providers, and providers of other state services at times engaged in discrimination. The law mandates that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government only sporadically enforced the law. During the year, the government adapted the premises of 80 health care facilities and 32 schools, and built eight new schools, to accommodate persons with disabilities.

The government sponsored social services agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but these agencies traditionally lacked funding to implement their programs adequately. Resource constraints and lack of infrastructure made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate fully in civic affairs. Voting centers often were located in facilities lacking accommodations for such persons.

The government opened two new development centers for persons with disabilities in Pogradec and Bulqiza, supported by the UNDP, and three day-care centers for children with disabilities in Pogradec, Saranda, and Permet.

The Office of the Ombudsman inspected only a few mental health institutions. Both the admission and release of patients at mental health institutions were problematic due to inadequate psychiatric evaluations. There was societal discrimination and stigmatization of persons with mental and other disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

There were allegations of discrimination against members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities, including in housing, employment, health care, and education. Some schools resisted accepting Romani and Balkan-Egyptian students, particularly if they appeared to be poor. Many schools that accepted Romani students marginalized them in the classroom, sometimes by physically setting them apart from other students.

The Municipality of Tirana transferred 76 Romani families evicted from the Bregu i Lumit neighborhood to permanent housing in the final week of December 2017. Unemployment remained a problem and resulted in some of these families’ failure to pay utility bills.

In October 2017, the government adopted legislation on minorities, but the Assembly has not passed implementing legislation and regulations. The law provides official minority status for nine national minorities without distinguishing between national and ethnolinguistic groups. The government defined Greeks, Macedonians, Aromanians (Vlachs), Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians as national minorities. The new legislation provides minority language education and dual official language use for local administrative units in which minorities traditionally reside, or in which a minority makes up 20 percent of the total population. The ethnic Greek minority complained about the government’s unwillingness to recognize ethnic Greek communities outside communist-era “minority zones.”

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment. Enforcement of the law was generally weak. Early in the year, the Assembly amended the law on social housing to include members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community as beneficiaries under the law. Debate over the bill in the Assembly was marred by homophobic remarks by some members. In 2017 the Assembly adopted two amendments concerning free legal aid and sports participation that also benefited the LGBTI community.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are among the classes protected by the country’s hate-crime law. Despite the law and the government’s formal support for LGBTI rights, public officials sometimes made homophobic statements. For example, a mufti in Librazhd posted an article in an online portal criticizing one of the LGBTI NGOs that organized antibullying classes in various schools, calling the NGO a “cancer.” The mufti asked education institutions to prevent members of the LGBTI community from entering schools. The CPD sent a letter to the Albanian Islamic Community urging it to help prevent this sort of attack from recurring. Social and traditional media criticized the antibullying campaign, instead accusing the LGBTI community of attempting to influence young people inappropriately.

As of September, Aleanca, an NGO advocating for the LGBTI community, documented 34 cases of physical violence against community members. In one case, police asked the victim, a transgender woman, to withdraw the report; two weeks later, the perpetrator attacked her again, sending her to the hospital. The NGO Streha reported that many young LGBTI individuals had experienced domestic violence upon coming out.

As of August, the CPD had received two complaints alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity during the year. The CPD ruled against the complainants in both cases.

The NGO PINK reported it had handled approximately 20 cases of LGBTI persons seeking asylum in other countries, citing domestic violence as the main reason.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. The Albanian Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS reported that discrimination and stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS was widespread in the country.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

The law prohibits members of the military and senior government officials from joining unions and requires that a trade union have at least 20 members to be registered. The law provides the right to strike for all workers except indispensable medical and hospital personnel, persons providing air traffic control or prison services, and fire brigades. Strike action is prohibited in “special cases,” such as natural catastrophe, state of war, extraordinary situations, and cases where the freedom of elections is at risk. Workers not excluded by their positions exercised their right to strike.

The law provided limited protection to domestic and migrant workers. Labor unions were generally weak and politicized. Workers who engage in illegal strikes may be compelled to pay for any damages due to the strike action.

Government enforcement of the law remained largely ineffective, in part due to the extent of informal employment. Resources for conducting inspections and remedying violations were not adequate. High fines, which under the law could reach 1.1 million leks ($10,200) or 50 times the monthly minimum wage, were rarely assessed. Fines were consequently not a sufficient deterrent to violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Arbitration procedures allowed for significant delays that limited worker protections against antiunion activity.

Civilian workers in all fields have the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively, and the law establishes procedures for the protection of workers’ rights through collective bargaining agreements. Unions representing public sector employees negotiated directly with the government. Effective collective bargaining remained difficult because employers often resisted union organizing and activities. In this environment, collective agreements, once reached, were difficult to enforce.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not always effectively enforce the law. Lack of coordination among ministries and the sporadic implementation of standard operating procedures hampered enforcement. Penalties of eight to 15 years in prison were sufficiently stringent to deter violations, but they were seldom enforced. Some law enforcement organizations trained their officers to adopt a victim-centered approach to human trafficking. The government continued to identify trafficking victims but prosecuted and convicted a small number of traffickers.

The Labor Inspectorate reported no cases of forced labor in the formal sector during the year. See section 7.c for cases involving children in forced labor in the informal sector.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age of employment at 16 but allows children at the age of 15 to be employed in “light” work that does not interfere with school. Children younger than 18 may generally only work in jobs categorized as “light.” A 2017 decree issued by the Council of Ministers sets working hours for children younger than 18. Children may work up to two hours per day and up to 10 hours per week when school is in session, and up to six hours per day and up to 30 hours per week when school is not in session. Children from 16 to 17 may work up to six hours per day and up to 30 hours per week if the labor is part of their vocational education. By law, the State Inspectorate for Labor and Social Services (SILSS), under the Ministry of Youth and Social Welfare, is responsible for enforcing minimum age requirements through the courts, but it did not adequately enforce the law.

Labor inspectors investigated the formal labor sector, whereas most child labor occurred in the informal sector. Children engaged in gathering recyclable metals and plastic, mining, sewing, street peddling, agriculture, and animal husbandry. Children were subjected to forced begging and criminal activity. There were reports that children worked as shop vendors, vehicle washers, textile factory workers, or shoeshine boys. Some of the children begging on the street were second- or third-generation beggars. Research suggested that begging started as early as the age of four or five. While the law prohibits the exploitation of children for begging, police generally did not enforce it, although they made greater efforts to do so during the year (see section 6, Displaced Children). The Social Organization for the Support of Youth, an NGO, reported that the majority of street children were boys between 10 and 17. Boys mainly collected plastic or metals for recycling and usually worked unaccompanied. The NGO World Vision also reported that children collected cans, plastic, and metal; and sewed shoes. The number of children engaged in street-related activities (such as begging or selling items) increased during the summer, particular around the tourist areas.

The SILSS did not carry out inspections for child labor unless there was a specific complaint. Most labor inspections occurred in shoe and textile factories, call centers, and retail enterprises; officials found some instances of child labor during their inspections. Penalties were rarely assessed and were not sufficient to deter violations.

In 2013, the last year available for statistics, the government’s statistical agency and the International Labor Organization estimated that 54,000 children were engaged in forced labor domestically. An estimated 43,000 children worked in farms and fishing, 4,400 in the services sector, and 2,200 in hotels and restaurants. Nearly 5 percent of children were child laborers.

The law criminalizes exploitation of children for labor or forced services, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. SILSS monitoring of child labor and other labor malpractices was insufficient.

According to the State Agency on Children’s Rights, as of August, CPUs and outreach mobile teams had identified more than 300 street children, most of whom had received relevant services. CPUs reported 14 parents to the police during the same period.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws prohibit employment discrimination because of race, skin color, gender, age, physical or mental disability, political beliefs, language, nationality, religion, family, HIV/AIDS status, or social origin. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, nationality, or ethnicity. The commissioner for protection against discrimination reported that most allegations of discrimination involved race, sexual orientation, economic status, or disability.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the national poverty threshold. The SILSS is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage but had an insufficient number of staff to enforce compliance.

While the law establishes a 40-hour workweek, individual or collective agreements typically set the actual workweek. The law provides for paid annual holidays, but only employees in the formal labor market had rights to paid holidays. Many persons in the private sector worked six days a week. The law requires rest periods and premium pay for overtime, but employers did not always observe these provisions. The government had no standards for a minimum number of rest periods per week and rarely enforced laws related to maximum work hours, limits on overtime, or premium pay for overtime, especially in the private sector. These laws did not apply to workers in the informal sector, such as domestic employees and migrant workers.

The SILSS is responsible for occupational health and safety standards and regulations, and while these were appropriate for the main industries, enforcement was lacking overall. Working conditions in the manufacturing, construction, and mining sectors frequently were poor and, in some cases, dangerous. Violations of wage and occupational-safety standards occurred most frequently in the textile, footwear, construction, and mining industries. Resources and inspections were not adequate, and penalties often did not deter violations, because law enforcement agencies lacked the tools to enforce collection and consequently rarely charged violators.

Workers often could not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Employers did not effectively protect employees in this situation.

Armenia

Executive Summary

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

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

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

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

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

Section 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.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns that the government did not promptly and accurately report incidents of deaths in the army. According to independent (and separate) monitoring of noncombat deaths by the NGOs Peace Dialogue and Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor, there were 24 noncombat deaths reported during the first half of the year. In response to information requested by the NGO Peace Dialogue, the Ministry of Defense reported 31 such incidents for the same period. Human rights NGOs noted that, after years of rejection, the Ministry of Defense became more open following the May change in government in responding to requests for information on the number of deaths in the army. Nevertheless, discrepancies in the government and NGO numbers, partly due to different classification of what constituted military deaths by the Ministry of Defense and civil society, continued to contribute to the overall mistrust of official information.

In an illustrative example, on May 6, the Ministry of Defense reported the death of conscripted soldier Levon Torosyan from a gunshot wound in a military unit located in Tavush region. The 6th Garrison Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee classified the death as suicide and charged Torosyan’s fellow soldier, Valodya Hokhikyan, with insulting Torosyan; Hokhikyan pled guilty. Ruben Martirosyan, an expert from Peace Dialogue, which represented the victim’s family, observed Torosyan’s autopsy and noted the presence of a hemorrhage in his genital area and abrasions on both elbows, inflicted shortly before his death. According to Martirosyan, this and other evidence led him to conclude Torosyan was killed and that the official investigators were covering up the circumstances of the death through pressuring witnesses and falsifying evidence. On August 24, SIS launched a criminal investigation into Martirosyan’s allegations. According to Peace Dialogue, this was the first case in recent years when, parallel to the investigation of a death in the armed forces, a criminal investigation was opened to assess possible violations of the law by the investigative body. Both investigations were ongoing at year’s end.

On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan dismissed the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Movses Hakobyan. Many of the families of soldiers who died under noncombat conditions, who continued to demand investigation of the deaths, alleged that Hakobyan was instrumental in covering up such deaths. According to media reports, law enforcement bodies reopened investigations into some of the older noncombat death cases.

Pashinyan’s government gave new impetus to accountability for the events surrounding the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed. According to the government, in the period from July 3 until late fall, SIS launched several new criminal cases re-examining these events. The criminal cases entailed charges of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in offering a bribe, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 post-election events. High profile suspects in those cases included former minister of defense Mikhail Harutyunyan, former deputy minister of defense Yuri Khachaturov, former chief of presidential staff Armen Gevorgyan, and former president Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan was charged on July 27 with Article 300.1 of the criminal code, overthrowing the constitutional order, in connection with the March 1 2008 protests. On August 13, the court of appeals released him from pretrial detention. After a Court of Cassation determination that presidential immunity did not apply to his charges, he was arrested again on December 7. The investigations into the cases were ongoing at year’s end.

Concluding a visit from September 15-20, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatovic noted the steps taken by the government to finally establish responsibility for the 10 deaths, but stressed that “this should be done carefully and in strict adherence to the principles of rule of law, judicial independence, transparency and guarantees of fair trial, in order to dispel any accusations of alleged revenge politics or selective justice.”

Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Violence along the Line of Contact continued, although at lower levels starting in October, after the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in Dushanbe. Recurrent shooting and shelling caused casualties and injuries among military and civilians. Following the April 2016 outbreak in violence, the sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities during that time. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces tortured or otherwise abused individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, the relevant provisions do not criminalize inhuman and degrading treatment. There were no convictions of officials who engaged in these practices, although there were several reports of investigations under these charges.

Police abuse of suspects during their arrest, detention, and interrogation remained a significant problem, especially during the largely peaceful “velvet revolution.” For example, on April 23, Hayk Hovhannisyan, a doctor and lecturer at Yerevan State Medical University, was beaten by police officers. According to Hovhannisyan’s account, he was trying to protect students from police violence, when five or six officers dragged him out of a taxi and kicked him in his face and body, resulting in head injuries, a concussion, and a broken cheekbone. Mistreatment occurred in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. According to observers, police used arrest as a form of punishment. Criminal justice bodies relied on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as access to a lawyer by those summoned to the police as witnesses, as well as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient.

According to government statistics, since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code, only two cases on charges of torture were sent to the courts.

Human rights lawyers and the ombudsman’s office recorded numerous instances of alleged violations of human rights of protestors, civilians, and journalists, including reports of excessive use of force and beatings by police officers, plainclothes officers, and gangs during the April protests. According to the Ministry of Health, 127 citizens sought medical assistance in the period from April 13-23.

According to official information, the Investigative Committee launched 25 criminal cases into violent incidents that occurred in the period from April 13 to 23. Six of the 25 cases were sent to the courts with charges against nine persons, including Andranik Isoyan, the assistant to former member of parliament (MP) Mihran Poghosyan. One case was suspended, and 14 were merged with other criminal cases. Investigation continued into four cases against 19 persons including the mayor and deputy mayor of Masis. The Masis mayor, Davit Hambardzumyan, was charged with organizing the mass disorders on April 22, when a gang of armed men wearing surgical masks attacked peaceful protesters with stones, batons, and tasers. Hambardzumyan also was charged with hooliganism for another violent incident involving firearms that occurred the same day.

In addition, the SIS investigated two criminal cases regarding violence against protestors during the April 13-23 protests. The investigation of the two cases that included 164 victims, of which 13 were journalists, was in progress at year’s end.

Two criminal cases against three police officers from Abovyan region Arsen Arzumanyan, head of Kotayk branch of police Koyayk regional administration and two police operatives, Areg Torosyan and Arsen Torosyan were sent to the courts on charges of obstructing journalists’ activities. Lieutenant-general Levon Yeranosyan, the former chief of the internal police troops, faced charges of exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences for his role in the violence against protesters. Police conducted 22 internal investigations into police behavior during the April 13-23 protests.

On May 13, the SIS charged the commander of the Yerevan Police Department Escort Battalion, Armen Ghazaryan, with torture for his role in the June 2017 police beatings of four members of the armed group Sasna Tsrer during an altercation. The defendants suffered cuts and bruises on their faces, heads, abdomens, backs, and legs in the beatings. At year’s end the investigation continued.

According to a September 24 statement made by Protection of Rights without Borders, SIS suspended the case examining violence against protesters who were supporting the Sasna Tsrer takeover of the police station in Erebuni in 2016.

On March 21, the office of the ombudsman issued an ad hoc report on the situation in psychiatric institutions noting violations of human rights. Such violations included legal gaps in regulating compulsory treatment, expired medication and absence of alternative treatment options, inappropriate use of means of restraint, lack of specialized personnel, absence of mechanisms for urgent stationary psychiatric assistance, overcrowding, discrimination, inadequate housing and sanitary conditions, inadequate food, lack of exercise, and other problems. On April 23, Dainius Puras, the UN special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, issued a report on his fall 2017 visit to the country. According to the report, the country’s mental health system contained elements of outdated models and practices, including easy and frequent hospitalization of individuals with mental health conditions, overmedication, and long-term confinement for those “chronic patients.” The special rapporteur noted that in a number of the institutions, patients had been confined for long periods, sometimes for 10 to 15 years, not because they needed to be hospitalized but due to the lack of adequate care structures at the community level.

According to the prosecutor general’s office, in 2017 and the first nine months of 2018, 84 patients died in psychiatric institutions. In 80 cases, the causes of death were determined to be various diseases; criminal cases were not launched due to the absence of crimes. In three deaths, criminal cases were initiated on charges of inducing someone to commit suicide, two of which were later dropped due to the absence of a crime. The investigation of the third case was in progress.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted in a 2016 report on its visit to the country that a significant number of patients in two psychiatric clinics appeared to be deprived of their liberty. Although they had signed agreements of voluntary admission, the patients no longer wished to remain in the hospitals.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and systemic corruption; overcrowding was no longer a problem at the prison level, and was almost resolved at the cell level, but conditions in some cases were harsh and life threatening. Prisons generally lacked accommodations for inmates with disabilities.

Physical Conditions: According to observers, media reports and ad hoc reports of the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, during the year prison conditions continued to remain as described in the 2016 CPT report. The CPT noted material conditions of detention at Nubarashen Prison remained unacceptable. According to the PMG, detention conditions in some cells of the Nubarashen Prison constituted torture and degrading and inhuman treatment. According to the CPT, many cells were damp, affected by mold, poorly lit and ventilated, dirty, and infested with vermin. For most inmates, water was only available at certain hours. Inmates relied on their families for food, bedding, and hygiene items. According to the CPT, similar conditions were observed in other penitentiary establishments.

Human rights observers and the PMG expressed concern about the physical conditions of Armavir penitentiary, the country’s newest prison. The prison did not have an air ventilation or cooling system. PMG monitors who visited the prison on July 13 registered temperatures of 45 degree Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) inside cells, with no constant water supply. According to the PMG, the ventilation and cooling system was removed from the original construction plan due to lack of resources.

According to the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates was one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. In one illustrative case, the penitentiary service of the Ministry of Justice announced that, on August 11, Moldovan citizen Vasile Gruiya was found hanged from his belt in his cell in Armavir Prison. According to the penitentiary service, Gruiya, a detainee, had been aggressive since his admission on August 6 and had attempted self-mutilation. To stabilize him, his mother was allowed to see him and prison psychologists worked with him for three days. According to media reports, Gruiya’s family did not believe that he could have committed suicide, since he was informed that he would be released in a few days. Media also reported Gruiya’s mother claimed her son was killed by another detainee and that he told her he had received death threats. According to official information, the forensic examination of Gruiya’s body discovered numerous injuries inflicted shortly before his death with a blunt object. The criminal investigation into his death was in progress as of year’s end.

The Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG noted the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to statistics published by the PMG, from 2011 to 2017, there were 27 suicides in prison. In 2017, 607 cases of self-mutilation were registered compared with 879 in 2016. The most self-mutilation incidents in 2017 were registered in Nubarashen and Armavir prisons. According to the PMG, the prison administration did not appropriately investigate the cases and did not determine the culpability or negligence of prison staff. In 2017 the PMG made several requests to the Ministry of Justice to allow additional psychologists on its staff to enter prisons but was denied.

On May 3, the SIS announced it charged several employees of the Armavir Prison with torturing a convict, after prison staff had applied physical force to an inmate, but the case was dropped after law enforcement determined the physical force was legitimate.

According to human rights organizations, in addition to the poor physical condition of the facilities, an organized criminal structure dominated prison life. Prison officials reportedly delegated authority to select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy and used them to control the inmate population.

Former inmates and many human rights observers raised the problem of systemic corruption and bribery in the penitentiaries. On June 29, a group of convicts addressed a letter to the prime minister, which asserted that corruption continued everywhere in the penitentiary system, with the exception of the Vardashen Prison, which was used primarily for foreigners and former government officials. The letter’s authors claimed that each cell paid bribes that ranged from 300,000 to 600,000 drams ($635 to $1,250) per month to the prison’s administration, local criminal authorities, and others.

There also were reports of medical negligence. In an illustrative example, on February 14, media outlets reported the December 2017 death of convicted prisoner Arega Avetisyan in the Abovyan Prison. Prior to her death the PMG had requested Avetisyan’s release based on health grounds. According to the PMG, Avetisyan suffered a stroke and was given care by another prisoner. After the request, Avetisyan underwent a medical examination that determined her medical condition did not necessitate her release. Authorities opened a criminal case on charges of medical negligence, which was ongoing by year’s end.

There was no progress in investigating the April 2017 death of convicted prisoner Hrachya Gevorgyan in the Armavir Penitentiary.

Health-care services in prisons remained understaffed and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care including mental health care. There was also a serious shortage of medication.

According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, LGBTI individuals experienced the worst prison conditions. They were frequent targets of discrimination, violence, psychological and sexual abuse and were forced by other inmates to perform degrading labor. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned such treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual males or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten criminal prison rules” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating jobs such as cleaning the toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. The PMG reported a case in the Nubarashen Penitentiary in May when prison staff revealed an LGBTI inmate’s sexual identity to his parents, after which he became depressed and self-mutilated. Despite deteriorating health, he was not provided medical assistance for weeks, and was transferred to the prison hospital penitentiary only after the involvement of the PMG.

Administration: Authorities did not routinely conduct credible investigations nor take action in a meaningful manner to address problems involving the mistreatment of prisoners, disputes and violence between inmates, or widespread corruption.

Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visitations. Heads of prisons and detention facilities arbitrarily used their discretion to deny prisoners and detainees visitation, contact with families, or the ability to receive periodicals.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the CPT, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers. In December 2017, the Minister of Health established a civil society group to carry out monitoring of psychiatric institutions.

There were limits, however, to domestic independent monitoring. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose case the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to check the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted that the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision could not apply to the PMG. There were also restrictions on the PMG’s ability to check food quality in the prisons.

Improvements: In May the parliament approved amendments to the penitentiary code, probation law, the criminal code, and the criminal procedural code to address gaps in the early release program. The amendments, which went into effect on June 23, abolished independent commissions formed to consider requests for early release, transferring their functions to the penitentiary and state probation services. Based on the advisory reports of the two institutions, the court makes the final recommendation on early release. On October 16, a Yerevan trial court made an unprecedented decision to release an inmate, who had been serving a life sentence since 1996, on a 10-year probation. On July 12, parliament adopted changes to the penitentiary code that doubled the number of short- and long-term visits for persons convicted of especially grave crimes and for those serving life sentences. The changes, which came into force on August 4, allowed six short-term and two long-term visits during the year.

During the year the Ministry of Justice Center for Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs developed and approved, with international funding, an anger management training program for female and juvenile inmates of Abovyan prison. In addition, Abovyan inmates received training in English language, computer literacy, cooking, crochet and felting, therapeutic exercise/yoga, hairdressing, career planning, and entrepreneurship.

On November 1, a decree came into force that allowed inmates deprived of the opportunity to meet with their relatives due to distance or illness to have two 20-minute video calls per month.

On December 16, the government allocated 270 million drams ($556,000) to the Ministry of Justice for correctional facility renovations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, police arbitrarily detained citizens, including during the largely peaceful protests in April and May leading to the “velvet revolution.”

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service (NSS) is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The SIS is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. Police conduct initial investigations and detentions before turning a case over to the Investigative Committee. The NSS and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president based on the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the SIS and Investigative Committee chiefs based on recommendations from the prime minister.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the NSS, the SIS, police, and the Investigative Committee, and the new government took steps to investigate and punish abuse, especially at high levels.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Although the law requires law enforcement officers to obtain warrants or have reasonable suspicion in making arrests, authorities on occasion detained and arrested suspects without warrants or reasonable suspicion. By law an investigative body must either arrest or release individuals within three hours of taking them into custody. Within 72 hours, the investigative body must release the arrested person or file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. Judges rarely denied police requests for detention warrants or reviewed police conduct during arrests. According to observers, police did not keep accurate records and either backdated or failed to fill out protocols of detention and arrest.

The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option, and judges employed it at an unprecedented scale following the May change in government. The Helsinki Association and human rights lawyers pointed out that the law does not define a maximum for the amount of bail and reported bureaucratic barriers when individuals sought to get bail money back after release. In practice, the judicial system and law enforcement bodies placed the burden of proof on suspects to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would not hamper an investigation, when courts determined the form of pretrial preventive measures.

Defendants were entitled to representation by an attorney from the moment of arrest, and the law provides for a public defender if the accused is indigent. According to human rights observers, few detainees were aware of their right to legal representation. Observers indicated police often avoided granting individuals their due process rights by summoning and holding, rather than formally arresting, them, under the pretext that they were material witnesses rather than suspects. Police were thereby able to question individuals without giving them the benefit of a defense attorney.

In its 2016 report, the CPT reported observing the practice of persons being “invited” (usually by telephone) to come to police stations for what was presented as informal talks. Such talks could last several hours or even days, as the examiners sought to elicit confessions or collect evidence before declaring the persons interviewed a suspect and informing them of their rights.

Arbitrary Arrest: According to international organizations and human rights observers, police and NSS personnel often detained or arrested individuals without a warrant or probable cause. Human rights organizations stated such detentions were often a way to begin an investigation, with authorities hoping the suspect would confess and make further investigation unnecessary.

Between April 16 and April 23, the police detained 1,236 persons, including 121 minors, in connection with the “velvet revolution.” In many cases, individuals were detained simply for being at a certain location, regardless of whether they participated in a protest. In some cases, their rights to legal representation were not respected, and they were held beyond the legal three-hour limit without charges or access to a lawyer. In one high-profile example, on April 22, police arrested members of parliament Nikol Pashinyan, Ararat Mirzoyan, and Sasun Mikayelyan. Pashinyan was taken into custody at an undisclosed location and was released after more than 24 hours on April 23.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a chronic problem. According to the government, as of October 31, 36 percent of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees. Some observers saw police use excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.

Although the law requires prosecutors to present a well-reasoned justification every two months for extending pretrial custody, judges routinely extended detention on unclear grounds. Authorities generally complied with the six-month limit in ordinary cases and a 12-month limit for serious crimes as the total time in pretrial detention. Once prosecutors forward their cases to court for trial, the law does not provide time limits on further detention but indicates only that a trial must be of “reasonable length.” Prosecutors regularly requested and received trial postponements from judges. Prosecutors tended to blame trial delays on defense lawyers and their requests for more time to prepare a defense. Severely overburdened judicial dockets at all court levels also contributed to lengthy trials.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to legal experts, suspects had no practical opportunities to appeal the legality of their arrests. In cases where the courts ruled on a pretrial detention, another court was unlikely to challenge its ruling.

Amnesty: On November 1, the National Assembly adopted a general amnesty proposed by the government, resulting in the release of 523 convicts from prisons as of November 23.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. After the May change in government, distrust in the impartiality of judges continued, and some human rights lawyers stated there were no legal safeguards for judicial independence.

Attorneys reported that in the past, the Court of Cassation dictated the outcome of all significant cases to lower-court judges. In February, with implementation of 2015 constitutional amendments, the High Judicial Council (HJC) was formed; on March 5, former Constitutional Court chair Gagik Harutyunyan was elected head of the HJC. Many observers blamed the HJC for abuse of power and for appointing only judges who were connected to the previous ruling party. Attorneys also stated the HJC’s control of the appointments, promotions, and relocation of judges weakened judicial independence.

According to observers, administrative courts had relatively more internal independence but were understaffed, with some hearings scheduled as far ahead as 2020.

Authorities generally complied with court orders.

NGOs reported judges routinely ignored defendants’ claims that their testimony was coerced through physical abuse. Human rights observers continued to report concerns about the reliance of courts on evidence that defendants claimed was obtained under duress, especially when such evidence was the basis for a conviction.

Human rights NGOs highlighted abuses of human rights of persons serving life sentences. According to these NGOs, individuals serving such sentences lacked the opportunity to have their sentences meaningfully reviewed by courts when changes in criminal law could possibly have resulted in less severe punishment. According to human rights groups, one of the greatest obstacles to justice for those serving life sentences was the court-ordered destruction of case files and evidence. This action deprived convicts of the opportunity to have their cases reviewed based on forensic analysis using new technologies, such as DNA testing.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not enforce this right.

The law provides for presumption of innocence, but suspects usually did not enjoy this right. During trials authorities informed defendants in detail of the charges against them, and the law required the provision of free language interpretation when necessary. The law requires that most trials be public but permits exceptions, including in the interest of “morals,” national security, and the “protection of the private lives of the participants.” Defendants have the right to counsel of their own choosing, and the law requires the government to provide them with a public defender upon request. A shortage of defense lawyers sometimes led to denial of this right outside of Yerevan.

According to the law, defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and examine the government’s case in advance of a trial, but defendants and their attorneys had very little ability to challenge government witnesses or police, while courts tended to accept prosecution materials routinely. In particular, the law prohibits police officers from testifying in their official capacities unless they were witnesses or victims in a case. Judges were reluctant to challenge police experts, hampering a defendant’s ability to mount a credible defense. Judges’ control over witness lists and over the determination of the relevance of potential witnesses in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Defense attorneys complained that judges at times did not allow them to request the attendance at trial of defense witnesses. According to lawyers and domestic and international human rights observers, including the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, the prosecution retained a dominant position in the criminal justice system.

Following the “velvet revolution,” many judges released from pretrial detention many suspects in politically sensitive cases. According to human rights groups, since no other circumstances had changed in their cases, this was an indication that, before the April/May events, judicial decisions to hold those suspects in detention, instead of on bail were politically motivated.

Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it.

In an illustrative case spanning several years, criminal proceedings against Karen Kungurtsev, who some NGO groups believe is innocent, continued. On July 20, the Cassation Court sent the case back to the trial court and ordered Kungurtsev’s release on bail. In July 2017 the criminal court of appeal had reversed the 2015 acquittal of Kungurtsev on charges of attempted murder of Davit Hovakimyan, sentencing him to seven years in prison. The victim’s family and the Helsinki Association for Human Rights continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that Hovakimyan’s real killer was the son of a NSS official who had used his position to influence police and prosecutors to pin the crime on Kungurtsev.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

Following the post “velvet revolution” release of certain individuals considered by some local human rights NGOs to be political detainees, there were no reports of political prisoners or detainees in the country.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Although citizens had access to courts to file lawsuits seeking damages for alleged human rights violations, the courts were widely perceived as corrupt. Citizens also had the option of challenging in Constitutional Court the constitutionality of laws and legal acts that violated their fundamental rights and freedoms. According to lawyers, lower courts did not adhere to precedents set by the Cassation Court, the ECHR, and the Constitutional Court. As a result, lower courts continued to carry out the same legal mistakes.

Citizens who exhaust domestic legal remedies may appeal to the ECHR cases involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government generally complied with ECHR awards of monetary compensation but did not meaningfully review the cases on which the ECHR had ruled. When ruling on a case to which a prior ECHR decision applied, courts often did not follow the applicable ECHR precedent.

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

The constitution prohibits unauthorized searches and provides for the rights to privacy and confidentiality of communications. Law enforcement organizations did not always abide by these prohibitions.

