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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch; however, armed insurgents control portions of the country. The country held presidential elections in September 2019 after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission to reschedule the election multiple times. The commission announced preliminary election results on December 22, 2019, indicating that President Ashraf Ghani had won, although runner-up and then chief executive Abdullah Abdullah disputed the results, including after final results were announced February 18. Both President Ghani and Abdullah declared victory and held competing swearing-in ceremonies on March 9. Political leaders mediated the resulting impasse, ultimately resulting in a compromise, announced on May 17, in which President Ghani retained the presidency, Abdullah was appointed to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation, and each of them would select one-half of the cabinet members.

Three governmental entities share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security. The Afghan National Police, under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police, a community-based self-defense force with no legal ability to arrest or independently investigate crimes. In June, President Ghani announced plans to subsume the Afghan Local Police into other branches of the security forces provided individuals can present a record free of allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. As of year’s end, the implementation of these plans was underway. The Major Crimes Task Force, also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The National Directorate of Security functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. Some areas of the country were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Although armed conflict continued in the country, on September 12, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban commenced Afghan peace negotiations. Before and during negotiations, armed insurgent groups conducted major attacks on government forces, public places, and civilians, killing and injuring thousands. There were also targeted attacks on women leading up to the start of the negotiations, including an assassination attempt on Fawzia Koofi, one of four women on the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating team, and two incidents during the Loya Jirga (grand council) in August in which parliamentarian Belqis Roshan was assaulted and violent threats were made against delegate Asila Wardak. Since November 7, unknown actors killed eight journalists and activists in targeted killings, three of whom were killed between December 21 and 24. Many of the attacks were unclaimed; the Taliban denied involvement.

Significant human rights issues included: killings by insurgents; extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances by antigovernment personnel; reports of torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment by security forces and antigovernment entities; arbitrary detention by government security forces and insurgents; serious abuse in internal conflict, including killing of civilians, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture and physical abuses, and other conflict-related abuses; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual abuse of children, including by security force members and educational personnel; trafficking in persons; violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; violence by security forces and other actors against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.

Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious, continuing problems. The government did not investigate or prosecute consistently or effectively abuses by officials, including security forces.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack religious leaders who spoke out against the Taliban. During the year many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Nonstate armed groups, primarily the Taliban and Islamic State in Khorasan Province, accounted for most child recruitment and used children younger than age 12 during the year. Insurgent groups, including the Taliban, increasingly used children as suicide bombers. Antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization workers, and other civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 5,939 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, with approximately 59 percent of these casualties attributed to antigovernment actors. The Taliban did not claim responsibility for civilian casualties. The Taliban referred to their attacks as “martyrdom operations.”

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

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

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Attorney General’s Office maintains a military investigation and prosecution office for cases involving entities of the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Defense maintains its own investigation authority as well as prosecution at the primary and appellate level; at the final level, cases are forwarded to the Supreme Court.

In January security forces in Kandahar Province reportedly killed a young girl and later her father, who approached the local army base apparently to condemn the killing. Security forces did not offer an explanation for the killings. Security forces fired upon and wounded at least one of the community members who protested the killings. Authorities committed to investigate the killings, but there was no update available as of October. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported in March that Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) members killed several locals either after they had surrendered or while they were in SAS detention in 2012. Witnesses alleged that in one such incident, SAS members shot and killed an imam and his son following evening prayers. In July the ABC additionally reported SAS members killed unarmed civilians in Kandahar Province in 2012.

During the year unknown actors carried out a number of targeted killings of civilians, including religious leaders, journalists, and civil society advocates (see section 1.g.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances committed by security forces.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted an increase in abductions of civilians carried out by the Taliban in the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in the previous year, and a fivefold increase over the same period of the previous year of casualties resulting from abduction. UNAMA reported seven adult men were abducted from their village in Herat Province on March 6 and subsequently killed by the Taliban.

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

Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were numerous reports that government officials, security forces, detention center authorities, and police committed abuses.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported security forces continued to use excessive force, including torturing and beating civilians. Despite legislation prohibiting these acts, independent monitors continued to report credible cases of torture in detention centers. According to local media, lawyers representing detainees in detention centers alleged in July that torture remained commonplace and that detainees were regularly questioned using torture methods.

There were numerous reports of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment by the Taliban, ISIS-K, and other antigovernment groups. UNAMA reported that punishments carried out by the Taliban included beatings, amputations, and executions. The Taliban held detainees in poor conditions and subjected them to forced labor, according to UNAMA.

On January 30, a video was posted showing a woman being stoned to death. The president’s spokesman attributed the attack to the Taliban; the Taliban denied involvement.

Impunity was a significant problem in all branches of the security forces. Despite the testimony of numerous witnesses and advocates that service members were among the most prevalent perpetrators of bacha bazi (the sexual and commercial exploitation of boys, especially by men in positions of power), the government had never prosecuted a security officer for these acts, although eight officers were arrested during the year in connection with bacha bazi incidents.

In July, as a part of a political agreement between President Ghani and Abdullah, the government promoted Abdul Rashid Dostum to the rank of marshal, the country’s highest military rank. Dostum had been accused of gross violations of human rights, including the abduction and rape of a political opponent, but the government did not carry out an investigation.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh due to overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and limited access to medical services. The General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Centers (GDPDC), part of the Interior Ministry, has responsibility for all civilian-run prisons (for both men and women) and civilian detention centers. The Ministry of Justice’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Directorate is responsible for all juvenile rehabilitation centers. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) operates short-term detention facilities at the provincial and district levels, usually colocated with its headquarters facilities. The Ministry of Defense runs the Afghan National Detention Facilities at Parwan. There were credible reports of private prisons run by members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and used for abuse of detainees. The Taliban also maintain illegal detention facilities throughout the country.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in prisons continued to be a serious, widespread problem. On April 21, the general director of prisons stated the country’s prisons suffered from widespread abuses, including corruption, lack of attention to detainees’ sentences, sexual abuse of underage prisoners, and lack of access to medical care. Prisoners in a number of prisons occasionally conducted hunger strikes or sewed their mouths shut to protest their detention conditions.

In October inspectors reportedly identified a contaminated drinking water supply at Pul-e Charki Prison. The water was reportedly contaminated by an overflow of sewage at a nearby water treatment plant that was not adequately addressed due to low standards of safety and maintenance.

Authorities generally lacked the facilities to separate pretrial and convicted inmates or to separate juveniles according to the seriousness of the charges against them. Local prisons and detention centers did not always have separate facilities for female prisoners.

According to NGOs and media reports, authorities held children younger than age 15 in prison with their mothers, due in part to a lack of capacity of separate children’s support centers. These reports documented insufficient educational and medical facilities for these minors.

Access to food, potable water, sanitation, heating, ventilation, lighting, and medical care in prisons varied throughout the country and was generally inadequate. The GDPDC’s nationwide program to feed prisoners faced a severely limited budget, and many prisoners relied on family members to provide food supplements and other necessary items.

From March 11 to September 16, a total of 7,237 prisoners and detainees were released from 32 facilities across the country in an effort to protect these individuals from COVID-19 and slow the spread of the virus. At year’s end it was unknown how many were returned to custody. The majority were given reduced sentences or qualified for bail and did not have to return to prison.

As part of an exchange establishing conditions for peace talks between the government and the Taliban, the government released nearly 5,000 Taliban prisoners between March and September. The Taliban released 1,000 government prisoners between March and July as part of its commitments in the agreement.

Administration: Authorities conducted some investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. The law provides prisoners with the right to leave prison for up to 20 days for family visits. Most prisons did not implement this provision, and the law is unclear in its application to different classes of prisoners. Additionally, most prisons did not allow family visits.

Independent Monitoring: The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), UNAMA, and the International Committee of the Red Cross monitored the NDS, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Defense detention facilities. NATO Resolute Support Mission monitored NDS, Afghan National Police (ANP), and Defense Ministry facilities. Security constraints and obstruction by authorities occasionally prevented visits to some places of detention. UNAMA and the AIHRC reported difficulty accessing NDS places of detention when they arrived unannounced. The AIHRC reported NDS officials usually required the AIHRC to submit a formal letter requesting access at least one to two days in advance of a visit. NDS officials continued to prohibit AIHRC and UNAMA monitors from bringing cameras, mobile phones, recording devices, or computers into NDS facilities, thereby preventing AIHRC monitors from documenting physical evidence of abuse, such as bruises, scars, and other injuries.

Improvements: The Office of Prisons Administration dedicated human rights departments at each facility to monitor and address problems.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. Authorities detained many citizens without respecting essential procedural protections. According to NGOs, law enforcement officers continued to detain citizens arbitrarily without clear legal authority or without regard to substantive procedural legal protections. Local law enforcement officials reportedly detained persons illegally on charges that have no basis in applicable criminal law. In some cases authorities improperly held women in prisons because they deemed it unsafe for the women to return home or because women’s shelters were not available to provide protection in the provinces or districts at issue (see section 6, Women). The law provides a defendant the right to object to his or her pretrial detention and receive a court hearing on the matter, but authorities generally did not observe this requirement.

There were reports throughout the year of impunity and lack of accountability by security forces. According to observers, Afghan Local Police (ALP) and ANP personnel were largely unaware of their responsibilities and defendants’ rights under the law, since many were illiterate and lacked training. Accountability of NDS, ANP, and ALP officials for torture and abuse was weak, not transparent, and rarely enforced. Independent judicial or external oversight of the NDS, Major Crimes Task Force, ANP, and ALP in the investigation and prosecution of crimes or misconduct, including torture and abuse, was limited or nonexistent.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

UNAMA, the AIHRC, and other observers reported arbitrary and prolonged detention frequently occurred throughout the country, including persons being detained without judicial authorization. Authorities often did not inform detainees of the charges against them.

Justice-sector actors and the public lacked widespread understanding and knowledge of the penal code, which took effect in 2018 to modernize and consolidate criminal laws.

The law provides for access to legal counsel and the use of warrants, and it limits how long authorities may hold detainees without charge. Police have the right to detain a suspect for 72 hours to complete a preliminary investigation. If police decide to pursue a case, they transfer the file to the Attorney General’s Office. After taking custody of a suspect, the attorney general may issue a detention warrant for up to seven days for a misdemeanor and 15 days for a felony. With court approval, the investigating prosecutor may detain a suspect while continuing the investigation, with the length of continued detention depending on the severity of the offense. The investigating prosecutor may detain a suspect for a maximum of 20 days for a misdemeanor and 60 days for a felony. The prosecutor must file an indictment or release the suspect within those deadlines; there may be no further extension of the investigatory period if the defendant is already in detention. After a case is referred to the court, the court may issue detention orders not to exceed a total of 120 days for all court proceedings (primary, appeal, and Supreme Court stages). Compliance with these time limits was difficult to ascertain in the provincial courts. In addition there were multiple reports that judges often detained prisoners after their sentences were completed because bribes for release were not paid. Incommunicado imprisonment remained a problem, and prompt access to a lawyer was rare. Prisoners generally were able to receive family visits.

The criminal procedure code provides for release on bail. Authorities at times remanded “flight risk” defendants pending a prosecutorial appeal despite the defendants’ acquittal by the trial court. In other cases authorities did not rearrest defendants released pending appeal, even after the appellate court convicted them in absentia.

According to the juvenile code, the arrest of a child “should be a matter of last resort and should last for the shortest possible period.” Reports indicated children in juvenile rehabilitation centers across the country lacked access to adequate food, health care, and education. Detained children frequently did not receive the presumption of innocence, the right to know the charges against them, access to defense lawyers, and protection from self-incrimination. The law provides for the creation of special juvenile police, prosecution offices, and courts. Due to limited resources, special juvenile courts functioned in only six provinces (Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Kandahar, Nangarhar, and Kunduz). Elsewhere children’s cases went to ordinary courts. The law mandates authorities handle children’s cases confidentially.

Some children in the criminal justice system were victims rather than perpetrators of crime. In the absence of sufficient shelters for boys, authorities detained abused boys and placed them in juvenile rehabilitation centers because they could not return to their families and shelter elsewhere was unavailable. In addition some victims of bacha bazi were charged with “moral crimes” and treated as equally responsible perpetrators as the adult.

There were reports of children being abused while in custody, to include girls who were raped and became pregnant. Following the capture of ISIS-K fighters and family members in 2019, children of ISIS-K fighters (including girls married to ISIS-K fighters) were sometimes detained in special centers. The government registered some of these children in school, but most were not registered and did not receive adequate care. In addition child soldiers pressed into service with ISIS-K, the Taliban, or other groups were imprisoned without regard to their age. There was no established program for their reintegration into society. According to advocates, following their interception by government forces, all child soldiers from militia groups are initially placed into an NDS detention facility and are sometimes transferred to juvenile rehabilitation centers and later to a shelter run by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. An estimated 125 children were held at the detention facility during the year, 30 were held at the shelter, and there was no reliable estimate of how many children were at the juvenile centers. Child soldiers affiliated with ISIS-K remained in the NDS detention facility.

Police and legal officials often charged women with intent to commit zina (sex outside marriage) to justify their arrest and incarceration for social offenses, such as running away from their husband or family, rejecting a spouse chosen by their families, fleeing domestic violence or rape, or eloping to escape an arranged marriage. The constitution provides that in cases not explicitly covered by the provisions of the constitution or other laws, courts may, in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence (a school of Sunni Islamic law) and within the limits set by the constitution, rule in a manner that best attains justice in the case. Observers reported officials used this article to charge women and men with “immorality” or “running away from home,” neither of which is a crime. Police often detained women for zina at the request of family members.

Authorities imprisoned some women for reporting crimes perpetrated against them and detained some as proxies for a husband or male relative convicted of a crime on the assumption the suspect would turn himself in to free the family member.

Authorities placed some women in protective custody to prevent violence by family members. They also employed protective custody (including placement in a detention center) for women who had experienced domestic violence, if no shelters were available to protect them from further abuse. The 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) presidential decree–commonly referred to as the EVAW law–obliges police to arrest persons who abuse women. Implementation and awareness of the EVAW law was limited, however.

Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest and detention remained a problem in most provinces. Observers reported some prosecutors and police detained individuals without charge for actions that were not crimes under the law, in part because the judicial system was inadequate to process detainees in a timely fashion. Observers continued to report those detained for moral crimes were primarily women.

Pretrial Detention: The law provides a defendant the right to object to his or her pretrial detention and receive a court hearing on the matter. Nevertheless, lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Many detainees did not benefit from the provisions of the criminal procedure code because of a lack of resources, limited numbers of defense attorneys, unskilled legal practitioners, and corruption. The law provides that, if there is no completed investigation or filed indictment within the code’s 10-, 27-, or 75-day deadlines, judges must release defendants. Judges, however, held many detainees beyond those periods, despite the lack of an indictment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary continued to be underfunded, understaffed, inadequately trained, largely ineffective, and subject to threats, bias, political influence, and pervasive corruption.

Judicial officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys were often intimidated or corrupt. World Justice Project’s annual report, released in July, found that in 2019 59 percent of those surveyed considered judges or magistrates to be corrupt; corruption was considered by those surveyed to be the most severe problem facing criminal courts.

Bribery and pressure from public officials, tribal leaders, families of accused persons, and individuals associated with the insurgency impaired judicial impartiality. Most courts administered justice unevenly, employing a mixture of codified law, sharia, and local custom. Traditional justice mechanisms remained the main recourse for many, especially in rural areas. Corruption was common in the judiciary, and often criminals paid bribes to obtain their release or a sentence reduction (see section 4).

There was a widespread shortage of judges, primarily in insecure areas, leading to the adjudication of many cases through informal, traditional mediation. A shortage of women judges, particularly outside of Kabul, limited access to justice for women. Many women are unable to use the formal justice system because cultural norms preclude their engagement with male officials. During the year only 254 of 2,010 judges were women, a slight decrease from 2019. The formal justice system is stronger in urban centers, closer to the central government, and weaker in rural areas. In rural areas, police operated unchecked with almost unlimited authority. Courts and police continued to operate at less than full strength nationwide. The judicial system continued to lack the capacity to absorb and implement the large volume of new and amended legislation. A lack of qualified judicial personnel hindered the courts. Some municipal and provincial authorities, including judges, had minimal training and often based their judgments on their personal understanding of sharia without appropriate reference to statutory law, tribal codes of honor, or local custom. The number of judges who graduated from law school continued to increase. Access to legal codes and statutes increased, but their limited availability continued to hinder some judges and prosecutors.

In major cities courts continued to decide criminal cases. Authorities frequently resolved civil cases using the informal system, the government mediation mechanism through the Ministry of Justice Huquq (civil rights) Office, or in some cases through negotiations between the parties facilitated by judicial personnel or private lawyers. Because the formal legal system often does not exist in rural areas, local elders and shuras (consultative gatherings, usually of men selected by the community) are the primary means of settling both criminal matters and civil disputes. They also imposed punishments without regard to the formal legal system. UNAMA and NGOs reported several cases where perpetrators of violence against women that included domestic abuse reoffended after their claims were resolved by mediation.

In areas it controlled, the Taliban enforced a parallel judicial system based on a strict interpretation of sharia. Punishments included execution and mutilation. According to UNAMA, in June, Taliban courts convicted two men in Faryab Province of different crimes. In both cases the men were brought before a crowd, and a Taliban member pronounced their death sentences; the men were immediately executed by public hanging.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary rarely enforced this provision. The administration and implementation of justice varied in different areas of the country. The government formally uses an inquisitorial legal system. By law all citizens are entitled to a presumption of innocence, and those accused have the right to be present at trial and to appeal, although the judiciary did not always respect these rights. The law requires judges to provide five days’ notice prior to a hearing, but judges did not always follow this requirement, and many citizens complained that legal proceedings often dragged on for years.

Three-judge panels decide criminal trials, and there is no right to a jury trial under the constitution. Prosecutors rarely informed defendants promptly or in detail of the charges brought against them. Indigent defendants have the right to consult with an advocate or counsel at public expense when resources allow. The judiciary applied this right inconsistently, in large part due to a severe shortage of defense lawyers. Citizens were often unaware of their constitutional rights. Defendants and attorneys are entitled to examine physical evidence and documents related to a case before trial, although observers noted court documents often were not available for review before cases went to trial, despite defense lawyers’ requests.

Criminal defense attorneys reported the judiciary’s increased respect and tolerance for the role of defense lawyers in criminal trials, but defendants’ attorneys continued to experience abuse and threats from prosecutors and other law enforcement officials.

The criminal procedure code establishes time limits for the completion of each stage of a criminal case, from investigation through final appeal, when the accused is in custody. The code also permits temporary release of the accused on bail, but this was rarely applied. An addendum to the code provides for extended custodial limits in cases involving crimes committed against the internal and external security of the country. Courts at the Justice Center in Parwan Province regularly elected to utilize the extended time periods. If the judiciary does not meet the deadlines, the law requires the accused be released from custody. Often courts did not meet these deadlines, but detainees nevertheless remained in custody.

In cases where no clearly defined legal statute applied, or where judges, prosecutors, or elders were unaware of the statutory law, judges and informal shuras enforced customary law. This practice often resulted in outcomes that discriminated against women.

In areas controlled by the Taliban, according to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban established courts that rely on religious scholars to adjudicate cases or at times referred cases to traditional dispute resolution mechanisms. Taliban courts include district-level courts, provincial-level courts, and a tamiz, or appeals, court located in a neighboring country.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban justice system is focused on punishment, and convictions often resulted from forced confessions in which the accused is abused or tortured. At times the Taliban imposed corporal punishment for serious offenses, or hudud crimes, under an interpretation of sharia.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports the government held political prisoners or political detainees.