Authorities may not legally wiretap telephones, intercept correspondence, or conduct searches without obtaining the permission of a judge based on compelling evidence of criminal activity. The constitution, however, stipulates exceptions when confidentiality of communication may be restricted without a court order when necessary to protect state security and conditioned by the special status of those in communication. Although law enforcement bodies generally adhered to legal procedures, attorneys claimed judges often authorized wiretaps, the interception of correspondence, and searches without receiving the compelling evidence required by law, rendering the legal procedures largely a formality.

Before the May change in government, there were numerous reports of authorities tapping telephone communications, email, and other digital communications of individuals the government wanted to keep under scrutiny, including human rights defenders, activists, and political figures. According to some human rights observers, authorities maintained “dossiers” of activists, political figures, and others that were used to exert pressure on a person. Following the “velvet revolution,” many activists and human rights defenders expressed their belief that they were no longer under surveillance.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent.

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

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

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

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

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

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

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STATELESS PERSONS

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

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

Elections and Political Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. Reports continued, however, of systemic corruption, including in all three branches of government. After the May “velvet revolution,” the new government opened investigations to combat corruption that revealed systemic corruption encompassing most areas of public and private life. The SIS launched numerous criminal cases against alleged corruption by former government officials and their relatives, as well as parliamentarians, with cases ranging from a few thousand to millions of U.S. dollars.

Corruption: Numerous media reports revealed systemic corruption in many areas including construction, mining, public administration, the parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of grants by the state. There were also allegations of embezzlement of state funds, the involvement of government officials in questionable business activities, and tax and customs privileges for government-linked companies.

According to the prime minister’s anticorruption adviser, between May 7 and August 10, law enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations in the amount of 41.7 billion drams (almost $87 million), constituting damages to the state, embezzlement, abuse of official duty, and bribes. Headline cases included tax underpayments and unexplained wealth on the part of parliamentarians, well-connected political figures, or their respective business holdings. In one illustrative case, according to the government, the Yerevan City supermarket chain, affiliated with member of parliament Samvel Alexanyan, was found to have underpaid tens of millions of dollars in taxes.

Other corruption investigations focused on the embezzlement or abuse of state funds, including corruption involving military procurement contracts, community budgets and the distribution of social benefits.

In June, the Ethics Commission for High-ranking Officials published the result of research on conflicts of interest involving high-ranking officials in the 2014-17 period. The commission discovered a total of 709 procurement contracts signed with 91 commercial entities that were linked to officials, more than half of which were single source contracts.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires high-ranking public officials and their families to file annual asset declarations, which were partially available to the public on the internet. According to amendments that entered into effect in July 2017, the Ethics Commission for High-ranking Officials was granted the powers and tools to partially verify the content of the declarations, including access to relevant databases and the mandate to impose administrative sanctions or refer a case to the law enforcement bodies when elements of criminal offences were identified. After the May change in government, the Ethics Commission for High-ranking Officials imposed penalties on officials for filing incomplete or late declarations.

According to a June 2017 law, full verification of the data, as well as other functions aimed at preventing corruption, is to be carried out by the Commission on the Prevention of Corruption. The commission, an autonomous collegial body accountable to the parliament, is authorized to have five members who are appointed for a six-year term. It replaces the Ethics Commission of High-ranking Officials and is broadly empowered to promote official integrity, support development of anticorruption policy, and conduct anticorruption awareness raising and training. While the agency was to have been fully functional by year’s end, it had not been established by then.

In July 2017, a law criminalizing illicit enrichment came into force. Many public officials, including judges and members of parliament and their spouses, disclosed large sums of unexplained income and assets, including large personal gifts and proceeds from providing loans. After the May change in government, authorities initiated several investigations of discrepancies or unexplained wealth identified in these declarations. On August 10, First Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan announced that the government had applied to the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative of the World Bank and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for technical and advisory assistance in recovering assets moved out of the country because of corruption and embezzlement.

In the first criminal case of illicit enrichment, on June 25, Vachagan Ghazaryan, the chief bodyguard of former president Serzh Sargsyan for 20 years, was arrested after law enforcement personnel found more than one million dollars in cash in a nightclub owned by his wife. The NSS also caught Ghazaryan with the equivalent of more than one million dollars in cash in a briefcase and another 50,000 dollars in his car. According to investigators, Ghazaryan intended to obtain additional cash amounting to 1.7 million dollars from his account and 1.4 million dollars from his wife’s account. Ghazaryan claimed he forgot to mention these funds in his required ethics declaration filed in April. According to the NSS, Ghazaryan claimed he withdrew the cash “in order to return it to its owner” but would not reveal the identity of that owner.

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

Following the May change in government leadership, some civil society representatives joined the government. Others, however, continued to serve as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions of the new government. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. On November 8, however, Daniel Ionnisyan of the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC) NGO announced via Facebook post that the Investigative Committee had launched a criminal case against one of the UIC’s Fact Investigation Platform (FIP) reporters. The reporter had contributed to an October 18 FIP report on a recorded phone conversation with a public school principal in Hrazdan. The recording revealed that the principal was planning to engage school staff and students in the political rally of an independent mayoral candidate (the son of an MP from My Step party).

After the “velvet revolution,” some Facebook users politically affiliated with the former government and media outlets started a smear campaign against civil society organizations funded by the Open Society Foundation and government officials whom they alleged were directly or indirectly affiliated with the foundation.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsperson) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. Civil society generally approved of the work of the ombudsman’s office during the April-May protests. According to the human rights defender’s website, the office worked 24 hours a day during protests to ensure human rights protections. For the first half of the year, the office reported an unprecedented number of citizen complaints and visits, which it attributed to increased trust in the institution and new public expectations.

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

Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Semitism

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

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

In April 2017 the Health Inspection Body (HIB) of the Ministry of Health was established by government decree to ensure that health and occupational safety requirements for employees were met. While the final composition and scope of HIB’s authority was still under review as of September, the HIB’s charter had limited references to labor legislation and labor rights as well as a limited mandate to carry out inspections to ensure the protection of labor rights for minors, pregnant women, and women breastfeeding or caring for children. There were no other state bodies with inspection responsibilities to oversee and protect the implementation of other labor rights. The government did not effectively enforce laws on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the government has not established which entity should have responsibility for enforcing these laws.

Labor organizations remained weak because of employer resistance, high unemployment, and poor economic conditions. Employees did not report labor rights violations because of fear of retaliation by employers and usually did not make formal complaints. Labor unions were generally inactive, with those in the mining and chemical industries viewed as co-opted by plant owners. According to domestic observers, the informal consent of the employer was required to establish a formal trade union. After the May change in government, a number of protests occurred throughout the country with employees demanding higher wages and better working conditions In November, the government approved a legislative initiative to amend the law on state pensions. The Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Arsen Manukyan said the bill will attempt to fight extreme poverty among pensioners by raising the pension to the extreme poverty line beginning in 2019.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced and compulsory labor, although no definition of forced labor is provided in the law. While the government effectively prosecuted labor trafficking cases, resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to identify forced labor cases at large due to absence of an effective labor inspection mechanism. Penalties for labor trafficking were sufficiently stringent to deter violations.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

Authorities did not effectively enforce labor standards in either the formal or the informal sectors. According to lawyers, workers’ rights remained unprotected due to the absence of a viable labor inspection regime, lack of independent trade unions, and overloaded administrative courts dockets that could only address new cases more than a year after they were filed.

Many employees of private companies, particularly in the service and retail sectors, were unable to obtain paid leave and were required to work more than eight hours a day without additional compensation. According to representatives of some employment agencies, many employers also hired employees for an unpaid and undocumented “probationary” period of 10 to 30 days. Often employers subsequently dismissed these employees, who were then unable to claim payment for the time they worked because their initial employment was undocumented.

Managers of enterprises that were the primary employers in certain poor geographic areas frequently took advantage of the absence of alternative jobs and did not provide adequate pay or address job safety and environmental concerns. Nearly half of all workers found employment in the informal sector, where they were vulnerable to employer abuse and without governmental protection. According to media reports, after the new government’s anticorruption efforts, large supermarket chains began to officially register their workers, leading to drastic increases in the number of registered employees without additional hiring.

On November 30, the Helsinki Committee of Armenia NGO presented the results of a study on labor rights of teachers working in public schools conducted in the period from October 2017 to May that found problems with working conditions in terms of safety and health. Some teachers said they did not feel protected from psychological pressure in the school by administration and those teachers hired to work through nepotism. Approximately half of the teachers had to find students to enroll in the schools and some ensured the participation of children in political events. The vast majority of teachers never united for voicing and solving their problems. The majority of teachers said they had never applied with their problems to the Trade Union for Education and Science, which most were a member of, a mandatory requirement. According to the teachers, the least protected teachers in their schools were representatives of religious minorities, LGBTI teachers, and former convicts.

On June 4, a number of women working night shifts at Sanitek Waste Management Company sent a letter to the prime minister stating that the company violated their labor contracts, exploited them, and abused their working hours. According to the letter, employees working eight hours at night did not receive their salary as provided in their contracts, could not take annual leave nor the required four days of rest during the month, did not know how much territory they were supposed to clean, and did not receive overtime pay for night work. While there were consistent reports of labor law violations over the years at Sanitek, there were no reports that authorities imposed penalties on the company or that the company had made an effort to improve working conditions. Safety and health conditions remained substandard in numerous sectors, and according to official information there were at least 23 fatal workplace incidents during the first nine months of the year. In light of high unemployment in the country, workers generally did not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety. Authorities offered no protection to employees in these situations, and employees generally did not report violations of their rights.

In a separate case, employees and contractors of a mining company found themselves unable to work because of road closures by protestors. The ongoing, multi-month road closures resulted in a halt to operations that subsequently led to the termination of approximately 1,400 employees and contractors.

Austria

Executive Summary

The Republic of Austria is a parliamentary democracy with constitutional power shared between a popularly elected president and a bicameral parliament (federal assembly). The multiparty parliament and the coalition government it elects exercise most day-to-day governmental powers. Parliamentary elections in October 2017 and presidential elections in 2016 were considered free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

There were no reports of egregious human rights violations.

The government investigated public officials for suspected wrongdoing and punished those who committed abuses.

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.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices.

The government investigated allegations of such practices and prosecuted cases in which credible evidence existed.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were no significant reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: Physical conditions in prisons and places of detention were generally adequate, and there were no reports of mistreatment.

Human rights groups continued to criticize the incarceration of nonviolent offenders, including persons awaiting deportation, in single cells or inadequate facilities designed for temporary detention.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The federal police maintain internal security and report to the Ministry of the Interior. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities and reports to the Defense Ministry. The criminal courts are responsible for investigating police violations of the law. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the federal police and army, and the government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. For example, the Human Rights Advisory Council and the federal ombudsmen monitored police respect for human rights and made recommendations as needed to the minister of the interior.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to criticize police for allegedly targeting minorities for frequent identity checks. Racial sensitivity training for police and other officials continued with NGO assistance.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Authorities base arrests on sufficient evidence and legal warrants issued by a duly authorized official. Authorities bring the arrested person before an independent judiciary. In criminal cases, the law allows investigative or pretrial detention for no more than 48 hours, during which time a judge may decide to grant a prosecution request for extended detention. The law specifies the grounds for investigative detention and conditions for bail. There were strict checks on the enforcement of pretrial detention restrictions and bail provisions, and a judge is required to evaluate investigative detention cases periodically. The maximum duration for investigative detention is two years. There is a functioning bail system. Police and judicial authorities generally respected these laws and procedures. There were isolated reports of police abuse, which authorities investigated and, where warranted, prosecuted.

Detainees have the right to an attorney. Although indigent criminal suspects have the right to an attorney at government expense, the law requires appointment of an attorney only after a court decision to remand such suspects into custody (96 hours after apprehension). Criminal suspects are not legally required to answer questions without an attorney present. Laws providing for compensation for persons unlawfully detained were enforced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law 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.

The law presumes persons charged with criminal offenses are innocent until proven guilty; authorities inform them promptly and in detail of the charges. Trials must be public and conducted orally; defendants have the right to be present at their trial. Attorneys are not mandatory in cases of minor offenses, but legal counsel is available at no charge for needy persons in cases where attorneys are mandatory. The law grants defendants and their attorneys adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Defendants can confront or question witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Free interpretation is available from the moment a defendant is charged, through all appeals. Suspects cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt. A system of judicial review provides multiple opportunities for appeal.

The law extends the above rights to all defendants regardless of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, or disability.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, including an appellate system. These institutions are accessible to plaintiffs seeking damages for human rights violations. Administrative and judicial remedies were available for redressing alleged wrongs. Individuals and organizations may appeal domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

For the resolution of Holocaust-era restitution claims, including by foreign citizens, the government had laws and mechanisms in place. Property restitution also includes an art restitution program. NGOs and advocacy groups reported that the government has taken comprehensive steps to implement these programs.

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against a group because of its members’ race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity if the statement violates human dignity, and imposes criminal penalties for violations. The law also prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print media, broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers or journals, and provides criminal penalties for violations. The law also prohibits disparagement of religious teachings in public. The government strictly enforced these laws (see section 6, Anti-Semitism and the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report).

In October the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a plea by a woman challenging her 2011 conviction by a Vienna court, later upheld on appeal, for disparaging the Prophet Muhammad in 2009. The ECHR found that insulting the Prophet Muhammad “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.” The ECHR stated the Austrian courts had “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.”

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views.

Libel/Slander Laws: Strict libel and slander laws created conditions that discouraged reporting of governmental abuse. For example, many observers believed the ability and willingness of police to sue for libel or slander discouraged individuals from reporting police abuses.

INTERNET FREEDOM

With limited exceptions, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Authorities continued to restrict access to websites that violated the law, such as neo-Nazi sites. The law barring neo-Nazi activity provides for one- to 10-year prison sentences for public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of National Socialist crimes. The criminal code provision on incitement provides for prison sentences of up to five years. Authorities restricted access to prohibited websites by trying to shut them down and by forbidding the country’s internet service providers from carrying them.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 88 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

Abuses of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In rare cases, authorities detained unsuccessful applicants for asylum pending deportation. The government provided free legal counsel for persons awaiting deportation.

In-country Movement: Asylum seekers’ freedom of movement was restricted to the district of the reception center assigned by authorities for the duration of their initial application process until the country’s responsibility for examining the application was determined. By law asylum seekers must be physically present in the centers of first reception for up to 120 hours during the initial application process. Authorities have 20 days in which to determine the country’s responsibility and jurisdiction for the case.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

The number of asylum applications dropped further during the year, having already decreased significantly in 2017 from a record high in 2015. According to the Interior Ministry, between January and July, there were approximately 8,260 asylum applications compared to approximately 14,600 during the same period in 2017.

In September the UN high commissioner for human rights announced that an inspection team would visit the country to examine its migrant policy, in particular the return of migrants from Austria to their home countries.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: EU regulations provide that asylum seekers who transit an EU country determined to be “safe” on their way to Austria be returned to that country to apply for refugee status. Authorities considered signatories to the 1951 refugee convention and its 1967 protocol to be safe countries of transit. In response to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights and recommendations of the UN special rapporteur on torture, the government effectively halted the return of asylum seekers to Greece in 2011 but resumed returns to Greece in August. The Federal Administrative Court ruled that deportations to Hungary would also have to be examined on an individual basis due to the possibility of human rights abuses there.

Employment: While asylum seekers are legally restricted from seeking regular employment, they are eligible for seasonal work, low-paying community service jobs, or professional training in sectors that require additional apprentices. A work permit is required for seasonal employment but not for professional training. An employer must request the work permit for the prospective employee.

Durable Solutions: There are provisions for integration, resettlement, and returns, which the country was cooperating with UNHCR and other organizations to improve. The integration section in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Integration, together with the Integration Fund and provincial and local integration offices, coordinated measures for integration of refugees.

Temporary Protection: According to the Interior Ministry, in 2017 the government provided temporary protection to approximately 7,000 individuals who might not qualify as refugees but were unable to return to their home countries. According to the Interior Ministry, between January and July, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 2,899 individuals.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to the government’s statistical office, in January there were approximately 14,600 persons in the country registered as stateless; that is, having undocumented or unclear citizenship. Stateless persons in the country were largely Austrian-born children of foreign nationals who were unable to acquire citizenship through their parents due to the laws in their parents’ country of origin. Authorities did not deport them because they lacked a home country. The law allows some stateless persons to gain nationality. A stateless person born in the country may be granted citizenship within two years of reaching the age of 18 if he or she has lived in the country for a total of 10 years, including five years continuously before application, and is able to demonstrate sufficient income. Stateless persons could receive temporary residence and work permits that had to be renewed annually.

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 early parliamentary elections in October 2017 and presidential elections in 2016. There were no reports of serious abuse or irregularities in either election, and credible observers considered both to be free and fair.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Anticorruption laws and regulations extend to civil servants, public officials, governors, members of parliament, and employees or representatives of state-owned companies. The law also criminalizes corrupt practices by citizens outside the country. The penalty for bribery is up to 10 years in prison.

Corruption: The trial of former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser and 15 others on embezzlement and corruption charges continued. Grasser and his codefendants were charged in connection with the 2.45 billion euro ($2.8 billion) auction sale of 62,000 state-owned apartments in 2004. Prosecutors alleged that information from the Finance Ministry under Grasser’s leadership helped the eventual auction winner by signaling the size of the bid needed to acquire the properties.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws; there were no reports that officials failed to comply with disclosure requirements. Politicians must publicly disclose biannually when they earn more than 1,142 euros ($1,310) for certain activities, but they are not required to disclose the amounts they earned. The law does not require public officials to file disclosure reports upon leaving office. There are no sanctions for noncompliance with financial disclosure laws.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A human rights ombudsman’s office consisting of three independent commissioners examined complaints against the government. The ombudsman’s office is completely independent and has its own budget; parliament appoints its members. The ombudsman’s office effectively monitored government activities. A parliamentary human rights committee provides oversight.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men, including spousal rape, is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The government generally enforced the law. Law enforcement response to rape and domestic violence was effective. Police referred victims of domestic violence to special shelters and imposed orders barring abusive family members from contact with the victims.

Domestic violence is punishable under the criminal code provisions for murder, rape, sexual abuse, and bodily injury. Police can issue, and courts may extend, an order barring abusive family members from contact with survivors.

Under the law, the government provided psychosocial care in addition to legal aid and support throughout the judicial process to survivors of gender-based violence. Police training programs addressed sexual or gender-based violence and domestic abuse. The government funded privately operated intervention centers and hotlines for victims of domestic abuse.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and the government generally enforced the law. Labor courts may order employers to compensate victims of sexual harassment; the law entitles a victim to a minimum of 1,000 euros ($1,150) in compensation. The Women’s Ministry and the labor chamber regularly provided information to the public on how to address sexual harassment.

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

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they were subject to some discrimination in remuneration and representation in certain occupations.

Children

Birth Registration: By law children derive citizenship from one or both parents. Officials register births immediately.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, which may be extended to 10 years. Severe sexual abuse or rape of a minor is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment, which may be increased to life imprisonment if the victim dies because of the abuse.

The government continued its efforts to monitor child abuse and prosecute offenders. Officials noted a growing readiness to report cases of such abuse.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. Adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 may legally contract a marriage by special permit and parental consent or court action. NGOs estimated there were approximately 200 cases of early marriage annually, primarily in the Muslim and Romani communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides up to 15 years’ imprisonment for an adult convicted of sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 14, the minimum age for consensual sex for both girls and boys. It is a crime to possess, trade, or privately view child pornography. Possession of or trading in child pornography is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The government effectively enforced these laws.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to figures compiled by the Austrian Jewish Community (IKG), there were between 12,000 and 15,000 Jews in the country, of whom an estimated 8,000 were members of the IKG.

The IKG expressed concern that anti-Semitism remained at a “high but stable” level. The NGO Forum against Anti-Semitism reported 503 anti-Semitic incidents during 2017. These included five physical assaults in addition to name-calling, graffiti and defacement, threatening letters, dissemination of anti-Semitic texts, property damage, and vilifying letters and telephone calls. Of the reported incidents, five concerned physical assaults, 28 threats and insults, 203 letters and calls, 51 vandalism, and 171 involved anti-Semitic internet postings. The government provided police protection to the IKG’s offices and other Jewish community institutions in the country, such as schools and museums. The IKG noted that anti-Semitic incidents typically involved neo-Nazi and other related right-wing extremist perpetrators.

Oskar Deutsch, president of Vienna’s principal Jewish community organization, criticized the Freedom Party (FPOe)’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism in the party. The antiextremist watchdog NGO Austrian Mauthausen Committee listed a number of cases of extreme rightwing/neo Nazi incidents linked to lower-level FPOe officials. In January Udo Landbauer, the front-runner for the FPOe in state elections in Lower Austria, resigned following revelations of anti-Semitic and racist lyrics in a 1997 songbook of the controversial rightwing fraternity Germania, of which Landbauer was a leading member. In August the prosecutor’s office in the Lower Austrian town of Wiener Neustadt closed its investigation of the case due to the statute of limitations.

School curricula included discussion of the Holocaust, the tenets of different religious groups, and advocacy of religious tolerance. The Education Ministry offered special teacher training seminars on Holocaust education and conducted training projects with the Anti-Defamation League.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

While federal law mandates access to public buildings for persons with physical disabilities, NGOs complained many public buildings lacked such access. The Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Consumer Protection handled disability-related problems. The government funded a wide range of programs for persons with disabilities, including transportation and other assistance to help integrate schoolchildren with disabilities into mainstream classes and employees with disabilities into the workplace.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

In 2017 the Ministry of Interior published statistics citing approximately 1,100 neo-Nazi extremist, racist, Islamophobic, or anti-Semitic incidents, a 19 percent decrease from 2016, when 1,313 such incidents were reported.

An NGO operating a hotline for victims of racist incidents reported receiving approximately 1,200 complaints in 2017. It reported that racist internet postings comprised 44 percent of cases and were mostly directed against Muslims and migrants.

The Islamic Faith Community’s documentation center, established for tracking anti-Muslim incidents, reported receiving 309 complaints in 2017, up from 253 the previous year.

Human rights groups continued to report that Roma faced discrimination in employment and housing. Government programs, including financing for tutors, helped school-age Romani children move out of “special needs” programs and into mainstream classes. NGOs reported that Africans living in the country were verbally harassed or subjected to violence in public.

The Labor and Integration Ministries continued providing German-language instruction and skilled-labor training to young persons with immigrant backgrounds. Compulsory preschool programs, including some one- and two-year pilot programs, sought to remedy language deficiencies for non-native German speakers.

The government continued training programs to combat racism and educate police in cultural sensitivity. The Interior Ministry renewed an annual agreement with a Jewish group to teach police officers cultural sensitivity, religious tolerance, and the acceptance of minorities.

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

Antidiscrimination laws apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. There was some societal prejudice against LGBTI persons but no reports of violence or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTI organizations generally operated freely. Civil society groups criticized the lack of a mechanism to prevent service providers from discriminating against LGBTI individuals.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides the right of workers to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. It prohibits antiunion discrimination or retaliation against strikers and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference. The Austrian Trade Union Federation was the exclusive entity representing workers in collective bargaining. Unions were technically independent of government and political parties, although some sectors had unions closely associated with parties.

The government effectively enforced applicable laws that covered all categories of workers. Resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate. Penalties for violations were of civil nature, with fines imposed. Administrative, registration, and judicial procedures were not overly lengthy.

There were few reports of antiunion discrimination or other forms of employer interference in union functions. The government and employers recognized the right to strike and respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Authorities enforced laws providing for collective bargaining and protecting unions from interference and workers from retaliation for union activities.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, the government effectively enforced the law, and resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate. Labor inspectors and revenue authorities conducted routine site visits to identify forced labor. The government initiated forced labor awareness campaigns and workshops. Depending on the specific offense, penalties ranged from three to 20 years’ imprisonment and were sufficient to deter most violations.

According to antitrafficking NGOs and court documents, some citizens and migrants, both men and women, were subjected to trafficking and forced labor in the agriculture, construction, and restaurant/catering sectors. Some traffickers also subjected Romani children and persons with physical and mental disabilities to trafficking for forced begging.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum legal working age is 15, with the exception that children who are at least 13 may engage in certain forms of light work on family farms or businesses. Children who are 15 and older are subject to the same regulations on hours, rest periods, overtime wages, and occupational health and safety restrictions as adults, but are subject to additional restrictions on hazardous forms of work or for ethical reasons. Restrictions for hazardous jobs include work with materials considered dangerous for teenagers, work in the sawmill business, on high-voltage pylons, and specified jobs in the construction business.

Laws and policies protect children from exploitation in the workplace and prohibit forced or compulsory labor, and the government generally enforced these laws and policies effectively.

The labor inspectorate of the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Consumer Protection is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and policies in the workplace, and did so effectively. Penalties in the form of fines may be doubled in cases of repeated violations of the child labor code. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive (or other communicable disease) status, religion, age, or world view. The government effectively enforced these laws and regulations.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women, persons with disabilities, and members of certain minorities. A Muslim community office focused on documenting anti-Islamic acts reported discriminatory hiring practices against Muslim women wearing headscarves when trying to obtain a retail or customer service position. Companies sometimes preferred to pay a fine rather than hire a person with a disability.

The law requires equal pay for equal work, but women occasionally experienced discrimination in remuneration.

Female employees in the private sector may invoke laws prohibiting discrimination against women. Depending on the Federal Equality Commission’s findings, labor courts may award the equivalent of up to four months’ salary to women found to have experienced gender discrimination in promotion, despite being better qualified than their competitors. The courts may also order compensation for women denied a post despite having equal qualifications.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no legislated national minimum wage. Instead, nationwide collective bargaining agreements covered between 98 and 99 percent of the workforce and set minimum wages by job classification for each industry. The lowest bargaining agreement provided for 1,200 euros ($1,380) per month for full-time jobs. Where no such collective agreements existed, such as for domestic workers, custodial staff, and au pairs, wages were generally lower than those covered by collective bargaining agreements. The official poverty risk level was 1,238 euros ($1,420) per month.

The law in general provides for a maximum workweek of 40 hours, although collective bargaining agreements established 38 or 38.5-hour workweeks for more than half of all employees. Regulations to increase workhour flexibility allowed companies to increase the maximum regular time from 40 hours to 50 hours per week with overtime. A law that entered into force in August allows work hours to be increased to a maximum of 12 hours per day and 60 hours per week, including overtime, but employees can refuse, without providing a reason, to work more than 10 hours per day.

Overtime is officially limited to 20 hours per week and 60 hours per year. The period worked more than an average of 17 weeks must not exceed 48 hours per week. Some employers, particularly in the construction, manufacturing, and information technology sectors, exceeded legal limits on compulsory overtime. Sectors with immigrant workers were particularly affected. Collective bargaining agreements can specify higher limits. An employee must have at least 11 hours off between workdays. Wage and hour violations can be brought before a labor court, which can fine employers who commit violations.

Foreign workers in both the formal and informal sectors made up approximately 19 percent of the country’s workforce. Authorities did not enforce wage and hour regulations effectively in the informal sector.

The Labor Inspectorate regularly enforced mandatory occupational health and safety standards, which were appropriate for the main industries. Its approximately 300 inspectors were sufficient to monitor the country’s 250,000 worksites. Resources and remediation remained adequate. Penalties for violations in the form of fines were sufficient to deter violations. In cases of violations resulting in serious injury or death, employers may be prosecuted under the penal code.

The government extended its Occupational Safety and Health Strategy 2007-12 initiative until 2020. The initiative focused on educational and preventive measures, including strengthening public awareness of danger and risk assessment (plus evaluation); preventing work-related illnesses and occupational diseases; providing training as well as information on occupational safety and health; and improving the training of prevention experts.

Workers could file complaints anonymously with the labor inspectorate, which could in turn sue the employer on behalf of the employee. Workers rarely exercised this option and normally relied instead on the nongovernmental workers’ advocacy group and the Chamber of Labor, which filed suits on their behalf. Workers in the informal economy generally did not benefit from social protections. Workers generally had to pay into the system in order to receive health-care benefits, unemployment insurance, and pensions, although persons who were not working could qualify for coverage in certain cases.

Workers could remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety, without jeopardy to their employment. The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service protected employees in this situation.

Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state, and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since his election as president in 1994, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All subsequent presidential elections fell well short of international standards. The 2016 parliamentary elections also failed to meet international standards.

Civilian authorities, President Lukashenka in particular, maintained effective control over security forces.

Human rights issues included torture; arbitrary arrest and detention; life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; undue restrictions on free expression, the press and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel and defamation of government officials; violence against and detention of journalists; severe restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association, including by imposing criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws criminalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by the authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement, in particular of former political prisoners whose civil rights remained largely restricted; failure to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances; restrictions on political participation; corruption in all branches of government; allegations of pressuring women to have abortions; and trafficking in persons.

Authorities at all levels operated with impunity and failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

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

During the year there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings and no reports of deaths from torture.

b. Disappearance

During the year there were no reports of new disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were no developments in the reportedly continuing investigations into the 1999 disappearances of former deputy prime minister Viktar Hanchar, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and former interior minister Yuri Zakharanka. There was evidence of government involvement in the disappearances, but authorities continued to deny any connection with them.

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

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the Committee for State Security (KGB), riot police, and other security forces, often without identification and in plain clothes, beat detainees on occasion. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. Police occasionally beat persons during arrests.

Human rights advocates, opposition leaders, and activists released from detention facilities reported maltreatment and other forms of physical and psychological abuse of suspects during criminal and administrative investigations.

There were numerous reports of hazing of conscripts into the army that included beatings and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Some of those cases reportedly resulted in deaths. For example, in October 2017 a senior official from the Investigative Committee announced a criminal investigation into alleged hazing and violence that preceded the discovery of the body of a 21-year-old soldier, Aliaksandr Korzhych, in the basement of his military barracks near Barysau. On November 5, the Minsk regional court sentenced three former sergeants to nine, seven, and six years in prison respectively for driving Korzhych to suicide by abusing and maltreating him. Authorities also charged the three with theft, bribery, and abuse of power. The sergeants claimed at hearings that investigators pressured them into testifying against themselves and admitting to the charges.

Korzhych’s former commanders, Senior Lieutenant Paval Sukavenka and Chief Warrant Officer Artur Virbal, were tried separately for abuse of power and sentenced on October 19 to six and four years respectively.

At a press conference on February 14, Defense Minister Andrey Raukou committed to eradicating hazing and said the ministry had opened 48 criminal cases to investigate allegations of mistreatment and bullying in the armed forces. Accepting Korzhych’s case as his “personal fault,” Raukou said that the army registered three cases of suicide in 2017 and four cases in 2016. Raukou said that many of the conscripts involved in hazing had mental and psychological problems, histories of alcohol and drug abuse, criminal records, and lacked motivation to serve in the army.