During the year the Taliban detained government officials, individuals alleged to be spying for the government, and individuals alleged to have associations with the government. For political cases, according to NGOs, there were no official courts; cases were instead tried by Taliban military commanders.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Corruption and limited capacity restricted citizen access to justice for constitutional and human rights abuses. Citizens may submit complaints of human rights abuses to the AIHRC, which reviews and submits credible complaints to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation and prosecution. Some female citizens reported that when they approached government institutions with a request for service, government officials, in turn, demanded sexual favors as quid pro quo.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary interference in matters of privacy, but authorities did not always respect its provisions. The criminal procedure code contains additional safeguards for the privacy of the home, prohibiting night arrests, requiring the presence of a female officer during residential searches, and strengthening requirements for body searches. The government did not always respect these prohibitions.

Government officials continued to enter homes and businesses of civilians forcibly and without legal authorization. There were reports that government officials monitored private communications, including telephone calls and other digital communications, without legal authority or judicial warrant.

Media and the government reported the Taliban routinely used civilian homes as shelters, bases of operation, and shields. There were also reports the Taliban, ISIS-K, and ANDSF used schools for military purposes.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

Continuing internal conflict resulted in civilian deaths, abductions, prisoner abuse, property damage, displacement of residents, and other abuses. The security situation remained a problem largely due to insurgent and terrorist attacks. According to UNAMA, actions by nonstate armed groups, primarily the Taliban and ISIS-K, accounted for the majority of civilian deaths.

After the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and the issuance of the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration on February 29, attacks against U.S. and coalition forces largely stopped, but violence against Afghan security forces and civilians continued, even after the start of intra-Afghan negotiations on September 12.

Killings: UNAMA counted 2,117 civilian deaths due to conflict during the first nine months of the year, compared with 2,683 during the same period in 2019. During this period, UNAMA documented 1,274 civilian casualties resulting from nonsuicide improvised explosive device (IED) attacks perpetrated by antigovernment forces (456 deaths and 818 injured). UNAMA attributed 59 percent of civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year to antigovernment forces, including the Taliban and ISIS-K, 27 percent to progovernment forces, and 14 percent to cross fire and other sources. UNAMA documented a 46 percent decrease in the total number of civilian casualties due to all airstrikes in the first nine months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019, but documented a 70 percent increase in civilian casualties (349) and a 50 percent increase in civilians killed (156) from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force in the first nine months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019.

The AIHRC stated that an airstrike in Takhar Province by Afghan forces on October 21 killed 12 children and wounded 18 others at a religious school and mosque. The mosque’s imam was among the wounded. The attack reportedly targeted Taliban fighters. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh initially rejected reports of civilian casualties, stating the attack had targeted a Taliban installation, but the Ministry of Defense declared it had assigned an investigation team to assess allegations of civilian casualties.

During the year antigovernment forces carried out a number of deadly attacks against religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. Many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks during the year for which no group claimed responsibility. In June, three imams and a number of worshippers were killed in separate attacks on two mosques in Kabul, and seven students were killed by a bomb at a seminary in Takhar Province.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack civilian targets. On April 21 in Nangarhar Province, the Taliban detonated an IED inside a private pharmacy, wounding eight civilians, including a doctor from the local hospital. The owners reportedly had refused to provide the Taliban an extortion payment.

Antigovernment elements continued targeting hospitals and aid workers. In the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented 36 incidents affecting health-care facilities and personnel. UNAMA attributed the majority of these incidents to the Taliban.

On May 12, three gunmen attacked a maternity clinic in a Hazara Shia neighborhood in Kabul run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), killing 24 mothers, newborns, and a health-care worker. No group claimed responsibility. In June the MSF announced it would close the clinic.

On May 19, the Afghan Air Force conducted an airstrike in Kunduz Province outside a hospital, killing and wounding Taliban who were seeking medical care, as well as killing at least two civilians at the hospital.

On November 22, gunmen detonated explosives and fired upon students, staff, and others, killing 35 and wounding at least 50, at Kabul University. During the attack students and faculty were taken hostage, according to press reports. The attack was later claimed by ISIS-K.

Antigovernment elements also continued to target government officials and entities, as well as political candidates and election-related activities, throughout the country. Media reported five staff members of the Attorney General’s Office, including two who reportedly had served as prosecutors, were ambushed and killed in their vehicle in Kabul on June 22. No one claimed responsibility, and a Taliban spokesperson denied any involvement, adding that the peace process had many enemies and that the Taliban, too, would “investigate.” On October 3, a car bomb targeting a government administrative building in Nangarhar Province killed at least 15, including at least four children. Most of the casualties were civilians; no group claimed responsibility. On December 15, Kabul deputy governor Mahbubullah Muhibbi was killed in a bomb blast in Kabul. On December 21, at least 10 persons were killed and 52 wounded in an attack on the convoy of lower house of parliament member Khan Mohammad Wardak. No group claimed responsibility for either attack.

Abductions: In January a three-year-old boy was kidnapped for ransom in Kabul. Businesswomen reported they faced a constant threat of having their children abducted and held for ransom. The UN secretary-general’s 2019 Children and Armed Conflict Report, released in June, cited 14 verified incidents of child abduction, all of which were of boys as young as 11. Of the abductions, 12 were attributed to the Taliban and one each to the ANP and a progovernment militia.

Seven reported abductions of currency exchangers in Herat during the year prompted the currency exchangers there to strike in October to protest.

Antigovernment groups regularly targeted civilians, including using IEDs to kill and maim them. Land mines, unexploded ordnance, and explosive remnants of war (ERW) continued to cause deaths and injuries. UNAMA reported 584 civilian casualties caused by unlawful pressure-plate IEDs by antigovernment elements, mostly attributed to the Taliban, during the first nine months of the year, a 44 percent increase compared with the same period in 2019. The state minister for disaster management and humanitarian affairs reported that approximately 125 civilians were killed or wounded by unexploded ordnance per month, and more than 730 square miles still needed to be cleared, which included both previously identified ERW areas as well as newly contaminated ranges. Media regularly reported cases of children killed and injured after finding unexploded ordinance.

UNAMA reported civilian casualties from ERW in the first nine months of the year accounted for 5 percent of all civilian casualties and caused 298 civilian casualties, with 86 deaths and 212 injured. Children comprised more than 80 percent of civilian casualties from ERW.

Child Soldiers: Under the penal code, recruitment of children in military units carries a penalty of six months to one year in prison. UNAMA reported the ANDSF and progovernment militias recruited and used 11 children during the first nine months of the year, all for combat purposes. Media reported that local progovernment commanders recruited children younger than age 16. NGOs reported security forces used child soldiers in sexual slavery roles. The country remained on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List in the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/. The Taliban and other antigovernment groups regularly recruited and trained children to conduct attacks.

The ANP took steps that included training staff on age-assessment procedures, launching an awareness campaign on underage recruitment, investigating alleged cases of underage recruitment, and establishing centers in some provincial recruitment centers to document cases of attempted child enlistment. The government operated child protection units (CPUs) in all 34 provinces; however, some NGOs reported these units were not sufficiently equipped, staffed, or trained to provide adequate oversight. The difficult security environment in most rural areas prevented oversight of recruitment practices at the district level; CPUs played a limited oversight role in recruiting. Recruits underwent an identity check, including an affidavit from at least two community elders that the recruit was at least 18 years old and eligible to join the ANDSF. The Ministries of Interior and Defense also issued directives meant to prevent the recruitment and sexual abuse of children by the ANDSF. Media reported that in some cases ANDSF units used children as personal servants, support staff, or for sexual purposes. Government security forces reportedly recruited boys specifically for use in bacha bazi in every province of the country.

According to UNAMA, the Taliban and ISIS-K continued to recruit and use children for front-line fighting and setting IEDs. While the law protects trafficking victims from prosecution for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking, there were reports the government treated child former combatants as criminals as opposed to victims of trafficking. Most were incarcerated alongside adult offenders without adequate protections from abuse by other inmates or prison staff.

UNAMA verified the recruitment of 144 boys by the Taliban in the first nine months of the year. In some cases the Taliban and other antigovernment elements used children as suicide bombers, human shields, and to emplace IEDs, particularly in southern provinces. Media, NGOs, and UN agencies reported the Taliban tricked children, promised them money, used false religious pretexts, or forced them to become suicide bombers. UNAMA reported the Taliban deployed three boys in February to conduct a suicide attack against an ALP commander in Baghlan Province. One of the children accidentally detonated his IED before reaching the ceremony, killing all three children. See also the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Other Conflict-related Abuse: The security environment continued to make it difficult for humanitarian organizations to operate freely in many parts of the country. Violence and instability hampered development, relief, and reconstruction efforts. Insurgents targeted government employees and aid workers. NGOs reported insurgents, powerful local individuals, and militia leaders demanded bribes to allow groups to bring relief supplies into their areas and distribute them.

In contrast with previous years, polio vaccination campaigns were not disrupted by the conflict (the Taliban had previously restricted house-to-house vaccination programs). Routine immunization services at health facilities and other immunization campaigns, however, were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and only half of the provinces received vaccination coverage. According to the Ministry of Public Health, there were 46 new reported cases of polio during the year.

The Taliban also attacked schools, radio stations, and government offices. On February 3, the Taliban burned a girls’ school in Takhar Province. In July the Taliban burned a school in the same province after using it as cover to attack ANDSF. On August 20, the Taliban prevented approximately 200 female university applicants in Badakshan Province from taking their university entrance exams by threatening them with fines. Some of these women were ultimately taken to another location in the province to take the exam.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.

Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature was more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms, although the monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law, which provides for public access to government information, remained inconsistent, and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the law, and therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they sought. Furthermore, journalists stated government sources shared information with only a few media outlets. Human Rights Watch criticized the arrest of a government employee who was alleged by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh to have spread false information about the October 21 attack on a school and mosque in Takhar that resulted in civilian deaths.

Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-linked figures attempting to influence how they were covered in the news. The Afghanistan Journalists’ Council said that during the year journalists’ social media accounts were hacked and journalists were threatened by the Office of the National Security Council.

On May 30, a journalist and a driver from Khurshid TV were killed when their vehicle, carrying 15 employees of the station, was hit by a roadside bomb in Kabul. Four other employees of the station were wounded. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.

On November 12, an explosive in Lashkargah city killed Radio Azadi reporter Ilias Daee, as well as his brother. Journalist Malala Maiwand was killed by gunmen on December 10 in Jalalabad, and journalist Rahmatullah Nekzad was killed in Ghazni on December 21. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, business owners, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.

Vida Saghari, a female journalist, faced a series of online harassments, including hate speech and death threats, following her criticism of a cleric’s Ramadan rallies in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, according to RSF.

Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media was also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks.

Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and daily newspapers openly criticized the government. Nevertheless, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. A greater percentage of the population, including those in rural areas, had easier access to radio than other forms of media. According to The Asia Foundation, rural inhabitants primarily received news and information from family and friends, followed by television and radio.

Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats and violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to RSF, NDS officials arrested Radio Bayan journalist Mahboboalah Hakimi on July 1. Two days after Hakimi’s arrest, the NDS released a video of Hakimi confessing to posting a video critical of the president, an action he had previously denied, and apologizing to the president. Following Hakimi’s release, he alleged the NDS tortured him and forced him to record his confession.

RSF also reported that authorities had harassed Pajhwok Afghan News agency, including through NDS interrogations of its director, following its June 22 reporting that ventilators intended to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak had been stolen and illegally sold to a neighboring country.

At least six journalists were killed during the year, and another died under suspicious circumstances. According to the Afghanistan Journalists’ Council, as of September, three journalists were kidnapped, 12 were injured, and more than 30 were beaten or otherwise threatened.

The Taliban continued to threaten journalists, and civil society alleged the Taliban continued to attack media organizations. The Taliban warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.”

Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. A radio reporter was killed in police crossfire during a demonstration in Ghor Province on May 9. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals.

The law provides guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The guidelines created a joint national committee in Kabul, chaired by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported the committee met regularly during the year, referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, and pushed for the resolution of cases, but it did not increase protection for journalists. A journalist advocacy organization reported that due to these pressures and the fact that many journalists were not paid for months at a time, many outlets closed during the year.

Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, there were no female journalists in five of the country’s 34 provinces: Kunar, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, and Uruzgan.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Ajmal Ahmady, Afghanistan Bank governor and economic advisor to the president, blocked journalists on his Twitter feed, reportedly for being publicly critical of him. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. Most requests for information from journalists who lacked influential connections inside the government or international media credentials were disregarded, and government officials often refused to release information, claiming it was classified. Many journalists asserted that First Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s statement that he would hold those who shared “disinformation” on the victims of the October 21 incident in Takhar criminally responsible was a restriction on freedom of speech.

Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe prison sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.

National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.

Women in some areas of the country said their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.

Internet Freedom

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

Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high data prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.

There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment. In June, Human Rights Watch reported that in many Taliban-controlled areas, Taliban authorities limited usage of or otherwise banned smartphones, which generally restricted access to information.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Academic freedom is largely exercised in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there was growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Both government security forces and the Taliban took over schools to use as military posts.

The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies; others provided only religious education. The Taliban continued to limit education for girls, especially for those past puberty. A Taliban commander told Human Rights Watch in Helmand Province, “Women’s education is to be banned [while] our country is occupied.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests and rallies were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. Islamic State actors fired upon a political rally in Kabul on March 6, killing 32 and wounding at least 58, according to government estimates. Islamic State actors claimed to have detonated explosions during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Kabul on March 9, although no casualties were reported.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without a male family member’s consent or a male relative chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. Media reported the Taliban had blocked the highway between Kandahar and Uruzgan and on August 23 had notified private transportation companies operating in the area that the companies would be responsible for civilian deaths should they choose to travel on the road.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Internal population movements continued during the year because of armed conflict and natural disasters, including avalanches, flooding, and landslides. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported more than 172,490 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January to September 20. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. Thirty of the country’s 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.

Limited humanitarian access because of the poor security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived at constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP sites reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors. Severe flooding and landslides on August 26 in Parwan Province killed 190 individuals and destroyed nearly 4,000 houses. Media reported that on August 27, the Taliban killed four civilian internally displaced survivors of the floods during clashes with the ANDSF.

Intense fighting in Helmand Province in October resulted in the displacement of thousands of families over a period of just two weeks, reported the AIHRC. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated 35,000 individuals were displaced but had only been able to confirm an estimated 14,000 IDPs because deteriorating security conditions interrupted phone service and prevented access.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

The IOM reported undocumented Afghan returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 449,213 from January 1 to August 15, with 447,206 from Iran and 2,007 from Pakistan. Registered Afghan refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 551 returns as of August 25, in part because UNHCR suspended assisted returns between March 17 and August 10 due to COVID-19 and border closures impeded travel.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nonetheless, UNHCR registered and provided protection for approximately 170 refugees and 250 asylum seekers in urban areas throughout the country. UNHCR also provided protection for 72,000 persons of concern who fled Pakistan in 2014 and resided in the provinces of Khost and Paktika.

g. Stateless Persons

NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children in the country as a significant problem and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the opportunity to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The right to vote may be stripped for certain criminal offenses. Violence from the Taliban and other antigovernment groups interfered with, but did not derail, the most recent presidential election, held in 2019.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Presidential elections were held in September 2019. Voter turnout in the presidential election of September 2019 was historically low, at less than 19 percent, reportedly due to security threats, less robust campaigning by candidates, voter apathy, the decoupling of the presidential and provincial elections that traditionally helped drive local mobilization networks, among other factors. Additionally, biometric voter verification determined the validity of ballots in 2019 and reportedly accounted for at least part of the difference in turnout compared with previous elections because of the invalidation of any ballot not biometrically verified. According to the United Nations, the Taliban carried out a deliberate campaign of violence and intimidation, including on polling centers located in schools and health facilities. It found these attacks caused 458 civilian casualties (85 killed and 373 injured) from the start of the top-up registration in June 2019 through September 30, 2019. These figures included 100 incidents on the September 28 election day, resulting in 277 civilian casualties (28 killed and 249 injured). According to the United Nations, civilian casualty levels were higher on election day in 2019 than on the polling days for the first round and second rounds of the 2014 presidential election. On February 18, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that President Ghani secured re-election with 50.64 percent of the vote, while then chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s chief opponent, received 39.52 percent of the vote. Although election experts noted technical improvements in the electoral procedures, there were concerns regarding the electoral bodies’ ability to ensure transparency during the results tabulation process. Political campaigns disputed the authenticity of 300,000 votes, of a total of 1.8 million votes cast, causing delays and accusations of politicization of election monitoring bodies. Opposition candidates additionally called for the IEC to reject votes cast at polling places that faced discrepancies with biometric verification of voters. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) investigated approximately 16,500 electoral complaints, ultimately rejecting more than 9,800 complaints, and conducted a recount for nearly 5,400 polling stations. The IEC conducted two audits before finalizing the results it announced in February.

Both President Ghani and Abdullah declared victory and held competing swearing in ceremonies on March 9. Afghan political actors mediated the resulting political impasse, ultimately resulting in a compromise, announced on May 17, in which President Ghani retained the presidency, Abdullah was appointed to lead the High Council for National Reconciliation, and each would select one-half of the cabinet members.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law grants parties the right to exist as formal institutions. The law provides that any citizen 25 years old or older may establish a political party. The law requires parties to have at least 10,000 members from the country’s 34 provinces to register with the Ministry of Justice, conduct official party business, and introduce candidates in elections. Only citizens 18 years old or older and who have the right to vote may join a political party. Certain members of the government, judiciary, military, and government-affiliated commissions are prohibited from political party membership during their tenure in office.

In large areas of the country, political parties could not operate due to insecurity.

On December 23, unknown gunmen shot and killed Yusuf Rashid, the head of the Free and Fair Elections Forum, an independent election monitoring group.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. In the 2019 presidential election, women accounted for 34.5 percent of those registered to vote and 31.5 percent of all votes cast. Absent reliable data, civil society, think tanks, and election monitoring organizations assessed that women’s participation across the country varied according to the security conditions and social norms. There was lower female voter turnout in provinces where communities purposely limited female participation in the democratic process, where lack of security was a concern, or both. Conflict, threats, financial constraints, corruption, and conservative family members put female voters at a disadvantage. There were reports some men declared female voting a sin, and others said women should vote for male candidates. There were reports that a biometric voter identification requirement for all registering voters to have their photograph taken was seen by some as an infringement on women’s modesty and, according to media sources, limited women’s ability to vote.

The constitution specifies a minimum number of seats for women and minorities in the two houses of parliament. For the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the national assembly), the constitution mandates that at least two women shall be elected from each province (for a total of 68). The IEC finalized 2018 parliamentary election results in May 2019, and 418 female candidates contested the 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga in the 2018 parliamentary election. In Daikundi Province a woman won a seat in open competition against male candidates, making it the only province to have more female representation than mandated by the constitution. The constitution also mandates one-half of presidential appointees must be women. It also sets aside 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga for members of the nomadic Kuchi minority. In the Meshrano Jirga (upper house), the president’s appointees must include two Kuchis and two members with physical disabilities, and half of the president’s nominees must be women. One seat in the Meshrano Jirga and one in the Wolesi Jirga is reserved for the appointment or election of a Sikh or Hindu representative, although this is not mandated by the constitution. On July 6, the cabinet decreed that each of the country’s 34 provinces should have one female deputy governor. By year’s end, 14 female deputy governors were appointed.

Traditional societal practices limited women’s participation in politics and activities outside the home and community, including the need to have a male escort or permission to work. These factors, in addition to an education and experience gap, likely contributed to the central government’s male-dominated composition. The 2016 electoral law mandates that 25 percent of all provincial, district, and village council seats “shall be allocated to female candidates.” Neither district nor village councils were established by year’s end.

Women active in government and politics continued to face threats and violence and were targets of attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. On March 22, a gunman fired multiple shots into a vehicle carrying Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of Maidan Shar in Wardak Province, and her fiance. Both were uninjured in the attack.

No laws prevent members of minority groups from participating in political life, although different ethnic groups complained of unequal access to local government jobs in provinces where they were in the minority. Individuals from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, had more seats than any other ethnic group in both houses of parliament, but they did not have more than 50 percent of the seats. There was no evidence authorities purposely excluded specific societal groups from political participation.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Reports indicated corruption was endemic throughout society, and flows of money from the military, international donors, and the drug trade continued to exacerbate the problem. Local businessmen complained government contracts were routinely steered to companies that paid a bribe or had family or other connections to a contracting official.

According to prisoners and local NGOs, corruption was widespread across the justice system, particularly in connection with the prosecution of criminal cases and in arranging release from prison. There were reports officials received unauthorized payments in exchange for reducing prison sentences, halting investigations, or outright dismissing charges.

Freedom House reported inadequately trained judges and extensive corruption in the judiciary, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups.

During the year there were reports of “land grabbing” by both private and public actors. Most commonly, businesses illegally obtained property deeds from corrupt officials and sold the deeds to unsuspecting prospective homeowners who were later prosecuted. Other reports indicated government officials confiscated land without compensation with the intent to exchange it for contracts or political favors. There were reports provincial governments illegally confiscated land without due process or compensation in order to build public facilities.

Corruption: The Anti-Corruption Justice Center (ACJC) reported that since its inception in 2016 to mid-September, the ACJC tried 281 defendants in 76 cases before its trial chamber and 214 defendants in 68 cases before its appellate chamber. Of cases tried in the trial chamber, 199 were sentenced to imprisonment, 23 were fined, and 59 acquitted. Of cases tried in the appellate chamber, 172 were sentenced to imprisonment, 18 were fined, and 24 were acquitted. In January the ACJC appellate court resentenced several former election officials to two and one-half years in prison each, cutting their earlier prison terms by half.

There were reports of political patronage in the government’s COVID-19 response efforts, including accusations of embezzlement and theft of medical equipment by government authorities. On June 22, a media report alleged that 32 ventilators were embezzled from the Ministry of Public Health and subsequently smuggled to Pakistan for a profit. Media reported that on August 24 former minister of public health Ferozuddin Feroz and several former and current deputy ministers were referred to the Attorney General’s Office for suspected misappropriation of funds designated to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Media also reported that in October the governor of Herat Province, the mayor of Herat city, three members of the provincial council, and 17 other top provincial officials were accused of embezzling approximately 20 million afghanis ($260,000) of government funding of COVID-19 response activities. According to ACJC prosecutors, the cases against these officials were sent to the ACJC primary court, but the court sent the case back to the prosecution office to fill investigative gaps. The suspects were released on bail.

Violent attacks by insurgents against judges, prosecutors, and prison officials during the year made members of the judicial sector increasingly fearful in carrying out their duties. According to government and media reports, since 2015 more than 300 judges, prosecutors, prison personnel, and other justice workers were killed, injured, or abducted. During the year, five judges and one administrative official were killed and two judges were abducted. Justice professionals came under threat or attack for pursuing certain cases–particularly corruption or abuse-of-power cases–against politically or economically powerful individuals.

According to various reports, many government officials, including district or provincial governors, ambassadors, and deputy ministers, were suborned. Government officials with reported involvement in corruption, the drug trade, or records of human rights abuses reportedly continued to receive executive appointments and served with relative impunity. On February 6, the Ministry of Interior announced it had arrested five police officers, including Ahmad Ahmadi, the Kabul counternarcotics chief, for involvement in drug trafficking.

On August 17, the primary court of the ACJC convicted a former official of the National Office of Norms and Standards of accepting a bribe of $100,000 from an unidentified company. The court sentenced the former official to 16 years’ imprisonment, a $100,000 fine (the amount of the bribe), as well as an additional fine of 60,000 afghanis ($765) for carrying a firearm without a permit.

There were allegations of widespread corruption and abuse of power by officers at the Ministry of Interior. Provincial police reportedly extorted civilians at checkpoints and received kickbacks from the drug trade. Police reportedly demanded bribes from civilians to gain release from prison or avoid arrest. Senior Interior Ministry officials also refused to sign the execution of arrest warrants.

Financial Disclosure: A 2017 legislative decree established the Administration on Registration and Assets of Government Officials and Employees (Registration Administration) under the Administrative Office of the President. All government officials, employees, and elected officials are required to declare their assets. The Registration Administration was responsible for collecting, verifying, and publishing information from high-ranking government officials. Under the law all government officials and employees must submit financial disclosures on all sources and levels of personal income for themselves and their immediate family annually and when they assume or leave office. Individuals who do not submit forms or are late in submission are subject to suspension of employment, salary, and travel bans. The Attorney General’s Office imposed travel bans on individuals who did not submit their forms; however, the bans were not regularly enforced, especially for high-level officials. For instance, although the website of the Administrative Office of the President showed several high-ranking government officials failed to register their assets, it was public knowledge they frequently travelled internationally. Employment and salary suspensions were not imposed.

As of July 22, the deadline for asset registration, the Registration Administration successfully registered assets of more than 18,000 government employees. Verification of assets was slow and problematic for the administration due to lack of organized systems in some government offices. Public outreach by the Registration Administration allowed civil society and private citizens the opportunity to comment on individual declarations.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses 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 were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Human rights activists continued to express concern that human rights abusers remained in positions of power within the government.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitutionally mandated AIHRC continued to address human rights problems, but it received minimal government funding and relied almost exclusively on international donor funds. On June 27, an IED killed two members of the AIHRC. Perpetrators of the bombing were not identified. Three Wolesi Jirga committees deal with human rights: the Gender, Civil Society, and Human Rights Committee; the Counternarcotic, Intoxicating Items, and Ethical Abuse Committee; and the Judicial, Administrative Reform, and Anticorruption Committee. In the Meshrano Jirga, the Committee for Gender and Civil Society addresses human rights concerns.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW presidential decree was first issued in 2009 and was reinforced by another presidential decree in 2018. Implementation and awareness of the decree remained a serious problem. The decree criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including rape; battery or beating; forced marriage; humiliation; intimidation; and deprivation of inheritance. The penal code criminalizes rape of both women and men. The law provides for a minimum sentence of five to 16 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape, or up to 20 years if one or more aggravating circumstances is present. If the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for a death sentence for the perpetrator. The penal code criminalizes statutory rape and prohibits the prosecution of rape victims for zina. The law provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for conviction of “aggression to the chastity or honor of a female [that] does not lead to penetration to anus or vagina.” Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. Authorities did not always enforce these laws, although the government was implementing limited aspects of EVAW, including through EVAW prosecution units.

Prosecutors and judges in rural areas were frequently unaware of the EVAW decree or received pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes, or because some religious leaders declared the law un-Islamic. Female victims faced stringent or violent societal reprisal, ranging from imprisonment to extrajudicial killing.

The penal code criminalizes forced gynecological exams, which act as “virginity tests,” except when conducted pursuant to a court order or with the consent of the subject. Awareness and enforcement of the restrictions on forced gynecological exams remained limited. In October the AIHRC reported that more than 90 percent of these exams were conducted without either a court order or the individual’s consent, and were conducted related to accusations including: adultery, murder, theft, and running away from home, among others. The Ministry of Public Health claimed no exam had taken place without a court order and the consent of the individual. There were reports police, prosecutors, and judges continued to order the exams in cases of “moral crimes” such as zina. Women who sought assistance in cases of rape were often subjected to the exams.

The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts convicted domestic abusers under this provision, as well as under the “injury and disability” and beating provisions in the EVAW decree. According to NGO reports, millions of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, in-laws, and other individuals. State institutions, including police and judicial systems, failed to adequately address such abuse. Lockdowns due to COVID-19 forced women to spend more time at home, reportedly resulting in increased incidence of domestic violence as well as additional stress on already limited victim support systems. One such incident included a man from Paktika Province who cut off his wife’s nose with a kitchen knife in May. The woman, who regularly faced physical abuse by her husband, was reportedly seeking to leave the abusive relationship when her husband attacked her.

Due to cultural normalization and a view of domestic violence as a “family matter,” domestic violence often remained unreported. The justice system’s response to domestic violence was insufficient, in part due to underreporting, preference toward mediation, sympathy toward perpetrators, corruption, and family or tribal pressure. There were EVAW prosecution units in all 34 provinces, and EVAW court divisions expanded during the year to operate at the primary and appellate levels in all 34 provinces.

Space at the 28 women’s protection centers across the country was sometimes insufficient, particularly in major urban centers, and shelters remained concentrated in the western, northern, and central regions of the country. Some women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution or being sent back to their family or to the perpetrator. Cultural stigmatization of women who spend even one night outside the home also prevented women from seeking services that may bring “shame” to herself or family.

In 2019 the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned for life the Afghanistan Football Federation’s former head, Keramuddin Karim, and fined him one million Swiss francs (one million dollars) after finding him guilty of sexually abusing female players. At least five female soccer players accused Karim of repeated sexual abuse, including rape, from 2013 to 2018 while he served as the federation president. The players stated that Karim threatened them with reputational and additional physical harm if they did not comply with his advances. Women who rebuffed his advances were expelled from the team, according to eight former players who experienced such treatment. Those who went public faced intimidation. The Attorney General’s Office indicted Karim on multiple counts of rape in 2019, but the court sent the case back to the attorney general for further investigation before trial, and Karim was never questioned. Security forces attempted to arrest Karim on August 23 in Panjshir Province (where he was a former governor) but failed after local residents, many of whom were armed, intervened in support of Karim. At year’s end Karim was still at large.

At times women in need of protection ended up in prison, either because their community lacked a protection center or because “running away” was interpreted as a moral crime. Adultery, fornication, and kidnapping are criminal offenses. Running away is not a crime under the law, and both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office issued directives to this effect, but some local authorities continued to detain women and girls for running away from home or “attempted zina.” The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as well as nongovernmental entities, sometimes arranged marriages for women who could not return to their families.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law criminalizes forced, underage, and baad marriages (the practice of settling disputes in which the culprit’s family trades a girl to the victim’s family) and interference with a woman’s right to choose her spouse. NGOs reported instances of baad were still practiced, often in rural areas. The practice of exchanging brides between families was not criminalized and remained widespread.

Honor killings continued throughout the year. In May a soldier in Badakhshan Province stabbed his 18-year-old sister to death in an apparent honor killing after she rejected her family’s proposal for an arranged marriage.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes all forms of harassment of women and children, including physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual. By law all government ministries are required to establish a committee to review internal harassment complaints and support appropriate resolution of these claims. Implementation and enforcement of the law remained limited and ineffective. Media reported that the number of women reporting sexual harassment increased compared with prior years, although some speculated this could be an increased willingness to report cases rather than an increase in the incidence of harassment. Women who walked outside alone or who worked outside the home often experienced harassment, including groping, catcalling, and being followed. Women with public roles occasionally received threats directed at them or their families.

Businesswomen faced myriad challenges from the traditional nature of society and its norms with regard to acceptable behavior by women. When it was necessary for a businesswoman to approach the government for some form, permit, or authorization, it was common for a male functionary to ask for sexual favors or money in exchange for the authorization. In April, Human Rights Watch reported that a government employee, in front of other colleagues, told a woman with a disability he would process her disability certificate, which provides a stipend, if she had sex with him. The employee’s colleagues, according to her statement, laughed and said, “How do you want to get your disability card when you don’t want to sleep with us?” She reported that other women with disabilities had faced similar experiences when requesting disability certificates.

Reproductive Rights: In 2020 married couples had the legal right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. The Family Law (2019), which is in effect by promulgation of presidential proclamation (though parliament has not passed it), outlines individuals’ rights to reproductive health. There were no recent, reliable data regarding reproductive rights in 2020. According to the 2015 Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey, however, only 5 percent of women made independent decisions about their own health care, while 44 percent reported that their husbands made the decisions for them.

Having a child outside of wedlock is a crime according to the penal code and is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment for both men and women. A mother faced severe social stigma for having a child out of wedlock, even when the pregnancy was a result of rape. Intentionally ending a pregnancy is a crime under both the penal code and the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law and is punishable by three months to one years’ imprisonment.

In 2020 there were no legal barriers to the use of any type of contraception, but there were social and cultural barriers, including the social practice of mandating a woman’s husband consent to the use of contraception. There were no legal barriers that prevent a woman from receiving reproductive health care or obstetrical care, but socially, many men prevented their wives from receiving care from male doctors or from having a male doctor in attendance at the birth of a child.

Families and individuals in cities generally had better access to information and better means to manage their reproductive health than did those living in rural areas. According to the United Nations, the rate of contraceptive use among married women was 35 percent for those living in urban areas compared with 19 percent in rural areas. According to the UN Population Fund, 20 percent of women could not exercise their right to reproductive health due to violence, and 50 percent did not have access to information about their reproductive rights. According to the Ministry of Public Health, while there was wide variance, most clinics offered some type of modern family planning method.

The WHO reported that the country had 638 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017 (the last year of reported data). A survey conducted by the Central Statistics Organization in the provinces of Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghor, Kabul, Kapisa, and Parwan concluded that many factors contributed to the high maternal death rate, including early pregnancy, narrowly spaced births, and high fertility. Some societal norms, such as a tradition of home births and the requirement for some women to be accompanied by a male relative to leave their homes, led to negative reproductive health outcomes, including inadequate prenatal, postpartum, and emergency obstetric care. Access to maternal health care services was constrained by the limited number of female health practitioners, including an insufficient number of skilled birth attendants. Additionally, the conflict environment and other security concerns limited women’s safe access to health services of any kind.

The EVAW law and the Prohibition of Harassment against Women and Children Law (2017) contain provisions to support female victims of violence, including sexual violence. In 2020 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was charged with raising awareness of gender-based and sexual violence and providing legal support to survivors. According to the ministry, assistance was usually focused on pursuing legal action against the perpetrators but sometimes included general health services.

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

Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported they experienced discrimination within the judicial system. Some observers, including female judges, asserted that discrimination was a result of faulty implementation of law. Limited access to money and other resources to pay fines (or bribes) and the social requirement for women to have a male guardian affected women’s access to and participation in the justice system. Women do not have equal legal rights, compared to men, to inherit assets as a surviving spouse, and daughters do not have equal rights, compared to sons, to inherit assets from their parents.

By law women may not unilaterally divorce their husbands, but they may do so with the husband’s consent to the divorce, although men may unilaterally divorce their wives. Many women petition instead for legal separation. According to the family court in Kabul, during the year women petitioned for legal separation twice as frequently as in the previous year.

Prosecutors and judges in some provinces continued to be reluctant to use the EVAW decree, and judges sometimes replaced those charges with others based on the penal code.

The law provides for equal work without discrimination, but there are no provisions for equal pay for equal work. The law criminalizes interference with a woman’s right to work. Women faced discrimination in access to employment and terms of occupation.

Female political figures and activists were the targets of assassinations and assassination attempts throughout the year. On December 24, unknown gunmen killed women’s rights activist Freshta Kohistani, along with her brother.

Unknown gunmen attacked Fawzia Koofi, a former lawmaker and member of the government negotiating team in intra-Afghan negotiations, who sustained minor injuries.

Similarly, Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of Maidan Shahr (capital city of Wardak Province), survived two separate assassination attempts. On March 22, unknown gunmen fired on her car; she did not sustain injuries. On October 3, unknown gunmen ambushed her car, but she again escaped unharmed. On November 12, assailants shot and killed Ghafari’s father, an army colonel. The Taliban acknowledged responsibility for the attack. Ghafari claimed the Taliban killed her father to discourage her from serving as mayor.

On August 25, unknown gunmen shot at the car carrying actress and women’s rights campaigner Saba Sahar. Sahar and her companions were injured in the attack.

On November 8, Abdul Sami Yousufi, a prosecutor specializing in EVAW cases, was killed by a group of unidentified gunmen on motorcycles of Herat city. The Herat Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation following the killing.

On November 10, media outlets reported that unidentified assailants attacked and blinded Khatera, a female police officer, for securing a position on the police force. According to media reports, the attackers were tipped off by Khatera’s father. Khatera blamed the Taliban for the attack, although they denied responsibility.

Children

Birth Registration: A citizen father transmits citizenship to his child. Birth in the country or to a citizen mother alone does not bestow citizenship. Adoption is not legally recognized.

Education: Education is mandatory up to the lower secondary level (six years in primary school and three years in lower secondary), and the law provides for free education up to and including the college level. UNICEF reported that approximately 3.7 million children, 60 percent of whom are girls, were not in school due to discrimination, poverty, lack of access, continuing conflict, and restrictions on girls’ access to education in Taliban-controlled areas, among other reasons. Only 16 percent of the country’s schools were for girls, and many of them lacked proper sanitation facilities. Key obstacles to girls’ education included poverty, early and forced marriage, insecurity, a lack of family support, lack of female teachers, and a lack of nearby schools.

Violent attacks on schoolchildren, particularly girls, hindered access to education, particularly in areas controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban and other extremists threatened and attacked school officials, teachers, and students, particularly girls, and burned both boys’ and girls’ schools. In February, Taliban militants set fire to a girls’ school in Takhar Province, burning all equipment, books, and documents.

There were press reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and school officials, particularly against boys. The government claimed families rarely pressed charges due to shame and doubt that the judicial system would respond. There were reports that both insurgent groups and government forces used school buildings for military purposes. School buildings were damaged and students were injured in Taliban attacks on nearby government facilities.

Child Abuse: The penal code criminalizes child abuse and neglect. The penalty for beating, or physically or mentally disciplining or mistreating a child, ranges from a fine of 10,000 afghanis ($130) to one year in prison if the child does not sustain a serious injury or disability. Conviction of endangering the life of a child carries a penalty of one to two years in prison or a fine of 60,000 to 120,000 afghanis ($800 to $1,600).

Police reportedly beat and sexually abused children. Children who sought police assistance for abuse also reported being further harassed and abused by law enforcement officials, particularly in bacha bazi cases, which deterred victims from reporting their claims.

On September 21, police officers in Kandahar Province beat and raped a 13-year-old boy who died of his injuries. The Attorney General’s Office reported seven suspects were in custody at year’s end and that it filed indictments against them at a Kabul district court in November for assault, rape, and murder.

NGOs reported a predominantly punitive and retributive approach to juvenile justice throughout the country. Although it is against the law, corporal punishment in schools, rehabilitation centers, and other public institutions remained common.

In 2019 human rights defenders exposed the sexual abuse of at least 165 schoolboys from three high schools in Logar Province, alleging that teachers, principals, vice principals, fellow students, and at least one local law enforcement official participated in the abuse. The release of videos of some the rapes and exposure of the scandal led to at least five honor killings of the victims. Two human rights defenders were subsequently placed in NDS detention after exposing the allegations, forced to apologize for their reporting, and continued to face threats after their release, prompting them to flee the country. The Attorney General’s Office investigation into the scandal resulted in the identification of 20 perpetrators, 10 of whom had been arrested by year’s end. Nine of the perpetrators were convicted of child sexual assault by the Logar Primary Court, which handed down sentences ranging between five and 22 years’ imprisonment. Another four men were indicted by the Attorney General’s Office in early September of raping a male student. One of the suspects, a high school headmaster, was the first government employee to face charges of child sexual assault related to the Logar bacha bazi case.

There were reports some members of the military and progovernment groups sexually abused and exploited young girls and boys. UNAMA reported children continued to be subjected to sexual violence by parties to the conflict at an “alarming rate.” According to media and NGO reports, many of these cases went unreported or were referred to traditional mediation, which often allowed perpetrators to reoffend.