On July 31, the Supreme Court reported that between January and June courts across the country convicted 28 officers on charges related to bullying, hazing, and abuse of power in the armed forces. Courts convicted 31 officers on similar charges in 2017. For example, on March 30, a district court in Barysau sentenced an army warrant officer to five years in jail for abusing his powers, taking bribes, and beating conscripts.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained poor and in many cases posed threats to life and health.

Physical Conditions: According to local activists and human rights lawyers, there were shortages of food, medicine, warm clothing, and bedding as well as inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water. Ventilation of cells and overall sanitation were poor, and authorities failed to provide conditions necessary for maintaining proper personal hygiene. Prisoners frequently complained of malnutrition and low-quality uniforms and bedding. Some former political prisoners reported psychological abuse and sharing cells with violent criminals or prisoners with contagious diseases. The law permits family and friends to provide detainees with food and hygiene products and to send them parcels by mail, but authorities did not always allow this.

On November 15, the Minsk city court dismissed an appeal filed by Alena Doubovik and Maryna Doubina, who were detained for up to 14 days in March 2017 on charges related to unsanctioned demonstrations. The two activists complained that holding facilities in Minsk and Zhodzina did not have female personnel to search them and that the two were deprived of privacy, including for personal hygiene, and were always visible to male officers.

Overcrowding of pretrial holding facilities, and prisons generally, was a problem.

Although there were isolated reports that police placed underage suspects in pretrial detention facility cells with adult suspects and convicts, authorities generally held juvenile prisoners separately from adults at juvenile penal colonies, arrest houses, and pretrial holding facilities. In general conditions for female and juvenile prisoners were slightly better than for male prisoners.

According to human rights NGOs and former prisoners, authorities routinely abused prisoners.

Credible sources maintained that prison administrators employed inmates to intimidate political prisoners and compel confessions. They also reported that authorities neither explained nor protected political prisoners’ legal rights and excessively penalized them for minor violations of prison rules.

Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care.

Administration: As in the previous year, authorities claimed to have conducted annual or more frequent investigations and monitoring of prison and detention center conditions. Human rights groups, however, asserted that such inspections, when they did occur, lacked credibility in view of the absence of an ombudsperson and the inability of reliable independent human rights advocates to visit prisons or provide consultations to prisoners.

On March 15, prison authorities in Horki refused to allow independent observers to meet with Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, cofounder of the prison monitoring NGO Platforma. According to human rights groups, Zhamchuzhny, who was serving a six and a half year sentence on charges of deliberately disclosing classified information and offering a bribe, was subject to mistreatment and inhuman prison conditions, including beatings by a fellow inmate. Human rights groups claimed that prison authorities continued to isolate Zhamchuzhny to punish him for allegedly violating prison regulations. The courts repeatedly dismissed Zhamchuzhny’s complaints of mistreatment.

Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and denial of meetings with families was a common punishment for disciplinary violations. Authorities often denied or delayed political prisoners’ meetings with family as a means of pressure and intimidation.

Although the law provides for freedom of religion, and there were no reports of egregious infringements, authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations.

Former prisoners reported that prison officials often censored or did not forward their complaints to higher authorities and that prison administrators either ignored or selectively considered requests for investigation of alleged abuses. Prisoners also reported that prison administrators frequently refused to provide them with copies of responses to their complaints, which further complicated their defense. Complaints could result in retaliation against prisoners, including humiliation, death threats, or other forms of punishment and harassment.

Corruption in prisons was a serious problem, and observers noted that parole often depended on bribes to prison personnel or on a prisoner’s political affiliation.

Independent Monitoring: Despite numerous requests to the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Justice, government officials refused to meet with human rights advocates or approve requests from NGOs to visit detention and prison facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law limits arbitrary detention, but the government did not respect these limits. Authorities arrested or detained individuals for political reasons and used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after protests and other major public events.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the KGB, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to his personal command and he maintained effective control over security forces. Impunity among law enforcement personnel remained a serious problem. Individuals have the right to report police abuse to a prosecutor, although the government often did not investigate reported abuses or hold perpetrators accountable.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

By law police must request permission from a prosecutor to detain a person for more than three hours, but police usually ignored this procedure and routinely detained and arrested individuals without warrants. Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges and for up to 18 months after filing charges. By law, prosecutors, investigators, and security service agencies have the authority to extend detention without consulting a judge. Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities frequently suppressed or ignored such appeals. The country has no functioning bail system.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained opposition and civil society activists for reasons widely considered politically motivated. In isolated cases authorities used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after planned demonstrations and protests, as well as other public events.

On March 21, police arrested former presidential candidate and opposition activist Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, European Belarus activist Maksim Vinyarski, and opposition activist Vyachyaslau Siuchyk. The three supported former presidential candidate and opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich in his plans to lead an unauthorized march in central Minsk to mark the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) on March 25. Authorities sentenced Vinyarski to 10 days of administrative detention for posting an opposition banner in central Minsk in March. Siuchyk was transported to a holding facility to serve five days in jail for participating in a September 2017 protest against the joint Russia-Belarus military exercise ZAPAD. Nyaklyaeu was also placed in a holding facility to serve 10 days for calling in an interview for persons to participate in unauthorized demonstrations in November 2017.

Despite wearing blue vests and badges, which marked them as “observers,” police detained the group of observers on March 25 while they were monitoring a protest in central Minsk. The observers complained police refused to provide them with access to their defense lawyers, kept them outside against the wall of the precinct building without food and water, and failed to ensure access to personal hygiene for up to eight hours before charging them with participating in an unauthorized demonstration and resisting police. On April 13, investigators questioned human rights group Vyasna’s observer Tatsyana Mastykina after she filed a complaint. Authorities dismissed the complaint and dropped all charges against the observers.

Pretrial Detention: Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges. Prior to being charged, the law provides detainees with no access to their families or to outside food and medical supplies, both of which are vital in view of the poor conditions in detention facilities. Police routinely held persons for the full 10-day period before charging them.

Police often detained individuals for several hours, ostensibly to confirm their identity; fingerprinted them; and then released them without charge. Police and security forces frequently used this tactic to detain members of the democratic opposition and demonstrators, to prevent the distribution of leaflets and newspapers, or to break up civil society meetings and events.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities frequently suppressed or ignored such appeals. By law courts have 24 hours to issue a ruling on a detention and 72 hours on an arrest. Courts hold closed hearings in these cases, which the suspect, a defense lawyer, and other legal representatives may attend. Prosecutors, suspects, and defense lawyers may appeal lower court decisions to higher courts within 24 hours of the ruling. Higher courts have three days to rule on appeals, and their rulings may not be challenged. Further appeals may be filed only when investigators extend the period of detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Observers believed corruption, inefficiency, and political interference with judicial decisions were widespread. Courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges brought by prosecutors, and observers believed that senior government leaders and local authorities dictated the outcomes of trials.

As in previous years, according to human rights groups, prosecutors wielded excessive and imbalanced authority because they may extend detention periods without the permission of judges. Defense lawyers were unable to examine investigation files, be present during investigations and interrogations, or examine evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brought the case to court. Lawyers found it difficult to challenge some evidence because the Prosecutor’s Office controlled all technical expertise. According to many defense attorneys, this power imbalance persisted throughout the year, especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. Courts did not exonerate criminal defendants except in rare circumstances.

By law, bar associations are independent, and licensed lawyers are permitted to establish private practices or bureaus. All lawyers must be licensed by the Ministry of Justice and must renew their licenses every five years.

No repressive or retaliatory measures against lawyers were reported during the year. In September 2017 a Ministry of Justice standing commission, which reviews lawyers’ performance, found that prominent independent lawyer Ana Bakhtsina had “insufficient professional skills” to be a defense lawyer. Bakhtsina appealed the commission’s decision revoking her license but her appeal was dismissed. Additionally, at least seven more defense lawyers were ordered to retake their bar exams within six months following the ministry’s determination that their professional skills were “partially insufficient.”

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but authorities occasionally disregarded this right.

The law provides for the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the lack of judicial independence, state media practice of reporting on high-profile cases as if guilt were already certain, and widespread limits on defense rights frequently placed the burden of proving innocence on the defendant.

The law also provides for public trials, but authorities occasionally held closed trials in judges’ chambers. Judges adjudicate all trials. For the most serious cases, two civilian advisers assist the judge.

The law provides defendants the right to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf, but authorities did not always respect these rights.

The law provides for access to legal counsel for the defendant and requires courts to appoint a lawyer for those who cannot afford one. Although by law defendants may ask for their trials to be conducted in Belarusian, most judges and prosecutors were not fluent in this language, rejected motions for interpreters, and proceeded in Russian. Interpreters are provided when the defendant speaks neither Belarusian nor Russian. The law provides for the right to choose legal representation freely; however, a presidential decree prohibits NGO members who are lawyers from representing individuals other than members of their organizations in court. The government’s past attempts to disbar attorneys who represented political opponents of the regime further limited defendants’ choice of counsel. The government also required defense attorneys to sign nondisclosure statements that limited their ability to release any information regarding the case to the public, media, and even defendants’ family members.

Courts often allowed statements obtained by force and threats of bodily harm during interrogations to be used against defendants. Some defendants were tried in absentia.

Defendants have the right to appeal convictions, and most defendants did so. Nevertheless, appeals courts upheld the verdicts of the lower courts in the vast majority of cases.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

Local human rights organizations reported several different lists of political prisoners in the country. Leading local human rights groups, including Vyasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), recognized two individuals as prisoners of conscience.

Dzmitry Palienka, an opposition and anarchist movement activist who participated in the “Critical Mass” bicycle ride of April 2016, was sentenced to a two-year suspended term for using violence against a traffic police officer during his detention and for distributing pornographic images on social media in October 2016. He was rearrested and had the suspension of his sentence revoked in April 2017, allegedly for participating in unauthorized mass events. On a judge’s order, he spent 18 months and 13 days (the remainder of the two-year sentence) in prison and was released in October. Local human rights advocates called for his unconditional and immediate release, pointing to the peaceful nature of the “Critical Mass” ride and all subsequent protest events in which Palienka participated.

Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, cofounder of the now-defunct prison monitoring NGO Platforma, continued to serve a six and a half year sentence. He was convicted in 2015 in a closed-door session for deliberately disclosing classified information, illegally acquiring or making equipment for obtaining classified information, and offering a bribe to an official.

Former political prisoners released in August 2015 continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights at year’s end.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The law provides that individuals may file lawsuits seeking damages for a human rights violation, but the civil judiciary was not independent and was rarely impartial in such matters.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

There are no laws providing for restitution or compensation for immovable private property confiscated during World War II and the Holocaust. The country also has no legislative regime for restitution of communal property or of heirless property. The government reported that, in the last 10 years, it did not receive any requests or claims from individuals, NGOs, or any other public organization, either Jewish or foreign, seeking compensation or restitution of any property.

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

The law prohibits such actions, but the government did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities used wiretapping, video surveillance, and a network of informers that deprived persons of privacy.

By law persons who obstruct law enforcement personnel in the performance of their duties may be penalized or charged with an administrative offense, even if the “duties” are inconsistent with the law. “Obstruction” could include any effort to prevent KGB or law enforcement officers from entering the premises of a company, establishment, or organization; refusing to allow KGB audits; or denying or restricting KGB access to information systems and databases.

The law requires a warrant before, or immediately after, conducting a search. Nevertheless, some democratic activists believed the KGB entered their homes unannounced. The KGB has the authority to enter any building at any time, as long as it applies for a warrant within 24 hours after the entry.

Security forces continued to target prominent opposition and civil society leaders with arbitrary searches and interrogations at border crossings and airports. On March 7, the independent Belarusian Trade Union of Workers of Radio and Electronics Industry (REP) reported that its deputy chair Zinaida Mikhnyuk and youth network coordinator Hanna Dous were briefly detained and searched at the Belarus-Lithuania border. Dous told the media that border officers searched her belongings without giving an explanation or bringing any charges.

While the law prohibits authorities from intercepting telephone and other communications without a prosecutor’s order, authorities routinely monitored residences, telephones, and computers. Nearly all opposition political figures and many prominent members of civil society groups claimed that authorities monitored their conversations and activities. The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.

The law allows the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, special security services, financial intelligence personnel, and certain border guard detachments to use wiretaps. Wiretaps require the permission of a prosecutor, but the lack of prosecutorial independence rendered this requirement meaningless.

The independent election observation group Prava Vybaru (Right to Choose) claimed that the two state-controlled television channels broadcast illegally wiretapped conversations between its activists. According to Prava Vybaru, the channels misrepresented the recording’s content in order to discredit the group before February local elections.

The Ministry of Communications has the authority to terminate the telephone service of persons who violate telephone contracts, which prohibit the use of telephone services for purposes contrary to state interests and public order.

Authorities continued to harass family members of NGO leaders and civil society and opposition activists through selective application of the law. Maryna Adamovich, the spouse of opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich, told the press that the tires of their two cars were damaged on the eve of Statkevich’s arrest on March 25. Adamovich filed a police complaint but there were no developments in the case.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize the president and the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Authorities also prohibited wearing facemasks, displaying certain historical flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.

On March 25, a Radio Liberty journalist reported that she and at least four individuals were detained for carrying white-red-white flags beyond the police perimeter near the Minsk Opera House, following a concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic.

On September 10, police detained opposition activist Nina Bahinskaya for holding a banner that read “No to Communism” in central Minsk. Authorities fined her 1,225 rubles ($612) for purportedly holding an unauthorized protest.

The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country.

Press and Media Freedom: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of independent media.

By law the government may close a publication, printed or online, after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.

Limited information was available in the state-run press concerning the February 18 local elections, including on independent candidates.

While no independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, applied for registration to the Ministry of Information, they continued to seek to provide coverage of events. They operated, however, under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of newspapers, and raising the cost of printing.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state distributor of printed publications, Belsayuzdruk, allowed the distribution of at least nine independent newspapers and magazines that covered politics, including Novy ChasBorisovskie Novosti, and Intexpress, which have been banned from distribution for 11 years.

The exclusion of independent print media from the state distribution system and the requirement that private stores secure registration to sell newspapers and magazines effectively limited the ability of the independent press to distribute their publications.

International media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and with a time lag that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable.

At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their international news programs with local programming.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.

Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that, as of September 15, police fined, detained, and arrested at least 30 journalists who were performing their professional duties in more than 108 separate cases.

On August 7, the Investigative Committee reported it had opened a criminal case, based on materials submitted by the Interior Ministry’s cybersecurity department, to investigate “illegal access to computer information stemming from personal interests which caused significant damages.” The case was reportedly triggered by a complaint filed by state-run news agency Belta. The Interior Ministry’s preliminary investigation found that “information held on Belta’s computer systems was illegally accessed more than 15,000 times without the knowledge or agreement of Belta in 2017-2018.” Authorities detained and interrogated more than 20 journalists from the independent news agencies tut.byBelaPANrealt.by, and Deutsche Welle among others. Investigators also searched their residences and offices, confiscating computer equipment. In November investigators charged 15 journalists for illegal access, including BelaPAN staff writer Tatsyana Karavenkova, BelaPAN chief editor Iryna Leushyna, and eight tut.by journalists, including Chief Editor Maryna Zolatava. Observers said the investigation and charges were disproportionate to the alleged crime, because the subscription-only Belta news service the journalists were accused of illegally accessing posted the same information for free public consumption shortly after its release to paid subscribers. Charges against all except Zolatava were later dropped when the journalists agreed to pay a penalty of 735 rubles ($350) each and up to 17,000 rubles ($7,980) in compensation for damage their actions allegedly caused. Zolatava was charged with “executive inaction” and faced up to five years in prison.

The government refused to recognize some foreign media, such as Poland-based Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined free-lance journalists working for them. As of September 25, at least 31 journalists were fined in 80 cases for not having government accreditation or cooperating with a foreign media outlet. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, freelance journalists received fines totaling more than 66,000 rubles ($33,000). Most of the fines were imposed on journalists working for Belsat TV.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to air at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.

Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints.

Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report. On November 22, authorities convicted a resident of the village of Vetryna in the Vitsyebsk region on charges of “publicly insulting the president” and causing a false bomb alert and sentenced him to two years of restricted freedom. The charges reportedly stemmed from the resident’s post on his social media, using derogatory language and saying that he allegedly planted a bomb at a local shopping center.

National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government interfered with internet freedom by monitoring email and internet chat rooms. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the peaceful expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions, and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists’ emails and other web-based communications were likely to be monitored.

Under amendments to the Media Law that came into force December 1, news websites and any internet information sources are subject to the same regulations as print media. If websites choose not to apply for registration, they can continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Unregistered online media cannot receive accreditation from state agencies for its correspondents, who will also not be able to cover mass events or protect sources of information, among other things. Registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises with a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions.

Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. The law also restricts access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, or “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that may harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication will be able to appeal a decision to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court within a month.

In addition, owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The amended law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. On January 24, authorities blocked opposition news website Charter’97 for allegedly publishing information that harmed national interests. The Information Ministry claimed that the site ran articles announcing the time and venue of unauthorized demonstrations and published information on behalf of unregistered groups.

Authorities monitored internet traffic. By law the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekam and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.

A presidential edict requires registration of service providers and internet websites, and requires the collection of information on users at internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon request. Violations of the edict are punishable by prison sentences.

In response to the government’s interference and internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to internet domains operating outside the country. Observers reported that the few remaining independent media sites with the country domain BY practiced self-censorship at times.

On several occasions, cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily took down independent news portals and social networking sites.

According to various media sources, the number of internet users reached nearly seven million persons, or more than 70 percent of population, of which approximately 90 percent used the internet daily or numerous times a month. Internet penetration was approximately 83 percent among users ages 15 to 50.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.

Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as their principals. The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.

Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language (vice Russian) in the majority of fields of study were scarce. While the administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes, on March 27 authorities registered as a legal entity a private university, named after prominent Belarusian poet Nil Hilevich, where all instruction will be in the Belarusian language. In September the university, run by the independent Belarusian Language Society and funded from private sources, opened pre-enrollment courses for students to major in the humanities, linguistics, and other disciplines.

Students, writers, and academics said authorities pressured them to join ostensibly voluntary progovernment organizations, such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) and the Union of Writers of Belarus. Students who declined to join the BRYU risked economic hardships, including lack of access to dormitories, which effectively limited their ability to attend the country’s top universities.

Students from various universities and colleges reported to an independent election-monitoring group that their faculties were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from their dormitories. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.

According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. In January Belarus State University expelled Hanna Smilevich, a Belarusian Popular Front youth group member, after she had become chair of the group in December 2017.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups in various communities around the country. A general atmosphere of repression and the threat of imprisonment or large fines exercised a chilling effect on potential protest organizers.

The law criminalizes the announcement of an intention to hold demonstrations via the internet or social media before official approval, participation in the activities of unregistered NGOs, training of persons to demonstrate, financing of public demonstrations, or solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Violations are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Persons with unexpunged criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals did not have the right to act as mass event organizers. Such organizers must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission to conduct a public demonstration, rally, or meeting, and government officials are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if held at designated venues far from city centers. The amended law allowed organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities should inform organizers of denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials can be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicted with one organized by a different individual or group or the notification did not comply with regulations.

Authorities used intimidation and threats to discourage persons from participating in demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unauthorized demonstrations. In addition authorities required organizers to conclude contracts with police, fire department, health, and sanitary authorities for their services after a mass event. Authorities waived some of these requirements for the March 25 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR). All media representatives had to be clearly identified and carry an official media ID or foreign media accreditation. They have to provide their personal ID and press documents to law enforcement upon request.

On March 27, President Lukashenka told Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich that the Ministry should be ready to “immediately suppress” any unauthorized events which “impede people’s lives” because “chaos stems from them [unauthorized protests].” Shunevich responded that “not a single event, which is not sanctioned by authorities, will take place, and even if it starts it will be immediately stopped in an effective manner and in compliance with the law.”

During the year local authorities countrywide rejected dozens of applications for permission to stage various demonstrations.

While Minsk city authorities cooperated with opposition groups to stage a rally and concert on the 100 anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic in front of the Opera House on March 25, they denied two other applications to hold marches the same day. Organizers of the concert had sought to walk from a nearby park to the concert location before the concert. A second application was filed by opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich and his supporters to march from the central Yakub Kolas square via the main avenue to the concert location. When Statkevich decided to go ahead with his plan without permission, police arrested him as he was leaving his home. Police also arrested approximately 60 individuals gathered at Yakub Kolas square.

In addition, authorities in Mahilyou and Homyel denied local activists’ permission to hold rallies in city centers on March 25. They alleged that the venues were not designated for mass events or had been already booked for other events.

Across the country in at least 11 different localities, approximately 57 individuals were briefly detained, apparently in order to prevent their participation in March 25 events in Minsk.

On July 3, celebrated as the Belarusian Independence Day, police dispersed an unauthorized protest and detained approximately 30 individuals, including Mikalai Statkevich, in front of a WWII monument to Soviet soldiers in central Minsk. Statkevich called upon his associates to hold a rally to mark the “liberation [of Minsk from the Nazis on July 3, 1944] and solidarity.” Statkevich was arrested as he was leaving his house on his way to the site on July 3. Police detained approximately 30 activists at the site, including five observers from the human rights group Vyasna, transported them to a local precinct, and released the majority later in the day. Statkevich and at least three other activists remained in detention overnight and stood trial on July 4. A Minsk district court sentenced Statkevich to a fine of 980 rubles ($490) for making calls to participate in an unauthorized protest on July 3.

From June through October, authorities fined, detained, or arrested more than 20 protesters at the site of the Stalinist-era execution site Kurapaty. The protesters opposed the building and operation of a restaurant in close vicinity to the site. While police repeatedly fined the majority of activists for purportedly violating traffic regulations and participating in unauthorized demonstrations, a number of protesters, including Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) party cochair Paval Sevyarynets, European Belarus campaign activist Maksim Vinyarski, and filmmaker Alyaksei Tourovich were sentenced to up to 10 days of administrative detention.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to become registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.

Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders, along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office, an extraordinary burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs and individual property owners’ fears of renting space to independent groups. Individuals listed as members were vulnerable to reprisal. The government’s refusal to rent office space to unregistered organizations and the expense of renting private space reportedly forced most organizations to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or to deregister them. The law criminalizes activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from large fines to two years’ imprisonment (also see section 7.a.).

The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity, a provision widely believed to be aimed at the Polish minority.

Only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Department for Humanitarian Affairs of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of the Economy for technical aid before they may accept such funds or register the grants.

The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations in an effort to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.

On March 21, Minsk city authorities registered an educational NGO called “Out Loud.” This was the group’s ninth registration application under its previous name, “Make Out,” which the government requested it change before granting registration. The NGO focused on advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and countering discrimination and violence against them.

On April 6, the BCD reported that the Ministry of Justice denied its seventh registration application. The ministry said the BCD had failed to include phone numbers of some of its members and had incorrectly listed the birth dates of two party founders in its application documents. The party submitted the application on January 22, and the ministry decided to suspend the registration process and seek additional documents on February 23. The Supreme Court upheld the ministry’s denial on May 25.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.

The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.

Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.

Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, and many were in self-imposed exile.

Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a procedure for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin.

All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians may legally settle and obtain residence permits in the country based on their Russian citizenship. Overall, as of October 1, immigration authorities accepted 463 applications for asylum compared with 596 in 2016, including from 359 Ukrainians, 10 Syrians, eight Afghans, and 12 Pakistanis.

In addition to refugee status, the country’s asylum law provides for complementary protection in the form of temporary residence. In the period January-September, 364 foreigners were granted complementary protection (333 Ukrainians, 14 Syrians, six Yemenis, seven Afghans, one Georgian, and three Egyptians).

Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status of asylum-seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.

Durable Solutions: Adult asylum seekers have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees.

Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.

STATELESS PERSONS

As of July 1, the Ministry of the Interior and UNHCR listed 6,618 stateless persons in the country; all had permanent residence, according to authorities.

Permanently resident stateless persons held residence permits and were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.

There is a path towards citizenship for this stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship.

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, but the government consistently denied citizens this ability by not conducting elections according to international standards.

Since his election in 1994 to a four-year term as the country’s first president, Lukashenka has steadily consolidated power in the executive branch to dominate all branches of government, effectively ending any separation of powers among the branches. Flawed referendums in 1996 and 2004 amended the constitution to broaden his powers, extend his term in office, and remove presidential term limits. Subsequent elections, including the presidential elections held in 2015 and parliamentary elections held in 2016, continued to deny citizens the right to express their will in an honest and transparent process including fair access to media and to resources.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: According to independent local observation groups, the February 18 local elections were marred by numerous violations, including inflated early and election day turnout, multiple voting, nontransparent home voting, and nontransparent vote tabulation across the country. On February 19, the Central Election Commission (CEC) reported official turnout of 77.05 percent.

Independent observers noted that a number of opposition candidates were denied registration for far-fetched reasons and that the registration process was not open to observers. In a number of cases, commissions removed independent observers from polling stations for allegedly interfering with their work and banned them from videotaping or taking photos. Human rights monitors, independent observers, and experts concluded that elections did not comply with international standards and that authorities dismissed the majority of complaints filed by opposition candidates, their representatives, or independent observers.

Government authorities do not invite OSCE/ODIHR observers to local elections.

The September 2016 parliamentary elections failed to meet international standards. For the first time in 12 years, however, alternative voices were seated in parliament. The elections were marred by a number of long-standing systemic shortcomings, according to the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe international election observation mission intermediate report. While the observer missions and the international community welcomed visible efforts by authorities to make some procedural improvements, a number of key long-standing recommendations by the OSCE/ODIHR and Council of Europe Venice Commission remained unaddressed.

The 2016 OSCE report found that the legal framework restricts political rights and fundamental freedoms and was interpreted in an overly restrictive manner. While there was an overall increase in the number of candidates, including from the opposition, media coverage did not enable voters to make an informed choice, and the campaign lacked visibility. As in past years, only a negligible number of election commission members were appointed from opposition nominees, which undermined confidence in the commission’s independence. The early voting, counting, and tabulation procedures continued to be marred by a significant number of procedural irregularities and a lack of transparency.

Local human rights groups Vyasna and the BHC stated at a postelection press conference that based on their observation the election fell short of international standards and did not fully abide by the country’s legislation. They especially noted their concern regarding early voting procedures, the lack of transparency in the vote-count process, and the domination of election commissions by progovernment organizations.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Authorities routinely harassed and impeded the activities of opposition political parties and activists. Some opposition parties lacked legal status because authorities refused to register them, and the government routinely interfered with the right to organize, run for election, seek votes, and publicize views. The government allowed approximately half a dozen largely inactive but officially registered pro-Lukashenka political parties to operate freely.

During the year authorities fined and arrested opposition political parties’ leaders for violating the Law on Mass Events and participating in numerous unauthorized demonstrations. The law allows authorities to suspend parties for six months after one warning and close them after two. Members of parties that authorities refused to register, such as the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, continued to be subjected to harassment and arbitrary checks. The law also prohibits political parties from receiving support from abroad and requires all political groups and coalitions to register with the Ministry of Justice.

Authorities continued to limit activities of the unrecognized Union of Poles of Belarus and harass its members.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process but patriarchal social attitudes disfavored women’s efforts to achieve positions of power.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government regularly prosecuted officials alleged to be corrupt; however, reports indicated that some officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country.

In 2016 the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) released a summary of the interim compliance report that stated the government partially implemented only one of the 20 recommendations made by the Council of Europe’s anticorruption monitoring body in June 2015. GRECO noted the “lack of an evidence-based comprehensive strategy and a plan of action for the fight against corruption, and of a mechanism that does not only involve the law enforcement agencies to monitor its implementation independently, comprehensively and objectively.” In its annual report released in May, GRECO stated that the government’s implementation of the group’s recommendations was “unsatisfactory.”

Individuals dismissed for lower-level corruption face a five-year ban on public-service employment, while those found to have committed more serious abuses are banned indefinitely from government employment. The law also allows seizure of property worth more than 25 percent of a public servant’s yearly income for those found guilty of corrupt practices. The law provides for public monitoring of the government’s anticorruption efforts.

Corruption: According to official sources, most corruption cases involved soliciting and accepting bribes, fraud, and abuse of power, although anecdotal evidence indicated such corruption usually did not occur as part of day-to-day interaction between citizens and minor state officials.

The absence of independent judicial and law enforcement systems, the lack of separation of powers, and a harried independent press largely barred from interaction with a nontransparent state bureaucracy made it virtually impossible to gauge the scale of corruption or combat it effectively.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for organizing and coordinating activities to combat corruption, including monitoring law enforcement operations, analyzing the efficacy of implemented measures, supervising engaged parties, and drafting further legislation.

In June the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that from January to May authorities investigated 1,107 corruption cases compared with 584 cases in the same period in 2017. The most corrupt sectors were state administration and procurement, the industrial sector, the construction industry, health care, and education.

There were numerous corruption prosecutions during the year, but prosecutions remained selective, nontransparent, and in some cases appeared politically motivated, according to independent observers and human rights advocates. For example, the head of the KGB, Valery Vakulchyk, stated on October 5 that approximately one hundred head doctors from the regions and Minsk, officials of the healthcare ministry, including a deputy minister, representatives of local pharmaceutical productions, and owners of pharmacy businesses were investigated for numerous accounts of corruption related to procurement of medicines and equipment.

Financial Disclosure: Anticorruption laws require income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials, their spouses, and members of households who have reached legal age and continue to live with them in the same household. According to the law, specialized anticorruption departments within the Prosecutor General’s Office, the KGB, and the Internal Affairs Ministry monitor and verify anticorruption practices, and the prosecutor general and all other prosecutors are mandated to oversee the enforcement of anticorruption law. These declarations were not available to the public. An exception applies to candidates running in presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. There are administrative sanctions and disciplinary penalties for noncompliance.

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

There were a number of active domestic human rights NGOs, although authorities were often hostile to their efforts, restricted their activities, selectively cooperated with them, and were not responsive to their views.

Two prominent human rights NGOs–the BHC and the Center for Legal Transformations–operated as registered entities. The government refused to register a number of others, placing them at risk under the criminal code that criminalizes organizing or participating in any activity by an unregistered organization. The law also prohibits persons from acting on behalf of unregistered NGOs. Nonetheless, some unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.

Authorities harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations. They subjected them to frequent inspections and threats of deregistration, reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations, and harassed family members of group leaders and activists. The government ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and only met with registered groups. State-run media rarely reported on human rights NGOs and their activities.

During the year the BHC’s bank accounts remained blocked due to long-standing tax arrears related to foreign funding in the early 2000s, but the government allowed the committee to operate without other interference.

Authorities were reluctant to engage on human rights problems with international human rights NGOs or other human rights officials, and international NGO representatives often had difficulty gaining admission to the country. Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country and requests to stop harassing the human rights community.

Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: On September 28, the UN Human Rights Council appointed Anais Marin as the new Special Rapporteur on Belarus. On October 1, Belarusian MFA Spokesperson Anatoli Hlaz stated that the government continued to speak against “the politicized” mandate of the rapporteur and did not recognize it. The previous rapporteur, Miklos Haraszti, whose mandate expired on October 31, published his final report at the 73rd session of the UNGA’s Third Committee on October 24, noting that the human rights record in Belarus had not improved in his six-year tenure. In a response, a Belarusian diplomat, Counsellor Ina Vasileuskaya, called the report and Haraszti’s speech “a farce.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government took minor steps to implement the Human Rights Action Plan adopted in 2016 to outline, in the government’s words, “main activities for us to implement our international obligations” on human rights. In addition to holding various conferences and seminars jointly with UN organizations, the government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016. While independent human rights groups, including the human rights center Vyasna and the BHC, welcomed the plan’s adoption, they also noted that the documents lack specific target goals or results assessment mechanisms. Civil society groups noted that the government failed to include any of the concrete suggestions they recommended during drafting that they believed would have made the plan more substantial.

A standing commission on human rights in the lower chamber of parliament was ineffective.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape in general but does not include separate provisions on marital rape. Rape was a problem. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there were 184 registered cases of rape or attempted rape in 2017.

Domestic violence was a significant problem, and the government took measures to prevent it during the year. The government issued protective orders mandating the separation of victims and abusers and provided temporary accommodations for the duration of the orders. It also operated crisis rooms that provided limited shelter and psychological and medical assistance to victims.

The law on crime prevention establishes a separate definition of domestic violence and provides for implementation of protective orders, which are from three to 30 days in duration. The law requires authorities to provide victims and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition, the code on administrative offenses prescribes a large fine or detention for up to 15 days for battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

On November 26, a senior representative of the Interior Minister stated every third person killed in the country was killed by a family member and that in January-October the ministry identified 115 women as victims of murder and severe bodily harm in crimes related to domestic violence, 41 of whom died. From January-August authorities also issued approximately 5,500 protective orders, including 5,000 ordering perpetrators to move out of residences shared with their victims.

On April 25, authorities arrested a resident of the city of Valozhyn on a charge of beating his spouse to death. The family, with two minor children, lived in a dormitory, and their neighbors told police the victim had complained of abuse and domestic violence. According to witnesses and press reports, the victim sustained at least 30 severe injuries. The case was pending at year’s end.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment reportedly was widespread, but no specific laws, other than those against physical assault, address the problem.

Coercion in Population Control: Women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to property ownership and inheritance, family law, equal pay for equal work (although in practice women were often paid less), and in the judicial system, and the law was generally respected.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived either by birth within the country or from one’s parents. A child of a citizen is a citizen regardless of place of birth, even if one parent is not a citizen. Births were generally registered immediately.

Child Abuse: Authorities intervened to prevent child abuse stemming from domestic violence and identified families in vulnerable conditions, providing foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government increased prosecution of child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate. The government instituted a 2017-21 comprehensive national plan to improve childcare and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, and acknowledged a lack of funding and inefficiency in executing certain protective measures.

With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities extensively employed procedures for on-the-record, one-time interviewing of child abuse victims in the framework of investigations or criminal cases at specialized facilities under the direct supervision of psychologists. Courts used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child abuse victims for hearings. More experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and legitimate interests of minors. The government failed to resume operations of a national hotline for assisting children despite various NGOs’ requests to support the hotline.

A UNICEF report, released in March, registered children’s and parents’ low awareness of existing types of violence against children; limited capacity of professionals to identify, register, report, and address incidents of violence, and weak collaboration on violence prevention and response among professionals. In addition, the report found an inadequate monitoring system that operated only with data on investigated crimes against children and cases of child separation because of identified violence in the home.

As of January the Ministry of Education ran 138 social-educational centers nationwide for minor victims of any type of violence or minors finding themselves in vulnerable and dangerous conditions. General health-care institutions provided a wide range of medical aid to child abuse victims free of charge.

According to the UNICEF study, two-thirds of professionals reported they had never had training on violence against children. One-third of professionals said that specialists working with children often ignored or concealed facts of violence in their institutions.

Rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Sexual acts between a person older than 18 and a person known to be younger than 16 carry penalties of up to five years imprisonment.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18, although girls as young as 14 may marry with parental consent. There were reports of early marriage in which girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 married with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Prostitution of children was a problem, and the government took some steps to address it. From January through October, the Internal Affairs Ministry investigated 63 cases of the production and distribution of child pornography and identified 25 minors as victims. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for production or distribution of pornographic materials depicting a minor. The law generally was enforced. The law, however, failed to criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking by requiring a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense.

Institutionalized Children: There was no system for monitoring child abuse in orphanages or other specialized institutions. Authorities did not publicly report on any child abuse incidents in institutions. There were allegations of abuse in foster families. The government opened or continued investigations into some of these cases.

The UNICEF study reported that more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either psychical or psychological violence. Approximately one in four children participating in the survey reported exposure to physical violence at institutions. The children living in institutions appeared significantly more vulnerable compared to children living in families: they had two to three times higher exposure to violence than children from secondary schools. Children from special closed-type educational institutions and penitentiary institutions reported greater exposure to violence both at home and in the institutions.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews lived in the country.

Anti-Semitic incidents continued. Jewish community and civil society activists expressed concern regarding pan-Slavic nationalism professed by some extremist groups. Neo-Nazis, such as the Russian National Unity group and supporters of similar groups were widely believed to be behind anti-Semitic incidents across the country. Anti-Semitic and xenophobic newspapers, literature, digital video discs, and videotapes, frequently imported from Russia, were widely available. The government did not promote antibias and tolerance education.

Media continued to report that many Holocaust memorials built in Soviet times and more recently do not acknowledge Jewish victims. The Jewish community continued to work with local authorities to erect new monuments that specifically commemorate Jewish victims.

During the year authorities convicted a number of offenders who reportedly associated themselves with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews, among others. On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting racist videos on social media. In a similar case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy district of posting videos with anti-Semitic content and sentenced him to a year and a month in jail on April 18.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, and discrimination was common.

The law mandates that transport, residences, and businesses be accessible to persons with disabilities, but few public areas were wheelchair accessible or accessible for hearing and vision-impaired persons. The National Association of Disabled Wheelchair Users estimated that more than 90 percent of persons with physical disabilities were unable to leave their places of residence without assistance and stated their residences were not suitable to accommodate persons with physical disabilities. While authorities claimed that 30 percent of the country’s total infrastructure was accessible, disability rights organizations considered this figure inflated, although the situation slightly improved during the year.

The country’s lack of independent living opportunities left many persons with disabilities no choice but to live in state-run institutions. Approximately 80 such institutions across the country housed more than 19,000 persons. Disability rights organizations reported that the quality of care in these facilities was low, and instances of fundamental human rights violations, harassment, mistreatment, and other abuse were reported. Authorities frequently placed persons with physical and mental disabilities in the same facilities and did not provide either group with specialized care.

Public transportation was free to persons with disabilities, but the majority of subway stations in Minsk and the bus system were not wheelchair accessible. In September 2017 experts of the ACT NGO released a monitoring report indicating that 3.3 percent of all educational institutions across the country were accessible to persons with disabilities, including with vision and hearing disabilities, and most of these facilities were recently constructed.

Disability rights organizations reported difficulty organizing advocacy activities due to impediments to freedom of assembly, censorship, and the government’s unwillingness to register assistance projects (see section 2.b.).

Persons with disabilities, especially those with vision and hearing disabilities, often encountered problems with access to courts and obtaining court interpreters. Women with disabilities often faced discrimination, and there were reports of authorities attempting to take children away from families in which parents had disabilities, claiming that they would not appropriately care for their children. Women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies arbitrarily detained, investigated, and harassed Roma, including by forced fingerprinting, mistreatment in detention, and ethnic insults.

Authorities continued to harass the independent and unregistered Union of Poles of Belarus, while supporting a progovernment organization of a similar name. On November 19, independent media sources reported that authorities in Minsk interrupted a concert, organized by the unregistered union to mark the 100th anniversary of Poland’s regained independence. It was their fourth attempt to hold the event after three denied requests to rent premises.

Official and societal discrimination continued against the country’s 7,000 (according to the 2009 census) to 60,000 (according to Romani community estimates) Roma. The Romani community continued to experience marginalization, various types of discrimination, high unemployment, low levels of education, and lack of access to social services. Roma generally held citizenship, but many lacked official identity documents and refused to obtain them.

There were also expressions of hostility toward proponents of the national culture that the government often identified with actors of the democratic opposition, repeatedly labeled by the president as “the fifth column.” Because the government viewed many proponents of the Belarusian language as political opponents, authorities continued to harass academic and cultural groups that sought to promote Belarusian and routinely rejected proposals to widen use of the language.

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

Consensual same-sex conduct between adults is not illegal, but discrimination against LGBTI persons was widespread, and harassment occurred. The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Societal discrimination against LGBTI activists persisted with the tacit support of the regime. Police continued to mistreat LGBTI persons and refused to investigate crimes against them.

On June 29 and July 21, police disrupted parties organized by an LGBTI group at a nightclub in Minsk and wrote down everyone’s names as well as their places of employment or education. Officers reportedly claimed they received notices of possible crimes, including drug trafficking and abuse of minors, at the club.

The government allows transgender persons to update their name and gender marker on national identification documents, but these documents retain old identification numbers that include a digit indicating the individual’s sex assigned at birth. Transgender persons reportedly were refused jobs when potential employers noted the “discrepancy” between the applicant’s identification number and their gender marker. Banks also refused to open accounts for transgender persons on the same grounds.

According to local media, on July 31 authorities refused a foreign LGBTI rights activist entry to Belarus at the Minsk National Airport. A representative of the border service told the media the decision was made in accordance with a law that says a foreigner can be denied entry if his or her presence in the country ran counter to national security, public order, the protection of morality, public health, or the rights and liberties of the citizens of Belarus and other persons. The LGBTI organization Out Loud stated the activist planned to deliver a lecture in Minsk on discrimination and street violence against migrants, nonwhite, and transgender persons.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, and the illness carried a heavy social stigma. The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS noted there were numerous reports of HIV-infected individuals who faced discrimination, especially at workplaces and during job interviews. There were also frequent reports of family discrimination against HIV/AIDS-positive relatives, including preventing HIV/AIDS-positive parents from seeing their children or requiring HIV/AIDS-positive family members to use separate dishware.

The government continued to broadcast and post public service advertisements raising awareness concerning HIV/AIDS and calling for greater tolerance toward persons infected with the virus.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Although the law provides for the rights of workers, except state security and military personnel, to form and join independent unions and to strike, it places a number of serious restrictions on the exercise of these rights. The law provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively but does not protect against antiunion discrimination. Workers who say they are fired for union activity have no explicit right to reinstatement or to challenge their dismissal in court, according to independent union activists.

The law provides for civil penalties in the form of fines for violations of the freedom of assembly or collective bargaining, which, according to local worker rights advocates, were not sufficient to deter violations. The government also did not enforce these penalties.

The government severely restricted independent unions. The government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus is the largest union federation, claiming more than four million members. It largely resembled its Soviet predecessors and served as a control mechanism and distributor of benefits. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU), with four constituent unions and approximately 10,600 members of independent trade unions, was the largest independent union umbrella organization, but tight government control over registration requirements and public demonstrations made it difficult for the congress to organize, expand, and strike.

The government did not respect freedom of association and collective bargaining. Prohibitive registration requirements that any new independent union have a large membership and cooperation from the employer continued to present significant obstacles to union formation. Trade unions may be deleted from the register by a decision of the registrar, without any court procedure. The registrar may remove a trade union from the register if, following the issuance of a written warning to the trade union stating that the organization violates legislation or its own statutes, the violations are not eliminated within a month. Authorities continued to resist attempts by workers to leave the official union and join the independent one.

The legal requirements to conduct a strike are high. For example, strikes may only be held three or more months after dispute resolution between the union and employer has failed. The duration of the strike must be specified in advance. Additionally, a minimum number of workers must continue to work during the strike. Nevertheless, these requirements were largely irrelevant, since the unions that represented almost all workers were under government control. Government authorities and managers of state-owned enterprises routinely interfered with union activities and hindered workers’ efforts to bargain collectively, in some instances arbitrarily suspending collective bargaining agreements. Management and local authorities blocked worker attempts to organize strikes on many occasions by declaring them illegal. Union members who participated in unauthorized public demonstrations were subjected to arrest and detention. Due to a persistent atmosphere of repression and the fear of imprisonment, few public demonstrations took place during the year.

The Law on Mass Events also seriously limited demonstrations, rallies, and other public action, constraining the right of unions to organize and strike. No foreign assistance may be offered to trade unions for holding seminars, meetings, strikes, pickets, etc., or for “propaganda activities” aimed at their own members, without authorities’ permission. Authorities across the country continuously denied applications for permission from independent trade unions to hold demonstrations to highlight labor-related issues.

Government efforts to suppress independent unions included frequent refusals to extend employment contracts for members of independent unions and refusals to register independent unions. According to BCDTU leader Aliaksandr Yarashuk, no independent unions have been established since a 1999 decree requiring trade unions to register with the government. Authorities routinely fired workers who were deemed “natural leaders” or who involved themselves in NGOs or opposition political activities.

On August 24, a Minsk district court convicted independent Radio and Electronics Trade Union Chairman Genadz Fedynich and Chief Accountant Ihar Komlik for allegedly evading taxes in 2011 and sentenced the two to four years of house arrest. The court also banned the trade unionists from holding any administrative positions for five years. Protesters outside the courthouse were detained while protesting the trial. On November 9, the Minsk city court dismissed their appeal. At the end of the year the verdict was under appeal at a higher court.

The government requires state employees, including employees of state-owned enterprises, who constituted approximately 70 percent of the workforce, to sign short-term work contracts. Although such contracts may have terms of up to five years, most expired after one year, which gave the government the ability to fire employees by declining to renew their contracts. Many members of independent unions, political parties, and civil society groups lost their jobs because of this practice. A government edict provides the possibility for employers to sign open-ended work contracts with an employee only after five years of good conduct and performance by the employee.

Opposition political party members and democratic activists sometimes had difficulty finding work due to government pressure on employers.

In 2014 the president issued Decree No. 5 On Strengthening the Requirements for Managers and Employees of Organizations, which the authorities stated was aimed at rooting out “mismanagement,” strengthening discipline, and preventing the hiring of dishonest managers in new positions. Among other subjects under the new decree, managers may reduce payment of employee bonuses (which often comprised a large portion of salaries) and workers may be fired more easily. An independent trade union lawyer told the press that workers have fewer rights under the new law.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce its provisions.

Parents who have had their parental rights stripped and are unemployed, or are working but fail to compensate state childcare facilities for the maintenance of their children, are subject to forced employment by court order. Individuals who refuse forced employment may be held criminally liable and face community service or corrective labor for a period of up to two years, imprisonment for up to three years, or other freedom restrictions, all involving compulsory labor and garnishment of 70 percent of their wages to compensate expenses incurred by the government.

In 2010 the government enforced procedures for placing individuals suffering from chronic alcohol, drug or other substance abuse in so-called medical labor centers when they have been found guilty of committing criminal violations while under the influence of alcohol, narcotics and psychotropic, toxic or other intoxicating substances. Such offenders may be held in these centers by court orders for 12 to 18 months. They are mandated to work and if they refuse, they may be placed in solitary confinement for up to 10 days. In July 2017 the deputy head of the Supreme Court, Valer Kalinkovich, justified operations of the medical labor centers, saying there was no alternative for alcohol addicts who also “violated rights of other people.”

In January the government rescinded a 2015 presidential decree, On Preventing Social Parasitism, which aimed to force individuals to find employment and established a supplemental tax on persons who worked less than six months during the year of up to 360 rubles ($180) annually, depending on how much they paid in taxes when working. The decree would have applied to all permanent residents, with senior pensioners, legal minors, persons with disabilities, and certain other groups exempted.

Minsk authorities required officially registered unemployed individuals to perform paid community service two days a month from May to September and one day a month from October to December and January to April. In addition they were banned from receiving an unemployment benefit of up to 46 rubles ($24) a month, depending on their length of unemployment, if they performed less than 22 working days of community service during a year. Individuals with disabilities, single parents and parents of three and more children, as well as parents of children with disabilities and under age 18 were exempt.

Regulations against forced labor were seldom enforced, and resources and inspections dedicated to preventing forced and compulsory labor were minimal and inadequate to deter violations. Penalties for violations included forfeiture of assets and sentences of five to 15 years’ imprisonment. The government rarely identified victims of trafficking, and prosecution of those responsible for forced labor remained minimal. Government efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor in the country did not improve.

The government continued the Soviet practice of “subbotniks,” (Saturday work) that requires employees of government, state enterprises, and many private businesses to work on some Saturdays and donate their earnings to finance government social and other projects. Employers and authorities intimidated and fined some workers who refused to participate. In some localities authorities forced students and state companies’ employees to participate in harvesting in September-October.

Prison labor practices amounted to forced labor. Former inmates stated that their monthly wages were as low as three to four rubles ($1.5 to $2). Senior officials with the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Interior Ministry stated in November 2015 that at least 97 percent of all work-capable inmates worked in prison as required by law, excluding retirees and persons with disabilities, and that labor in prison was important and useful for rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for employment is 16, but children as young as 14 may conclude a labor contract with the written consent of one parent or a legal guardian. The Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for enforcement of the law. Persons under age 18 are allowed to work in nonhazardous jobs but are not allowed to work overtime, on weekends, or on government holidays. Work may not be harmful to children’s health or hinder their education.

The government generally enforced these laws and penalties ranging from fines and reprimands to 12 years’ imprisonment; these provisions were sufficient to deter most violations. Child labor occurred in the agricultural sector.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, language, or social status. These laws do not apply specifically to employment or occupation. The government did not effectively enforce these laws or secure any effective penalties to deter violations. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to ethnicity, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and HIV-positive status (see section 6). In addition some members of the Romani community complained that employers often discriminated against them and either refused to employ them or did not provide fulltime jobs. The government did not take any action during the year to prevent or eliminate employment discrimination. Employment discrimination happened across most economic sectors and in both private and public workplaces.

The law requiring equal pay for equal work was not regularly enforced, and the minister of labor and social welfare stated in 2016 that on average women were paid 24 percent less than men.

Very few women were in the upper ranks of management or government, and most women were concentrated in the lower-paid public sector. Although the law grants women the right to three years of maternity leave with assurance of a job upon return, employers often circumvented employment protections by using short-term contracts, then refusing to renew a woman’s contract when she became pregnant.

A government prohibition against workdays longer than seven hours for persons with disabilities reportedly made companies reluctant to hire them. Local NGOs reported that up to 85 percent of persons with disabilities were unemployed. Authorities provided minimal welfare benefits for persons with disabilities, and calculations of pensions did not consider disability status. Members of the country’s Paralympic teams received half the salaries and prize money of athletes without disabilities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

As of October 1, the national minimum monthly wage was in excess of the poverty line.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 40 hours and provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The law provides for mandatory overtime and nine days of holiday pay and restricts overtime to 10 hours a week, with a maximum of 180 hours of overtime each year.

The law establishes minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health, but employers often ignored these standards. Workers at many heavy machinery plants did not wear minimal safety gear. The state labor inspectorate lacked authority to enforce employer compliance and often ignored violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare was responsible for enforcement of these laws. Information regarding resources, inspections, remediation, and penalties was not available. The government reported that approximately 400,000 persons worked in the informal economy. The law did not cover informal workers.

The Labor Ministry reported 70 persons killed at workplaces from January through June.

The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

Belgium

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary democracy with a limited constitutional monarchy. The country is a federal state with several levels of government: national; regional (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels); language community (Flemish, French, and German); provincial; and local. The Federal Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, remains in office as long as it retains the confidence of the lower house (Chamber of Representatives) of the bicameral parliament. Observers considered federal parliamentary elections held in 2014 to be free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included some physical attacks motivated by anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Authorities generally investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted such cases.

Authorities actively investigated, prosecuted, and punished officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government.

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.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. There were some reports, however, that prison staff physically mistreated prisoners. Government investigations into these allegations were ongoing.

In March and continuing into April 2017, a delegation from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) returned to the country to reevaluate conditions in four prisons. On March 8, the committee released its conclusions from the visit and reported it had received credible allegations of recent physical mistreatment of male prisoners by certain prison staff, including team leaders. As an illustration, the delegation reported that, at the Saint-Gilles prison, it was able to view a video recording of prison officer violently kicking an unresisting prisoner as he was returned to a cell. The delegation also received several allegations of excessive use of force by police, either during or shortly after arrest.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions met most international standards.

Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a problem, despite a steady decrease in the number of inmates. According to the government’s annual report on prisons for 2017, an average of 10,619 inmates was held in prisons that had an average capacity of 9,687 inmates.

In its March 8 report, the CPT noted ongoing problems with overcrowding in aging facilities despite marginal improvements from new prison facilities. The committee found no improvement in the prisons’ ability to ensure continuity of minimal services in the event of a prison staff strike. The CPT had previously criticized failures to provide basic medical services to vulnerable inmates, such as those requiring long-term psychological treatment, during a widespread strike in 2016. Staffing shortages remained a serious concern.

Some older facilities experienced maintenance problems that contributed to poor detention conditions. There are no specific facilities for pretrial detainees. Conditions are similar for both genders. The Federal Center of Expertise on Healthcare, supported by the Belgian section of the International Observatory for Prisons, highlighted staff shortages and lengthy wait times for inmates to see medical practitioners.

Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. The federal mediator acts as an ombudsman, allowing any citizen to address problems with prison administration. The federal mediator is an independent entity appointed by the Chamber of Representatives to investigate and resolve problems between citizens and public institutions.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. For example, authorities permitted the CPT to visit prisons and detention centers and authorized the publication of its reports.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The federal police are responsible for internal security and nationwide law and order, including migration and border enforcement, and report to the ministers of interior and justice. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the federal and local police and the armed forces, and the government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Under the constitution, an individual may be arrested only while committing a crime or by a judge’s order carried out within 48 hours. The law provides detainees the right to prompt judicial determination of the legality of their detention, and authorities generally respected this right. Authorities promptly informed detainees of charges against them and provided access to an attorney (at public expense if necessary). Alternatives to incarceration included conditional release, community service, probation, and electronic monitoring. There was a functioning bail system, and a suspect could be released by meeting other obligations or conditions as determined by the judge.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

Defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at their trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to have adequate time and facilities to prepare defense; to have free assistance of an interpreter (for any defendant who cannot understand or speak the language used in court); to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence; to not be compelled to testify or confess guilt; and to appeal. The law extends these rights to all citizens.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Individuals and organizations could seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts and appeal national-level court decisions to the European Court of Human Rights.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

Holocaust-era restitution is no longer a significant issue in the country. The government has laws and mechanisms in place, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups, including the country’s Jewish community, reported that the government has resolved virtually all Holocaust-era claims where ownership can be traced, including for foreign citizens.

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

The constitution and legal code prohibit such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: Holocaust denial, defamation, sexist remarks and attitudes that target a specific individual, and incitement to hatred are criminal offenses punishable by a minimum of eight days (for Holocaust denial) or one month (incitement to hatred and sexist remarks or attitudes) and up to one year in prison and fines, plus a possible revocation of the right to vote or run for public office. If the incitement to hatred was based on racism or xenophobia, the case would be tried in the regular courts. If, however, the incitement stemmed from other motives, including homophobia or religious bias, a longer and more costly trial by jury generally would be required. The government prosecuted and courts convicted persons under these laws.

In July 2017 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously rejected the appeal of Fouad Belkacem, the former leader and spokesperson of the disbanded Salafi organization Sharia4Belgium. Authorities prosecuted Belkacem in 2012 for creating YouTube videos in which he called on viewers to commit violence against non-Muslims. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term. In his appeal, Belkacem claimed he was wrongfully convicted of public incitement to discrimination, violence, and hatred. He claimed Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protected his free speech and that he never intended to incite others. In its decision, the ECHR stated that Belkacem’s remarks online were markedly hateful and incompatible with the ECHR’s underlying values of tolerance, nondiscrimination, and peaceful coexistence. The ECHR further stated that it upheld states’ rights to oppose political movements based on religious fundamentalism and noted that Belkacem had attempted to deflect Article 10 from its real purpose by using his right to freedom of expression for ends that were manifestly contrary to the spirit of the convention.

Press and Media Freedom: The prohibition of Holocaust denial, defamation, sexist remarks, attitudes that target a specific individual, and incitement to hatred applies to print and broadcast media, books, and online newspapers and journals.

In observation of World Refugee Day on June 20, some 100 activists took over a refugee detention facility construction site, preventing workers from entering. Police eventually regained control of the site and administratively arrested protesters, including a news crew of the Francophone public service broadcasting organization, the RTBF, which had been on location to cover the story. All protestors were released after one hour. The RTBF and Belgian and European journalist federations filed formal complaints, and the prime minister ordered an investigation of the incident, asserting that freedom of the press is essential and that police must maintain public order at all times.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

According to estimates compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 87 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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, including specific subsidiary protection that goes beyond asylum criteria established by the 1951 Convention relating to the Treatment of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. Refugee status and residence permits are limited to five years and become indefinite if extended.

Authorities continued to face a significant flow of “transit migrants,” defined as those who remained in the country without requesting asylum while attempting illegal travel to the United Kingdom. To address the flow, the federal government started to detain transit migrants physically to ensure their repatriation.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country denied asylum to asylum seekers who arrived from a safe country of origin or transit, pursuant to the EU’s Dublin III Regulation.

Durable Solutions: The country accepted refugees through UNHCR, including persons located in Italy and Greece, under the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. The country also conducted a voluntary return program for migrants in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary “subsidiary” protection to individuals who did not satisfy the legal criteria for refugee status but who could not return to their country of origin due to a real risk of serious harm. Under EU guidelines, individuals granted “subsidiary protection” are entitled to temporary residence permits, travel documents, access to employment, and equal access to health care and housing. In 2017 authorities granted subsidiary protection to 2,900 individuals. In the first half of the year, authorities granted protection to 1,095 individuals.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to UNHCR, at the end of 2017, there were 7,695 persons in the country who fell under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate. The country does not have a significant number of residents who are stateless, de jure or de facto, and does not contribute to statelessness, as the legal framework for stripping an individual of his or her citizenship does not exist except in cases of dual citizenship with another country.

To be recognized as stateless, a requestor must go through legal proceedings and acquire a court ruling on his or her stateless status. Since July 2017 family courts have been tasked with handling these requests in hopes of decreasing wait times. The requestor may appeal the court’s ruling. Recognition of statelessness does not automatically afford a stateless person resident status in the country. Stateless persons may apply for Belgian nationality after meeting the requirements for legal residency.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Voting in all elections is compulsory; failure to vote is punishable by a nominal fine.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Federal elections held in 2014 were considered free and fair.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption.

Corruption: During the year there were notable scandals (such as GIAL, Azerigate, and others) involving allegations of corruption by politicians. While some scandals were investigated for potential illegal activity, others involved legal actions that the public deemed unethical.

In June a Liege court accused federal Representative Alain Mathot of receiving 700,000 euros ($805,000) in exchange for the construction of an incinerator near Liege. The House of Representatives, however, upheld Mathot’s parliamentary immunity. There were no further legal proceedings against him.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require elected officials to disclose their income or revenue, but they must report if they serve on any board of directors, regardless of whether in a paid or unpaid capacity. Officials in nonelective offices are held to the same standard. Sanctions for noncompliance are infrequent but have been used in the past when triggered by public outcry.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Federal and regional government ombudsmen monitored and published reports on the workings of agencies under their respective jurisdictions. The Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunities (UNIA) is responsible for promoting equal opportunity and combatting discrimination and exclusion at any level (federal, regional, provincial, or local). The center enjoyed a high level of public trust, was independent in its functioning, and was well financed by the government.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men, including spousal rape, is illegal, and the government prosecuted such cases. A convicted rapist may receive 10 to 30 years in prison. The law prohibits domestic violence and provides for fines and incarceration. Legal sanctions for domestic violence are based on the sanctions for physical violence against a third person; the latter range from eight days to 20 years in prison. In cases of domestic violence, these sanctions are doubled.

In 2017 the NGO Femicide Watch reported that 39 women died in connection with rape or domestic violence. According to 2017 statistics from the federal police, there were more than 37,000 official complaints of physical, psychological, and economic violence, including 142 complaints of sexual violence.

In one prominent domestic violence case, a woman in her forties, Valerie Leisten, and her mother, Lucie Leisten-Brandt, were stabbed and killed on August 22 in their family’s restaurant in Moresnet (Plombieres) by Leisten’s former partner, 52-year-old Michel Gijsens. According to media reports, Leisten had previously filed a harassment complaint against Gijsens following their break-up. Gijsens died from an injury sustained in the attack; two other persons in the restaurant were injured. Media reports indicated that Leisten and Gijsens had long lived together. An investigation was reportedly ongoing.

A number of government-supported shelters and telephone helplines were available across the country for victims of domestic abuse.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C for women and girls. Reported cases were primarily filed by recent immigrants or asylum seekers. Criminal sanctions apply to persons convicted of FGM/C. According to estimates during the year, there were more than 17,000 female minor and adult victims of FGM in the country, while more than 8,000 were at risk. The vast majority of potential victims were asylum seekers from Guinea, Somalia, Ivory Coast, and Egypt.

Sexual Harassment: The law aims to prevent violence and harassment at work, obliging companies to set up internal procedures to handle employee complaints. Sexist remarks and attitudes targeting a specific individual are illegal; fines for violations range from 50 to 1,000 euros ($58 to $1,150). The government generally enforced antiharassment laws. Politicians and organizations such as the Federal Institute for the Equality of Men and Women worked to raise awareness of the problem.

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

Discrimination: Women have the same legal rights as men. The law requires equal pay for equal work and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, pregnancy, or motherhood as well as in access to goods, services, social welfare, and health care. The government generally enforced the law effectively, although many NGOs and feminist organizations reported women often had to accept part-time work due to conflicting family obligations.

Children

Birth Registration: The government registered all live births immediately. Citizenship is conferred on a child through a parent’s (or the parents’) Belgian citizenship.

Child Abuse: The government continued to prosecute cases of child abuse and punish those convicted.

Early and Forced Marriage: The law provides that both (consenting) partners must be at least 18 to marry.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation, abduction, and trafficking of children and includes severe penalties for child pornography and possession of pedophilic materials. Authorities enforced the law. The penalties for producing and disseminating child pornography range up to 15 years’ imprisonment and up to one year in prison for possessing such material. Belgian girls and foreign children were subjected to sex trafficking within the country.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape carries penalties of imprisonment for up 30 years.