The government took steps to discourage the abuse of boys and to prosecute or punish those involved. The penal code criminalizes bacha bazi as a separate crime and builds on a 2017 trafficking-in-persons law (TIP law) that includes provisions criminalizing behaviors associated with the sexual exploitation of children. The penal code details the punishment for authorities of security forces involved in bacha bazi with an average punishment of up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Although no police officer had ever been prosecuted for bacha bazi, eight officers were arrested during the year in connection with bacha bazi incidents and charged with “moral crimes,” sodomy, or other crimes.

The Ministry of Interior operated CPUs throughout the country to prevent the recruitment of children into the ANP, although the CPUs played a limited oversight role in recruiting. Nevertheless, recruitment of children continued, including into the ANP, the ALP, progovernment forces, and Taliban. Additionally, the government did not have sufficient resources to reintegrate children into their families once they had been identified by the CPUs.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Despite a law setting the legal minimum age for marriage at 16 years for girls (15 years with the consent of a parent or guardian or the court) and 18 years for boys, international and local observers continued to report widespread early and forced marriages throughout the country. By EVAW decree those convicted of entering into, or arranging, forced or underage marriages are subject to at least two years’ imprisonment; however, implementation was limited.

By law a marriage contract requires verification that the bride is 16 years old (or 15 years old with the permission of her parents or a court), but only a small fraction of the population had birth certificates.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children. In addition to outlawing the practice of bacha bazi, the penal code provides that, “[i]f an adult male has intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, his act shall be considered rape and the victim’s consent is invalid.” In the case of an adult female having intercourse with a person younger than the legal age, the law considers the child’s consent invalid and the woman may be prosecuted for adultery. The EVAW decree prescribes a penalty of 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for forcing an underage girl into prostitution. Taking possession of a child for sexual exploitation or production of pornographic films or images constitutes trafficking in persons under the TIP law regardless of whether other elements of the crime are present.

Displaced Children: During the year NGOs and government offices reported high numbers of returnee families and their children in border areas, specifically Herat and Jalalabad. The government attempted to follow its policy and action plan for the reintegration of Afghan returnees and IDPs, in partnership with the United Nations; however, the government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, many of them unaccompanied minors, remained limited, and it relied on the international community for assistance. Although the government banned street begging in 2008, NGOs and government offices reported large numbers of children begging and living in the streets of major cities.

Institutionalized Children: Living conditions for children in orphanages were poor. NGOs reported as many as 80 percent of children between ages four and 18 in orphanages were not orphans but from families unable to provide them with food, shelter, schooling, or all three. Children in orphanages reported mental, physical, and sexual abuse and occasionally were victims of trafficking. They did not have regular access to running water, heating in winter, indoor plumbing, health-care services, recreational facilities, or education. Security forces kept child detainees in juvenile detention centers run by the Ministry of Justice, except for a group of children arrested for national security violations who stayed at the detention facility in Parwan, the country’s primary military prison. NGOs reported these children were kept separate from the general population but still were at risk of radicalization.

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

Anti-Semitism

There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. Reportedly only one Afghan Jew remained in the country.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination against citizens and requires the state to assist persons with disabilities and to protect their rights, including the rights to health care and financial protection. The constitution also requires the state to adopt measures to reintegrate and provide for the active participation in society of persons with disabilities. The law provides for equal rights to, and the active participation of, such persons in society. Observers reported that both the constitutional provisions and disabilities rights law were mostly ignored and unenforced.

Persons with disabilities faced barriers such as limited access to educational opportunities, inability to access government buildings, difficulty in acquiring government identification required for many government services and voting, lack of economic opportunities, and social exclusion due to stigma.

Lack of security remained a problem for disability programs. Insecurity in remote areas, where a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities lived, precluded delivery of assistance in some cases. The majority of buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities, prohibiting many from benefitting from education, health care, and other services.

In the Meshrano Jirga, authorities reserved two of the presidentially appointed seats for persons with disabilities. By law 3 percent of all government positions are reserved for persons with disabilities, but government officials acknowledged the law was not enforced.

Human Rights Watch released a report in April in which a woman with a disability reported that Herat city offered no disability support services, including technical support for wheelchair damage. She told interviewers she was stranded indoors, unable to access recreational activities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Ethnic tensions continued to result in conflict and killings. Societal discrimination against Shia Hazaras continued in the form of extortion of money through illegal taxation, forced recruitment and forced labor, physical abuse, and detention. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country. During the year ISIS-K continued attacks against Shia, predominately Hazara, communities. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazaras, killing 32. On October 24, a suicide bomber killed 40 persons and wounded 72 others at an educational center in a Hazara neighborhood of Kabul. ISIS-K claimed responsibility. Many of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 26.

Sikhs and Hindus faced discrimination, reporting unequal access to government jobs, harassment in school, and verbal and physical abuse in public places. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, going primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection. At year’s end approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

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

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Under Islamic sharia law, conviction of same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death, flogging, or imprisonment. Under the penal code, sex between men is a criminal offense punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and sex between women with up to one year of imprisonment. The law does not prohibit discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals reported they continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape. There were reports of harassment and violence of LGBTI individuals by society and police. Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent. LGBTI individuals did not have access to certain health-care services and could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Organizations devoted to protecting the freedom of LGBTI persons remained underground because they could not legally register with the government. Even registered organizations working on health programs for men who have sex with men faced harassment and threats by the Ministry of Economy’s NGO Directorate and NDS officials.

Saboor Husaini, a transgender activist and artist, died in a Herat hospital after being beaten by an unidentified group of men December 25.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no confirmed reports of discrimination or violence against persons with HIV or AIDS, but there was reportedly serious societal stigma against persons with AIDS. While the law allows for the distribution of condoms, the government restricted distribution to married couples.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The labor law provides for the right of workers to join and form independent unions and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and the government generally respected these rights, although it lacked enforcement tools. The labor law, however, provides no definition of a union or its relationship with employers and members, nor does it establish a legal method for union registration or penalties for violations. The labor law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Other than protecting the right to participate in a union, the law provides no other legal protection for union workers or workers seeking to unionize.

Although the labor law identifies the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ (Ministry of Labor) Labor High Council as the highest decision-making body on labor-related issues, the lack of implementing regulations prevented the council from performing its function. There was an inspection office within the ministry, but inspectors could only advise and make suggestions. As a result, the application of the labor law remained limited because of a lack of central enforcement authority, implementing regulations that describe procedures and penalties for violations, funding, personnel, and political will.

The government allowed several unions to operate, but it interfered with the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees (NUAWE), forcing its offices to remain closed after several raids in 2018. The Justice Ministry blocked NUAWE from holding a congress, reneged on its promise to unblock union bank accounts, and refused to return confiscated properties until after a union congress. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were sometimes respected, but most workers were not aware of these rights. This was particularly true of workers in rural areas or the agricultural sector, who had not formed unions. In urban areas the majority of workers participated in the informal sector as day laborers in construction, where there were neither unions nor collective bargaining.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The labor law narrowly defines forced labor and does not sufficiently criminalize forced labor and debt bondage. Men, women, and children were exploited in bonded labor, where an initial debt assumed by a worker as part of the terms of employment was exploited, ultimately entrapping other family members, sometimes for multiple generations. This type of debt bondage was common in the brickworks industry. Some families knowingly sold their children into sex trafficking, including for bacha bazi (see section 7.c.).

Government enforcement of the labor law was ineffective; resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate; and the government made minimal efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor. Penalties were not commensurate with analogous crimes, such as kidnapping.

The government prosecuted and convicted two perpetrators of bacha bazi for kidnapping and increased the number of child protection units at the ANP. Despite consistent reports of bacha bazi perpetrated by Afghan National Army, ANP, and Afghan Local Police officials, however, the government has never prosecuted an official for bacha bazi, although the Attorney General’s Office investigated and filed indictments against seven Kandahar security officers implicated in the sexual abuse and death of a boy in September. The government denied that security forces recruited or used child soldiers. Some victims reported that authorities perpetuated abuse in exchange for pursuing their cases, and authorities continued to arrest, detain, and penalize victims.

Men, women, and children (see section 7.c.) were exploited in bonded and forced labor. Traffickers compelled entire families to work in bonded labor, predominantly in the carpet and brick making industries in the eastern part of the country. Some women who were sold to husbands were exploited in domestic servitude by their husbands. Men were subjected to forced labor and debt bondage in agriculture and construction.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The labor law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 but permits 14-year-old children to work as apprentices, allows children 15 years old and older to do light nonhazardous work, and permits children 15 to 17 to work up to 35 hours per week. The law prohibits children younger than 14 from working under any circumstances. The law was openly flouted, with poverty driving many children into the workforce. The law also bans the employment of children in hazardous work that is likely to threaten their health or cause disability, including mining and garbage collection; work in blast furnaces, waste-processing plants, and large slaughterhouses; work with hospital waste; drug-related work; security-guard services; and work related to war.

Poor institutional capacity was a serious impediment to effective enforcement of the labor law. Labor inspectors do not have legal authority to inspect worksites for compliance with child labor laws or to impose penalties for noncompliance. Other deficiencies included the lack of authority to impose penalties for labor inspectors, inadequate resources, labor inspector understaffing, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations.

Child labor remained a pervasive problem. Most victims of forced labor were children. Child laborers worked as domestic servants, street vendors, peddlers, and shopkeepers. There was child labor in the carpet industry, brick kilns, coal mines, and poppy fields. Children were also heavily engaged in the worst forms of child labor in mining, including mining salt; commercial sexual exploitation including bacha bazi (see section 6, Children); transnational drug smuggling; and organized begging rings. Some forms of child labor exposed children to land mines. Children faced numerous health and safety risks at work. There were reports of recruitment of children by the ANDSF during the year (see section 1.g.). Taliban forces pressed children to take part in hostile acts (see section 6, Children).

Some children were forced by their families into labor with physical violence. Particularly in opium farming, families sold their children into forced labor, begging, or sex trafficking to settle debts with opium traffickers. Some Afghan parents forcibly sent boys to Iran to work to pay for their dowry in an arranged marriage. Children were also subject to forced labor in orphanages run by NGOs and overseen by the government.

According to the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, millions more children were at risk of child labor due to COVID-19, because many families lost their incomes and did not have access to social support. Child labor was a key source of income for many families and the rising poverty, school closures, and decreased availability of social services increased the reliance on child labor. Many children already engaged in child labor were experiencing a worsening of conditions and working longer hours, posing significant harm to their health and safety. Aid and human rights groups reported that child labor laws were often violated, and children frequently faced harassment and abuse and earned very little or nothing for their labor.

Gender inequalities in child labor were also rising, as girls were particularly vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture and domestic work. COVID-19 also increased violent attacks on schools and teachers, which disproportionately impacted girls’ access to education and vulnerability to child labor. The UN Security Council reported that nine attacks against schools occurred between April 1 and June 30. Poverty and security concerns frequently lead parents to pull girls out of school before boys.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination and notes that citizens, both “man and woman,” have equal rights and duties before the law. It expressly prohibits discrimination based on language. The constitution contains no specific provisions addressing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, or age. The penal code prescribes a term of imprisonment of not more than two years for anyone convicted of spreading discrimination or factionalism, which is commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. A 2018 law criminalized physical, verbal, and nonverbal harassment, punishable with a fine, but the law remained largely ineffective due to underreporting.

Women continued to face discrimination and hardship in the workplace. Women made up only 22 percent of the workforce. Many women faced pressure from relatives to stay at home and encountered hiring practices that favored men. Older and married women reported it was more difficult for them than for younger, single women to find jobs. Women who worked reported they encountered insults, sexual harassment, lack of transportation, and an absence of day-care facilities. Gender-based violence escalated with targeted killings of high-profile women in the public sector. Salary discrimination existed in the private sector. Men earned 30 percent more on average in the same occupations as women and 3.5 times more in agriculture and forestry, where women occupied two-thirds of the workforce. Female journalists, social workers, and police officers reported they were often threatened or abused. Persons with disabilities also suffered from discrimination in hiring.

The Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Public Health jointly adopted a regulation prescribing a list of 244 physically arduous and harmful occupations prohibited to women and children, of which 31 are identified as worst forms of child labor that are prohibited to children younger than 18. It is not permissible for women and children to engage in types of work that are physically arduous, harmful to health, or carried out in underground sites, such as in the mining sector.

Ethnic Hazaras, Sikhs, and Hindus faced discrimination in hiring and work assignments, in addition to broader social discrimination (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage rates for workers in the nonpermanent private sector and for government workers were below the poverty line.

The labor law defines the standard workweek for both public- and private-sector employees as 40 hours: eight hours per day with one hour for lunch and noon prayers. The labor law makes no mention of day workers in the informal sector, leaving them completely unprotected. There are no occupational health and safety regulations or officially adopted standards. The law, however, provides for reduced standard workweeks for children ages 15 to 17, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and miners and workers in other occupations that present health risks. The law provides workers with the right to receive wages, annual vacation time in addition to national holidays, compensation for on-the-job injuries, overtime pay, health insurance for the employee and immediate family members, and other incidental allowances. The law prohibits compulsory work without establishing penalties and stipulates that overtime work be subject to the agreement of the employee. The law requires employers to provide day care and nurseries for children.

The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime nor occupational health and safety laws. The number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance, and inspectors have no legal authority to enter premises or impose penalties for violations. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for similar crimes.

Employers often chose not to comply with the law or preferred to hire workers informally. Most employees worked longer than 40 hours per week, were frequently underpaid, and worked in poor conditions, particularly in the informal sector. Workers were generally unaware of the full extent of their labor rights. Although comprehensive data on workplace accidents were unavailable, there were several reports of poor and dangerous working conditions. Some industries, such as brick kiln facilities, continued to use debt bondage, making it difficult for workers to remove themselves from situations of forced labor that endangered their health or safety.

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 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the Committee for State Security, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, also exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to the president’s personal command. Lukashenka maintained effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

The country experienced massive civil unrest following the August 9 presidential election as demonstrators protested widespread vote rigging by Lukashenka as well as the government’s widespread use of brute force against and detentions of peaceful protesters. Weekly protests drawing at their peak up to hundreds of thousands of protesters began election night and continued through the end of the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture in detention facilities and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, internet blockages, and the existence of laws regarding criminal libel, slander, and defamation of government officials; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including the imposition of criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws penalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation, including persistent failure to conduct elections according to international standards; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and restrictions on independent trade unions; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always 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:

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

During the year there were reliable reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings and deaths from torture were reported.

In the wake of the August 9 presidential election, riot police, internal troops, and plainclothes security officers violently suppressed mass protests. At least four individuals died as a result of police violence, shooting by members of the security forces, or the government’s failure to provide medical assistance.

For example, on August 10, police in Minsk shot protester Alyaksandr Taraykouski during a demonstration. Authorities’ claims that Taraykouski was killed when an explosive device he was holding detonated were contradicted by eyewitness accounts and video footage of the incident, in which security forces clearly appeared to shoot Taraykouski in the chest as he approached them with his empty hands raised. The Investigative Committee initiated an investigation into the case but suspended it on November 13. As of December a criminal case had not been initiated in this matter.

On November 2, a representative of the Investigative Committee, the law enforcement body charged with investigating police violence in the country, told the United Nations that the committee was not investigating any allegations of police abuse and declared “currently there have been no identified cases of unlawful acts by the police.” The representative blamed protest organizers for using protesters as “cannon fodder” and bringing children to demonstrations.

On November 12, Raman Bandarenka died from head injuries and a collapsed lung after being severely beaten and detained on November 11 by masked, plainclothes security officers in Minsk. The detention and some beatings were captured on video. After being detained for several hours, Bandarenka was transferred unconscious to a hospital in Minsk where he died. The injuries that resulted in Bandarenka’s death were reportedly more severe than those he received during his arrest, and human rights activists concluded that he was subjected to additional severe abuses while detained. Authorities reportedly launched an inquiry into the incident.

b. Disappearance

During the year there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

There were, however, reports of abductions by security forces of opposition leaders. For example, on September 7, masked members of the security forces approached opposition leader Maryya Kalesnikava on the street in Minsk and forced her into a van. According to Kalesnikava’s lawyer, the men first took her to the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption, where she was held for several hours without registering her detention. She was then brought to the central office of the Committee for State Security (BKGB), where she was told to depart the country voluntarily. After Kalesnikava refused, she was taken to the Ukrainian border on September 8, where authorities attempted to force her to leave the country. Kalesnikava tore up her passport to prevent expulsion from the country. She was subsequently arrested, taken back to Minsk, and placed in a detention center, where she remained as of December. On September 16, she was formally charged with “calling for actions that threaten national security.”

On January 16, the Investigative Committee announced it reopened suspended investigations into the 1999 disappearances of former deputy prime minister Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski. In December 2019 the committee also reopened the investigation into the disappearance of former minister of internal affairs Yury Zakharanka after Yury Harauski, who claimed to be a former special rapid response unit officer, stated he participated in the forced disappearances and killings of Hanchar, Krasouski, and Zakharanka. In March the committee again suspended investigations due to a “failure to identify any suspects.” There was evidence of government involvement in the disappearances, but authorities continued to deny any connection with them. In December 2019 Lukashenka stated that politically motivated killings would be impossible without his orders, which he “[had] never and would never issue.”

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

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the BKGB, riot police, and other security forces, without identification and wearing street clothes and masks, regularly used excessive force against detainees and protesters. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. Police regularly beat and tortured persons during detentions and arrests. According to human right nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and former prisoners, prison authorities abused prisoners.

According to documented witness reports, on August 9-11, security officers physically abused inside detention vehicles, police stations, and detention facilities on a systemic scale across the country the majority of the approximately 6,700 persons detained during postelection civil unrest. The human rights NGO Vyasna documented more than 500 cases of torture and other severe abuse committed in police custody against postelection protest participants and independent election observers, opposition leaders, civil society activists, and average citizens.

Among the abuses documented were severe beatings; psychological humiliation; the use of stress positions; at least one reported case of rape and sexual abuse; use of electric shock devices and tear gas; and up to three days intentional deprivation of food, drinking water, hygiene products, the use of toilets, sleep, and medical assistance.

For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 11, police detained 18-year-old college student Alyaksandr Brukhanchik and two friends as they were walking at night in a residential area and handed them over to a group of Internal Affairs Ministry riot police officers. The officers took the students inside a minibus, beat them, cut their shorts in the buttocks area, threatened to rape them with a grenade, and then transferred them to another police van, forced them to crawl on the blood-spattered floor, and beat them again. An officer kicked Brukhanchik in the face. Brukhanchik presented Human Rights Watch with medical documentation consistent with his account.

There were widespread reports of rape threats and sexual abuse by government agents against both men and women, and at least one reported instance of rape against a detainee. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Moscow Mechanism Report, on August 11, a senior officer raped Ales, a 30-year-old information technology (IT) worker, with a truncheon after his arrest. While in a police van, the officer demanded that Ales unlock his cell phone. When Ales repeatedly refused, the officer cut his shorts and underwear in the back, put a condom on a truncheon, and raped him with it. The officer then further beat Ales. Ales provided NGOs with medical documentation consistent with his account. On November 6, Internal Affairs Ministry first deputy Henadz Kazakevich claimed “a man cannot be raped in accordance with Belarusian law.” By law, however, rape of both men and women is criminalized in the country (see section 6).