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

Anti-Semitism

The country’s Jewish community was estimated at 46,000 persons. There were 56 reports of anti-Semitic acts in 2017, a steep decrease from the 109 notifications in 2016, which represented a peak over recent previous years. Anti-Semitic acts included physical attacks, verbal harassment, and vandalism of Jewish property. Authorities generally investigated and where appropriate prosecuted such cases. Online hate speech continued to be a problem. Jewish groups reported anti-Semitic statements and attitudes in the media and in schools, especially but not exclusively related to the government of Israel and the Holocaust.

The law prohibits public statements that incite national, racial, or religious hatred, including denial of the Holocaust. The government prosecuted and convicted individuals under this law (see section 2.a.). The government also provided enhanced security at Jewish schools and places of worship.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government generally enforced the provisions.

While the government mandated that public buildings erected after 1970 must be accessible to persons with disabilities, many older buildings were still inaccessible. Although the law requires that prison inmates with disabilities receive adequate treatment in separate, appropriate facilities, there were still many such inmates incarcerated in inadequate facilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic minorities continued to experience discrimination in access to housing, education, and employment. Discriminatory acts primarily took place over the internet, at work, or when individuals attempted to gain access to various public and private services, such as banking and restaurants.

Discrimination against women who wore a headscarf was common in the labor market. The law also prohibits the wearing of a full-face veil (niqab) in public places. Authorities may punish persons who discriminate on the basis of ethnic origin with a fine of up to 137.50 euros ($158) and a jail sentence of up to seven days. There were reports of discrimination against persons of African and Middle Eastern ancestry. Government efforts to address such problems included internal training of officials and police officers and enforcement of laws prohibiting such discrimination.

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

The law prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, application of nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. The government enforced the law, but the underreporting of crimes against the LGBTI community remained a problem.

LGBTI persons from immigrant communities reported social discrimination within those communities. The government supported NGOs working to overcome the problem.

Local media broadly reported on an August 7 attack in Ghent against an LGBTI couple, both of whom were resident foreigners, who were beaten by a man and his wife during an incident of road rage. The two couples were reportedly neighbors who knew each other and had prior issues. The media characterized the incident as a homophobic attack. One victim was hospitalized with two broken vertebra and a series of stitches for extensive facial lacerations.

The law provides protections for transgender persons, including legal gender recognition without first undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

During the year the government, in cooperation with the regional entities, implemented an antihomophobia action plan. The plan requires government entities to conduct awareness campaigns to combat homophobic stereotypes in schools, youth movements, places of work, and the sports community.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

UNIA received complaints of discrimination based on physical characteristics, political orientation, social origin, or status. Restrictions on Islamic clothing in public and private sector employment, schools, and public spaces affected Muslim women in particular.

A socioeconomic study published in December 2017 indicated that a person’s origin and nationality could affect his or her ability to compete in the country’s labor market.

 

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

For companies with more than 50 employees, the law provides workers the right to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. Workers exercised these rights, and citizen and noncitizen workers enjoyed the same rights. Work council elections are mandatory in enterprises with more than 100 employees, and safety and health committee elections are mandatory in companies with more than 50 employees. Employers sometimes sought judicial recourse against associations attempting to prevent workers who did not want to strike from entering the employer’s premises.

The law provides for the right to strike for all public and private sector workers except the military. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference in union functions, and the government protected this right. Trade union representatives cannot be fired for performing their duties and are protected against being fined by their employers; they are also entitled to regular severance payments.

The government generally enforced applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate. Penalties were generally not sufficient to deter violations, as employers often paid fines rather than reinstate workers fired for union activity. At the same time, fines on workers for strike or collective bargaining actions often resulted in breaking strike movements. Administrative or judicial procedures related to trade unions were not longer than other court cases.

Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were inconsistently respected by employers. Worker organizations were generally free to function outside of government control. Unions complained that judicial intervention in collective disputes undermined collective bargaining rights.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but such practices occurred. The government effectively enforced the law; resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were adequate. Legal penalties include a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and were sufficient to deter violations.

Instances of forced and compulsory labor included men who were forced to work in restaurants, bars, sweatshops, agriculture, construction, cleaning, and retail sites. Foreign victims were subjected to forced domestic service. Forced begging continued, particularly in the Romani community.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age of employment is 15. Persons between the ages of 15 and 18 may participate in part-time work/study programs and work full time up to a limited number of hours during the school year. The Ministry of Employment regulated industries that employ juvenile workers to ensure that labor laws were followed; it occasionally granted waivers for children temporarily employed by modeling agencies and in the entertainment business. Waivers were granted on a short-term basis and for a clearly defined performance or purpose that had to be listed in the law as an acceptable activity. The law clearly defines, according to the age of the child, the maximum amount of time that may be worked daily and the frequency of performances. A child’s earnings must be paid to a bank account under the name of the child, and the money is inaccessible until the child reaches 18 years of age.

There are laws and policies to protect children from exploitation in the workplace. The government generally enforced these laws with adequate resources, inspections, and penalties, although such practices reportedly occurred mainly in restaurants. Persons found in violation of child labor laws could face a prison sentence ranging from six months to three years as well as administrative fines.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status but permit companies to prohibit outward displays of religious affiliation, including headscarves (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/). The government effectively enforced these laws and regulations.

Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Some employers discriminated in employment and occupation against women, persons with disabilities, and members of certain minorities as well as against internal and foreign migrant workers. The government took legal action based on antidiscrimination laws. UNIA facilitated arbitration or other settlements in some cases of discrimination. Such settlements could involve monetary payments, community service, or other penalties imposed on the offender.

The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service generally enforced regulations effectively. Trade unions or media sometimes escalated cases, and UNIA often took a position or acted as a go-between to find solutions or to support alleged victims in the courts.

The Federal Institute for the Equality of Men and Women is responsible for promoting gender equality and may initiate lawsuits if it discovers violations of equality laws. Most complaints received during the year were work related and most concerned the termination of employment due to pregnancy. Economic discrimination against women continued. According to Eurostat, women’s hourly wage rates were 6.1 percent less than those of their male colleagues. The law requires that one-third of the board members of publicly traded companies, but not private ones, be women.

The law requires companies with at least 50 employees to provide a clear overview of their compensation plans, a detailed breakdown by gender of their wages and fringe benefits, a gender-neutral classification of functions, and the possibility of appointing a mediator to address and follow up on gender-related problems.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is a monthly national minimum wage, and it is higher than the official estimate for poverty income level.

The standard workweek is 38 hours, and workers are entitled to four weeks of annual leave. Departure from these norms can occur under a collective bargaining agreement, but work may not exceed 11 hours per day or 50 hours per week. An 11-hour rest period is required between work periods. Overtime is paid at a time-and-a-half premium Monday through Saturday and at double time on Sundays. The Ministry of Labor and the labor courts effectively enforced these laws and regulations. The law forbids or limits excessive overtime. Without specific authorization, an employee may not work more than 65 hours of overtime during any one quarter.

The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service generally enforced regulations effectively. Inspectors from both the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Social Security enforced labor regulations. These ministries jointly worked to ensure that standards were effectively enforced in all sectors, including the informal sector, and that wages and working conditions were consistent with collective bargaining agreements. Wage, overtime, and occupational safety violations were most common in the restaurant, construction, and logistics industries. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Some employers still operated below legal standards.

A specialized governmental department created to fight the informal economy conducted investigations, mainly in the construction, restaurant and hotel, and cleaning sectors. Authorities may fine employers for poor working conditions but may also treat such cases as trafficking in persons.

Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service protected employees in this situation.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a democratic republic with a bicameral parliament. Many governmental functions are the responsibility of two entities within the state, the Federation and the Republika Srpska (RS), as well as the Brcko District, an autonomous administrative unit under BiH sovereignty. The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace (the Dayton Accords), which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, provides the constitutional framework for governmental structures, while other parts of the agreement specify the government’s obligations to protect human rights, such as the right of wartime refugees and displaced persons to return to their prewar homes. The country held general elections in October. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) noted that elections were held in a competitive environment, but were characterized by continuing segmentation along ethnic lines. While candidates were able to campaign freely, ODIHR noted that “instances of pressure and undue influence on voters were not effectively addressed,” citing long-standing deficiencies in the legal framework. OSCE/ODIHR further noted that elections were administered efficiently, but widespread credible allegations of electoral contestants manipulating the composition of polling station commissions reduced voter confidence in the integrity of the process.

While civilian authorities maintained effective control and coordination over law enforcement agencies and security forces, a lack of clear division of jurisdiction and responsibilities between the country’s 16 law enforcement agencies resulted in occasional confusion and overlapping responsibilities.

Human rights issues included harsh prison conditions; restrictions of freedom of assembly and expression, and the press; widespread government corruption; crimes involving violence against minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

Units in both entities and the Brcko District investigated allegations of police abuse, meted out administrative penalties, and referred cases of criminal misconduct to prosecutors. These units generally operated effectively, and there were no reports of impunity during the first nine months of the year.

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.

While national authorities made significant progress prior to 2017 in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict, many problems remained, including insufficient funding, lack of personnel, political obstacles, the unavailability of witnesses and suspects, and the closure of cases due to lack of evidence. While the BiH Prosecutor’s Office and Court retained the lead in processing the most serious war crimes, authorities worked to revise criteria for the referral of cases to the entity-level judiciaries in order to reduce processing times. Data from August indicates that the Prosecutor’s Office had 562 unresolved cases involving 4,914 individuals. It was noted, however, that the BiH Prosecutor’s Office continued to focus on less complex cases, and thus the backlog of complex cases remained.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The law prohibits such practices. While there were no reports during the first nine months of the year that government officials employed such tactics, there were no concrete indications that security forces had ended the practice of severely mistreating detainees and prisoners reported in previous years.

In 2016 the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released a report on its 2015 visit to detention facilities, prisons, and psychiatric establishments in the country. The report cited a considerable number of allegations of widespread police abuse of detainees in Sarajevo, Trebinje, Banja Luka, Turski Lukavac, and Bijeljina. The reported abuse of detainees included slaps, punches, truncheon blows, prolonged handcuffing in stress positions, mock executions, and the use of a hand-held electroshock device. The report stated that the CPT delegation gained the impression from multiple detainee interviews in Bijeljina and Sarajevo that mistreatment (kicks, punches, and slaps) was a routine occurrence and almost considered “normal” practice. In some instances, authorities allegedly abused detainees in order to extort confessions. The CPT found that prosecutors and judges routinely failed to take action regarding allegations of mistreatment.

The CPT also noted that it received several credible allegations of inmate physical mistreatment (slaps, kicks, and punches) by staff at Mostar Prison. In one case, an inmate alleged that, in response to his repeated banging on his cell door, prison officials handcuffed him behind his back with his wrists hyperextended, ankle-cuffed him with a walking chain, and placed him in an empty cell for two days without food or the opportunity to use sanitary facilities. The CPT reported that the findings observed by its delegation’s doctor were compatible with the inmate’s allegation.

In response to the CPT report, both the Federation and RS Ministries of Interior stated they had improved their complaints systems against unlawful actions of police officers and that they now maintain medical files of detainees in a systematic manner. Acting upon CPT recommendations, the Federation Prosecutor’s Office issued a note to all cantonal prosecutors to respect mandatory instructions on the prevention of abuse, torture, and inhumane treatment of detainees. In addition, the RS chief public prosecutor issued similar instructions to all district courts in the RS.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Physical and sanitary conditions in the country’s prisons and detention facilities varied depending on location but were generally considered substandard.

Physical Conditions: Conditions in Sarajevo Prison were poor due to dilapidated facilities and overcrowding, with as many as four prisoners living in eight square meters (86 square feet) of common living space. Following a 2016 inspection, the human rights ombudsman described Sarajevo Prison’s conditions as the worst in the country and counted 126 detainees in the facility, which has an optimal capacity of 88. Ombudsmen reported that neither prison management nor Federation authorities had addressed their claims to date.

Prison and detention facilities provided adequate basic medical care and routine arrangements for more complex medical interventions as needed. Ventilation and lighting, however, were lacking in many facilities, particularly Sarajevo Prison. There were no prison facilities suitable for prisoners with physical disabilities.

In its 2016 report, the CPT stated that material conditions in most police holding facilities visited by its delegation were unfit due to a lack of natural light, poor ventilation, deplorable hygienic conditions, and an absence of mattresses and bedding. The CPT found that remanded prisoners spent 22 hours or more per day confined to their cells and were offered no purposeful activities. The condition and number of holding facilities at most police agencies generally were well below EU standards.

To address CPT recommendations, the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Interior renovated the premises of the Department for Detention of Persons Deprived of Their Liberty of Sarajevo. The renovations included new plastering, beds, mattresses and pillows; and improved lighting.

Administration: According to the 2016 CPT report, authorities throughout the country generally failed to investigate allegations of abuse and mistreatment of detainees and prisoners, particularly those reported to have occurred while in police custody. The human rights ombudsman reported that the most common types of violence among prisoners took the form of extortion, physical and psychological harassment, and intimidation on ethnic and religious grounds.

Due to the complicated system of police education in the country and the fact that court police and prison guards are not part of the 17 formally recognized BiH police agencies, their training was limited and insufficient. Prison guards only received one week of orientation training, and court police received three weeks of training at police academies.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent human rights observers to visit and gave international community representatives widespread and unhindered access to detention facilities and prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the CPT, the BiH ombudsmen, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to have access to detention facilities under the jurisdiction of the ministries of justice at both the state and entity levels.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

By law state-level police agencies include the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), the Border Police, the Foreigners Affairs Service (FAS) (partial police competencies), and the Directorate for Police Bodies Coordination (DPBC). Police agencies in the two entities (the RS Ministry of Interior and the Federation Police Directorate), the Brcko District, and 10 cantonal interior ministries also exercise police powers. SIPA investigates cases of organized crime, human trafficking, war crimes, financial crimes, and international terrorism and also provides protection to witnesses before the BiH State Court. The Border Police are responsible for monitoring the borders and detaining illegal migrants until FAS takes custody. The Border Police also investigate other crimes related to the border in accordance with the state criminal code, with the exception of corruption cases. FAS is responsible for tracking and monitoring legal and illegal migration. The DPBC provides physical security for government and diplomatic buildings and personal protection for state-level officials and visiting dignitaries. The DPBC also has an office for coordination with Interpol for state-level police agencies. The Federation Police Directorate investigates cases of intercantonal crimes, domestic terrorism in the Federation, and narcotics smuggling. The RS Ministry of Interior investigates domestic terrorism and all other general crimes in the RS. Brcko police and cantonal police agencies investigate general crimes and are responsible for public peace and order. The laws outlining the mandates of respective law enforcement agencies of the state, entity, cantonal, and district governments contain significant similarities but do not overlap. The competencies of each police agency are established by law. The BiH Presidency may call upon the armed forces to provide assistance to civilian bodies in case of natural or other disasters. The intelligence service is under the authority of the BiH Council of Ministers. There were no reports of impunity involving security forces during the year.

An EU military force continued to support the country’s government in maintaining a safe and secure environment for the population.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces, but their complex structure at times resulted in a lack of effective coordination and no clear practical division of jurisdictions and responsibilities.

Impunity for war crimes continued to be a problem. Many lower-ranking perpetrators of crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict remained unpunished, including those responsible for the approximately 8,000 persons killed in the Srebrenica genocide and for approximately 8,000 other persons who remained missing and presumed killed during the conflict. Authorities also failed to prosecute more than a very small fraction of the more than 20,000 instances of sexual violence alleged to have occurred during the conflict.

In the course of its 2015 visit to prisons and remand detention centers, the CPT reported interviewing many persons who stated they had complained about mistreatment by law enforcement officials to the prosecutor or to the judge before whom they appeared. Such complaints met no response. The CPT noted that, even when detainees displayed visible injuries or made a statement alleging mistreatment, there was usually no apparent follow-up by the prosecutor or judge other than, at times, to order a medical examination that often took place in the presence of the law enforcement officer whom the detainee had accused of mistreatment.

There were reports of police corruption (see section 4). The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, but political pressure often prevented the application of these mechanisms. Observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. There are internal affairs investigative units within all police agencies. Throughout the year, mostly with assistance from the international community, the government provided training to police and security forces designed to combat abuse and corruption and promote respect for human rights. The field training manuals for police officers also include ethics and anticorruption training components.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Police generally arrested persons based on court orders and sufficient evidence or in conformity with rules prescribed by law. The law requires authorities to inform detainees of the charges against them immediately upon their arrest and obliges police to bring suspects before a prosecutor within 24 hours of detention (48 hours for terrorism charges). During this period, police may detain individuals for investigative purposes and processing. The prosecutor has an additional 24 hours to release the person or to request a court order extending pretrial detention by court police. The court has a subsequent 24 hours to make a decision.

The court police are separate from other police agencies and fall under the Ministry of Justice; their holding facilities are within the courts. After 24 or 48 hours of detention by court police, an individual must be presented to a magistrate who decides whether the suspect shall remain in custody or be released. Suspects who remain in custody are turned over to prison staff.

The law limits the duration of interrogations to a maximum of six hours. The law also limits pretrial detention to 12 months and trial detention up to three years. There is a functioning bail system and restrictions, such as the confiscation of travel documents or house arrest, which were ordered regularly to ensure defendants appear in court.

The law allows detainees to request a lawyer of their own choosing, and if they are unable to afford a lawyer, the authorities should provide one. The law also requires the presence of a lawyer during the pretrial and trial hearings. Detainees are free to select their lawyer from a list of registered lawyers. In its 2016 report, the CPT noted that, in the vast majority of cases, authorities did not grant detainees access to a lawyer at the outset of their detention. Instead, such access occurred only when the detainee was brought before a prosecutor to give a statement or at the hearing before a judge. It was usually not possible for a detainee to consult with his or her lawyer in private prior to appearing before a prosecutor or judge. Juveniles met by the CPT also alleged they were interviewed without a lawyer or person of trust present.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The state constitution provides the right to a fair hearing in civil and criminal matters while entity constitutions provide for an independent judiciary. Nevertheless, political parties and organized crime figures sometimes influenced the judiciary at both the state and entity levels in politically sensitive cases, especially those related to corruption. Authorities at times failed to enforce court decisions.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law provides that defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence; the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation if necessary; and the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay. The law provides for the right to counsel at public expense if the prosecutor charges the defendant with a serious crime. Courts are obliged to appoint a defense attorney if the defendant is deaf or mute or detained or accused of a crime for which a long-term imprisonment may be pronounced. Authorities generally gave defense attorneys adequate time and facilities to prepare their clients’ defense. The law provides defendants the right to confront witnesses, to a court-appointed interpreter and written translation of all pertinent court documents into a language understood by the defendant, to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and to appeal verdicts. Authorities generally respected most of these rights, which extend to all defendants.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The law provides for individuals and organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations and provides for the appeal of decisions to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The government failed to comply with many decisions pertaining to human rights by the country’s courts. The court system suffered from large backlogs of cases and the lack of an effective mechanism to enforce court orders. Inefficiency in the courts undermined the rule of law by making recourse to civil judgments less effective. The government’s failure to comply with court decisions led plaintiffs to bring cases before the ECHR.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

The four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish) had extensive claims for restitution of property nationalized during and after World War II. In the absence of a state restitution law governing the return of nationalized properties, many government officials used such properties as tools for ethnic and political manipulation. In a few cases, government officials refused to return properties legally recognized as belonging to religious institutions.

The country has no law that covers immovable communal or private property confiscated during the Holocaust era and no law for the restitution of confiscated, heirless property. The absence of legislation has resulted in the return of religious property on an ad hoc basis, subject to the discretion of local authorities. Since 1995 the Jewish community has not received a single confiscated communal property. In 2005 the Council of Ministers established the Commission for Restitution on Bosnia and Herzegovina that led to draft legislation on restitution; no significant progress on that legislation has been made.

Government officials expressed support for a working group but had concerns about the process, details on specific issues, how past efforts to address this issue might affect future discussions, how the working group would be initiated, and factors of history. While the minister of civil affairs, assistant minister of human rights and refugees, and the minister of justice agreed to participate in the working group, the government made no progress during the year in establishing the group.

Roma displaced during the 1992-95 conflict had difficulty repossessing their property due to discrimination and because they lacked documents proving ownership or had never registered their property with local authorities.

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

The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but governmental respect for this right remained poor during the year. Intimidation, harassment, and threats against journalists and media outlets increased in the period leading up to the October general elections, while the majority of media coverage was dominated by nationalist rhetoric and ethnic and political bias, often encouraging intolerance and sometimes hatred. The absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem.

Freedom of Expression: The country’s laws provide for a high level of freedom of expression, but the irregular and in some instances incorrect implementation and application of the laws seriously undermined press freedoms. The law prohibits expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance, including “hate speech,” but authorities did not enforce these restrictions.

According to data from the BiH Journalists Association (BiH Journalists) covering the period from 2006 to 2018, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of reported criminal acts committed against journalists and investigated more than one-third of all cases alleging violation of journalists’ rights.

Political and financial pressure on media outlets continued. Some media outlets noted that allegations of tax evasion and elaborate financial controls continued to be powerful tools in attempts to silence outlets. A number of physical attacks against journalists occurred during the year. The trend of politicians and other leaders accusing the media of treason in response to criticism intensified. In June, RS President Milorad Dodik accused pro-opposition BNTV journalists Suzana Radjen Todoric and Zeljko Raljic of working against the RS. Using the fact that they went to London to attend a media course and linking this to his earlier conspiracy theory about British spies planning a coup in the RS, Dodik asserted that the journalists received special training in the UK, adding that it was understood what purpose this “training” would serve. The Banja Luka Journalists Club, BiH Journalists, and the British Embassy strongly condemned the allegations, noting they jeopardized the work of the free press and the physical safety of the two journalists.

Professional media organizations also noted that gender-based attacks against female journalists increased during the year. A representative case occurred in late 2017 when the deputy secretary of the BiH Presidency harshly insulted two female journalists on his Facebook page, commenting on their television appearance and using discriminatory language. BiH Journalists called the comments a misogynistic act and demanded that the institution punish the behavior. As of mid-September, the BiH Presidency had not taken action regarding the incident.

Reporting on war crimes continued to provoke strong negative reactions, as was the case in late 2017 with journalists Sanel Kajan from al-Jazeera, Stefica Galic from the tacno.net portal, Arijana Saracevic Helac from RTV FBIH, and Lejla Turcilo from the Faculty of Political Sciences Sarajevo. These journalists received numerous threats, including death threats, due to their positions and reporting on the verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on the war crimes case against six wartime military and political Croat officials.

In 2017 the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) won more institutional and organizational independence and was subjected to less direct government control after it was exempted from the Law on Ministries and other administrative agencies. The CRA’s financial independence continued to be of concern, however, since it was still subject to the Law on Budget and Salaries.

As of July the CRA had received 13 complaints alleging hate speech. Twelve complaints were related to the program Cyrillic, which was produced in Serbia but also aired live on ATV, a private station based in Banja Luka. All the cases were under review.

As of October the self-regulated BiH Press Council had received 198 complaints, 33 of which were related to hate speech. Two of the 33 cases were determined to be examples of incitement and the spreading of hate speech, while 18 were under review. Almost all reported cases of hate speech occurred in online media and in the comments section of online publications. The BiH Press Council noted that nearly all hate speech cases related to ethnic issues and concluded that online groups were involved in initiating intolerant speech. In the second half of the year, the Press Council has noticed an increase in hate speech towards women and journalists.

Press and Media Freedom: The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals. It has yet to be enforced. In addition, the BiH constitution, the constitutions of the entities, and the Statute of the Brcko District guarantee freedom of expression. Implementation and enforcement of these legal protections, however, remained sporadic.

Data from the Free Media Help Line (FMHL) indicated that courts continued to fail to differentiate between different media genres (in particular, between news and commentary), while long court procedures and legal and financial battles were financially exhausting to journalists and outlets. The FMHL concluded that years of incorrectly implementing the law had caused direct pressure against journalists and media and that such pressure jeopardized journalists’ right to freedom of expression. While numerous outlets continued to express a wide variety of views, coverage diverged along political and ethnic lines, and media outlets remained subject to excessive influence from government, political parties, and private interest groups.

Authorities increased pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over the major information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained under strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability and their dependence on politically controlled funding sources. These factors limited their independence and resulted in news that was consistently subjective and politically biased.

The Public Broadcasting System consists of three broadcasters: nationwide radio and television (BHRT) and the entity radio and television broadcasters RTRS and RTV FBiH. Public broadcasters continued to be in a difficult financial situation, primarily due to the lack of an efficient and stable system of financing.

The institutional instability of the governing structures of RTV FBiH was further illustrated by its continued failure to elect a steering board and organizational management, leaving it open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate political bias and a selective approach to news.

The RS government continued to control directly the RTRS, which campaigned for the ruling political parties in the RS and attacked their political opponents. Coverage of conspiracy theories and so-called “analysis” that directly supported the ruling narrative increased in the election year. The BHRT, which had a reputation of being balanced and nonbiased, in a few instances caved to increased political pressure and censored its own reporting. In March, BiH Journalists called on the management and the steering board to put an end to pressure and censorship directed at BHRT journalists. Authorities remained subject to competing political interests and failed to establish a public broadcasting service corporation to oversee the operations of all public broadcasters in the country as provided by law.

Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists increased during the year in connection with the approaching October elections. Cases of violence against journalists were recorded as well. Intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for their unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities also continued. As of September the Free Media Help Line recorded 42 cases involving violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms or death threats and physical assaults.

A series of physical attacks against journalists, included incidents involving a group of veterans assaulting journalists from the Klix.baweb portal and al-Jazeera Balkans during protests in Sarajevo and verbal attacks against a BHRT film crew covering separate protests in Tuzla, culminated in two masked assailants violently attacking a journalist from the pro-opposition BNTV, which was based in the RS. Vladimir Kovacevic, a BNTV journalist based in Banja Luka, was severely beaten as he came home after covering a protest. He sustained severe injuries and was hospitalized. The attack was condemned by journalists, government officials, and media organizations, including a number of journalists who protested in front of the RS president’s office in Banja Luka to demand that officials stop fostering a hostile press environment. Peaceful protests by journalists followed in major cities throughout BiH. The Banja Luka district prosecutor treated the assault as an attempted murder. Numerous outlets criticized the police investigation, stressing that it was actually Kovacevic’s father, not the police, who found the first piece of evidence. RS police arrested the first suspected attacker on September 10. Although police officials emphasized that the suspect remained silent and did not cooperate, the RS minister of interior, Dragan Lukac, immediately asserted that the government was not behind the attack, but that other political forces could be. Members of the press saw these as biased actions. The police have identified the second suspect in the attack and issued a warrant for his arrest, but he remains at large.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Multiple political parties and entity-level institutions attempted to influence editorial policies and media content through legal and financial measures. As a result, some media outlets practiced self-censorship.

In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices reflected close connections between major advertisers and political circles and allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising.

Libel/Slander Laws: While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of complaints continued to be brought against journalists, often resulting in extremely high monetary fines. Noteworthy court decisions against journalists included temporary bans on the posting or publication of certain information, as well as very high compensatory payments citing “mental anguish.”

In May, RS minister of the interior Lukac, spoke at an RS National Assembly special session on the unsolved murder of 21-year-old David Dragicevic. Minister Lukac repeatedly accused blogger Slobodan Vaskovic of manipulating the mourning father, Davor Dragicevic, with the goal of undermining and discrediting the RS and its police. Minister Lukac accused Vaskovic of alleged anti-RS activities, claiming that a foreign embassy in the country protected the blogger. The minister stated he would file a slander complaint against Davor Dragicevic after Vaskovic claimed in his blog that the minister was protecting the perpetrators of the murder, an accusation that Davor Dragicevic repeated. RS opposition politicians, intellectuals, and journalists condemned Minister Lukac’s speech.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law prohibits expression of racial, ethnic, or other intolerance, which includes hate speech. Authorities, however, did not enforce these prohibitions for online media.

While access to the internet is not explicitly listed as a legal right, constitutional and legal protections have been interpreted to also apply to the internet. In the RS, the law declares that internet-based social networks are part of the public domain and provides fines for “insulting or disturbing” content, although not clearly defined, published on the internet. Independent analysts considered this provision to be an attempt to control online activism and social media, noting that the law broadens police authority. RS authorities have not implemented the law, having initially met strong negative reaction from journalists, NGOs, opposition political parties, and the international community.

Many news portals were not registered officially and did not list contact information, making it difficult to reach them. The vast majority of registered hate speech cases in the country occurred online.

According to International Telecommunications Union statistics, 69.5 percent of individuals in the country used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The cantons of Tuzla and Sarajevo have laws that could restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities within their jurisdiction by allowing elected municipal authorities to hire and fire university personnel, including academics, at their discretion. Under the pretext that it is mandated by the law, Sarajevo University in June drafted a “code of conduct and dress” that stirred intense debate among students, academics, and members of the public, all of whom asserted the proposed dress code would be open to abuse and would violate the students’ and professors’ right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in the constitution.

The country’s eight public universities remained segregated along ethnic lines, including their curricula, diplomas, and relevant school activities. Professors reportedly on occasion used prejudicial language in their lectures, while the selection of textbooks and school materials reinforced discrimination and prejudice.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. In December, however, the RS Ministry of Interior banned a group of citizens from holding peaceful protests in Banja Luka. Prior to the ban, the “Justice for David” movement had been seeking justice in the case of 21 year-old David Dragicevic, whose murder has yet to be solved. Dragicevic’s family has mobilized thousands of citizens in support of their search for the truth and their efforts to demand justice for all. The RS government justified its decision to ban all public gatherings of the group, including protests, with claims the movement failed to fully respect the law during previous rallies. The RS police interrupted a December 25 gathering, in the process arresting 20 supporters of Justice for David, including two members of the Party for Democratic Progress (PDP) – President Borislav Borenovic and delegate in the RS National Assembly Drasko Stanivukovic. Some journalists and protestors have alleged that during the arrests police used excessive force on protesters, and have produced photographs that appear to support their claims. There are 10 laws governing this right in different parts of the country, all of which were generally assessed to be overly restrictive. Examples include the prohibition of public assembly in front of numerous public institutions in the RS, while some cantonal laws in the Federation (e.g., in Central Bosnia Canton) prescribe criminal liability for failing to fulfill administrative procedures for holding a peaceful assembly. Human rights NGOs reported that authorities manipulated and controlled the process of granting the right to assembly to civil society groups in both entities on several occasions in 2017.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Under the law, NGOs can register at the state, entity, and cantonal levels in a generally streamlined and simple administrative process. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations at the state and entity levels, however, remained weak, while government support for civil society organizations remained nontransparent, particularly regarding the allocation of funds.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees statistics indicated that 96,830 persons still held IDP status resulting from the 1992-95 conflict. The majority of Bosniaks and Croats fled the RS, while Serbs fled the Federation. At the beginning of the year, UNHCR was directly providing protection, or assistance, or both to 10,484 IDPs. According to UNHCR, an estimated 7,000 persons, including IDPs, continued to live in collective accommodations throughout the country. While the accommodations were meant to be temporary, some have been living in the accommodations for 20 or more years. A substantial number of IDPs and returnees lived in substandard conditions that affected their livelihoods.