Impunity remained a significant problem in almost all branches of the security services, including police and the BKGB. Impunity was widespread and continued largely due to politicization of the security services. On November 2, the Investigative Committee confirmed that the government had not opened any criminal investigations into complaints of torture or police violence filed with the Investigative Committee. While Internal Affairs Minister Yury Karaeu apologized in August to “random residents detained during protests,” he justified the brutal crackdown and subsequent torture by claiming police responded to “aggression coming from protesters against security officers” and “protesters building barricades and resisting police.” Karaeu’s deputy, Alyaksandr Barsukou, who visited holding facilities in Minsk on August 14, dismissed reports of torture, falsely claiming no detainees complained of mistreatment.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, published on October 29, the “first period of postelection violence by the security forces has to be qualified as a period of systemic torture and mistreatment with the main purpose to punish demonstrators and to intimidate them and potential other protesters. To a lesser extent, the infliction of pain and suffering served the purpose of gaining information or confessions. The torture or inhuman and degrading treatment was intentional as it was widespread and systematic as well as targeted at the opposing protesters although some accidental bystanders also became victims of the crackdown. It followed a systematic and widespread pattern including Minsk and other cities.”

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 former detainees and human rights lawyers, there continued to be shortages of food, medicine, warm clothing, personal hygiene products, and bedding as well as inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water. Detainees reported that prison officials deliberately denied detainees access to food, water, hygiene products, and necessary medical care, sometimes for several days, as a form of retribution. Overall sanitation was poor. Authorities made little effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but at the same time used COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict access to visitors and distribution of food, hygiene, and clothing parcels.

Overcrowding of pretrial holding facilities and prisons generally was a problem; however, a May 22 amnesty law reduced the terms of at least 2,500 prisoners, resulting in their release. In the three days after the August 9 election, there was insufficient space in detention facilities for the thousands of detainees that were arrested on protest-related charges, especially in Minsk. Detention facilities were reportedly overcrowded with cells fit for five individuals housing 50 detainees, forcing detainees to take turns standing and resting.

Although there were isolated allegations 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. Conditions for female and juvenile prisoners were generally better than for adult male prisoners.

Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care.

Individuals detained for political reasons prior to the election or during protests following the August 9 presidential election appeared to face worse prison conditions than those of the general prison population, including more reports of torture and severe abuses.

Administration: Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and meetings with families were denied allegedly as a common punishment for disciplinary violations. Authorities restricted visitors to all detainees in a reported attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 in facilities, despite the government’s official nonrecognition of the COVID-19 pandemic and failure to implement national quarantine measures.

Authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations, despite legal provisions for such practice. Belarusian Orthodox churches were located at a number of prison facilities and Orthodox clergy were generally allowed access to conduct services.

Former prisoners and their defense lawyers 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. Former prisoners claimed some prison administrators’ repeated harassment resulted in suicides, which authorities neither investigated nor made public.

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

Independent Monitoring: Despite numerous requests to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, government officials refused to approve requests from NGOs to visit detention and prison facilities and speak with the inmates.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law limits arbitrary detention, but the government did not respect these limits. Authorities, including plainclothes security officers, arrested or detained thousands of individuals during peaceful protests and used administrative measures to detain political and civil society activists, as well as bystanders and journalists not involved in the protests, before, during, and after protests and other major public events, including those legally permitted in the framework of election campaigns.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law police must request permission from a prosecutor to detain a person for more than three hours. Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges and for up to 18 months after filing charges, but in some cases authorities detained persons beyond 18 months. By law detainees are allowed prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the state free of charge, although authorities often delayed extending this right to high-profile political prisoners, who faced authorities without the presence of defense lawyers at the initial stages of an investigation. Prosecutors, investigators, and security-service agencies have legal 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 consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. The country has no functioning bail system.

There were reports that persons were detained without judicial authorization.

There were some reports of detainees who were held incommunicado. During the initial arrests following the August 9 presidential election, police precincts fingerprinted detainees and processed them for subsequent trial at holding facilities but left them incommunicado.

In the weeks following the election, up to 80 persons were reported missing but were eventually located after authorities acknowledged their detention or released them. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on August 11, Yury Savitski, a supporter of jailed presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, was abducted by six men in civilian clothing after attending a protest the previous day. His wife sought for days to establish his whereabouts, only to be told by authorities that there were too many prisoners and that many were not being officially registered. She was only able to determine his location and the charges he faced after waiting outside the holding facilities in Zhodzina with a photograph of her husband and asking released detainees whether they recognized him.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained political scientists, political leaders, presidential campaign participants, opposition leaders and members, civil society activists, and demonstrators for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated. In many cases authorities used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after planned demonstrations, protests, and other public events. Security officials arbitrarily detained persons in areas where protesters peacefully lined streets or protests were expected (see section 2.b.).

For example, on May 6, authorities in Mahilyou detained popular blogger and potential presidential candidate Syarhey Tsikhanouski during a countrywide tour to speak with citizens. He had been given a delayed 15-day administrative sentence for participating in an unauthorized mass event in 2019. In response to his arrest, followers of his blog and livestreams began three days of countrywide protests. Security officers without judicial authorization detained and subsequently fined or sentenced more than 100 activists and Tsikhanouski supporters for allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events (see section 2.b., Peaceful Assembly, and section 3).

After opposition leader Viktar Babaryka’s arrest (see section 3), on June 28, BKGB and riot police officers arbitrarily detained at least 52 prominent businessmen, political figures, Babaryka supporters and campaign staff, as well as independent journalists who gathered outside the BKGB building to file requests for Babaryka’s release. Authorities released at least 12 local independent and foreign journalists and 33 other individuals after identification checks were conducted at police precincts. At least seven persons were subsequently tried on administrative charges of allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events and resisting police.

Security forces regularly detained bystanders, including those not involved with protests. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, police detained construction worker Alyaksandr Gazimau near a Minsk shopping mall where a crowd of protesters had gathered. According to Gazimau, he was not participating in the protest and had just had dinner with a friend. When riot police arrived, the protesters started to run, and Gazimau ran as well. He fell while running and broke his leg. Police dragged him into a truck, beat him, intentionally stepped on his broken leg, and threatened to rape him with a truncheon. They passed him to another group of officers, who beat him again, took him to a local police precinct, where they forced him to stand on his broken leg, then forced him to the ground and intentionally kicked his broken leg again. He spent the night in the police precinct yard, and was transferred to holding facilities in Zhodzina prison, where he waited two days in the prison hospital before being transferred to a hospital for surgery. Independent media reported dozens of similar accounts of individuals, who were unaware of protest locations because of the government’s internet restrictions but were caught up along with protesters by security forces and arbitrarily detained.

Pretrial Detention: There were approximately 5,000 pretrial detainees in 2018, the latest year for which data were available. Information was not available regarding average length of time or how many continuing investigations were extended for lengthier periods. Observers believed there were a number of possible reasons for the delays, including political interference; charges being brought against individuals held in pretrial detention and investigations opened; new investigators taking over cases; cases that were complicated because they involved many suspects; and cases that required extensive forensic or other expert examinations and analysis. For example, during the year a former chief engineer of the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Factory Andrei Halavach was in the process of suing the government for compensation for the 4.5 years he spent in pretrial detention. Halavach was released in 2019 with all charges cleared and after being acquitted in two separate trials.

Detainees 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 consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. By law courts or prosecutors 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. Appeals to challenge detentions were generally denied.

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, especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. Courts did not exonerate criminal defendants except in rare circumstances.

There were reports of retaliatory prosecution and debarment of defense lawyers representing political campaigns, opposition leaders, and the opposition’s Coordination Council. For example, on September 24, Lyudmila Kazak, defense attorney for the opposition’s Coordination Council Presidium member Maryya Kalesnikava, disappeared. It later became known that she was abducted off the streets of Minsk by unidentified men and brought to a holding facility. Kazak was charged and found guilty of allegedly resisting detention by police at an opposition rally on August 30 that she had not attended. Kazak was fined approximately 675 rubles ($277) in what human rights organizations and Kazak herself called a politically motivated case in retaliation for her defense work on Kalesnikava’s case.

On October 15, prominent lawyer and member of the Minsk City Bar Association for 30 years Alyaksandr Pylchenka lost his license to practice law, allegedly for statements he made in an August 14 interview with independent media in which he called for legal measures to be taken by the prosecutor general to hold security forces accountable for the severe abuses of detainees arrested during postelection peaceful protests. Pylchenka defended presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and Presidium Coordination Council member Maryya Kalesnikava. Babaryka claimed the nullification of Pylchenka’s license was an attempt by authorities to deny him his rights to legal protection.

On September 9, authorities detained Coordination Council Presidium member and one of Babaryka’s defense attorneys Maksim Znak, along with Ilya Saley, a lawyer for the Coordination Council’s Presidium member Maryya Kalesnikava, after searching their apartments. Lawyers asserted that Znak was arrested in retaliation for his August 21 filing of a compliant with the Supreme Court calling for the August 9 presidential election results to be invalidated due to the widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Saley was arrested two days after Kalesnikava’s abduction by masked members of the security forces on charges of appealing for actions to damage the country’s national security and violently topple the government. Saley remained in detention until October 16, when he was placed under house arrest.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but authorities frequently disregarded this right. By law criminal defendants may be held up to 10 days without being notified of charges, but they must have adequate time to prepare a defense. Facilities, however, were not adequate and in many cases, meetings with lawyers were limited or were not confidential. In some cases authorities reportedly compelled suspects to testify against themselves or other suspects in their case, including confessing their guilt. In these cases authorities reportedly claimed sentences would be more lenient or defendants would receive other benefits. There were also reports of authorities coercing suspects into signing confessions and other statements.

The law provides for the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the lack of judicial independence, state media’s 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. Some defendants were tried in absentia. In addition riot police or other security officers who testified against defendants in these cases did not identify themselves and testified wearing balaclavas due to “concern for their security.”

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, one of the official languages of the country. 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 government 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.

In cases of administrative charges, including participating in unauthorized mass events and resisting law enforcement officers, judges often did not inform detained protesters of their right to defense counsel and dismissed counsels’ requests for additional witnesses testifying at trials. Authorities increasingly used video conferencing services to allow defendants to attend their hearings and trials remotely, purportedly to limit COVID-19 spread in detention facilities. After the August 9 election, however, abuses of this practice occurred when some detainees in the Zhodzina holding facility were reportedly tried “virtually” without defense lawyers or witnesses being granted access.

Some courts questioned the legality of contracts signed in advance between a defense lawyer and defendant or used the existence of these contracts against the defendant. For example, on September 11, a Minsk district court convicted and fined Paval Manko, an IT specialist, of purportedly participating in August 27 unauthorized mass events. Judge Zhana Khvainitskaya stated “the fact that Manko had a contract as of August 3 with his defense counsel demonstrated his direct intention to take part in unauthorized mass events.”

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

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

The local human rights group Vyasna maintained what is widely considered a credible list of political prisoners in the country. As of December its list contained more than 160 names, including the cases of leading political opposition figures and their staff.

In one case, on September 2, authorities detained four employees of the IT company PandaDoc (Viktar Kuushynau, Dzmitry Rabtsevich, Yulia Shardyka, and Uladizlau Mikhalap). Two weeks earlier, the owner of the company, Mikita Mikada, publicly condemned political repression in the country and had colaunched a public initiative, Protect Belarus, aimed at financially supporting law enforcement officers who refused to take part in repression. Authorities charged the four employees with theft, for which conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The charges were widely viewed as both retaliation against Mikada and intended to deter political activism by other technology companies. On October 12, authorities released Rabtsevich, Shardyka, and Mikhalap to house arrest, but the charges were not dropped. As of late December, Kuushynau remained in detention, and Vyasna considered all four PandaDoc employees to be political prisoners.

Former political prisoners continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

Property Restitution

No laws provide for restitution or compensation for immovable private property confiscated during World War II, the Holocaust, or the Soviet period. In 2019 the government reported that, in the previous 11 years, it had not received any requests or claims from individuals, NGOs, or any other public organization, either Jewish or foreign, seeking compensation or restitution of any property.

For information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related topics, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released on July 29, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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.

The law requires a warrant before or immediately after conducting a search. The BKGB has authority to enter any building at any time, as long as it applies for a warrant within 24 hours after the entry.

There were reports authorities entered properties without judicial or other appropriate authorization. In August and September, multiple instances were reported of plainclothes officers forcing entry into private homes or businesses. These officers often refused to show identification or a warrant, or claimed it was sufficient for them to state their affiliation with a government agency and proceed with the entry. On September 7, an individual identified as head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption Mikalay Karpenkau repeatedly struck and broke the locked glass door of a cafe to allow security officials in civilian clothing to apprehend individuals who had supposedly participated in protests.

There were reports that authorities accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority. For example, after the August 9 election, security officials occasionally threatened individuals detained during protests with violence or arrest if they did not unlock their cell phones for review. Officials also threatened individuals at detention facilities with harsher sentences if they did not unlock their cell phones. Security officials reportedly detained or issued harsher sentences for individuals with photos or social media accounts that officials regarded as pro-opposition or that showed security forces committing abuses.

According to the 2019 Freedom House Freedom on the Net Report, the country employs systematic, sophisticated surveillance techniques to monitor its citizens. Surveillance is believed to be omnipresent in the country. Since 2010 the government has utilized the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures, which provides authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and internet service providers. The government also blocked and filtered websites and social media platforms (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). The country employs a centralized system of video monitoring cameras.

State television reportedly obtained state surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts from state security services that it used to produce progovernment documentaries and coverage.

According to activists, authorities employed informer systems at state enterprises after the August 9 presidential election to identify which workers would strike, as well as pressure workers not to join strike committees. “Ideology” officers were reportedly in charge of maintaining informer systems at state enterprises.

Family members were reportedly punished for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. For example, a doctor at a hospital in Minsk, who quit in protest of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in August, said his spouse, also a doctor at the same hospital, was forced to quit. In late August both left the country due to fear of prosecution.

Authorities temporarily removed or threatened to remove children from the custody of their parents to punish them for protesting or political activism. On September 13, the head of the Juvenile Justice Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Alyaksei Padvoisky, told state media that parents who take their children to protests risked losing custody of their children and that such actions would be considered “neglect of parental responsibilities.” For example, according to press reports, on September 27, Herman Snyazhkou was detained at a protest in Homyel. On September 29, authorities raided his home and arrested his wife, Natallya, and took custody of his two minor children, whom they sent to a state orphanage. Natallya Snyazhkou was released after being interrogated and left the country after regaining custody of her children. After serving 14 days of arrest, Herman Snyazhkou was also charged with resisting law enforcement officers and applying or threatening to apply violence and was told his wife was a suspect in the same case. He was released and as of November 15 was barred from leaving the country. Similarly presidential candidates Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Valery Tsapkala fled the country, as did their children and Tsapkala’s wife, after reported intimidation and threats to strip custody of their children from them.

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and selectively 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 Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.

Since May the government undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression. The government harassed bloggers and social media users, detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in June authorities detained Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, and charged them with “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their opposition political commentary.

Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in 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. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.

The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations.” On March 12, a Minsk district court tried in absentia video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich on charges of calling individuals to participate in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 15 days of arrest. In a video Tsyhanovich reportedly urged supporters to show up at the state-run Belneftekhim headquarters to protest increased gas prices starting on February 25. On June 9, police detained Tsyhanovich to serve his sentence and on June 15, he was given an additional 15-day sentence for participating unauthorized mass event on May 31. On June 26, human rights groups reported that authorities charged Tsyhanovich with organizing or participating in activities that grossly violate public orders and are connected with resisting authorities’ orders. He remained in detention at year’s end on those charges.

On November 12, a court in Drahichyn fined a local resident 999 rubles ($410) for calling to assemble in the city center on October 15. Police detained the resident on the same day. He was released, but the charges remained pending the result of court hearings.

The government prohibits “extremist” information, which is defined as information materials–including printed, audio, visual, video materials, placards, posters, banners and other visuals–intended for public usage or distribution and seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.

On October 20, a Minsk district court recognized Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by pro-opposition Belarusians to organize protests, and its logo as extremist, alleging it promoted mass riots and disorder in addition to distributing other “extremist” materials (see Internet Freedom, below). In addition the government charged the channel’s founder, Stsyapan Putsila, and its former editor, Raman Pratasevich, with organizing mass riots, organizing a group activity grossly violating public order, and inciting hatred based on professional duties, in particular against law enforcement officers and public servants. Both individuals were outside Belarus but were put on the country’s wanted list. The government also prohibits content that promotes violence or war; contains information regarding illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; involves trafficking in persons or pornography; or that may harm the national interests of the country.

The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it only allows registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.

The government prohibits the spread of “fake news” on the internet but did not enforce the prohibition against regular citizens.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. 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 the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.

On October 2, authorities cancelled the accreditation of all foreign press representatives as part of a process they claimed was an effort to update the accreditation process for foreign press. Prior to the cancellation, in August authorities had already begun cancelling foreign press accreditations, including those of the BBC, Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, the German ARD television channel, Deutsche Welle, the French Agence France-Presse news agency, Reuters, and Russian TV Rain. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant accreditation to dozens of foreign correspondents who filed paperwork seeking to cover the August 9 presidential election. Some correspondents were reaccredited, with journalists from Deutsche Welle and BBC among the first, but a number of Belarusian-based freelance journalists were not.

Prior to the October 2 cancellation of foreign press accreditations, authorities refused to accredit some foreign media outlets, such as Polish-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined unaccredited freelance journalists working for these outlets. As of December 10, at least 17 journalists were fined in 30 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. Most of the fines in connection to accreditation or registration were levied on journalists working for Belsat Television.

Authorities deported some members of the foreign press. For example, on August 29, authorities deported two Moscow-based Associated Press correspondents as part of a series of actions that decreased the number of independent correspondents in the country.

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. Regulations also 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. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations. After a number of state television personnel resigned in protest over the allegations of presidential election fraud and subsequent police violence starting in August, Lukashenka requested assistance from the Russian state media organization RT. Starting August 17, Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press while authorities suppressed domestic independent voices and pressured the state journalists who had resigned. After August 17, representatives of Russian state-media organizations generally faced less pressure from authorities, when RT began supporting and controlling Belarusian domestic state media.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, in particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover pre- and postelection demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country and at times used violence against journalists and brought false allegations against them. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 500 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and short-term jail sentences. These cases were reportedly in connection to journalists’ alleged participation in unauthorized mass events, livestreaming demonstrations, or working without accreditation for foreign media. On October 12, the Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement noting that the situation for journalists in the country had gone “from grave to catastrophic” due to violence and other forms of pressure on journalists.

In one example of government pressure, on June 20, police detained two journalists of the independent Hantsavitski Chas newspaper, Alyaksandr Pazniak and Syarhey Bahrou, during a live stream in Hantsavichy. At the local police department, Pazniak was reportedly beaten and threatened. Authorities charged the two with resisting police and participating in unauthorized mass events. On June 22, a local court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days of arrest and fined Pazniak 810 rubles ($332).

There were reports that security forces deliberately targeted members of the press for violence during demonstrations. For example, on August 10, security officers were reported to have targeted and dispersed a group of correspondents covering postelection protests who were clearly marked as press and wearing corresponding vests and badges. Officers fired rubber bullets, injuring independent newspaper Nasha Niva journalist Natallya Lubneuskaya, who was hospitalized for more than a month.

There were reports that some journalists were seriously abused during detention. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, an unaccredited 33-year-old journalist with the Poland-based television station Belsat, Vitaliy Dubikov was on his way to a work assignment in Minsk when two police officers stopped him and searched his belongings. Upon finding a camera and microphone with a Belsat logo, they forced him into a tiny compartment in a police van and took him to a Minsk police precinct, where riot police beat him and other detainees with truncheons, ordered them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. Dubikov and other detainees spent the night outdoors, first flat on the ground then kneeling against a wall. In the morning he was crammed into a police van with other detainees and held there for several hours without food, water, or ventilation. On August 14, Dubikov was released without charges.