The country’s constitution and laws provide for the voluntary return or local integration of IDPs consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The government has actively promoted the safe return and resettlement or local integration of refugees and IDPs, depending on their choice. The government allocated funding for returns and participated in internationally funded programs for return. Isolated attacks against minority returnees continued but were generally not investigated or prosecuted adequately. Minority returnees continued to face obstacles in exercising their rights in places of return.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision on their claims. Provision of adequate accommodation was one of the biggest challenges in the first half of the year due to increased arrivals of asylum seekers. It was common practice for some migrants to apply for asylum in order to gain access to temporary benefits and services, even if they had no plans to remain in BiH. The increase of arrivals delayed registration procedures and access to rights and services, including legal, medical, and basic needs such as food and basic hygiene facilities and items, which were tied directly to the accommodation facilities. In official centers, international organizations, NGOs, volunteers, or local actors provided services on an ad hoc basis. On May 18, an additional facility, the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center, was opened for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision once their cases reach the court. The system for providing protection to refugees seeking asylum continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.

Authorities appeared to have stopped their previous practice of placing foreigners with irregular status or without documentation in immigration detention centers and issuing expulsion orders without giving asylum seekers the ability to present applications. The change came with the increase of new arrivals during the year. In the past, the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs held asylum seekers for 90 days, the maximum initial holding period prescribed by law. Detention decisions were issued in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian languages while, according to the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, individuals were informed of the content of the decision orally with the assistance of an interpreter. A foreigner may appeal a decision on detention within three days from the date it is issued. Many asylum seekers did not receive legal aid within this timeframe, and they subsequently told UNHCR that they were not informed of this possible remedy.

UNHCR paid ad hoc visits to the Immigration Center of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, where foreigners were detained. The center accommodated 60-80 irregular migrants per day and had an area to accommodate families. UNHCR’s main concern with regard to the center was the difficulty experienced by legal aid NGOs that wanted to access it on a regular basis and the fact that authorities detained children there.

According to UNHCR, authorities held 57 individuals seeking asylum at the Immigration Center during the first eight months of the year. Information on the right to seek asylum was not readily available to potential asylum seekers in the center. UNHCR expressed concern that foreigners in detention may not have access to asylum procedures and that authorities may prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements before they have been afforded due opportunity to file a claim for asylum. UNHCR reported that applicants for refugee status did not have sufficient legal assistance; that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, including country of origin; and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit without risking refoulement.

Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration and return of refugees and displaced persons. The country was party to a regional housing program funded by international donors and facilitated in part by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the country. The process of selecting program beneficiaries was protracted due to capacity and management problems that resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes. Fragmented institutional arrangements added administrative delays to the process, as did the political imperative to select beneficiaries proportionally from among the country’s constituent peoples.

Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first seven months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to 11 individuals and extended existing subsidiary protection to 18 others.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and the 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. Citizens generally exercised this right, but observers noted a number of shortcomings.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: General elections held in October were competitive with candidates and political parties freely campaigning and presenting their programs. There were, however, credible reports of voter intimidation and vote buying in the pre-election period. According to ODIHR, the Central Election Commission (CEC) administered most of its electoral tasks efficiently, but stakeholders lacked trust in all levels of the election administration. The elections were overshadowed by mass resignations of polling station committee members over the course of 48 hours before polls opened on election day.

On Election Day, international observers reported numerous incidents of political parties manipulating the makeup of the polling station committees, which endangered the integrity of the election process. There were also reports of irregularities and other problems during the ballot counting process–some deliberate and some due to inadequate knowledge of appropriate procedures among polling station committee members. According to ODIHR, the campaign finance regulatory system was not adequate to assure the transparency and accountability of campaign finances. Several political parties requested recounts. ODIHR pointed to the large presence of citizen observers as contributing to the overall transparency of the process.

There have been no municipal elections in the city of Mostar since 2008 because of the failure of leading Bosniak and Croat politicians to agree on the implementation of a 2010 Constitutional Court decision requiring reform of the election law.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Some leaders of smaller political parties complained that the larger parties enjoyed a virtual monopoly over government ministries, public services, and media outlets, where membership in a dominant party was a prerequisite for advancement.

Participation of Women and Minorities: Although no laws limit the participation of women in the political process, the country’s patriarchal culture tended to restrict their participation in political affairs. While the law requires that at least 40 percent of a political party’s candidates be women, women held only 19 percent (11 of 57 delegate seats) in the House of Representatives and House of Peoples in the state-level parliament. Women held only two of the nine ministerial positions in the Council of Ministers, while no women held deputy ministerial seats. In the Federation, women held four out of 16 ministerial seats. In the RS, the prime minister was a woman, and women held three out of 16 ministerial seats.

The law provides that Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, whom the constitution considers the “constituent peoples” of the country, as well as undefined “others” must be adequately represented at all levels. The government did not respect this requirement. Apart from the three constituent peoples, the country’s 16 recognized national minority groups remained significantly underrepresented in government. There were no members of a minority group in the state-level parliament. The government made no effort to implement changes required by ECHR rulings dating back to 2009 that the country’s constitution discriminates against “others,” such as Jews and Roma, by preventing them from running for the presidency and seats in the parliament’s upper house.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively nor prioritize public corruption as a serious problem. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and corruption remained prevalent in many political and economic institutions. Corruption was especially prevalent in the health and education sectors, public procurement processes, local governance, and in public administration employment procedures.

Corruption: While the public viewed corruption as endemic in the public sphere, there was little public demand for the prosecution of corrupt officials. The multitude of state, entity, cantonal, and municipal administrations, each with the power to establish laws and regulations affecting business, created a system that lacked transparency and provided opportunities for corruption. The multilevel government structure gave corrupt officials multiple opportunities to demand “service fees,” especially in the local government institutions.

Analysts considered the legal framework for prevention of corruption to be satisfactory across almost all levels of government and attributed the absence of high-profile prosecutions to a lack of political will. Many state-level institutions tasked with fighting corruption, such as the Agency for Prevention and Fight against Corruption, had limited authority and remained underresourced. Prosecutions also were considered generally ineffective and subject to political manipulation, often resulting in suspended sentences or prison sentences below mandatory minimum sentences. Indictments were sometimes poorly drafted, and judicial decisions were based on unclear or insufficient reasoning. Authorities reported that, in the previous five years, 84 indictments were filed against high-ranking public officials, of whom 38 were found guilty. Public procurement abuses generally were not investigated.

Gathering evidence to prove corruption has been seriously impeded as of 2017, when the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional certain provisions in the BiH state law that governs special investigative measures. Although the provisions remain in force, authorities have failed so far to adopt new legislation. Judicial officials are reluctant to apply these measures until new legislation is adopted for fear judicial decisions will later be appealed.

According to professors and students, corruption continued at all levels of the higher education system. Professors at a number of universities reported that bribery was common and that they experienced pressure from colleagues and superiors to give higher grades to students with family or political connections. There were credible allegations of corruption in public procurement, public employment, and health-care services.

Financial Disclosure: Candidates for high-level public office, including for parliament at the state and entity levels and for the Council of Ministers and entity government positions, are subject to financial disclosure laws, although observers noted the laws fell short of standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international organizations. The CEC is responsible for overseeing compliance with the laws, while the Conflict of Interest Commission receives financial reports and retains records on public officials. Both institutions, however, lacked authority to verify the accuracy of declarations, and it was believed that public officials and their relatives often declared only a fraction of their total assets and liabilities. Authorities generally failed to make financial disclosure declarations public, using as an excuse the conflicts between the laws on financial disclosure and protection of personal information.

Failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements is subject to administrative sanctions. During the year the Conflict of Interest Commission initiated 14 proceedings and pronounced sanctions in 10 cases.

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

A variety of human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials in both the Federation and the RS attempted at times to limit NGO activities, particularly in the RS. Several NGOs in the RS reported being pressured by local authorities while subject to protracted tax inspections, sometimes lasting up to six months. NGOs can only be involuntarily dissolved if found in violation of the law.

NGOs reported weak institutionalized cooperation with the government. While the Council of Ministers officially adopted a cooperation agreement with NGOs to increase civil society participation and influence on the legislative process, both sides rarely used it. The Council of Ministers still largely excluded NGOs from politically important or sensitive decisions. NGOs nevertheless continued to expand cooperation with the government at lower levels.

The most difficult problem for civil society organizations was the lack of adequate funding. Most were dependent on either governmental or international assistance. Local governments generally extended support to NGOs, provided the governing parties did not consider them threats.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The RS government was less responsive and cooperative than the state and Federation governments in dealing with the Office of the High Representative created by the Dayton Accords and given special executive powers in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A state-level ombudsman has authority to investigate violations of the country’s human rights laws on behalf of individual citizens and to submit legally nonbinding recommendations to the government for remedy. Members of the international community noted that the ombudsman lacked the resources to function effectively and had to contend with disagreements between representatives of the country’s three constituent peoples over what constitutes a human rights violation. A Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared leadership of the ombudsman institution.

The state-level parliament has a Joint Commission for Human Rights that participated in human rights-related activities with governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The maximum penalty for rape, regardless of gender, including spousal rape, is 15 years in prison. The failure of police to treat spousal rape as a serious offense inhibited the effective enforcement of the law. Women victims of rape did not have regular access to free social support or assistance and continued to confront prejudice and discrimination in their communities and from representatives of public institutions.

While laws in both entities empower authorities to remove the perpetrator from the home, officials rarely, if ever, made use of these provisions. Law enforcement officials were frequently under the mistaken impression that they needed to concern themselves with where the perpetrator would live. As a result, women in danger were compelled to go to safe houses. In one example, an NGO reported a case of a mother with three children who suffered psychological and physical violence from her husband for 12 years. She was unemployed and economically dependent on him. She eventually reached out for help and accepted assistance and accommodation in a safe house.

NGOs reported that authorities often returned offenders to their family homes less than 24 hours after a violent event. In the Federation, authorities prosecuted domestic violence as a felony, while in the RS it can be reported as a felony or a misdemeanor. Even when domestic violence resulted in prosecution and conviction, offenders were regularly fined or given suspended sentences, even for repeat offenders.

Gender based violence was recognized as one of the most important challenges for gender equality. NGOs reported that one of every two women experienced some type of domestic violence and that this problem was underreported, because the majority of victims did not trust the support system (police, social welfare centers, or the judiciary). The country implemented a 2013-17 state gender action plan. The country still lacked a data collection system on domestic violence cases. The state-level Gender Equality Agency worked on the establishment of a local level coordination mechanism of support for victims. The agency had a memorandum of understanding with the country’s eight NGO-run safe houses, which could collectively accommodate up to 250 victims, roughly half the capacity needed. In the RS, 70 percent of financing for safe houses came from the RS budget, while 30 percent came from the budgets of local communities. While the RS government and local communities generally met their funding obligations, the Federation had no adequate bylaw that would regulate the financing of the safe houses, and payments depended on each canton or local community, some of which often failed to honor their obligations.

Although police received specialized training in handling cases of domestic violence, NGOs reported widespread reluctance among officers in both entities to break up families by arresting offenders.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but it was a serious problem. NGOs reported that those who experienced sexual harassment almost never filed complaints with authorities.

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

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, and authorities generally treated women equally. The law does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work, but it forbids gender discrimination. Women and men generally received equal pay for equal work at government-owned enterprises but not at all private businesses. NGOs reported little real progress in advancing equality between men and women in the labor market, noting instead widespread discrimination against women in the workplace, including the regular unwarranted dismissal of women because they were pregnant or new mothers. There is no official legal mechanism for the protection of women during maternity leave, and social compensation during leave was unequally regulated in different parts of the country. Many job announcements openly advertised discriminatory criteria, such as age and physical appearance, for employment of female applicants. Women remained underrepresented in law enforcement agencies.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl birth ratio for the country was 107 boys per 100 girls. There were no reports the government took steps to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: By law, a child born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen regardless of the child’s place of birth. A child born in the territory of the country to parents who were unknown or stateless is entitled to citizenship. Parents generally registered their children immediately after they were born, but there were exceptions, particularly in the Romani community. The NGO Vasa Prava estimated there were fewer than 49 unregistered children in the country, mainly Roma. UNHCR, with the legal assistance of a domestic NGO, registered the births of children whose parents failed to register them.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level but compulsory only for children of the ages of six through 15. Students with special needs continued to struggle for access to a quality, inclusive education due to physical barriers and the lack of in-school assistants and trained teachers to meet their needs.

More than 50 schools across the Federation remained segregated by ethnicity and religion. Although a “two schools under one roof” system was instituted following the 1992-95 conflict as a way to bring together returnee communities violently separated by conflict, the system calcified under the divisive and prejudicial administration of leading political parties. These parties controlled school administration through the country’s 13 different ministries of education and often enforced education policies based upon patronage and ethnic exclusion. Where students, parents, and teachers choose to resist segregation, they were met frequently with political indifference and sometimes intimidation.

Returnee students throughout the country continued to face barriers in exercising their language rights. For the fifth year in a row, parents of more than 500 Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation Ministry of Education, with support from the Sarajevo Canton municipal government and the Islamic community. The boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity) and its insistence on formally calling the language that children learn in their public schools the “language of the Bosniak people” instead of the “Bosnian language,” as described in the country’s constitution. In the Federation, Serb students likewise were denied language rights as provided in the Federation constitution, particularly in Canton 10, where authorities prevented the use of the Serbian language and textbooks in the areas of return of Serb students. Human rights activists noted that many textbooks reinforced stereotypes of the country’s ethnic groups other than their own, and others missed opportunities to dispel stereotypes by excluding any mention of some ethnic groups, particularly Jews and Roma. State and entity officials generally did not act to prevent such discrimination.

Human Rights Watch asserted that ethnic quotas used by the Federation and the RS to allocate civil service jobs disproportionately excluded Roma and other minorities. The quotas were based on the 1991 census, which undercounted these minorities.

Child Abuse: Family violence against children was a problem. Police investigated and prosecuted individual cases of child abuse. In July the Federation Supreme Court sentenced a stepfather, mother, and grandmother from Sarajevo to a total of 97 years of imprisonment for the mistreatment and murder of a three-and-a-half-year-old son or grandson, who died from physical abuse in 2014. The country’s Agency for Gender Equality estimated that one in five families experienced domestic violence. Municipal centers for social work are responsible for protecting children’s rights but lacked resources and the ability to provide housing for children who fled abuse or who required removal from abusive homes.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 but may be as young as 16 with parental consent. In certain Romani communities, girls married between the ages of 12 and 14. Children’s rights and antitrafficking activists noted that prosecutors were reluctant to investigate and prosecute forced marriages involving Romani minors. The government did not have programs specifically designed to reduce the incidence of child marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District have laws criminalizing sex trafficking, forced labor, and organized human trafficking. The state-level penalty for sexual exploitation of children is imprisonment for up to 20 years under certain aggravating circumstances. At the entity level, penalties range from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Under entity criminal codes, the abuse of a child or juvenile for pornography is a crime that carries a sentence of one to five years in prison. Authorities generally enforced these laws. The law prohibits sexual acts with a person younger than 18.

Girls were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, and there were reports that Romani girls as young as age 12 endured early and forced marriage and domestic servitude. Children were used in the production of pornography.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community in the country reported that it had fewer than 1,000 members.

There were no reports of anti-Semitic violence against members of the Jewish community, but anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in July, almost simultaneously, inside the hallways of apartment buildings where members of the Jewish community resided in Tuzla and Sarajevo. Authorities harshly condemned the incidents. No perpetrators were identified.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law in both entities and at the state level prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, discrimination in these areas continued. The government lacked a uniform legal definition of disabilities, which complicated access to benefits for those that would readily qualify, and normally prioritized support for war veterans. The most frequent forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities included obstacles in realization of individual rights, delayed payments of disability allowances, employment, and social and health protection.

The laws of both entities require increased accessibility to buildings for persons with disabilities, but authorities rarely enforced the requirement. Human rights NGOs complained that the construction of public buildings without access for persons with disabilities continued. Both entities have a strategy for advancing the rights of people with disabilities in the areas of health, education, accessibility, professional rehabilitation and employment, social welfare, and culture and sports. NGOs complained that the government did not effectively implement laws and programs to help persons with disabilities.

The law provides for children with disabilities to attend regular classes when feasible. Due to a lack of financial and physical resources, schools often reported they were unable to accommodate them. Children with disabilities either attended classes using regular curricula in regular schools or attended special schools. Parents of children with significant disabilities reported receiving limited to no financial support from the government, notwithstanding that many of them were unemployed because of the round-the-clock care required for their dependents.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Members of minorities continued to experience discrimination in employment and education in both the government and private sectors. While the law prohibits discrimination, human rights activists frequently complained that authorities did not adequately enforce the law.

Harassment and discrimination against minorities continued throughout the country, although not as frequently as in previous years. The Interreligious Council of BiH reported, for example, that the number of attacks against religious objects continued to decrease during the year.

Violence and acts of intimidation against ethnic minorities at times focused on symbols and buildings of that minority’s predominant religion. For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Roma continued to be the country’s most vulnerable and discriminated group. They experienced discrimination in access to housing, health care, education, and employment opportunities, and nearly 99 percent of them remained unemployed. A significant percentage of them were homeless or without water or electricity in their homes. Many dwellings were overcrowded, and residents lacked proof of property ownership. Approximately three-fourths lived in openly segregated neighborhoods.

Authorities frequently discriminated against Roma, which contributed to their exclusion by society. Many human rights NGOs criticized law enforcement and government authorities for the failure and unwillingness to identify Romani victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, even though the majority of registered trafficking victims in recent years were Roma.

The country has an established legal framework for the protection of minorities. State and entity-level parliaments had national minority councils that met on a regular basis but generally lacked resources and political influence on decision-making processes. The Roma Council continued to operate as a consultative body to the Council of Ministers, but with very limited influence.

The government continued to work on the implementation of a 2017-20 action plan to improve employment, housing, and health care for the Romani population. The plan included approximately 24.2 million convertible marks ($14.8 million) in total budgetary allocations. In December 2017 the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees signed memoranda on the allocation of grant funds worth 1.1 million convertible marks ($650,000) to address employment and health care protection for Roma.

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

While the law at the state level prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, authorities did not fully enforce it. Both entities and the Brcko District have laws that criminalize any form of hate crime committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Hate speech, discrimination, and violence against LGBTI individuals were widespread. The NGO Sarajevo Open Center (SOC) reported that transgender persons were the most vulnerable LGBTI group.

The prosecution of assault and other crimes committed against LGBTI individuals remained delayed and generally inadequate. In 2017 SOC registered 11 cases of domestic violence perpetrated by immediate family members as well as threats, blackmail, physical assaults, and forced medical treatment. Local advocacy NGOs reported increasing levels of documented domestic and peer violence committed against LGBTI individuals during 2017. SOC registered eight cases of homophobic and transphobic peer violence. The government had no institutional plan to combat peer violence.

LGBTI persons faced frequent harassment and discrimination, including termination of employment. NGOs also reported that schools were increasingly hostile environments, where LGBTI persons regularly experienced harassment and violence. In some cases, dismissal letters from work explicitly stated that sexual orientation was the cause of termination, making it extremely difficult for those dismissed to find another job. In the face of such risks, LGBTI persons rarely reported discrimination to police.

In March the BBI Shopping Center and National Theater in Sarajevo refused to allow SOC to organize a performance to commemorate the International Transgender Day of Visibility, citing security concerns.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Significant social stigma and employment discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained among members of the public as well as health workers. A Sarajevo-based NGO reported that infected persons experienced the greatest stigma and discrimination when seeking dental treatment. The country had no permanent or organized programs of psychosocial support for these persons.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Societal discrimination and occasional violence against ethnic minorities at times took the form of attacks on places symbolic of those minorities, including religious buildings. According to the Interreligious Council, an NGO that promotes dialogue among the four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish), attacks against religious symbols, clerics, and property significantly decreased in the first eight months of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

There were widespread instances of media coverage and public discourse designed to portray members of other ethnic groups in negative terms, usually in connection with the 1992-1995 conflict. During the year then RS president Dodik and senior officials in his political party (the SBSD) as well as other officials and leaders in the RS repeatedly denied that Serb forces committed genocide at Srebrenica in 1995, despite the findings of multiple local and international courts. On August 18, the RS National Assembly rejected the Commission for Srebrenica’s 2004 report on the events concerning the Srebrenica genocide, asked the RS government to annul it. The National Assembly also called for the establishment of a new international commission to determine the extent of the suffering of Serbs in the Srebrenica area as well as in Sarajevo in the 1991-1995 period.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Federation and RS labor laws provide for the right of workers in both entities to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Employers in the private sector did not always respect these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide adequately for enforcement of these protections. The labor inspectorates and courts did not deal effectively with employees’ complaints of antiunion discrimination. The law prescribes reinstatement of dismissed workers in cases where there is evidence of discrimination, whether for union activity or other reasons. Entity-level laws in the Federation and the RS prohibit the firing of union leaders without prior approval of their respective labor ministries.

The law in both entities and in the Brcko District provides for the right to strike. The law in the Federation contains burdensome requirements for workers who wish to conduct a strike. Trade unions may not officially announce a strike without first reaching an agreement with the employer on which “essential” personnel would remain at work. Authorities may declare the strike illegal if no agreement is reached. This provision effectively allowed employers to prevent strikes. Laws governing the registration of unions give the minister of justice powers to accept or reject trade union registration on ambiguous grounds. According to informal estimates, approximately 40 percent of the work force was unregistered and working in the informal economy.

No progress has been made on resolving structural problems associated with the nonimplementation of workers’ rights by employers in the private sector due largely to the broad and pronounced weakness of the rule of law.

The government did not effectively enforce all applicable laws. Authorities did not impose sanctions against employers who prevented workers from organizing. Inspections related to worker rights were limited. Ministry inspectors gave low priority to violations of worker rights; state officials focused instead on bolstering revenues by cracking down on unregistered employees and employers who did not pay taxes. Some unions reported that employers threatened employees with dismissal if they joined a union and in some cases fired union leaders for their activities. Entity-level penalties for violations included monetary fines that were not sufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Authorities and employers generally respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The governments and organizations of employers and workers in both entities negotiated general collective agreements establishing conditions of work, including in particular private employers. It was not confirmed that all employers recognized these agreements. Trade union representatives alleged that antiunion discrimination was widespread in all districts.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Adequate legislation exists at the state level and in the RS and the Brcko District criminalizing forced or compulsory labor. Federation laws, however, do not criminalize all forced labor activities. The government did not enforce these laws effectively, but there was little verified evidence that forced labor occurred in the country. Penalties for violations were generally sufficient to deter violations.

The prosecution of 13 BiH nationals for collusion in forced labor involving 672 victims of forced labor in Azerbaijan in 2015 continued in BiH court. The government failed to prosecute organized crime syndicates that forced Romani children to beg on the streets, alleging that it was Romani custom to beg. There were reports that individuals and organized crime syndicates trafficked men, women, and children for begging and forced labor (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment of children in both entities is 15; minors between the ages of 15 and 18 must provide a valid health certificate to work. RS and Brcko District laws penalize employers for hiring persons younger than age 15. The labor codes of the Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District also prohibit minors between the ages of 15 and 18 from working at night or performing hazardous labor, although forced begging is not considered a hazardous task for all entities. Entity governments are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, and both entities and the Brcko District enforced them. Boys and girls were subjected to forced begging and involuntary domestic servitude in forced marriages. Sometimes forced begging was linked to other forms of human trafficking. In the case of Romani children, family members or organized criminal groups were responsible for subjecting girls and boys to forced begging and domestic servitude in forced marriages. Several of the worst forms of child labor occurring in the country included the use of children for illicit activities, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and the use of children for the production of pornography (see section 6, Children).

During the year the government did not receive reports of child labor at places of employment. Neither entity had inspectors dedicated to child labor inspections; authorities investigated violations of child labor laws as part of a general labor inspection. Labor inspectors trained to recognize child labor believed they did not discover any child labor cases. The labor inspectorates of both entities reported that they found no violations of child labor laws, although they did not conduct reviews of children working on family farms. The government did not collect data on child labor because there were no reported cases. The general perception among officials and civil society was that the exploitation of child labor was rare. RS law imposes fines for employing children younger than 16, but the law does not specify the exact monetary amount. Penalties were usually sufficient to deter violations.

NGOs running day centers in Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar, Bijeljina, Bihac, and Sarajevo in cooperation with the country’s antitrafficking coordinator continued to provide services to at-risk children, many of whom were involved in forced begging on the streets.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, age, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, other communicable diseases, social status (including refugee status), religion, and national origin. The government generally enforced these laws and regulations effectively.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, gender, disability, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV-positive status, and social status (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The monthly minimum wage in the Federation is less than the official poverty income level. In the RS, the monthly minimum wage is also less than the official poverty income level. The Brcko District did not have a separate minimum wage or an independent pension fund, and employers typically used the minimum wage rate of the entity to which its workers decided to direct their pension funds.

The legal workweek in both entities and the Brcko District is 40 hours, although seasonal workers may work up to 60 hours. The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week in both entities. An employee in the RS may legally volunteer for an additional 10 hours of overtime in exceptional circumstances. The Federation has no provision for premium pay, while the RS requires a 30-percent premium. Laws in both entities require a minimum rest period of 30 minutes during the workday.

Employees may choose which holidays to observe depending on ethnic or religious affiliation. Entity labor laws prohibit excessive compulsory overtime. The entities and the Brcko District did little to enforce regulations on working hours, daily and weekly rest, or annual leave.

The Federation Market Inspectorate, the RS Inspectorate, and the Brcko District Inspectorate are responsible for the enforcement of labor laws in the formal economy. Authorities in the two entities and the Brcko District did not adequately enforce labor regulations. The penalties for wage and safety violations were generally sufficient to deter violations.

The Federation and the RS set mandatory occupational health and safety standards, especially for those industry sectors where working conditions were hazardous. Worker rights extended to all official (i.e., registered) workers, including migrant and temporary workers.

Governments in both entities made only limited efforts to improve occupational safety and health at government-owned coal mines; such efforts were inadequate for the safety and security of workers. Workers in certain industries, particularly metal and steel processing and coal mining, often worked in hazardous conditions. There were no official social protections for workers in the informal economy.

Workers could not remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Authorities provided no protection to employees in this situation.

Bulgaria

Executive Summary

Bulgaria is a constitutional republic governed by a freely elected unicameral national assembly. A coalition government headed by a prime minister leads the country. National assembly elections were held in March 2017, and the Central Election Commission did not report any major election irregularities. International observers considered the elections generally free and fair but noted some deficiencies.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included physical mistreatment of detainees and convicts by officials; harsh conditions in prisons and detention facilities; corruption, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability in the judicial system; mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers; corruption in all branches of government; and violence against ethnic minorities.

Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was 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 that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports of government officials employing degrading treatment. A 2017 analysis by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Bulgarian Helsinki Committee indicated that more than 40 percent of the jail population complained of physical injuries and illegal arrests, while 16 percent alleged forced interrogations. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee continued to criticize the Interior Ministry for not collecting or tracking information on police brutality and for lacking an efficient mechanism for investigating and punishing offending officials. According to the NGO, physical abuse of detainees by police was widespread and disproportionately affected Romani suspects.

There were reports that police physically mistreated migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the border into the country (see section 2.d., Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons).

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in most prisons were harsh, with problems including violence against inmates by prison staff; overcrowding; prison staff corruption; and inadequate sanitary, living, and medical facilities.

In the report published on May 4 following its visit in 2017, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted that interprisoner violence remained a serious problem. The CPT claimed there was a “slight improvement” regarding the severity of alleged mistreatment of persons in police custody, but the number of allegations of physical abuse remained high in police detention centers, migrant detention facilities, and psychiatric establishments.

Physical Conditions: Most prison facilities dated from the early 1900s. In its report the CPT noted “evidence of refurbishment in almost all penitentiary establishments visited” but described the situation in the detention facility in Sliven and the foreign prisoner section of Sofia prison as “totally unacceptable.” The CPT identified a “severe problem of generalized infestation” by bed bugs in all penitentiary facilities as well as “inhuman and degrading conditions” in some institutions for persons with disabilities.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee identified several additional problems, including poor access to health care and its poor quality wherever available, insufficient access to work, poor working conditions, and prison corruption.

The law provides for the establishment of closed-type centers or designation of closed-type areas within a reception center for confinement in isolation of migrants who disturbed the internal order.

The government ombudsman reported cases of police and prison authorities applying excessive force and abusing detainees and prisoners in detention centers and in the prison in Sofia, and a lack of effective administrative response to such abuses. In a report to the justice minister, the ombudsman criticized authorities for their continued unnecessary use of handcuffs despite the ombudsman’s recommendation against the practice in 2016-17. According to the report, detention center authorities handcuffed more than 300 detainees during their daily walks.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee criticized the prison administration for not performing medical examinations on detainees following reports of police abuse and for rarely punishing offending officers. According to the ombudsman, prison authorities continued to use handcuffs when prisoners were hospitalized in a general hospital, following illegal instructions issued by the heads of the penitentiary institutions.

The ombudsman expressed concern that prison administrations consistently denied prisoners access to education and criticized the lack of adequate light in detention centers, as well as inadequate stocks of bed linen and food, which sometimes left detainees without food for 24 hours. The ombudsman also reported that detention centers for unlawful migrants did not provide adequate accommodation for families with children. The ombudsman criticized conditions in the detention centers for having poor hygiene, poor lighting, high humidity, and inadequate access to fresh air.

Human rights activists accused the prison administration of suppressing the activity of the Bulgarian Prisoner Association, an NGO founded by inmates to advocate for prisoner rights, by confiscating applications for membership and punishing and physically abusing its members.

Administration: Authorities investigated allegations of mistreatment. The prison administration dismissed nearly half of the received complaints as groundless and took action on 12 percent of them. According to the CPT, the prison system suffered serious corruption and staffing issues, particularly with regard to health-care personnel. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported that medical personnel did not report all cases of violence against prisoners by custodial staff to the prosecution service.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring of prisons by independent nongovernmental observers. According to the concluding observations of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Committee against Torture’s sixth periodic report (issued in December 2017), the country’s Office of Ombudsman was not sufficiently equipped to fulfill its mandate as national preventive mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Improvements: As of September the government refurbished the prison facility in Vratsa with a separate facility for juvenile offenders, who were moved from Boychinovtsi in mid-August.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, there were reports that police at times abused their arrest and detention authority. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for law enforcement, migration, and border enforcement. The State Agency for National Security, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for counterintelligence, domestic intelligence analysis, and investigating corruption and organized crime. The State Intelligence Agency, under the Council of Ministers, is responsible for foreign intelligence, and the Military Information Service, under the defense minister, is responsible for military intelligence. The National Protective Service is responsible for the security of dignitaries and answers to the president.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and security services. Police and the prosecution service are responsible for investigating security force killings. While the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, implementation was inadequate, and impunity was a problem.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

The law says that police normally must obtain a warrant prior to apprehending an individual. Police may hold a detainee for 24 hours without charge, and a prosecutor may authorize an additional 72 hours. A court must approve detention longer than 72 hours. The law prohibits holding detainees in custody without indictment for more than two months if they are charged with misdemeanors; detainees charged with felonies may be held without indictment for eight months, while persons suspected of crimes punishable by at least 15 years’ imprisonment may be held up to 18 months without indictment. Prosecutors may not arrest military personnel without the defense minister’s approval. Authorities generally observed these laws. According to official information requested by the press, in 2017 through mid-January the Interior Ministry conducted 90 internal investigations of illegal arrest or brutality, resulting in the firing of three police officers, impositions of official censure on 15, official reprimand on 10, and promotion freeze on seven.