Security officials also confiscated or deliberately broke journalists’ video and audio equipment. For example, according to press reports, on August 11, security forces approached Associated Press photographer Syarhey Hryts and several colleagues while they were covering police dispersing a demonstration. According to Hryts, riot police, who were not wearing any identifying symbols, swarmed them, seized the memory sticks from their equipment, and smashed his camera.

The government reportedly prosecuted journalists in retaliation for the content of their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 25, officers of the State Control Committee detained Syarhey Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after searching his offices and seizing documents. Satsuk had heavily criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption in the health-care system. He was charged with accepting a bribe, which Reporters without Borders called retaliation for an editorial casting doubt on the official COVID-19 statistics and criticizing an order issued by Lukashenka to “deal with” media outlets that are “sowing panic” regarding the epidemic. On April 4, he was released on his own recognizance; the government investigation continued as of November.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The threat of government retaliation led the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see Internet Freedom, below).

The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines (see Freedom of Speech, above). Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad.

The government reportedly failed to reply to requests for information, and some outlets were believed to have held back coverage to avoid punishment for publishing incorrect information.

Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings, controls on the size of press runs of newspapers, and inflated costs for printing. For example, after popular opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the nonstate daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (the local branch of the mass-market Russian tabloid) extensively covered violence and beatings of protesters in the days after the election, authorities began censoring further daily editions by blocking printing through two state-run distribution systems, the retail kiosk network Belsayuzdruk and the postal subscription service.

The government controlled printing presses in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a few days after the protests began, the state publishing house began to refuse to print independent newspapers, citing an array of “technical problems,” including lack of materials and broken equipment, which observers believed were pretexts for the refusals. The CPJ noted that, on the same day that an independent newspaper was denied the ability to print an edition with a white-red-white flag on the cover (the symbol of anti-Lukashenka protests), a state-controlled newspaper was able to print an edition featuring an interview with a pro-Lukashenka singer.

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. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of 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 for defamation.

On September 23, officers of the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich, searched his apartment, and confiscated computer equipment. Authorities released Martsinovich after detaining him for 72 hours, but he remained charged with libel against Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou in connection to an interview the newspaper published in which Barsukou was accused of beating detainees inside holding facilities.

National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, authorities detained lawyer Maksim Znak, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council. He was charged with “calling for actions aimed at harming national security.” Other members of the Coordination Council were also charged with similar offenses. The case was widely believed to be retaliation for Znak’s political activism.

Internet Freedom

The government monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without judicial oversight. All internet service providers must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year. Companies were also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.

The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the 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 claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.

Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.

Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. From August 9 to August 12, internet access in the country was severely restricted for approximately 61 hours. Only intermittent text messages and voice calls worked for most individuals. While authorities blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions, independent experts attributed the disruptions to the government. Starting in August, there were repeated internet disruptions and complete internet shutdowns, usually coinciding with major protests and police actions to disperse them. Private internet service providers notified customers that the shutdowns were requested by the government on national security grounds. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations occurred.

Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). 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 have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”

There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online. On October 20, a Minsk district court ruled the Telegram channel NEXTA Live and its NEXTA logo were “extremist” and subsequently restricted access to information resources using its name. According to state-run media outlet BelTA’s announcement, the decision was made in response to the finding of “extremist activities” on the Telegram channel, including calls for “organization and public appeals to stage mass riots.” NEXTA, an encrypted channel, was a leading source of information on events in the country and published suggestions for protest routes and meeting points.

Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online. For example, on June 25, security forces raided the home of Ihar Losik, the administrator of the popular opposition Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain. He was charged with “actions that gravely violate public order,” which carries up to three years in prison if convicted, and as of November, remained in pretrial detention. Observers believed the charges to be in retaliation for his moderation of the opposition Telegram channel.

Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The 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.

By law, the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.

Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on users who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violations of the edict was punishable by prison sentences, although no such violations were prosecuted. These government efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages were attacked after the August 9 presidential election, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.

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 Alyaksandr 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 principals.

The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions. For example, on August 31, the minister of culture dismissed the head of the Institute of Culture and Arts for purportedly failing to prevent students from protesting. The minister of health care replaced the heads of medical schools in Hrodna, Homyel, and Minsk after a number of doctors, medical professors, and students organized a series of protests in August.

The government restricted artistic presentations or other cultural activities. For example, in September authorities cancelled all shows at the local drama theater in Hrodna, citing the rise in COVID-19 cases, and dismissed at least two leading actors after the troupe stopped a show as a protest against the September 20 detentions of their colleagues at a local demonstration. Observers believed that the cancellation of the shows was in retaliation for the troupe’s actions, since the government did not require all theatres to cancel their shows during the COVID-19 pandemic.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and 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.

The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions of some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.

Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals may not act as mass event organizers. Individuals who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from the imposition of the fine.

The law requires 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 must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.

The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,290 rubles ($2,990); at a nondesignated venue, the price is 1.5 times higher.

Authorities often formulated pretexts to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example, on July 30, opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rally in Minsk drew 63,000 participants, making it the largest campaign rally since the country’s independence. Tsikhanouskaya was subsequently blocked from holding additional campaign rallies by local Minsk authorities. On August 2, authorities announced that state events would take place every evening at every permitted campaign rally location between August 2 and August 8, despite the fact that Tsikhanouskaya had submitted an application in mid-July to hold rallies at locations in Minsk on August 5 and August 8.

Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. For example, on October 27, a Minsk district court sentenced Zmitser Dashkevich, an opposition and civil society activist and former leader of the Malady Front opposition youth group, to 15 days’ imprisonment after being detained at an October 25 protest. Dashkevich was a key organizer of the Night of Assassinated Poets, an annual opposition commemorative event held October 29 at the Stalinist mass-killings site at Kurapaty to honor more than a hundred Belarusian poets, writers, and public figures killed in 1937.

During the year local authorities countrywide delayed answering or rejected applications for permission to stage various demonstrations. For example, during the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without government approval.

Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished at a later date.

Between August and December, police detained more than 30,000 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals detained during protests. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences of 10 to 15 days, or both. Police also opened at least 900 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between August 9 and December. In June and July, plainclothes and uniformed security officials also arbitrarily detained demonstrators who peacefully stood in lines along roads in many cities, with particular focus paid to individuals wearing opposition symbols or flying the white-red-white opposition-affiliated flag. Nondemonstrators were also detained by police. Other than during the mass detentions on August 9-11, the majority of individuals who were detained before and after the election were registered by police and released the same or next day, although authorities had the ability to apply short-term jail sentences at later dates.

Authorities detained a number of protest leaders, opposition members, and activists and jailed them for initial short-term sentences, then applied additional charges from earlier detentions to keep them jailed for longer periods of time. For example, after his May 6 arrest for participating in an unauthorized 2019 mass event, on May 29, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy. On June 8, Tsikhanouski and six other detainees were charged with “disturbing public order” and “obstructing elections.” On June 16, a criminal case was opened against him for allegedly interfering in the election process and hindering the work of the Central Election Commission. On July 30, authorities announced additional criminal charges against Tsikhanouski, alleging “preparation for mass riots” and an investigation into charges of incitement of violence against police. As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in prison while investigations into these criminal charges proceeded (see also sections 1.d. and 3).

Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations.

On October 12, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Henadz Kazakevich stated that law enforcement bodies would use “special equipment and lethal weapons if need be” to “guarantee the law in the country.” Authorities used live ammunition in a few isolated instances, which led to the death of two protesters (see section 1.a.).

Human rights groups reported authorities sought to mark or tag protesters who had opposition symbols, chanted pro-opposition slogans, or resisted arrest. Water in water cannons was also reportedly dyed to allow identification of protesters later. Authorities reportedly singled out marked individuals for higher levels of physical and psychological abuse in detention facilities.

Plainclothes officers detained individuals with opposition symbols or who had been identified as protest participants or police claimed were protest leaders. When faced with large crowds at unauthorized mass events, plainclothes officers detained, and sometimes beat, suspected rally participants at random along the periphery of events and forced many into unmarked vehicles. From May to December, masked plainclothes police officers often did not announce themselves or present documentation.

In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms under criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. From August 9-11, isolated instances of demonstrators throwing rocks, firecrackers, or Molotov cocktails were filmed by media. Rock throwing also reportedly occurred during protests September 23 after Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported at least 10 instances of motorists hitting police from August 10-12. After August 11, the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful and instances of violence on the part of demonstrators appeared to follow police use of force or violent detentions, especially by masked plainclothes officers. From June through November, isolated fist fights between security officers and demonstrators or attempts by demonstrators to resist arrest occurred in various cities, generally following security officer attempts to arbitrarily detain protesters or disperse peaceful crowds.

For example, on September 29, the Maladzechna Regional Court convicted and sentenced local residents Paval Piaskou and Uladzislau Eustsyahneyeu to up to three years and three months in a low-security prison. Authorities charged them with resisting riot police when on June 19 they attempted to prevent police from detaining a protester.

Since early May the Investigative Committee of Belarus initiated at least 900 criminal cases against individuals who were detained during protests on charges including participation in mass disturbances or riots, causing harm to national security, resistance, and violence or threat of violence against an official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hooliganism, incitement to hostility or hatred, and organization of or participation in actions violating public order. For example, investigators charged at least 231 individuals for allegedly organizing or participating in actions violating public order after detaining them at a protest on November 1. According to the report, this indicated a return to government criminalization of peaceful protests.

Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. 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, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. For example, in April administrators expelled a fourth-year student at Minsk State Linguistic University for allegedly not attending classes. The student claimed she was in a two-week quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. The student was a member of the executive board of the opposition-affiliated Union of Belarusian Students. From March 20 to March 23, she protested alongside other students near the university, handed out free medical masks, and chanted, “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!” a criticism of authorities’ COVID-19 response. The student claimed the university administration’s decision to expel her was a politically motivated. From October to December, more than 140 students were reportedly expelled due to their political views.

Freedom of Association

All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be 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–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.

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.

On August 27, a presidential decree on foreign aid entered into force. The decree provides that 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 Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside of a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt categories and taxable categories, that latter of which would require a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduced penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.

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 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 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.

Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. At its formation on August 18, the group had approximately 70 members, seven of which were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were in prison.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. Following the presidential election, the government increased restrictions on the ability of Belarusians to return home from abroad.

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.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the country, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was barred from re-entering the country in late August as he returned from church business in Poland. The archbishop had spoken out against police violence and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit arrested peaceful protesters. Authorities claimed they placed the archbishop on a nonentry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. By law citizenship may not be revoked if a citizen only has Belarusian citizenship and has no claim to another citizenship. Entry may not legally be denied to Belarusian citizens. In late December the archbishop was allowed to reenter the country.

On October 29, authorities abruptly closed the border with Poland and Lithuania, restricting entry into the country. On November 1, authorities temporarily closed all land borders to regular travelers, ostensibly to curtail rising COVID-19 infections. Lukashenka previewed the move in a September 17 speech, in which he did not mention COVID-19 but threatened to close the country’s Western borders because of what he purportedly saw as hostile actions from neighboring democratic governments, in particular Poland and Lithuania. On November 5, authorities further tightened restrictions, primarily against foreigners, but in some cases authorities restricted Belarusian citizens from entering the country, which observers stated was counter to the constitution. In early December the government imposed exit restrictions on citizens seeking to leave by land, reportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the country; NGOs and activists claimed that these closures restricted options for those seeking to leave the country. On December 20, these measures went into effect and restricted the frequency of departures and the categories for persons who could depart. Authorities kept airports open to international travel during this period, although limited availability and high prices imposed costs and restricted options for those seeking to leave the country.

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, particularly after the August 9 election. Some others were in self-imposed exile or were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.

In July presidential hopeful Valery Tsapkala fled the country with his children, reportedly fearing arrest after other presidential candidates were detained in May and June. His wife, Veranika Tsapkala, participated in Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential campaign and in August also fled due to government pressure and fear of arrest.

After the August 9 presidential election, authorities forced opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Authorities reportedly threatened “her children would grow up as orphans.” On May 29, her husband was detained by authorities and as of December remained in detention. Authorities also detained and threatened an associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Volha Kavalkova, who accepted exile in September after authorities threatened her with a long prison term if she did not leave the country. On September 8, two additional members of the opposition’s Coordination Council, Executive Secretary Ivan Krautsou and Spokesperson Anton Radnyankou, were forced into exile. Security forces abducted Krautsou and Radnyankou and drove them to the border with Ukraine, where they were forced to cross the border into Ukraine.

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.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Refoulement: There were reports that the government expelled or returned asylum seekers or refugees to countries where they were likely to face abuse. For example, on June 29, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a Turkish citizen of Kurdish nationality, Hicri Mamas, who had been denied international protection in Belarus and expelled. Turkey sought Mamas’ extradition on charges of “infringement of the unity and territorial integrity of the state.” Multiple human rights organizations believed Mamas faced a significant risk of torture if he returned to Turkey.

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 process 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 are unable to return 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 citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. The government made an exception for one Russian citizen who sought asylum for religious reasons.

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 as 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.

Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum 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. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.

Durable Solutions: Naturalization of refugees was possible after seven years of permanent residence, as in the case of other categories of foreign residents.

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.

g. Stateless Persons

As of July 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and UNHCR listed 6,300 stateless persons. According to authorities, 98 percent of these individuals had permanent residence permits.

Permanently resident stateless persons 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 bodies 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 to citizenship for the 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, Alyaksandr Lukashenka 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 National Assembly elections held in November 2019 and the presidential election held on August 9, continued to deny citizens the right to exercise 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 August 9 presidential election was marred by numerous abuses, the use of administrative resources in favor of the incumbent, the absence of impartial election commissions, unequal access to media, coercion of voters to participate in early voting, nontransparent vote tabulation, and restrictions on independent observers. Irregularities identified by NGOs and independent observers raised significant doubts regarding authorities’ claims that Alyaksandr Lukashenka received 80 percent of votes during the presidential election.

Government pressure against potential opposition presidential candidates began three months prior to the presidential election and continued afterward. Authorities prior to the presidential election restricted the ability of challengers to register as candidates, restricted candidates from campaigning, pressured and detained presidential campaign teams, pressured citizens who showed support for opposition candidates, and detained press to limit opposition coverage.

The OSCE rapporteur’s Report under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights Violations related to the August 9 presidential election, released by the OSCE on November 5, detailed a wide range of allegations of electoral irregularities concerning: “1) nontimely invitation of international observers, 2) shortcomings in the appointments of election management bodies on all levels, 3) restrictions of the right to stand (for office), 4) limitations in election dispute resolution, 5) overall disregard for freedom of assembly, 6) unequal playing field for candidates, including nontransparency in campaign financing, 7) nontransparent early voting process, 8) overcrowding of polling stations, 9) missing checks and balances, lack of possibility for verifying the electoral results, and 10) inaccessibility of all steps of the electoral process for observation inhibiting the effective assessment of the elections.” The report stated that “in view of the evident shortcomings of the presidential elections which did not meet the basic requirements established on the basis of previous election monitoring and the observations by citizen the presidential election have to be evaluated as falling short of fulfilling the country’s international commitments regarding elections. Allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”

Authorities detained and at times charged opposition campaign team members, including regional representatives, with allegedly participating in unauthorized mass events, which placed additional pressure on opposition campaign teams. Progovernment candidates or teams did not face similar police pressure.

During the campaign season, authorities arrested or forced into exile the candidates observers described as posing the greatest threats to his re-election.

On May 6, authorities detained presidential hopeful Syarhey Tsikhanouski and held him for 15 day for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event in December 2019, which kept him imprisoned past the May 15 deadline for registering signature collection groups for presidential candidates. Tsikhanouski was prevented from signing the documents necessary to register his signature collection group by the deadline. Although officials admitted Tsikhanouski’s candidacy met the election law criteria, they claimed his signature was required. Tsikhanouski’s wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, instead submitted her own name, which authorities accepted.

On May 29, Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Authorities claimed he was involved in a brawl in which police were attacked. State media highlighted the detention and allegations against Tsikhanouski. Independent media and video footage captured by multiple bystanders showed a pair of women who followed Tsikhanouski and attempted to provoke him into arguments. He first spoke with and then attempted to avoid the pair. Police grabbed Tsikhanouski’s arm after one woman complained he was avoiding her questions. Members of the crowd moved to assist Tsikhanouski and separate him from police, during which one officer fell to the ground. Moments later, riot police detained Tsikhanouski and nine of his associates, including his local campaign representative who had not been near the alleged brawl. In June, Tsikhanouski was charged with various criminal offenses (see section 2.b.). As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in detention.

On June 18, authorities detained former Belgazprombank chairman and presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard while on their way to submit the necessary signatures to register his presidential candidacy with the Central Election Commission. Babaryka was taken to the facility of the State Control Committee’s Department of Financial Investigations for questioning, and authorities barred Babaryka’s lawyers from speaking with him. Independent media and human rights NGOs reported that, on June 21, authorities charged Babaryka with large-scale money laundering, tax evasion, large-scale theft, fraud, and bribery. The charges carry criminal penalties, including fines and multiyear prison sentences. The court rejected Babaryka’s appeal to have his detention overturned. Authorities declined to register Babaryka as a candidate after his campaign team gathered more than 400,000 valid signatures, citing inconsistencies in his income and property declaration as well as the “participation of a foreign organization in his election campaign.” NGOs stated that Babaryka was arrested in response to his political activities and general popularity during his presidential campaign. As of December, Babaryka and his son remained in detention.

On June 29, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had started preliminary investigations into alleged “facts of illegal activities” committed by presidential candidate, High-Tech Park founder, and former diplomat Valery Tsapkala. On July 14, the Central Election Commission barred him from running in the presidential campaign claiming that many of his support signatures were invalid, and that information regarding his income declaration and wife’s assets was inaccurate. On July 21, a court in Minsk held an initial hearing without Tsapkala present on a lawsuit filed against him by a Turkish businessman who accused Tsapkala of bribery. On July 24, Tsapkala fled the country with his children after he heard authorities planned to arrest him (see section 2).

The government appeared to manipulate administrative procedures or the criteria for candidate registration in order to restrict political competition. In order to become a presidential candidate, authorities required each hopeful to collect 100,000 signatures. Citizens were allowed to sign for multiple candidates. In order for the signatures to count, authorities required campaign teams to have official representatives for each region who would submit the signatures with accompanying proof of citizenship to local level government offices. Citizen signatures were only valid in the districts where they were registered; this placed a higher burden on smaller campaign teams. For example, the Central Election Commission rejected Tsapkala’s application to run as a presidential candidate because he allegedly failed to submit enough valid signatures. Tsapkala’s campaign team claimed it submitted 200,000 signatures, but authorities only counted 75,000 as valid, causing him to fall short of the 100,000 threshold. Tsapkala appealed the decision, which the Supreme Court rejected on July 20.

According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report, authorities introduced amendments that interfered with the transparency of the formation of election commissions, sought to decrease the proportion of independent and opposition participation in election commissions, and rejected or did not consider complaints and appeals concerning the nomination of election commissions. According to independent domestic monitors, authorities discriminated against the opposition members seeking seats on electoral commissions. Of 25 opposition members who applied for seats on territorial election commissions, only two were included. Of 545 opposition members applying for seats on precinct electoral commissions, only six were included. The other seats went to progovernment associations. As a result, observers maintained that these commissions remained biased against the opposition.

Authorities used an assortment of measures to support claims that vote tabulation on August 9 was legitimate. Key among these were restricting independent observation by domestic and international observers in favor of government-affiliated observers and claiming higher early voting participation to increase the number of ballots that could be fraudulently counted in Lukashenka’s favor.

Authorities restricted domestic and international observers during the election. After thousands of government-affiliated observers registered, on July 22, Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna stated that due to COVID-19, the government would limit observers at each polling station to three during early voting and five on election day. The majority of independent observers had not yet registered (as they had not expected registration to be limited, and assumed they had more time to register as deadlines for registration in previous elections had been much closer to the day of the election), and commission chairs at each polling station who controlled observation gave precedence to those who registered first.

There were extensive reports of state employees being coerced to vote early. Independent domestic observers who tallied voters estimated the early voting figure was inflated by a factor of two to three at some polling stations, undermining government claims early voting turnout was higher than election day turnout. On election day, independent observers at some precincts noted that combined early official voting numbers and tallies of observed voters on election day yielded a turnout of more than 100 percent of voters registered in the precinct. As in prior elections, voting tabulation remained nontransparent to observers.

Authorities allowed the diplomatic community to participate in observation, and noted COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers. At vote-tabulation time, however, commission chairs at a number of poll stations claimed five observers were already in the room and so barred some international observers from observing tabulation.

Human rights monitors, independent observers, and the OSCE rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism concluded that elections did not comply with international standards. Opposition candidates, their representatives, and independent observers reported authorities dismissed the vast majority of complaints they filed.

After authorities announced preliminary election results on August 10 claiming Lukashenka won the election, the government forced presidential contender Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Results at the small number of polling stations that counted votes transparently showed that Tsikhanouskaya received more votes at these locations and suggested she could have received a majority of the votes or enough to force a second round runoff. According to independent NGO monitoring, the state’s control over all broadcast media was employed to promote the candidacy of the incumbent, while state-controlled outlets provided only critical coverage of opposition candidates, largely focused on criminal charges authorities had brought against them.

According to NGOs, the electoral process at all stages failed to comply with a number of international standards for democratic and fair elections. Numerous violations of international standards and the country’s law were reported.

Authorities largely denied or dismissed petitions and complaints about violations of the electoral code during various stages of the election. Courts received 484 appeals regarding decisions on the formation of election commissions, of which 415 were denied and 69 went without consideration. Independent observers who were part of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, a volunteer election observation initiative, submitted approximately 3,000 complaints to various state bodies and higher election commissions during early voting and on election day. Authorities reportedly denied all complaints.

According to the OSCE, it required a timely invitation to observe the August 9 presidential election, meaning notification at least 12 weeks before election day. When the government announced the presidential election date on May 8 it also stated the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) would be invited to observe after the candidate registration period closed on July 14. The OSCE informed the country’s authorities it needed a timely invitation on several occasions and on July 15, the ODIHR Director announced that ODIHR had not received a timely invitation and would be unable to send an observation mission. Belarus authorities sent an invitation on July 15. When authorities were later criticized for a lack of ODIHR observers, the government blamed ODIHR, claiming the country had invited ODIHR to attend and monitor the vote. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report noted that the government sent an invitation four months before the 2019 National Assembly election, “which raises the suspicion that (delaying the invitation) was done on purpose in order to avoid international monitoring of part of the pre-election process, in particular the registration of candidates, where numerous problems were observed.”

In March international observers previously assessed that the November 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards. According to the ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe election observation mission intermediate report, while the National Assembly elections proceeded calmly with a high number of candidates and observers, they did not meet important international standards for democratic elections and there was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

The observation mission report on the National Assembly elections found that a high number of candidates stood for election, but an overly restrictive registration process inhibited the participation of opposition candidates. A limited amount of campaigning took place within a restrictive environment that, overall, did not provide for a meaningful or competitive political contest. Media coverage of the campaign did not enable voters to receive sufficient information about contestants. The election administration was dominated by the executive authority, limiting its impartiality and independence, and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded. Significant procedural shortcomings during the counting of votes raised concerns about whether results were counted and reported honestly, and an overall lack of transparency reduced the opportunity for meaningful observation.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Authorities routinely 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 six largely inactive but officially registered pro-Lukashenka political parties to operate freely. The government used its monopoly on broadcast media to disparage the opposition and promote pro-Lukashenka parties and to restrict the ability of opposition candidates to publicize their views. There were reports of government resources being used to benefit the incumbent, such as government officials campaigning for Lukashenka during working hours.

During the year authorities fined and arrested opposition political parties’ leaders for violating the Law on Mass Events and participating in numerous unauthorized demonstrations (see section 2). The law allows authorities to suspend parties for six months after one warning and close them after two. 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. Members of parties that continued to operate when authorities refused to register them, such as the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, continued to be subjected to harassment and arbitrary checks.

Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna reported that the COVID-19 restrictions would not apply to international observers, proxies of presidential candidates, members of the House of Representatives and members of the Council of the Republic, members of local councils who could observe the election in accordance with their status, or registered media. The vast majority of observers at polling stations and during voting and vote tabulation were government affiliated, while domestic independent observers waited outside poll stations and sought to count individuals who entered the premises. Domestic independent observers faced significant restrictions, including limitations on their ability to be present at polling stations, purportedly because of the threat of COVID-19. The government, however, did not take any other precautions related to the pandemic, such as enforcing social distancing, limiting the number of voters in buildings at any given time, or requiring the wearing of masks. In a number of cases, commissions removed independent domestic observers from polling stations for allegedly interfering with their work and banned them from videotaping or taking photographs. Some government officials responsible for polling sites called police to detain independent domestic observers for various alleged inappropriate behavior. Police for the most part took these observers to police stations, checked their documents, and released them. Human rights activists reported 86 domestic observers were detained during the early voting period.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, but the government’s patriarchal attitude disfavored women’s efforts to achieve positions of authority. Of the country’s 24 government ministers, only one was a woman. Women increasingly joined the opposition as leaders, served as vocal members of the opposition, led regular “women’s marches,” and participated in protests more broadly. Women told independent media that they were inspired to become more politically active after hearing Lukashenka’s remarks regarding his female opponent Tsikhanouskaya. He stated, “Our Constitution is not suitable for a woman. Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. Because the Constitution gives strong authority to the president.” In later remarks to clarify his statement, Lukashenka said that the presidency was a heavy burden for anyone, but female candidates in particular would be “unable to handle the pressures of the presidency.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government appeared to prosecute regularly officials alleged to be corrupt. There were, however, also allegations that some high level officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country. In March 2019 the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared the country noncompliant with its anticorruption standards. The government did not publish evaluation or compliance reports, which according to GRECO’s executive secretary, “casted a dark shadow over the country’s commitment to preventing and combating corruption and to overall cooperation with GRECO.” In October 2019 GRECO’s executive secretary repeated its concerns regarding the country’s “continuous noncompliance.”

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 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. For example, in January the BKGB announced it arrested four general managers of sugar refineries, including the head of the Belarusian Sugar Company and the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s organized crime and corruption department, Uladzimir Tsikhinya. They were reportedly charged with accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes, and Lukashenka accused them of “pocketing kickbacks and corruption” for allegedly selling sugar through intermediaries at lower price, which exported it to Russia and illegally re-exported back at higher prices. On August 25, independent media reported that Tsikhinya, who purportedly notified general managers of possible inspections and abuses against them, was charged and released, while other suspects reportedly remained in pretrial detention.

In general, corruption prosecutions remained selective and nontransparent.

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 BKGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs 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, National Assembly, and municipal elections. There are administrative sanctions and disciplinary penalties for noncompliance.

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

Prominent human rights NGOs–such as the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Center for Legal Transformations–operated as registered entities. The government refused to register some other NGOs, placing them at risk of fines. Some unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.

Authorities at times harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations. They subjected them to inspections and threats of deregistration and reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations. Beginning in August, human rights activists were also arrested during the government’s violent crackdown. For example, on September 17, Vyasna human rights activist and volunteer coordinator Marfa Rabkova was detained and later charged with criminal activity for the “training or other preparation of persons to participate in riots, or funding such activities.” Vyasna asserted that Rabkova’s detention and charges were politically motivated in response to her efforts to train short-term election observers for the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections volunteer initiative and her work in documenting severe abuses of detainees. As of December, Rabkova remained in detention along with two other Vyasna volunteers, Andrei Chapiuk and Ksenia Syramalot. Vyasna considered all three individuals to be political prisoners.

The government largely ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and rarely met with unregistered groups. State-run media rarely reported on human rights NGOs and their activities.

During the year the Belarusian Helsinki Committee’s bank accounts remained blocked due to long-standing tax arrears related to foreign funding the organization received in the early 2000s, on which the government places restrictions, but the government allowed the committee to operate without other interference.

Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law, including the law on mass events. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Justice Ministry to monitor NGO activities and review their documents. NGOs must also submit detailed annual reports to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, and total number of members.

Authorities were generally 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 in their official capacity. Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country, as well as requests to stop harassing the human rights community.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council appointed Anais Marin as the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. The government continued to speak against “the politicized and senseless” mandate of the rapporteur, refused to recognize the mandate, and denied Marin entry to the country. On September 17, a total of 17 OSCE participating states invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” against the country to look into reports of serious human rights abuses, including election fraud and substantial interference with freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly. The country did not cooperate with the mechanism’s expert mission or allow it access to the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country does not have an ombudsman or other national human rights institution. A standing commission on human rights in the lower chamber of the National Assembly was ineffective.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men and women in general but does not include separate provisions on marital rape. The penalty for conviction of rape with aggravating factors is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. While sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems, the government generally prosecuted cases against nonspouses committing rape. For example, on March 3, the Vileika District Court convicted a 26-year-old man of raping a 15-year-old girl and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. The case was considered under the law as rape of a known minor, which is punishable by imprisonment for a term of five to 13 years. According to NGOs, authorities often did not consider spousal rape and did not prosecute such cases unless they involved severe aggravating factors and direct threats to victims’ lives.

Domestic violence was a significant problem and the government did not take effective measures to prevent it during the year. The government continued to issue 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 survivors.

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 substantial fine or detention for up to 15 days for violating protective orders, battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

According to a number of women’s rights NGOs, protective orders and crisis rooms remained ineffective and provided limited protection of victims’ rights. Efforts to prosecute offenders and ensure legal and other remedies to correct their behavior were also lacking. NGO experts continued to note the lack of state-supported designated shelters and specialists that work with victims, children, and aggressors.

According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, from January-March officers registered 655 offenses related to household and domestic violence crimes, which was reportedly down by 18 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Of those, 58 cases included causing severe bodily harm, 27 deaths caused by family members, and 225 cases of death threats and causing severe bodily harm. Police reported they prosecuted 186 individuals on charges of abusing family members. Police issued 1,903 protective orders from January-March.

According to press reports, on May 14, a 38-year-old man in the town of Cherikau severely beat his 39-year-old wife. The woman did not make a police report or seek medical attention until two days later, when she was hospitalized and died of her injuries the same day. The man was detained and charged with battery.

A Ministry of Internal Affairs representative was reachable once a month through July on a NGO-run nationwide hotline for victims of domestic violence. In August the NGO running the hotline stopped working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs representative following the government’s crackdown on demonstrators. As of June the shelter and hotline providers had not seen an increase in requests for help in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, although this may have been associated with the lack of a government-imposed countrywide lockdown or self-isolation requirements. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Labor and Social Protection, and Healthcare and NGOs continued a campaign, “Home without Violence.” The campaign was shifted online during the pandemic but was covered by government media.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment reportedly was widespread, but no specific laws, other than those against physical assault, address the problem. Victims of sexual harassment did not have access to criminal or civil remedies for sexual harassment that occurred in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception was widely available. Government policy does not bar access to contraception, but some religious groups may oppose it on religious grounds. Although there were no barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth, and skilled postpartum care was widely available, there were fewer professionals with the skills to assist with difficult pregnancies outside of Minsk. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: In prior years, 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. While there are no indications that the practice has changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to property ownership and inheritance, family law, equal pay for equal work (although women were often paid less), and in the judicial system, and the law was generally respected. Although women have the same legal status as men, they experienced discrimination in employment as well as discrimination in the workplace (see section 7.d.).

During the year Lukashenka made multiple disparaging comments regarding female political opposition leaders that reflected a discriminatory attitude against women participating in the political arena (see section 3).

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: Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of a person older than 18 engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 carry is a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children was common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted to beating their children. In a number of resonant cases of child abuse and assault, at least one parent, who committed a crime against the child, suffered from alcohol addiction, and the other was reluctant to report the crime. For example, a court in the town of Zelva convicted and sentenced a male resident to 25 years in prison for continuously abusing his minor daughters, one of whom suffered severe injuries and died. Authorities generally intervened to prevent child abuse stemming from domestic violence and identified families in vulnerable conditions and provided foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government continued to prosecute child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate, lacking effective capabilities to detect violence and refer victims for proper assistance in a timely manner. The government instituted a comprehensive national plan for 2017-21 to improve childcare and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, but it acknowledged its inefficiency in executing certain protective measures absent assistance from international organizations and NGOs.

With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities 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 often used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child-abuse victims for hearings, but experts continued to raise concerns that in some cases, judges summoned child-abuse victims to testify at hearings. More experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and interests of minors.

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

Child, 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 September, the government identified 354 minors as victims of child sexual abuse and 24 minors exploited for pornography. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for conviction of production or distribution of pornographic materials depicting a minor. The government generally enforced the law. The government claimed that the law did not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 27 minor trafficking and trafficking-related victims. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods like sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January adopted a separate 2020-22 plan of action to protect minors from sexual abuse and exploitation. There were no reports on the implementation of the plan as of December.

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

According to a 2018 UNICEF study, more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either physical 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 with children living in families: they had two to three times more 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/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

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

There were reports of isolated anti-Semitic incidents after the August 9 election, including cases of anti-Semitic violence by state actors during detentions. For example, according to press reports, police in Minsk detained Aleksandr Fruman while detaining protesters. Fruman reported that, upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him while shouting anti-Semitic insults, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” Jewish community leaders did not express concerns that their community members who participated in protests had been targeted for their ethnicity or religious group when detained by police.

Many memorials to victims of the Holocaust, built in Soviet times as well as more recently, do not distinguish Jewish victims from other victims of Nazi atrocities. The Jewish community continued to work with foreign donors and local authorities to erect monuments to commemorate Jewish victims specifically.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

On September 14, a regional court in Smarhon dismissed a case filed by a local children’s music school teacher with physical disabilities, who was seeking to restore a number of his rights, which he argued were abused based on his disability and discriminatory attitudes toward him. For example, although he had worked at the school since 1996, the building was not fully accessible and the administration held teachers’ conferences on a floor the teacher could not reach, limiting his ability to share information related to his work. The teacher also cited discriminatory and derogatory language used by the school’s principals and fellow teachers as well as the principal’s refusal to provide extra days off for the teacher, who was in a risk group for COVID-19. The school reportedly addressed the teacher’s working schedule and improved accessibility to the building prior to the court ruling, which allowed the court to dismiss the case.

The law mandates that transport, residences, and businesses be accessible to persons with disabilities, but few public areas were wheelchair accessible or accessible for persons with hearing and vision disabilities. 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 continued to improve during the year. NGOs reported that the government was growing increasingly aware of these problems, but progress was slow.

The country’s lack of independent living opportunities left many persons with disabilities no choice but to live in state-run institutions. According to the Ministry of Labor, approximately 89 such institutions across the country housed approximately 21,500 persons. Disability rights organizations reported that the quality of care in these facilities was low. Instances of harassment and mistreatment were reported, such as cases of physical and psychological abuse, lack of medical care for other non-disability-related conditions, and underfunded facilities and infrastructure. Authorities continued the practice of placing persons with physical and mental disabilities in the same facilities and did not provide either group with specialized care. Approximately 15,000 persons with disabilities who lived in “psychoneurological” institutions were deprived of legal rights, and courts designated directors of these institutions as their legal guardians.

Public transportation was free to persons with disabilities, but the majority of subway stations in Minsk as well as the bus system were not wheelchair accessible. In 2017 the most recent year for which information was available, experts of the NGO ACT 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.

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, including employment discrimination, claims they were unable to care for their children, and received worse medical services and care compared to the general population–especially in provincial medical institutions. 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. Pregnant women with disabilities face accessibility barriers at maternity clinics and hospitals.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies continued to arbitrarily detain, investigate, profile, and harass Roma, including by forcing fingerprinting, mistreating them in detention, and subjecting them to ethnic insults.

Official and societal discrimination continued against the country’s 6,848 (according to the 2019 census) to 60,000 (according to Romani community estimates) Roma. The Romani community continued to experience marginalization, various forms 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.

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

There were reports that authorities threatened and condoned violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. For example, according to the LGBTI rights group Makeout, on September 26, police detained a transgender man, Yauheni Velko, at a protest. While in transport, police insulted him on the basis of his gender identity. At the police station, security officials conducted a strip search and targeted him with gender-focused harassment and threats, including rape and death threats. Officials at the detention facility told relatives who knew he was at the facility that there were no men detained at the location, and therefore he was not present. Velko spent two days in detention and was tried and fined on September 28. Officers also confiscated his rainbow flag.

Consensual same-sexual conduct between adults is not illegal, but LGBTI discrimination 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 government, which either failed to investigate crimes or did so without recognizing it as a hate crime. For example, in December 2019 a Minsk district court sentenced a local resident on charges of grave hooliganism to 18 months in jail and ordered him to pay 5,400 rubles ($2,210) in compensation to his victim Mikalai Kuprych. The perpetrator assaulted Kuprych, who suffered multiple facial injuries and bone fractures, after he reportedly saw Kuprych hugging friends. Although the perpetrator stated during the investigation that this was the prime motive for his attack, the court refused to recognize anti-LGBTI sentiments as a motive.

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 an applicant’s identification number and gender marker. Banks also refused to open accounts for transgender persons on the same grounds. Transgender men were issued military identification that indicated they had “a severe mental illness.”

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, and the illness carried a heavy social stigma. According to local NGOs working with HIV and AIDS positive individuals and other groups at risk, HIV-infected individuals, especially drug users undergoing or having completed treatment, continued to face discrimination, especially at workplaces and during job interviews. For example, based on doctors’ clinical reports, schools reportedly refused to employ HIV-positive individuals even when they were applying for jobs that did not involve contact with children. For example, in May an individual was barred from a building maintenance job under Ministry of Health instructions that restricted HIV-positive individuals from working with children.

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 trade union activists.

The law provides for civil penalties against employers in the form of fines for violations of the freedom of association or collective bargaining. Fines against employers were not commensurate with penalties for other crimes related to civil rights. The government did not enforce the law, in part because the government and state enterprises violated the legal right of freedom of association.

The government severely restricted independent unions. The government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) is the largest union federation, claiming more than four million members, to whom it provides benefits. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), with four constituent trade unions, made up of approximately 10,000 workers, was the largest union umbrella organization not affiliated with the government. The BKDP, however, did not represent the majority of workers at any of the country’s largest state employers. Tight government control over registration requirements and public demonstrations made it difficult for the BKDP to organize and operate, or conduct strikes.

The government did not respect freedom of association and collective bargaining. Prohibitive registration requirements, mandating that any new union unaffiliated with the government have a large membership and cooperation from state employers, continued to present significant obstacles to independent 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 that it is violating legislation or its own statutes, the violations are not corrected within a month. Authorities continued to resist attempts by workers to leave the official union and join the independent one, but workers reportedly increasingly left the FTUB without joining the BKDP for political reasons following the August 9 presidential election. The government restrictions on freedom of association made it difficult for independent trade unions to participate in collective bargaining. Authorities require a single labor union position ahead of bargaining, which at state enterprises where the BKDP is present requires both labor organizations to collaborate in collective bargaining. Labor activists reported, however, that this benefited the BKDP because agreements negotiated with the participation of independent unions were more favorable to workers than those agreements solely negotiated by the FTUB.