The law provides for release on personal recognizance, bail, and house arrest, and these measures were widely used.

The law provides for the right to counsel from the time of detention, and internal regulations instruct that detainees have access to legal counsel no later than two hours after detention and that a lawyer have access to the detainee within 30 minutes of his or her arrival at a police station. The law provides for government-funded legal aid for low-income defendants; defendants could choose from a list of public defenders provided by the bar associations. A national hotline provided 15-minute free legal consultations eight hours per day.

In April anticorruption authorities arrested Sofia’s Mladost district mayor Desislava Ivancheva and her deputy Bilyana Petrova and held them in handcuffs on the street for four hours while collecting evidence from their car. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee questioned the legality of the arrest. Media coverage of the case in August showed Ivancheva with cuffed hands and feet while being taken to the hospital for checks on a pre-existing condition as well as in the courtroom. Human rights activists claimed that although the restraining measures used on Ivancheva and Petrova were not in violation of existing laws and regulations, they were harsher than those commonly used with violent criminals. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the ombudsman further criticized the sanitary and other conditions in the cells where the two were detained.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary detention. In September police handcuffed two investigative reporters and their lawyer near the town of Radomir and kept them in detention for nearly seven hours (see section 2.a., Press and Media Freedom). In February 2017 police arrested Rosen Markov, who was protesting in front of the municipality over a business dispute, and evaluated him as insane. In January the Varna Regional Court awarded Markov 0.67 levs ($1.15) in damages for his three-day forced detention in a psychiatric ward of a hospital.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but corruption, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability continued to be pervasive problems. Public trust in the judicial system remained low because of the perception that magistrates were susceptible to political pressure and rendered unequal justice. In its November cooperation and verification mechanism report, the European Commission noted that “targeted attacks on judges in some media” affected judicial independence and encouraged the Supreme Judicial Council, which is responsible for the administration of the judiciary, to take an active role against such attacks.

According to human rights organizations, the law has low standards of fair trial, creating possibilities for violation of procedural rights of lawyers and defendants.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

The law presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. They have the right to a fair and timely trial, but long delays affected the delivery of justice in criminal procedures. All court hearings are public except for cases involving national security, endangering public morals, and affecting the privacy of juvenile defendants. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and can demand a retrial if convicted in their absence, unless they were evading justice at the time of the first trial.

The constitution and the law give defendants the right to an attorney, provided at public expense for those who cannot afford one. A defense attorney is mandatory if the alleged crime carries a possible punishment of 10 or more years in prison; if the defendant is a juvenile, foreigner, or person with mental or physical disabilities; or if the accused is absent. Defendants have the right to ample time and facilities to prepare a defense. They have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment they are charged through all their appeals. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses, examine evidence, and present their own witnesses and evidence. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law provides for the right of appeal, which was widely used.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Individuals may file allegations of human rights abuses with courts and with the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, which can impose fines on violators. After all remedies in domestic courts are exhausted, individuals can appeal decisions involving alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights by the state to the European Court of Human Rights. Long delays affected civil cases.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

While the government has no legislation specific to Holocaust-era property restitution, laws and mechanisms in place address communist era real property claims (not including moveable property), including by foreign citizens, which have been applied to cover Holocaust-related claims. NGOs and advocacy groups, including local Jewish organizations, reported significant progress on resolution of such claims. After World War II, the communist government first restituted and then nationalized the personal and community property lost during the Holocaust. After the fall of communism, Jewish organizations and individuals were able to reclaim ownership of or receive compensation for community property nationalized by the communist regime. The Ministry of Defense refused to restore to the Jewish community a property located on the Naval Academy’s campus in Varna, claiming that it was used for strategic communications. According to the Organization of Bulgarian Jews, Shalom, the Varna property was the only outstanding Holocaust-era communal property that had not been returned.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions. Law enforcement agencies can access electronic data traffic only in cases related to serious crime or national security. In June the parliamentary committee overseeing the work of security services reported that police, prosecutors’ offices, and the National Revenue Agency had accessed electronic traffic data illegally. According to the annual report of the National Bureau for Oversight of Specialized Investigative Techniques, the State Agency for National Security repeatedly refused to provide access to wiretapping documentation and interfered in the bureau’s oversight function.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources and support for the media, gravely damaged media pluralism.

The International Research and Exchanges Board’s (IREX) 2018 Media Sustainability Index identified “steadily escalating political pressure on the media” as well as daily “harassment and pressure against journalists and media owners.” IREX noted the existence of a deep division of “warring camps” in the media, resulting in smear campaigns and increasing “aggressive propaganda.” Reports of intimidation and violence against journalists continued.

Freedom of Expression: The law provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as instigation of hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital or social status, or disability. NGOs alleged that the presence of nationalist parties in the government “empowered” supporters to use hate speech regularly.

Individuals generally criticized the government without official reprisal, although a few incidents of reprisals were reported. In April the Smolyan Administrative Court invalidated the Smolyan mayor’s unilateral cancellation of the rental agreement evicting the regional newspaper Otzvuk from its lawfully rented offices. The newspaper’s publisher, Zarko Marinov, had published a series of articles criticizing the mayor and his administration on the Pro Veritas online anticorruption platform.

Press and Media Freedom: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to print media. According to the Reporters without Borders’ (RSF) July report on investigative journalism, investigative journalists and media were “followed, intimidated, discouraged through smear campaigns, and labeled ‘enemy of the state.’” The report alleged that journalist investigations hit “a wall of silence” due to “corrupt editors and publishers, self-censorship, pressure from the authorities,” and owners using media to control or punish the disobedient. RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index reported widespread “corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs.” Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for editorial bias, lack of transparency into their financing and ownership, and susceptibility to political influence and economic incentives.

Violence and Harassment: In May investigative journalist Hristo Geshov, who reported on local corruption as part of the Pro Veritasonline platform, was beaten outside his home in Cherven Bryag. Geshov told media that he had received threats and was convinced the attack was in retaliation for his investigative reporting. As of November there were no arrests. Also as of November, authorities had not identified the three attackers of television journalist Ivo Nikodimov, who was beaten in July 2017.

On September 13, police handcuffed two investigative reporters and their lawyer near the town of Radomir and kept them in detention for nearly seven hours (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest). The journalists had alerted police to possible destruction of documents implicating companies and government officials in corruption. The ombudsman, the Association of European Journalists, and others criticized the law enforcement authorities for obstructing a journalist investigation, describing the incident as “arbitrary arrest” violating freedom of speech.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists continued to report editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics, and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders. According to the Association of European Journalists, self-censorship was widespread, especially in the smaller regional media.

In June, Nova TV did not broadcast the prerecorded episode of Milen Tsvetkov’s Hour talk show, which reportedly explored the prime minister’s alleged real estate holdings, explaining that the program did not meet standards of objectivity and balance of opinions. The prime minister denied any involvement, suggesting it was a case of “either censorship or self-censorship.” Nova TV did not renew Tsvetkov’s contract for the talk show in the fall season.

In July the Association of European Journalists protested against an article published in the daily newspapers Telegraf and Monitor,which called on the national bTV channel to “purge” itself of journalists such as Sunday talk show anchor Svetoslav Ivanov. The attack against Ivanov was in response to questions he had asked a businessperson about his intention to acquire part of national assembly member Delyan Peevski’s publishing business, which owned Telegraf and Monitor. The association noted that such attacks were not unprecedented “in light of Peevski’s political and economic influence,” and that they could be viewed as “a threat to the journalist and an attempt to pressure the management of the television channel.”

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a fine of 3,000 to 15,000 levs ($1,700 to $8,550) and public censure. According to NGOs journalists’ reporting on corruption or mismanagement prompted approximately 200 defamation cases per year brought by politicians, government officials, and other persons in public positions. In January journalists in Burgas protested against two decisions of Burgas Regional Court imposing fines of 2,500 levs ($1,425) each on the online news providers BurgasInfo and BurgasNews for damaging Petar Nizamov’s dignity and reputation. Nizamov, a private citizen and self-proclaimed “migrant hunter” patrolling the border with Turkey for migrants and refugees, had sued the websites for their 2012 reposting of official interior ministry press releases using Nizamov’s initials and describing him as a “batterer.” In July the Blagoevgrad Regional Court ruled against local municipal councilor Andon Todorov’s claim that the online news outlet Blagoevgrad News chief editor Marieta Dimitrova’s article had discredited him by alleging that he supported the mayor in return for favors. The court dismissed the defamation claim, saying the councilor had failed to prove the facts alleged in the article were untrue.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were reports, however, that the government exceeded its legal authority in monitoring private online communications. In March police interrogated Olena Kotseva, a citizen of Ukrainian origin, who had made comments on Facebook regarding Russian Patriarch Kiril’s visit and expressed “profound indignation at Russian propaganda.” Police interrogated her about her online behavior, alleged that her comments posed a risk to national security and threatened to arrest her. Police gave Kotseva a notice instructing her “to refrain from jeopardizing the country’s security and breaking the law.” Law enforcement officers interrogated more than 25 individuals for expressing negative opinions of the Russian patriarch on social media, accusing them of posing a threat to his security and giving them written notices to “behave.” Interior Minister Valentin Radev stated that police would continue to question individuals whose social media behavior is deemed threatening, acknowledging that it was a routine practice for the security services.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 63 percent of individuals used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

Authorities continued to deny registration of the Macedonian activist group OMO Ilinden despite a January judgment and 10 prior decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that the denials violated the group’s freedom of association.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights organizations continued to report police and societal violence against migrants and asylum seekers, including assaults, beatings, and humiliation at the country’s borders and in detention centers and camps. In March two men beat three Eritrean refugees recently relocated from Italy. One of the victims suffered serious injuries and received medical assistance. The Eritrean refugees left the country, and the government dropped the case.

In August the Sofia City Court sentenced Yordan Partalin and Robert Ganev to 10 years in prison each for the 2015 attempted murder of a Cameroonian asylum seeker returning to a refugee center after a trip to the grocery store. The initial indictment treated the attempted murder as a racial and xenophobic act, but those charges were dropped during the trial.

In August the Burgas District Court stated there was not enough evidence that Petar Nizamov, private citizen and self-proclaimed “migrant hunter” (See section 2.a., Libel/Slander Laws) had illegally held three Afghan migrants, and the court acquitted him. Nizamov had been prosecuted based on a 2016 video showing him with three migrants forced to lie on the ground with their hands zip-tied behind their backs.

On several occasions mayors refused to register refugees with recognized status, and local residents protested against refugee attempts to settle in their respective locations.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Asylum seekers and refugees who cross the border irregularly are subject to detention.

Freedom of Movement: The law restricts asylum seekers’ movement to the administrative region in which the reception center where they have been accommodated is located. The restriction is valid until the asylum procedure is completed.

Access to Basic Services: The refugee integration ordinance authorizes mayors to sign integration agreements with persons who have refugee status, spelling out the services they will receive–housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance–as well as the obligations of the responsible institutions. According to the State Agency for Refugees, refugees were reluctant to sign such agreements, and local governments were reluctant to integrate refugees, especially if they hoped to settle in another European country. As of mid-December only three Syrian families totaling 21 persons had signed integration agreements in Sofia.

In February the Commission for Protection against Discrimination imposed a fine on the mayor of Elin Pelin for using discriminatory language in his February 2017 media statements explaining why he had refused to allow a Syrian family that had been granted humanitarian status to settle in the municipality. The mayor said that “Muslims from Syria are not welcome” and refused to register the family or issue them identity documents.

According to Amnesty International’s 2017-18 report released in February, reception conditions for “unaccompanied refugee and migrant children” were inadequate; children were “routinely denied adequate access to legal representation, translation, health services, and psychosocial support.”

The State Agency for Refugees complained that asylum seekers damaged reception centers faster than the agency was able to make repairs and improvements.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement, offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, and assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. On July 20, the national assembly barred the government from signing agreements with other countries on taking back refugees initially granted asylum who subsequently left for another EU country. As of April the country accepted 60 refugees relocated from Greece and Italy.

Temporary Protection: The council of ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence, or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The government also provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of November, the government provided humanitarian protection to approximately 370 persons.

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.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: There were no reports of major irregularities during the snap general elections in March 2017, and most political commentators considered the election free and fair. According to Transparency International Bulgaria, the incidence of voter intimidation and other forms of improper influence increased, while vote buying decreased compared with previous elections.

The final report of the election observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated that “electoral contestants reached out to the voters freely” and “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected.” The report also observed, “some parties used inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric, mainly against Roma and Turkish communities.”

The law prohibits campaigning in languages other than Bulgarian. According to ODIHR this requirement, as well as the absence of official voter information in minority languages, limited the ability of ethnic minority groups to understand election rules and to participate effectively in the election process. NGOs reported that address registration laws limited the ability of Romani persons occupying illegal housing to obtain identity cards, which in turn restricted their ability to register for and vote in elections.

In the first six months of the year, the prosecution service opened 42 cases related to election fraud and prosecuted seven persons; the court sentenced nine persons. In July anticorruption prosecutors indicted a former national assembly member from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Ilia Iliev, for vote buying in the Romani neighborhood in Yambol during the 2014 general elections. Iliev was prosecuted for arranging payments of 20 to 50 levs ($11 to $29) per vote.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires a political party to have at least 2,500 members to register officially. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties along religious, ethnic, or racial lines, but that prohibition did not appear to weaken the role of some ethnic minorities in the political process; a number of parties represented various ethnic minority groups. NGOs may not engage in political activity.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. There were no Romani members in the national assembly, and Roma were underrepresented in appointed leadership positions compared to the size of their population. Ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) held elected positions at the local level.

In December 2017 the Commission for Protection against Discrimination fined the mayor of Kyustendil, Petar Paunov, 2,000 levs ($1,140) for committing ethnic discrimination by prohibiting residents of the Romani Iztok neighborhood from participating in a local referendum in 2015.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials in all branches of government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corrupt practices included bribery, conflict of interest, elaborate embezzlement schemes, procurement violations, and influence trading.

In January the national assembly passed a law on combating corruption and forfeiture of illicit assets. The law established an anticorruption and asset forfeiture commission authorized to collect and check asset declarations, identify conflicts of interest, and pursue asset forfeiture. In its November report, the European Commission commended the new legislation as “the most significant single step” in the country’s anticorruption reform, noting authorities would “need to show concrete results and build a track record of…final decisions in high-level corruption cases.” According to the Institute for Market Economics, the new law focuses on creating administration rather than introducing new anticorruption tools. NGOs criticized the legislators for providing an administrative body with wiretapping authority.

Corruption: In August the Bulgarian Industrial Association identified corruption as the main factor for the lowest level of foreign direct investments in the last 10 years. Commenting on the government’s annual report on public administration, the association criticized the absence of anticorruption measures and the low number of anticorruption training courses conducted in 2017. In January, Transparency International Bulgaria stated there had been no significant progress in the country’s anticorruption efforts.

As of July prosecutors pursued 224 prosecutions against 284 persons, and the courts convicted 183 persons, including 131 sentenced to prison terms. In July the Appellate Military Court confirmed the lower court’s 2016 ruling sentencing former national intelligence director Kircho Kirov to 10 years in prison for embezzling 5.1 million levs ($2.8 million).

In September, following the protest of more than 50 NGOs, the ombudsman petitioned the Constitutional Court against changes to the administrative procedure code that increased third-instance appeal fees 14 times for individuals and 70 times for organizations. The NGOs asserted that the amendments impose severe restrictions on the access to administrative justice and control the legality of the acts of the public administration.

As of October an indictment was pending against national assembly member Zhivko Martinov from Dobrich, charged in July 2017 with extortion.

Financial Disclosure: The law mandates that government officials make annual public declarations of their assets and income as well as any circumstances in which they could face accusations of using their position for personal gain. The Commission for Combating Corruption and Forfeiture of Illicit Assets verified and monitored disclosures for all officials except magistrates, whose declarations the Supreme Judicial Council’s inspectorate monitored. High-level public officials and magistrates who fail to submit a financial disclosure declaration can incur fines of up to 3,000 levs ($1,700), and up to 6,000 levs ($3,400) for a repeat violation; this provision was enforced during the year.

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

Numerous domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Human rights observers reported uneven levels of cooperation from national and local government officials. Some political parties, civic movements, and media outlets advocated closing certain NGOs because they obtained funding from foreign donors. According to the local NGO Human and Social Studies Foundation’s April 2017 report on antidemocratic propaganda, the number of news articles containing derogatory language discrediting civil movements, civil protests, human rights organizations, and NGOs in general increased 23 times since 2014.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman is an independent constitutional body elected by the national assembly with a five-year mandate. The ombudsman reviews individuals’ complaints against the government for violations of rights or freedoms. The ombudsman can request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals to end existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

As of October the ombudsman had received 17 percent fewer complaints than during the same period in 2017. The majority concerned consumer rights, social assistance programs, and property problems, including forced evictions. Authorities sometimes adjusted their practices and regulations in response to recommendations from the ombudsman.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent specialized agency for preventing and protecting against discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity. NGOs criticized the commission for taking on disputes that were not real discrimination while leaving serious cases of discrimination unaddressed. For example, the commission declared that the Ministry of Interior discriminated against police by not replacing their uniforms for three years in a row, while the commission did not recognize references in the media to an accused person’s race or ethnicity as incitement to discrimination.

A national assembly permanent committee covers religious denominations and human rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and authorities generally enforced its provisions when violations came to their attention. Sentences for rape convictions range up to 20 years in prison. While authorities could prosecute spousal rape under the general rape statute, they rarely did so.

The law defines domestic violence as any act, or attempted act, of sexual violence or physical, psychological, emotional, or economic pressure against members of one’s family or between cohabiting persons. It empowers courts to impose fines, issue restraining or eviction orders, or require special counseling. Noncompliance with a restraining order may result in imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of 5,000 levs ($2,850).

On July 27, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the “Istanbul Convention”) contradicts the country’s constitution and laws of “the binary nature of humans.” The court stated the definition of “gender” in the convention removes the boundaries of the two biologically determined sexes and risks turning efforts to combat violence against women into “a formalistic and unattainable commitment,” leaving persons unable to differentiate between a woman and a man.

NGOs voiced growing concerns in the past several years of increasing cases of the killing of women or girls because of their gender. In January, Djebraim Saliev from Okorsh allegedly beat his wife Aishegyul to death. According to the village mayor, Aishegyul had complained frequently of beatings and harassment. As of November, Saliev was in custody and the case was in pretrial phase.

The Animus Association Foundation and other NGOs provided short-term protection and counseling to domestic violence victims in 22 crisis centers and shelters throughout the country. The government funded an NGO-operated 24-hour free helpline that victims could call for counseling, information, and support, as well as to report abuse. Police and social workers referred victims of domestic violence to NGO-run shelters. In April the prosecutor general issued specific step-by-step instructions regarding how prosecutors should respond to reports of domestic violence, death threats, and violations of restraining orders.

Sexual Harassment: The law identifies sexual harassment as a specific form of discrimination rather than a criminal offense, although prosecutors may identify cases in which harassment involves coercion combined with sexual exploitation. If prosecuted as coercion, sexual harassment is punishable by up to six years in prison.

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

Discrimination: While the law provides women the same legal status and rights as men, women faced some discrimination in economic participation and political empowerment. The law establishes equal opportunities in all spheres of public, economic, and political life; equal access to public resources; equal treatment; exclusion of gender-based discrimination and violence; balanced representation of men and women in decision-making authorities; and overcoming of gender-based stereotypes.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents. The law requires the registration of births within seven days.

Child Abuse: The law protects children against any type of abuse, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence and exploitation, and punishes violators with fines ranging from 300 to 10,000 levs ($170 to $5,700), unless they constitute a criminal or more severe administrative offense. Violence against children continued to be a problem. The Social Assistance Agency’s child protection departments across the country found 30 percent of alerts received about violence against children to be actionable. The four-year National Program for Prevention of Violence and Abuse against Children (2017-20) identified a growing rate of child victims of violence. It deals with prevention, increasing children’s awareness of the child protection system, addressing domestic violence, online abuse, sexual violence, early marriage and childbirth, and school aggression and harassment. The National Program for Child Protection, adopted in April, emphasizes preventing violence against children and continuing the process of deinstitutionalization (see subsection below on Institutionalized Children).

The NGO National Network for Children released its 2017 “report card” in April. The report card found lack of progress in reducing child poverty, systemic problems with child protection, poor interagency coordination, delays in juvenile justice reform, and insufficient support for professionals working with children. The government funded an NGO-operated 24-hour free helpline that children could call for counseling, information, and support, as well as to report abuse. Helpline operators reported a trend of previously reported cases resurfacing with more serious or different types of abuse.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. In exceptional cases a person may enter into marriage at 16 with permission from the regional court. NGOs criticized authorities for treating early marriages as an ethnic Romani rather than a gender problem but acknowledged that child marriage was pervasive in Romani communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law differentiates between forcing children into prostitution, for which it provides for up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 15,000 levs ($8,550), and child sex trafficking, for which it provides up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 levs ($11,400). The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine of up to 8,000 levs ($4,560) for violations. The authorities enforced the law. The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14.

Displaced Children: As of September, 160 unaccompanied minors sought asylum, a nearly 50 percent drop from 2017 and more than 90 percent from 2016. In December 2017 the ombudsman petitioned the Supreme Administrative Court to impose uniformity in court practices which, according to her, applied different standards in determining whether migrant children were unaccompanied and routinely placed children so designated in detention centers for irregular migrants.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued to close residential care institutions for children, and on September 1 launched the last stage of its deinstitutionalization strategy, which aims to close all institutions by 2025 and replace them with community-based care. In July the government closed the medical and social care home in Vratsa, which at the end of 2017 accommodated three children–down from 89 in 2009. NGOs reported abuse in the new family-type placement centers. Media reports and videos of personnel abusing children with disabilities in family centers in Gabrovo in January and a correctional boarding school in Borovan in February prompted a discussion between authorities and NGOs, resulting in a joint plan of measures, including training 6,000 child-care workers and improving coordination.

In December 2017 the Committee against Torture of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “grave concern” about “the absence of investigations into the deaths of 238 children with mental disabilities who died in the period 2000-10” and “dismay by the statement that 22 inspections of the institutions in question did not establish inhuman treatment of children by the personnel of the specialized institutions.” The government inspected the institutions and the new centers, uncovering malpractice and mistreatment of the children placed in them and issuing instructions for correcting them.

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

Anti-Semitism

The 2011 census indicated that 1,130 Jews lived in the country, but local Jewish organizations estimated the actual number as 5,000.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments under online media articles. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews Shalom indicated that during the year there were no violent acts of anti-Semitism, but that there was a wave of anti-Semitic sentiments, enabled by the presence of “far-right and ultranationalist” political parties. One of those wrote, “Those dirty Jews who…for 600 years have been trying to destroy us. In the end they might succeed.” Shalom reported that children of Jewish origin faced anti-Semitism in school. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were available in tourist areas around the country.

In February a rally took place in Sofia in honor of Hristo Lukov, leader in the 1940s of an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organization, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The government, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova had banned the march in 2017, but the Sofia Administrative Court overturned the ban. The Foreign Ministry condemned the event in declarations issued before and after the event, calling it a “shameful act” and a “demonstration of xenophobia, discrimination, and hatred.” Shalom, the online human rights platform Marginalia, and the Sofia Municipality cohosted a conference titled “Sofia Says No to Hate Speech and Extremism” a few days before the rally, gathering government representatives, NGOs, academics, students, and diplomats to discuss rising nationalism, intolerance, and anti-Semitism, to make a clear statement against extremism, and to explore possible avenues for engaging the public in the spirit of tolerance.

On November 29, the country became the 32nd full member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

In May, Shalom described an exhibition portraying the pro-Nazi government of King Boris III and Bogdan Filov as rescuing Jews during the Holocaust as “provocation” and “distortion of history.” Speaking to a television reporter at the opening of the exhibition, then deputy prime minister Valeri Simeonov blamed the rescued Jews for subsequently executing their rescuers after becoming part of the communist government.

As of November authorities had not identified the perpetrators who in September 2017 knocked down gravestones and broke grave slabs at the Jewish Cemetery in Sofia.

In October the Jewish organizations Shalom and B’nai B’rith protested the Ministry of Defense’s initiative to award a medal to Dyanko Markov, a member of the Union of Bulgarian National Legions that supported the deportation of Jews during World War II. In December the Sofia City Court exonerated Marginalia journalist Yuliana Metodieva in a libel lawsuit filed by Markov for describing Markov in an article as a “prominent anti-Semite.”

On September 11, national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism Georg Georgiev, Sofia mayor Fandakova, and Shalom president Alexander Oscar signed a Manifesto for Tolerance and launched an initiative promoting Sofia as a city of tolerance and wisdom. The first event under the initiative took place on September 16, when volunteers cleaned facades of hate graffiti.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. The government focused most of its efforts on providing disability pensions, social services, and institutional care. According to the ombudsman, the laws and regulations on persons with disabilities were outdated, lacked a patient-centered approach, and needed comprehensive reform.

In December the national assembly passed the Persons with Disabilities Act and Personal Assistance Act, which are intended to reform the social support system and provide adequate funding for persons with disabilities. The new legislation was conceived after a six-month, tent-camp protest by mothers of children with disabilities demanding changes in disability assessments, personal assistance, and financial aid. The laws provide for individual evaluation and increased budget for personal assistants. They make local governments responsible for providing personal assistance services and the central government for disbursing and monitoring the funding for such services. In October the protesters demanded the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who had accused the “shrill mothers” of pursuing an ulterior political agenda and suggested that they stay home if their children were “truly sick.” Simeonov resigned in November.

In September a group of NGOs and activists issued a declaration alleging that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities had reported “downright lies and half-truths” at the 20th session of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and called on its chairman to report back to the committee with correct information. According to the NGOs, and contrary to the report, there was no deinstitutionalization, children and young persons were not integrated in the education system, the system did not provide for personal assistants, and public areas and transportation were not accessible.

While the law requires improved access to public and transportation infrastructure for persons with disabilities, enforcement lagged in some new public works projects and existing buildings. Beginning in December 2017, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination conducted a nationwide inspection campaign of public buildings, utility providers, telecom operators, banks, and insurance companies. Those in compliance with the law for persons with disabilities received certificates; the rest were fined from 2,000 levs to 20,000 levs ($1,140 to $11,400).

The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and covers 30 to 50 percent of the employers’ insurance costs, in addition to the full costs of adjusting and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. On August 15, the government launched a 24-month program of subsidies for employers who hire persons with more than 75 percent disability. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee concluded, however, that the government did not provide real opportunities for professional training or employment.

Individuals with mental and physical disabilities were widely stigmatized and often housed in institutions under harsh conditions in remote areas. According to NGOs, the government did not provide adequate medical care for all persons with mental disabilities. Less than 1 percent of all persons with disabilities had access to medical, social, and psychological support in day centers around the country.

The Ministry of Education transformed most of the 55 “special schools” for students with special education needs into education support centers, leaving only five special schools with approximately 700 students with sensory and hearing disabilities. Most of the remaining approximately 18,200 students with special education needs, attended mainstream schools. Those studying in the special schools received diplomas that higher-level learning establishments did not recognize as qualifying them for further education.

The law provides specific measures for persons with disabilities to have access to the polls, including mobile ballot boxes, voting in a polling station of their choice, and assisted voting. According to ODIHR, those measures were “not sufficient to ensure equal participation, especially for persons with visual impairments who cannot vote independently.”

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Human rights organizations reported a persistent level of racial discrimination against Roma. The media often described Roma and other minority groups using discriminatory, denigrating, and abusive language, highlighting instances in which Romani persons had committed a crime. Nationalist parties, such as Ataka, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, and the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria, routinely resorted to strong anti-Romani, anti-Turkish, and anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric. According to an Open Society Institute study released in June, Roma were the target in 81 percent of incidents of hate speech.

In October 2017 the Burgas Regional Court convicted Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov for abusive and degrading statements against Roma he made in 2014 while he was a national assembly member, ordering him to cease his breach-of-law behavior and refrain from similar infractions in the future. NGOs accused the government of being unwilling to address anti-Romani attitudes and hate speech and criticized the appointment of Simeonov as deputy prime minister in charge of ethnic integration.

There were few prosecutions for hate crimes, and sentences were often short or suspended for those convicted. As of July prosecutors had opened 17 hate-crime investigations during the year and pursued one indictment against one person; the courts issued three convictions, including two prison sentences. On May 12, a Rom, Mitko Boyanov, died in a hospital in Shumen from stab wounds. Boyanov and his older brother had argued with Veliko Lefterov, who had demanded that they stop speaking in Romani. In the ensuing scuffle, Lefterov stabbed Boyanov. As of November, Lefterov was in custody awaiting indictment.

According to the Standing Roma Conference, local authorities disproportionately targeted illegal Romani dwellings for demolition. NGOs frequently petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to order the government to freeze the razing of homes in Romani neighborhoods until authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and sick persons. The government did not respond.

The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multiethnic schools and kindergartens but allows segregation of entire schools. Of Romani children, 30 percent (up from 16 percent five years earlier) were enrolled in segregated schools outside mainstream education, according to the European Roma Rights Center. Romani children often attended de facto segregated schools where they received inferior education. There were instances of ethnic Bulgarian students withdrawing from desegregated schools, thereby effectively resegregating them. Romani NGOs reported that many schools throughout the country refused to enroll Romani students. In June a school in Blagoevgrad announced that it would not enroll Romani students in first grade and ended with no first-grade students. The school director explained that the school had become segregated and she wanted to reverse that trend to comply with the legal prohibition.

According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Romani women were routinely segregated within maternity hospital wards.

NGOs identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes. On September 29, soccer hooligans beat black British citizen Leon Koffi severely in the immediate vicinity of the Ministry of Interior. Koffi sustained serious injuries and required treatment in the hospital for two weeks. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the circumstances of the case indicated it was racially motivated. As of November the case was under investigation.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition. No laws protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. NGOs asserted that authorities often refused to investigate and prosecute homophobia and transphobia because they are not recognized by law as crimes. According to the June Open Society Institute study, the number of hate speech incidents directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons doubled compared with 2016 (from 21 to 42 percent). In February a survey of LGBTI persons conducted by the GLAS Foundation revealed that 73 percent of respondents had received threats due to their sexual orientation, with 60 percent of the threats occurring in schools. Fifteen percent were victims of assault, but none reported the incident to police due to fear of police harassment and lack of trust that the report would be properly investigated.

While reports of violence against LGBTI persons were rare, societal prejudice and discrimination, particularly in employment, remained a problem. According to the youth LGBTI organization Deystvie, courts rejected the right of same-sex partners to protection against domestic violence. On June 29, the Sofia Administrative Court ruled in favor of the right of residence in the country of a partner in a same-sex couple who was not an EU citizen. As of October the Migration Directorate, which approves residence permits, was appealing the decision in the Supreme Administrative Court.

NGOs stated persons suspected of being gay were often fired from their jobs, and such individuals were reluctant to seek redress in court due to fear of being identified as LGBTI. Many health professionals considered LGBTI status a disease, and the general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in refusal of health services, particularly to transgender persons. NGOs complained that most parties in the national assembly, government ministers, and municipal authorities were reluctant to engage in a dialogue on the challenges facing LGBTI individuals and related policy issues.

In May the organizers of a Gender Bender Drag Show in Plovdiv were forced to cancel the event due to more than 150 threats received by the venue owners.

In September a gay couple was assaulted in downtown Varna by four men who had taunted and bullied the couple on their way to a restaurant.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to the government’s national program for HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention and control, “despite the enormous medical progress in HIV treatment, little has been achieved in terms of overcoming the stigma and discrimination [associated with HIV]. Negative societal attitudes have a strong impact on persons with HIV/AIDS.”

In March a survey commissioned by NGO Health Without Borders indicated that 75 percent of persons would not befriend persons with HIV/AIDS, and only 31 percent would communicate with such persons. According to NGOs the general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in denial of health services to persons living with HIV/AIDS.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported that certain print and online media increasingly targeted human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists and deliberately covered the organization’s press releases in a distorted way to portray it as treacherous, biased, and anti-Bulgarian. Bulgarian Helsinki Committee staff also reported receiving frequent threats.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent labor unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, provides that workers may receive up to six months’ salary as compensation for illegal dismissal, and provides for the right of the employee to demand reinstatement for such dismissal. Workers alleging discrimination based on union affiliation can file complaints with the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, which received three such complaints as of October.

There are some limitations on these rights. When employers and labor unions reach a collective agreement at the sector level, they must obtain the agreement of the minister of labor to extend it to cover all enterprises in the sector. The law prohibits most public servants from engaging in collective bargaining. The law also prohibits employees of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the State Agency for Intelligence, the National Protection Service, the courts, and prosecutorial and investigative authorities from striking. Those employees are able to take the government to court to provide due process in protecting their rights.

The law gives the right to strike to other public service employees, with the exception of senior public servants, such as directors and chief secretaries. The law also limits transport workers’ ability to organize their administrative activities and formulate their programs. Labor unions stated that the legal limitations on the right to strike and the lack of criminal liability for employers who delay salary payments are contrary to the constitution.

Authorities did not always respect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Labor unions continued to report cases of employer obstruction, harassment, and pressure on employees, including relocation, firing, and demotion of union leaders and members. Labor unions also alleged that some employers failed to bargain in good faith or to adhere to agreements. In July three physicians from Plovdiv filed a lawsuit against the local polyclinic management claiming that they had been fired for establishing a labor union. They also alleged they had been receiving below-minimum salaries whereas, per the collective bargain agreement, they should have been paid twice the minimum salary. The polyclinic management responded that it had decided to cut the physicians’ positions long before they established the union organization.

Union leaders said that the government did not effectively enforce the labor law. They complained that fines of 250 to 2,000 levs ($143 to $1,140) in discrimination cases and compensation of up to six months’ gross remuneration for cases of unlawful dismissal were not strong deterrents to antiunion discrimination, especially for large or highly profitable enterprises. They also claimed the law does not effectively protect against interference by employers in labor union activities. In its annual labor rights report issued in June, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria saw an increase in antiunion activity by senior national and local government officials.

Judicial and administrative procedures were adequate in settling claims. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that employers broke the law and eroded the value of collective bargaining by letting nonunion members take advantage of the provisions in the collective agreement.

In April amendments to the law gave the General Labor Inspectorate, an executive agency under the minister of labor and social policy, the authority to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against employers who owed more than two months’ wages to at least one-third of their employees for three years. As a result, as of September approximately 80 companies started paying regular remuneration to avoid the risk of bankruptcy.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not enforce it effectively. Penalties for violations ranging from two to 15 years in prison were not sufficiently stringent to deter violations. The government lacked sufficient resources to cope with the growing number of cases of international labor trafficking, while labor inspectors lacked the legal authority and sufficient training to identify and pursue cases of forced labor. According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the country’s institutions focused exclusively on human trafficking cases and failed to identify and prosecute cases of severe labor exploitation unless it fell under trafficking. The government, through its central and local antitrafficking commissions, held forced labor prevention campaigns and training sessions for magistrates, law enforcement officers, and volunteers. Law enforcement officials did not have adequate capacity to investigate forced labor cases, and investigations took a long time.

There were some reports of families or criminal organizations subjecting children to forced work (see section 7.c.). According to the Agency for Fundamental Rights, “children and adults with disabilities are forced into street begging and petty theft.” As of July the prosecution service reported 42 cases of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor exploitation, noting a significant increase from 2017. NGOs claimed government mechanisms for identifying victims among at-risk groups, such as asylum seekers, were not sufficiently robust.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Employment of children without a work permit is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of 1,000 to 8,000 levs ($570 to $4,560). Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations, but children living in vulnerable situations, particularly Romani children, were exposed to harmful and exploitative work in the informal economy, mainly in agriculture, tourism, retail, and domestic work.

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 and the minimum age for dangerous work at 18. The government considered occupations hazardous for children if they are beyond their physical or psychological abilities; expose them to harmful agents or radiation; have a harmful effect on their health; take place in conditions of extreme temperature, noise, or vibration; or expose children to hazards that they cannot comprehend or avoid due to their incomplete physical or psychological development. To employ children younger than age 18, employers must obtain a work permit from the government’s General Labor Inspectorate. Employers can hire children younger than 16 with special permits for light work that is not risky or harmful to the child’s development and does not interfere with the child’s education or training. The General Labor Inspectorate was generally effective in inspecting working conditions at companies seeking and holding child work permits and applying sanctions regarding child labor in the formal sector.

The General Labor Inspectorate reported a 15 percent increase in child employment, mainly due to a lack of better-qualified workers and an increase in job openings in the tourist industry. As of November the inspectorate granted 7,529 requests to employ children who were 16 or 17, and 193 requests to employ children younger than age 16. In 2017 the inspectorate uncovered 95 cases of child employment without prior permission and referred six of them to the prosecution service.

The government continued programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, mounted educational campaigns, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

NGOs continued to report the exploitation of children in certain industries (particularly small family-owned shops, textile production, restaurants, construction businesses, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution, pickpocketing, and the distribution of narcotics).

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation with regard to nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, age, social origin, language, political and religious beliefs, membership in labor unions and civil society organizations, family and marital status, and mental or physical disabilities. Although the government usually effectively enforced these laws, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across all sectors of the economy with respect to gender, sexual orientation, disability, and minority status. According to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the majority of discrimination complaints received during the year related to employment, predominantly concerning persons with disabilities.

The government funded programs to encourage employers to overcome stereotypes and prejudice when hiring members of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities.

The law requires equal pay for equal work. In April the Commission for Protection against Discrimination reported that men received 15.4 percent more pay than women for work in the same position, and there were twice as many men as women with well paid jobs. According to the same report, women were more frequently subjected to workplace discrimination than men. As a result of the gender pay gap, according to the National Statistical Institute, women received 38 percent lower pensions.

Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem. Locating work was more difficult for Roma due to general public mistrust, coupled with the Roma’s low average level of education. According to the National Statistical Institute, 44 percent of Roma with a high-school education lived in poverty, compared with 21 percent of Turks and 7 percent of ethnic Bulgarians.

The law requires the Interior Ministry, the State Agency for National Security, and the State Agency for Technical Operations to allot 1 percent of their public administration positions to persons with disabilities. Enforcement was poor, however, and the agencies were not motivated to hire persons with disabilities, citing inaccessible infrastructure, lack of sufficient funding for modifying workplaces, and poor qualifications of the applicants. NGOs criticized the system of evaluating persons with disabilities based on the degree of their lost ability to work, which effectively prevented many persons with disabilities who are able to work from having a job.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was lower than the government’s official poverty line. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that 31 percent of citizens lived under the poverty line.

The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law prohibits overtime work for children younger than age 18 and for pregnant women. Persons with disabilities, women with children younger than six, and persons undertaking continuing education may work overtime at the employer’s request if the employee provides written consent. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria criticized the law’s provision for calculating accumulated working time, noting that it gave employers a way to abuse overtime requirements and thus to hire fewer workers.

A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, provides employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. The law penalizes labor violations with fines ranging from 1,500 to 15,000 levs ($855 to $8,550), which, according to labor unions, failed to act as a deterrent. In addition to fines, penalties may include administrative provisions, such as suspending operations and terminating the employment of those responsible for the violation. As of November the General Labor Inspectorate conducted nearly 37,000 inspections of companies covering more than 1.5 million employees, identifying more than 135,000 violations and imposing various sanctions, including collecting nearly 12 million levs ($6.84 million) in fines.

Each year the government adopts a program that outlines its goals and priorities for occupational safety and health. The General Labor Inspectorate, which had 28 regional offices, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing occupational safety and health requirements. Persons who violate safety and health regulations are subject to a fine of 100 to 500 levs ($57 to $285), employers to a fine of 1,500 to 15,000 levs ($855 to $8,550), and employing officials to a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 levs ($570 to $5,700). Of the violations identified by the inspectorate, nearly 50 percent involved safety and health requirements. According to the labor inspectorate, its activity over the past several years had increased compliance, with 98 percent of inspected companies in compliance with occupational safety and health requirements.

Legal protections and government inspections did not cover informal workers in the grey-market economy, which accounted for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. In July the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association stated that the grey economy had shrunk significantly over the past three years. In September the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that benefits for employees in the informal economy worth between one and two billion levs ($570 million to $1.14 billion) per year remained unpaid, and called for stricter enforcement of the law and punishment of the offending employers.

Conditions in sectors such as construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation continued to pose risks for workers. The number of work-related accidents registered in the first six months of the year decreased slightly. Equipment and technology safety violations were the most common causes of occupational accidents. The government strictly enforced the law requiring companies to conduct occupational health and safety risk assessments and to adopt measures to eliminate or reduce any identified risks. Some 94 percent of the companies inspected in 2017 had such risk assessments, and 98 percent of them had programs for elimination of the identified risks.

As of October there were 60 work-related deaths, mainly in the construction and transportation sectors.

Croatia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Croatia is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament (Sabor). The president serves as head of state and nominates the prime minister, who leads the government, based on majority support of the Croatian Parliament. The latest presidential elections were held in 2015, and the president was elected by a majority of voters. Domestic and international observers stated that the latest parliamentary elections held in September 2016 and the latest presidential elections held in 2015 were free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included corruption; violence and threats of violence towards journalists; violence targeting asylum seekers and migrants, and threats towards members of ethnic minority groups. Authorities generally investigated, and where appropriate, prosecuted such cases.

The government took significant steps to prosecute and punish individuals who committed abuses of human rights.

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; however, a significant number of cases of missing persons from the 1991-95 conflict remained unresolved. The government reported that as of October 18, more than 1,500 persons remained missing, and the government was searching for the remains of 414 individuals known to be deceased, for a total of 1,922 unsolved missing persons cases. The Ministry of Veterans Affairs reported that in the period from January 1 to October 19, the remains of 14 individuals were exhumed (a 20 percent decrease from the previous year), and final identifications were made for 29 individuals (a 27 percent increase over the previous year). Progress remained slow due to jurisdictional, political, and technical challenges. Government officials met with Serbian counterparts in May to discuss cooperation on resolution of missing persons cases.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports of isolated and sporadic cases of physical and verbal mistreatment of prisoners and detainees.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were some reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: Several prisons remained overcrowded, such as Osijek Prison (159 percent). According to the February report of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), there were still instances of living space below the minimum of 10-square-feet per inmate. Prisoner complaints generally concerned inadequate facilities, quality and accessibility of medical care, and mistreatment.

There were reports of isolated and sporadic cases of physical and verbal mistreatment of prisoners and detainees by correctional officers. Some prisoners and detainees alleged mistreatment consisting mainly of slaps, punches, and kicks inflicted at the time of arrest, during questioning at a police station, and later in prison. According to the CPT, in a few cases, medical evidence supported the allegations. The CPT report on its 2017 visit also included allegations of physical mistreatment and verbal abuse of patients at prison hospitals by custodial staff.

According to the CPT report, inter-prisoner violence was also a source of concern. The report noted several cases involving serious physical injuries inflicted on inmates by their cellmates, including a case of subdural hematoma (internal bleeding around the brain) and broken ribs.

Administration: The Ombudsperson for Human Rights investigated credible allegations of mistreatment, and issued recommendations to improve conditions for detained persons, reduce the use of coercion, and improve investigation of police brutality cases. The Office of the Ombudsperson conducted 26 visits between January and June but reported no significant major system improvements.

Independent Monitoring: The law provides for appointment of independent civil supervisors of police. No members of a supervisory group have been appointed, however, which government officials attributed to a lack of interested candidates. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported progress cooperating with civil society organizations on the implementation of the individual punishment and education programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and the 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, and the government generally observed these requirements.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The national police, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, have primary responsibility for domestic security. In times of disorder, the prime minister and the president may call upon the armed forces to provide security. The intelligence services are under the authority of the prime minister and the president. Civilian authorities maintained effective oversight over police, the armed forces, and the intelligence services. The government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Other than those arrested during the commission of a crime, persons were apprehended with warrants issued by a judge or prosecutor based on evidence. Prosecutors may hold suspects for up to 48 hours detention. Upon request of prosecutors, an investigative judge may extend investigative detention for an additional 36 hours. Authorities informed detainees promptly of charges against them. The law requires a detainee be brought promptly before a judicial officer, and this right was generally respected. The law limits release on bail to only those cases in which the sole concern of the state is flight risk. Authorities allowed detainees prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or, if indigent, to one provided by the state.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Cases of intimidation of state prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers were isolated. The overall judicial backlog decreased 37 percent from 2013-17. As of September 30, the judiciary as a whole had a backlog of 426,763 cases (down from 474,345 in 2017), with the highest percentage of unsolved cases pending before municipal courts.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and the independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

Defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence. They must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. Defendants have a right to a fair, public, and timely trial and to be present at their trial. They have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice or to have one provided at state expense. Defendants enjoy the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Any defendant who cannot understand or speak Croatian has free access to an interpreter, from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and prosecutors may file an appeal before a verdict becomes final, and defendants may file an appeal through the domestic courts to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Individuals may seek damages for, or cessation of, an alleged human rights violation. Individuals may appeal to the ECHR after all domestic legal remedies have been exhausted or after a case has been pending for an excessive period in domestic courts. Administrative remedies were also available. The backlog in domestic courts raised concerns regarding judicial effectiveness, efficiency, and the rule of law. NGOs reported that violation of the right to trial within reasonable time remained one of the fundamental problems of the judiciary. In some civil cases, especially with regard to property, proceedings lasted for more than a decade.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

The government has laws in place to support its responsibilities as a signatory to the Terezin Declaration. The government, however, continued to lack a legislative framework to resolve property restitution issues. Croatia has never accepted restitution claims for property seized during the Holocaust period (1941-45) and has inconsistently permitted noncitizens to file claims.

According to the 1996 Law on Compensation for the Property Taken during the Former Yugoslav Communist Regime, restitution of property seized during the Communist era was limited to individuals who were citizens of the country in 1996, when parliament passed the restitution law, and claims could only be filed within a specified window, which closed in January 2003. Consequently, the law did not apply to persons, including Holocaust survivors, whose property was expropriated but who left the country and obtained citizenship elsewhere. A 2002 amendment to the law allowed foreign citizens to file claims if their country of citizenship had a bilateral restitution treaty with Croatia. In 2010, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot require such a treaty as a necessary condition for restitution. In 2011 the Ministry of Justice attempted unsuccessfully to amend the legislation to reflect this finding and reopen claims. At the time the government estimated the amendment might benefit between 4,211 and 5,474 claimants. The government has taken no subsequent steps to amend the law. NGOs and advocacy groups reported the government did not make significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens.

Restitution of communal property remained a problem for the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia. There have been no restitutions of Jewish communal property since 2014, although several requests remained pending.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. NGOs reported, however, that the government did not adequately investigate or prosecute cases in which journalists or bloggers received threats.

Freedom of Expression: The law sanctions individuals who act “with the goal of spreading racial, religious, sexual, national, ethnic hatred, or hatred based on the color of skin or sexual orientation or other characteristics.” The law provides for six months to five years imprisonment for conviction of such “hate speech.” Conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by six months to three years imprisonment. Although the law and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi- and Ustasha (the World War II regime)-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media. Many private newspapers and magazines were published without government interference. Observers said, however, that information regarding actual ownership of some local radio and television channels was not always publicly available, raising concerns about bias, censorship, and the vulnerability of audiences in the country to malign influence.

On February 22, the Sisak city council prohibited Croatian Radio Television (HRT) journalist Igor Ahmetovic from entering an open city council session for reporting purposes. The Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) publicly demanded Sisak overturn that prohibition, stating the prohibition was a violation of the constitutional right to free reporting and access to information. A lawsuit filed by Ahmetovic against the city remained ongoing at year’s end.

Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported that physical attacks and threats, especially online threats, against journalists had an increasingly chilling effect on media freedom and that the government was insufficiently addressing this problem.

For example, in July the Zadar district attorney indicted soccer player Jakov Surac on charges he committed battery and made death threats against journalist Hrvoje Bajlo. The indictment stated Surac committed the crime specifically because of Bajlo’s work as a journalist. The case was ongoing.

Additionally, in August the Split district attorney declined to press criminal charges against war veteran Stipe Perkovic Tabak for online statements that Index.hr journalists should be killed. The CJA condemned this decision, stating the court allowed Perkovic Tabak’s veteran status to give him immunity.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship for fear of receiving online harassment, upsetting politically connected individuals, or losing their jobs for covering certain topics.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 67 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The government in most cases cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In August, however, UNHCR criticized the government for violent pushbacks of illegal migrants; the government stated that approximately 2,500 refugees and migrants were turned back at the border during the first eight months of the year.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: International and domestic NGOs reported police violence against asylum seekers and migrants, particularly on the country’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

UNHCR and several NGOs published reports alleging border police subjected migrants to degrading treatment, including verbal epithets and vulgarities, destruction of property, and beatings, including of vulnerable persons such as asylum seekers, minor children, persons with disabilities, and pregnant women. NGOs reported several migrants alleged border guards beat them while they were holding their infants or toddlers. One female migrant told NGOs male border police officers subjected her to a strip search in the forest in the presence of adult male migrants.

NGOs reported cases in which authorities kept families of asylum seekers detained in correctional facilities rather than in asylum reception centers. They stated police confined the families in cells for long periods, and children did not have access to outdoor exercise, education, books, or age-appropriate toys. In April the ECHR ordered the government to release one family from detention and allow them freedom of movement. In September the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights called on the government to launch prompt and independent investigations regarding allegations of police violence and theft against refugees and migrants and of collective expulsion.

Domestic NGOs working on migrants’ rights reported police pressure, such as extensive surveillance and questioning of employees’ close associates and family members. Similarly, the ombudsperson’s 2017 report described pressure imposed on her office by some high-ranking officials from the Ministry of the Interior who said she should not have discussed nor debated cases in public. In October the ombudsperson said the Ministry of the Interior had repeatedly denied her access to information on police treatment of migrants. The Ministry of the Interior stated it adequately responded to the ombudperson’s requests.

The Ministry of the Interior publicly denied all allegations of violence or inhuman treatment of migrants and all allegations of pressuring humanitarian workers. In response to a query from the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Minister of the Interior Davor Bozinovic wrote that the Ministry of the Interior investigated all complaints received but had not found enough concrete data to warrant a criminal investigation.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum and refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to asylum seekers. NGOs reported authorities at the border between Serbia and BiH prevented some migrants from applying for international protection, although officials denied these reports.

In June, claiming insufficient evidence, state prosecutors declined to prosecute a criminal case against police in the November 2017 death of a six-year-old Afghan girl killed by a train on the border with Serbia. The ombudsperson publicly called for an independent investigation into the actions of border police.

The Ministry of the Interior, in cooperation with several NGOs, provided applicants for international protection with housing and board, legal counseling, and psychological and humanitarian support. NGOs reported good cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior in the two asylum reception centers, Porin and Kutina, and asserted quality of services was generally good, giving education and medical services as positive examples. NGOS identified a need for increased psychiatric support, including for post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and drug/alcohol dependence.

In August the Ministry of the Interior adopted a comprehensive Protocol to provide assistance to unaccompanied minors.

In November 2017 the government began refurbishment of the Zagreb Reception Center for Asylum Seekers at Porin, which remained operational, transferring some residents temporarily to Kutina Center.

Durable Solutions: The government committed to receive 1,583 refugees and asylum seekers (1,433 under an EU relocation plan and 150 under an EU resettlement plan). As of August the country had received 81 refugees from Greece and Italy and resettled 105 Syrian refugees from Turkey.

The government continued to participate in a five-year joint regional housing program (RHP) with the governments of BiH, Montenegro, and Serbia. The RHP aimed to contribute to the resolution of the protracted displacement situation of the most vulnerable refugees and displaced persons following the 1991-95 conflict. As of August, the RHP had provided housing to 229 families incorporating 510 individuals in the country.

Temporary Protection: The Ministry of the Interior reported that from January to August, the government granted subsidiary protection to 20 persons who did not qualify as refugees.

STATELESS PERSONS

UNHCR estimated there were approximately 290 persons stateless or at risk of statelessness in the country. Many of these persons were Roma who lacked citizenship documents. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for granting stateless individuals residency and eventual citizenship. Leaders from the Romani community reported stateless individuals faced significant barriers to employment, education, property ownership, and access to medical services.

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.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country last held national parliamentary elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2015. According to observers both elections took place in a pluralistic environment and were administered in a professional and transparent manner.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political processes, and they did participate. Representation of women in major political parties remained low. The law requires that the “less represented gender” make up at least 40 percent of candidates on a party’s candidate list, with violations punishable by a fine. After the May 2017 elections, the Electoral Commission noted all major political parties fell short of this threshold, but there were no reports of fines imposed on political parties for this reason.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. State prosecutors continued to prosecute several major corruption cases involving mayors, politicians, and public figures, and the judiciary generally imposed statutory penalties in cases in which there was a conviction. High-profile convictions for corruption, however, were frequently overturned on appeal. Corruption remained a problem, and significant numbers of high-profile corruption cases were underway. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Several corruption cases against former high-level government officials reported in previous years were still pending. In 2017 the Zagreb County Court began trial proceedings against former HDZ transportation minister Bozidar Kalmeta and several other codefendants for corruption charges related to the embezzlement of 2.85 million euros ($3.42 million). The trial was ongoing.

Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic and two codefendants were acquitted October 19 in Zagreb County Court on charges they gave preferable treatment to conservative NGO “In the Name of the Family” in exchange for political support. The indictment alleged Bandic allowed “In the Name of the Family” to use city-owned stalls for free–a benefit worth at least 308,000 kuna ($47,700)–to collect signatures for a petition to ban same-sex-marriage in 2013. Zagreb County Court found the action to be within Bandic’s discretionary rights as mayor. Separately, Bandic was standing trial in a case of alleged fraud, for defrauding the city budget of 25 million kuna ($3.87 million), as well as for several counts of abuse of power and embezzlement.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to declare their assets and income, and government officials generally complied with this requirement. This information was available to the public. Fines are the penalty for noncompliance.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups sometimes operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Domestic NGOs working on migrants’ rights issues, however, reported police pressure, and the ombudsperson’s 2017 report described pressure imposed on her office by senior Ministry of the Interior officials (see section 2.d.). Ministry of the Interior officials have denied pressure on NGOs. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country has an ombudsperson for human rights who investigated complaints of human rights abuses, as well as three additional ombudspersons for gender equality, disabled persons, and children. The law stipulates that parliament cannot dismiss the ombudsperson for human rights because of dissatisfaction with his or her annual report. Parliament may dismiss the other three if it does not accept their annual reports. Ombudspersons admitted this limits the ability to do their jobs thoroughly and independently and imposes political influence over their work.

The law authorizes the ombudsperson to initiate shortened procedures in cases where there is sufficient evidence of the violation of constitutional and legal rights.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and domestic violence. The law was in most cases effectively enforced. A separate law, the Law on Protection against Family Violence, came into force in January. Sentences range from fines to time in jail, depending on the crime’s gravity. Conviction for rape, including spousal rape, is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Conviction for domestic violence is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, and the law provides for misdemeanor punishments and further protects victims’ rights. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a problem.

Police and prosecutors were generally responsive to allegations of domestic violence and rape, but there were isolated reports that local police departments did not consistently adhere to national guidelines regarding the treatment of victims of sexual assault. According to Ministry of Justice data, from the total number of perpetrators (11,506), 68 percent were men and 32 percent were women. Only 7 percent of these perpetrators were convicted, of which; 63 percent were fined or given suspended jail sentences. The government adopted the Fourth National Strategy for Protection against Domestic Violence for 2017-22.

In October the trial of Pozesko Slavonska County prefect Alojz Tomasevic began in Slavonski Brod Municipal Court on charges of domestic violence against his wife, who testified that he almost killed her. Tomasevic was removed from his political party but retained his position as prefect.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes and provides for a maximum prison sentence of one year for sexual harassment of both men and women. The law was not enforced effectively. Protection is also prescribed by the law, under which NGOs reported there were few serious sanctions for perpetrators. The ombudsperson for gender equality reported that in 2017 all new allegations of sexual harassment related to the protection of women. The ombudsperson’s report stated victims of sexual harassment were increasingly filing complaints anonymously, through third parties, or dropping charges entirely due to fear of reprisal.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status and rights as men. The law requires equal pay for equal work. In practice women experienced discrimination in employment and occupation (see section 7.b.).

Children

Birth Registration: Authorities registered all births at the time of birth within the country or abroad. Citizenship is derived by descent through at least one parent who is a citizen of the country or through birth in the country’s territory in exceptional cases.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes abuse of children. Penalties range depending on the crime’s gravity, and include long-term imprisonment if the consequence is death of a child. Child abuse, including violence and sexual abuse, remained a problem. The ombudsperson for children reported that police and prosecutors generally were responsive in investigating such cases.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18; children older than 16 may marry with a judge’s written consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children; sale; offering or procuring for prostitution; and child pornography, and authorities enforced the law. Cases of such abuses were isolated. The Ministry of the Interior conducted investigative programs and worked with international partners to combat child pornography. The ministry operated a website known as Red Button for the public to report child pornography to police. The minimum age for consensual sex is 15.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to the Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia, the country’s Jewish community numbered between 2,000 and 2,500 persons. Some Jewish community leaders continued to report anti-Semitic rhetoric online and in the media and an increase in anti-Semitic and Ustasha graffiti in the streets. NGOs reported cases of violent reprisal against community members who attempted to paint over swastikas.

The Jewish community also stated government officials did not sufficiently condemn, prevent, or suppress Holocaust revisionism.

On April 22, the government held its official annual commemoration for victims killed by the Ustasha regime at Jasenovac concentration camp. The Jewish community, along with the Serb National Council (SNV) and the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters, boycotted the official commemoration for the third year in a row, holding their own commemorations instead. Jewish community leaders said the boycott was necessary to condemn the government’s insufficient response to historical revisionism and lack of progress on property restitution.

Police prevented members of the Autonomous Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP) from entering the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site to hold meetings on April 22 and May 6. Prior to both attempts, A-HSP President Drazen Keleminec sent the media an online invitation that included the Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (For the Homeland Ready).

In June Jasenovac officials condemned a presentation on HRT by writer Igor Vukic in which Vukic denied that crimes were committed at Jasenovac. They expressed concern that state-owned television presented a Holocaust denier as an authority on the subject of the concentration camp at Jasenovac.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services, but the government did not always enforce these provisions effectively. While the law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, building owners and managers did not always comply, and there were no reported sanctions.

Children with disabilities attended all levels of school. They were included in classes with nondisabled peers, although NGOs stated the lack of laws mandating equal access for persons with disabilities limited educational access for students with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Constitutional protections against discrimination applied to all minorities. According to the ombudsperson for human rights, ethnic discrimination was the most prevalent form of discrimination, particularly against ethnic Serbs and Roma.

According to the SNV, the Serbian national minority faced hate speech, graffiti, and other vandalism of Serb monuments, and significant discrimination in the justice system, particularly regarding missing persons and war crimes cases. They also stated that counterprotestors often infringed on their right to free assembly by shouting threats and hate speech during solemn Serb commemorations. The SNV reported police provided significant protection of a recent Serb commemoration in the town of Glina.

The government allocated funds and created programs for development and integration of Romani communities, but discrimination and social exclusion of Roma remained problems. An August study by the Government Office for Human Rights and Rights for National Minorities found Roma to be the most marginalized community in the country, living largely in isolated, impoverished communities without access to basic infrastructure, education, or employment. The study found 28 percent of Roma older than 14 finished only elementary school, 44 percent were unemployed, and only 50 percent had a bathroom in the home.

In a report released May 15, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted an escalation of hate speech in public discourse in the country between April and December 2017. The report pointed out a rise in youth nationalism, often in the form of praising the country’s World War II Ustasha regime. The report described racism and xenophobia against Serbs; Roma; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and refugees in the media and on the internet, abusive language toward the Roma population, and even some physical attacks against those groups and their property. The report said authorities failed to condemn hate speech and promote tolerance sufficiently.

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

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation, nationality laws, housing, access to education, and health care based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Minority groups said these provisions were not consistently enforced. In May ECRI reported the country was becoming increasingly hostile to LGBTI persons. In response to civil society concerns, the government revised the 2016-20 National Plan for Combating Discrimination better to address LGBTI issues.

LGBTI NGOs noted uneven performance by the judiciary on discrimination cases. They reported members of their community had limited access to the justice system, with many reluctant to report violations of their rights due to concerns regarding an inefficient judicial system and fear of further victimization during trial proceedings. NGOs reported that investigations into hate speech against LGBTI persons remained unsatisfactory. Police i