The requirements to conduct a legal 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. In addition 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 remained 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.

Some union members who participated in political protests, which authorities generally considered unauthorized mass events, were detained, and a smaller percentage of politically active workers lost their jobs. Despite government pressure, after the August 9 election, some workers protested and attempted to organize strikes, but a majority of workers did not because of the extreme pressures authorities put on them and potential strike leaders. Government pressure included making examples of strike leaders by putting them in jail, subjecting them to physical violence, firing them, detaining or fining workers who discussed conducting strikes, refusing to renew employment contracts of workers involved in strikes, and applying psychological pressure in the form of threatening workers with the removal of parental rights over their children and stressing the impact lost wages would have on their children and families. In August and September, the inability to convince a majority of workers to hold a general strike led significant minorities of workers at large state-owned factories to conduct work-to-rule action as a sign of protest.

Workers encountered politically related pressure. For example, on October 1, the state-owned enterprise Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ) informed an employee who had taken part in a spontaneous anti-Lukashenka rally at the factory in August that the company would not extend his employment contract upon its expiration on November 4. BMZ managers had reportedly previously promised that no one would be punished for participating in the political rally, but police afterward sentenced the worker and another colleague to 12 days in jail for allegedly participating in an unauthorized mass event. The worker had worked at BMZ for 20 years.

The Law on Mass Events also seriously limited demonstrations, rallies, and other public action, constraining the right of unions to organize. 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.

Government efforts to suppress independent unions included frequent refusals to extend employment contracts for members of unions unaffiliated with the government and refusals to register independent unions. According to BKDP leader Alyaksandr Yarashuk, the only registration of a nongovernment union since 1999 occurred in 2019 when authorities approved the third registration application of a branch of the independent trade union of miners, chemical, oil refinery, energy, transport, construction industries, and other workers in Salihorsk. The registration followed the restructuring of the state-owned potash fertilizer producer Belaruskali, which established a number of separate subsidiaries, and workers wanted to keep their membership in the BKDP’s labor unions. Authorities attempted to pressure or fire workers who were deemed protest or strike leaders, or became involved in opposition political activities.

During the year the BKDP-affiliated Radio and Electronics Trade Union chairman Genadz Fedynich and chief accountant Ihar Komlik remained under house arrest following their 2018 conviction for allegedly evading taxes and sentence to four years of house arrest. The court also banned the trade unionists from holding any administrative positions for five years. In 2018 the Minsk City Court dismissed their appeal. In May 2019 Fedynich’s house arrest was slightly eased, and a November 2019 presidential amnesty law reduced the sentences of both Fedynich and Komlik by a year to 2021.

Most contracts at state enterprises are one-year contracts. State employees, who constituted approximately 70 percent of the workforce, may have contracts with terms of up to five years, but most contracts expire after one year. The BKDP and NGOs alleged this practice gave the government, through state employers, the ability to fire state employees by declining to renew their contracts. Some state employees (including medical professionals) who protested against the government’s COVID-19 response or participated in protests against the government’s handling of the election reportedly were not rehired. Members of nongovernment-affiliated unions, political parties, and civil society groups lost their jobs due to one-year contracts lapsing. 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. Longer contracts, however, reportedly also restrict the ability of employees to leave for other jobs. Workers are generally protected during the terms of their contracts.

Opposition political party members and democratic activists sometimes had difficulty finding work at state-affiliated employers due to government pressure on these employers.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, with the exception of court rulings that may require work or services as part of a sentence, and which may include penal labor.

Parents who have had their parental rights stripped and are unemployed or are working but fail to compensate state child-care facilities for the maintenance of their children, may be 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 for expenses incurred by the government.

Minsk authorities required officially registered unemployed individuals to perform paid community service one day a month. Individuals who performed fewer than 12 working days of paid community service during a year were prohibited from receiving some unemployment benefits. Individuals with disabilities, single parents, and parents of three or more children, as well as parents of children with disabilities and younger than 18 were exempt.

Regulations against forced labor were seldom enforced, and resources and inspections dedicated to preventing forced and compulsory labor were minimal. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

Belarus largely served as a source country for labor trafficking. Aside from border restrictions enacted during COVID-19, Belarusians were able to freely travel to and work in Russia, reportedly the largest destination country. Compared to NGOs, the government rarely identified victims of labor trafficking, and prosecution of those responsible for forced labor remained minimal. NGOs in 2019 identified 59 labor trafficking victims, compared with the government’s three. Authorities reportedly did not recognize claims by Belarusians who returned from Russia and complained they had endured forced labor there. Government efforts to prevent and eliminate labor trafficking did not improve during the year.

There were no reported examples of government reprisals identified against individuals who abstained from community activities during the year (commonly called “subbotniks”). According to a media report, however, workers at a state-run hospital expressed fear of reprisals in the form of withholding wages if they failed to participate.

Former inmates stated their monthly wages were as low as three to four rubles ($1.50 to $2.00). Senior officials with the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Internal Affairs Ministry stated in 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 https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

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. 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 younger than 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 for violations were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

There is no penalty for discrimination in general. The Labor Code prohibits employer discrimination only when employers refuse to hire a person who was referred by the government Labor, Employment, and Social Welfare agency as part of a quota system. In these cases the government may charge the employer with a civil penalty if the discrimination was on the basis of the person’s race, age, gender, language, political or religious beliefs, membership in a trade union, social status, or place of residence. The government did not effectively enforce this law.

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 in July 2019 the country’s National Statistics Committee reported that average salaries for women were 27.3 percent less than salaries for men.

The government maintained a list of 181 “physically demanding” jobs “in hazardous or dangerous conditions” that women are not permitted to occupy. Women are also unable to work in all the same employment sectors as 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. Pension calculations should consider disability status under the law, however, authorities were not always willing to provide higher pensions warranted by 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 exceeded 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 government did effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes. In June, Labor and Social Protection Minister Iryna Kastevich noted that the ministry was monitoring companies and organizations for compliance with employee dismissal regulations during COVID-19. Kastevich reported the volume of total working hours fell since the start of the pandemic, as employers attempted to keep workers employed by shortening working hours or placing persons on leave. Government COVID-19 support reportedly largely went to state enterprises, who received financial support such as loans, rather than workers or the private sector.

The State Labor Inspection Department at the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry was responsible for enforcement of wages, overtime, workplace safety, and worker health. The law establishes minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health, but employers did not always follow these standards or require workers to wear minimal safety gear. The state labor inspectorate lacked authority to enforce employer compliance and often ignored violations. Although inspectors could make unannounced inspections, the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Penalties for occupational safety and health violations were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

The law provides workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. According to the State Labor Inspection Department of the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry, employees have the right to refuse to perform work if they are not provided with personal protective equipment that directly ensures labor safety. The list of required personal protective equipment was approved by the ministry. In order to refuse to perform assigned work due to a lack of equipment, an employee must inform the employer or an authorized official of the reasons for refusal in writing.

According to the latest data, authorities reported 2,042 workplace injuries and 141 deaths in 2019, compared with 2,115 injuries and 144 deaths in 2018.

The State Labor Inspection Department maintained labor hotlines for each region and also provided separate contact details for matters associated with labor inspections, labor protection, and labor violations. The department also maintained a hotline for problems involving the illegal dismissal of workers.

Between June 7 and September 2, the State Labor Inspection Department released information highlighting typical violations of labor protection requirements in four areas: automotive and heavy machinery operation, electric and gas wielding equipment, earthworks and ground-level construction, and above-ground construction.

Independent experts reported the informal economy constitutes up to 30 percent of the total economy, which has a workforce of 4.5 million persons. The labor law does not cover informal workers.

Cambodia

Executive Summary

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 national election, having banned the main opposition party in 2017, turning the country into what is now a de facto one-party state. The prime minister since 1985, Hun Sen, continued in office. International observers, including foreign governments and international and domestic nongovernmental organizations, criticized the election as neither free nor fair and not representative of the will of the people.

The Cambodian National Police maintain internal security. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are responsible for external security and also have some domestic security responsibilities. The national police report to the Ministry of Interior, while the armed forces report to the Ministry of National Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces, which have at times threatened force against opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling party. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; political prisoners and detainees; the absence of judicial independence; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on political participation; diminishing ability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor, including forced or compulsory child labor.

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

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 at least one report that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On January 1, Tuy Sros, one of five persons arrested in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey Province, died in police custody. Two others arrested with him reported that military police beat Sros unconscious and refused to provide medical treatment. After widespread coverage of the case in local media, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation, and two police officers were arrested.

b. Disappearance

Eyewitnesses reported that on June 4, several armed men abducted Thai prodemocracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside his Phnom Penh apartment in broad daylight. Several human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO) accused the Cambodian government of not actively investigating Wanchalearm’s disappearance, and alleged that Thai and Cambodian authorities may have colluded on the case. Authorities initially publicly denied an abduction had taken place, claiming that official records showed Wanchalearm had left the country three years earlier. The government launched an investigation into the case on June 9 after reportedly receiving a request to do so from the Thai embassy. As of year’s end, the Cambodian police investigation had not uncovered any suspects, a possible motive, or the whereabouts of Wanchalearm. A media officer of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva raised concerns that the incident “may now comprise an enforced disappearance.” As of November the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was conducting an investigation.

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

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

There were credible reports military and police officials used physical and psychological abuse and occasionally severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation. On May 8, the aunt of Orn Tith alleged that prison guards had tortured and murdered her nephew, who was in custody for stealing and damaging a car, and that his body was covered in bruises when she went to retrieve it. In a report released in May, Amnesty International wrote that authorities “routinely subject suspects to torture and other forms of ill-treatment” as part of the nation’s “war on drugs” campaign. According to eyewitnesses, land rights activist Tuy Sros was tortured before his death (see section 1.a.).

Although the law requires police, prosecutors, and judges to investigate all complaints, including those of police abuse, in practice there was impunity for government officials and family members for human rights abuses. Judges and prosecutors rarely conducted independent investigations. Although the law allows for investigations into accusations of government abuse, in practice cases were pursued only when there was a public outcry or they drew the prime minister’s attention. If abuse cases came to trial, presiding judges usually passed down verdicts based only on written reports from police and witness testimony. In general police received little professional training on protecting or respecting human rights.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh and in many cases life threatening.

Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding was a problem. According to the Ministry of Interior, as of April authorities held an estimated 39,000 prisoners and detainees in 29 prisons designed to hold a maximum of 11,000 prisoners. The ministry reported the government’s “war on drugs” had exacerbated overcrowding as approximately 22,000 of the prisoners and detainees were held for drug trafficking crimes.

In most prisons there was no separation of adult and juvenile prisoners (including children living with incarcerated mothers) or of persons convicted of serious crimes, minor offenses, or in pretrial detention. According to a local NGO, as of January prisons held 43 pregnant women and 103 children living with their mothers. The General Department of Prisons did not report how many prisoners died in custody. In February a five-month-old baby living with his mother in a prison died. The court had sent the child’s mother, eight months pregnant at the time, into pretrial detention in June 2019 on charges of possessing a small amount of illegal drugs. She was still awaiting trial when her baby died.

Allowances for food and other necessities were inadequate in many cases. Family members often provided these at least in part and sometimes had to pay a bribe to do so. Observers continued to report that authorities misappropriated allowances for prisoners’ food, exacerbating malnutrition and disease. Authorities did not provide updated figures on access to clean water; as of 2016, only 18 of 29 prisons provided clean water. Prisons did not have adequate facilities for persons with mental or physical disabilities. NGOs also alleged prison authorities gave preferential treatment, including increased access to visitors, transfer to better cells, and the opportunity to leave cells during the day, to prisoners whose families could pay bribes. According to a local NGO, groups of inmates organized and directed by prison guards violently attacked other prisoners. NGOs reported significant drug use by prisoners, made possible by bribing guards.

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

Administration: There were no prison ombudsmen or other government advocates for prisoners. Prisoners could submit complaints about alleged abuse to judicial authorities through lawyers, but a large number of prisoners and detainees could not afford legal representation. The government stated it investigated complaints and monitored prison and detention center conditions through the General Department of Prisons, which reportedly produced biannual reports on prison management. The prisons department, however, did not release the reports despite frequent requests by civil society organizations.

Authorities routinely allowed prisoners and detainees access to visitors, although rights organizations confirmed families sometimes had to bribe prison officials to visit prisoners. There were credible reports officials demanded bribes before allowing prisoners to attend trials or appeal hearings, before releasing inmates who had served their full term of imprisonment, or before allowing inmates to exit their cells. NGOs reported unequal punishment among the inmates, noting that wealthy prisoners were better treated than others, while greater restrictions such as stricter surveillance and not being allowed to receive gifts from visitors were placed on human right defenders.

Independent Monitoring: The government allowed, subject to preconditions and restrictions, international and domestic human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Commission, to visit prisons and provide human rights training to prison guards. Some NGOs reported limited cooperation from local authorities who, for example, generally made it difficult to gain access to pretrial detainees.

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

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

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and limits pretrial detention to a maximum of 18 months; however, the government in some cases did not respect these prohibitions, notably holding former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha under house arrest arbitrarily and well beyond the legal limit. After 26 months in pretrial detention, in November 2019 the government partially lifted judicial restrictions, effectively releasing him from house arrest, but not allowing him to travel abroad or engage in political activity. In addition the charges of treason against him still stood, and he remained under court supervision.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires police to obtain a warrant from an investigating judge prior to making an arrest, unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. The law allows police to take a person into custody and conduct an investigation for 48 hours, excluding weekends and government holidays, before they must file charges or release a suspect. In felony cases of exceptional circumstances prescribed by law, police may detain a suspect for an additional 24 hours with the approval of a prosecutor. Nevertheless, authorities routinely held persons for extended periods before charging them.

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

Arbitrary Arrest: As of July a local NGO had recorded 16 arbitrary arrests. The actual number of arbitrary arrests and detentions was likely higher, since many victims in rural areas did not file complaints due to the difficulty of traveling to human rights NGO offices or due to concern for their family’s security. Authorities took no legal or disciplinary action against persons responsible for the illegal detentions.

On June 2, Koh Kong provincial authorities seized 18 activists’ bicycles and blocked them from proceeding further after they launched a cycling trip to the capital to draw attention to local environmental issues. Authorities initially claimed the group had to be screened for COVID-19, but after conducting nasal swabs, authorities confiscated their bicycles until the activists agreed to call off their plans rather than face arrest for “incitement.” Local rights NGOs described the government actions as politically motivated, pointing out that the group had not broken any laws.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Vocational Training reported that in 2019 the government rounded up 1,000 homeless persons, beggars, persons with mental disabilities, and persons engaged in prostitution. Authorities placed them in social affairs centers without adequate medical treatment or food. In April the ministry acknowledged it had been unsuccessful in treating or reintegrating these individuals into society.

Pretrial Detention: Under the law police may arrest and detain accused persons for a maximum of 24 hours before allowing them access to legal counsel, but authorities routinely held prisoners incommunicado for several days before granting them access to a lawyer or family members. Government officials stated such prolonged detentions were frequently the result of the limited capacity of the court system. The law allows for a maximum pretrial detention of six months for misdemeanors and 18 months for felonies, but NGOs reported authorities held some accused in pretrial detention for longer than the legal maximums. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees without legal representation. In April the Ministry of Interior reported holding 13,729 pretrial detainees, approximately one-third of all prisoners.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: A backlog of court cases and long delays in obtaining judicial rulings interfered with a person’s right to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of his or her detention. On May 18, the Justice Ministry launched a six-month campaign to resolve the backlog of nearly 40,000 court cases across the country.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts. Court decisions were often subject to political influence. Judicial officials, up to and including the chief of the Supreme Court, often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party, and observers alleged only those with ties to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) or the executive received judicial appointments. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined. In the continuing treason trial of former political opposition leader Kem Sokha, the government has given conflicting statements, at times insisting the court was acting independently, while at other times insisting the trial will last for “years” or that the outcome will depend on other factors, such as the EU’s partial withdrawal of trade benefits.

Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was very inefficient and could not assure due process.

Observers alleged the Bar Association of Cambodia heavily favored admission of CPP-aligned members at the expense of nonaligned and opposition attorneys and at times admitted unqualified individuals to the bar solely due to their political affiliation. Impartial analysts revealed that many applicants to the bar paid high bribes for admittance. On October 16, Ly Chantola, a supporter of the governing party who had helped draft the law dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was elected president of the Bar Association.

A shortage of judges and courtrooms delayed many cases. NGOs also believed court officials focused on cases that might benefit them financially. Court delays or corrupt practices often allowed accused persons to escape prosecution. There were widespread allegations that rich or powerful defendants, including members of the security forces, often paid victims and authorities to drop criminal charges. These allegations were supported by NGO reports and instances of rich defendants appearing free in public after their high-profile arrests were reported in the media without further coverage of court proceedings or final outcomes of the cases. Authorities sometimes urged victims or their families to accept financial restitution in exchange for dropping criminal charges or for failing to appear as witnesses.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants are by law required to be promptly informed of the charges against them, presumed innocent, and have the right of appeal, but they often resorted to bribery rather than rely on the judicial process. Trials are not always public and frequently face delays due to court bureaucracy. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney, confront and question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law, however, allows trials in absentia, and courts have convicted suspects in absentia. In felony cases, if a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the law requires the court to provide the defendant with free legal representation; however, the judiciary was not always able to provide legal counsel, and most defendants sought assistance from NGOs, pro bono representation, or “voluntarily” proceeded without legal representation. In the absence of the defense attorneys required in felony cases, trial courts routinely adjourned cases until defendants could secure legal representation, a process that often took months. Trials were typically perfunctory, and extensive cross-examination usually did not take place. NGOs reported sworn written statements from witnesses and the accused in many cases constituted the only evidence presented at trials. The courts offered free interpretation.

There was a critical shortage of trained lawyers, particularly outside the capital. The right to a fair public trial often was denied de facto for persons without means to secure counsel. A 2017 report by the International Commission of Jurists indicated the high cost of bribes needed to join the bar association was partly responsible for keeping the number of trained lawyers low, which helped raise lawyers’ income whether earned through legal or illegal means.

Authorities sometimes allegedly coerced confessions through beatings or threats or forced illiterate defendants to sign written confessions without informing them of the contents. Courts accepted such forced confessions as evidence during trials despite legal prohibitions against doing so. According to a human rights NGO that observed the appellate court for a year (2017-18), 10 defendants were threatened and 21 defendants were tortured to confess. The only appeals court is in Phnom Penh, and NGOs reported that fewer than half of defendants were present at their appeals because of transport problems from other parts of the country.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

As of August a local human rights NGO estimated authorities held at least 40 political prisoners or detainees, 23 of whom were officials or supporters of the dissolved political opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. More than 80 opposition party supporters and activists arrested in 2019 were released on bail with charges still pending and could face re-arrest any time.

On January 15, CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s trial began. Initially, only a limited audience–one diplomat plus interpreter from each embassy–was permitted to observe proceedings. Under public pressure the court relented, also permitting NGO representatives and independent media to attend. Hearings in Sokha’s case were indefinitely postponed in March due to COVID-19 concerns and as of November had not resumed. In July the court warned Sokha that his trips to provinces outside of Phnom Penh could be interpreted as “political activities”–banned under the terms of his court-supervised release from house arrest. On October 16, local government authorities temporarily stopped Sokha from distributing aid to flood victims in Banteay Meanchey Province, deeming it a “political activity.”

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The country has a system in place for hearing civil cases, and citizens are entitled to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Some administrative and judicial remedies were available. NGOs reported, however, that public distrust in the judicial system due to corruption and political control deterred many from filing lawsuits and that authorities often did not enforce court orders.

Property Restitution

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

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

Authorities continued to force inhabitants to relocate from land in dispute, although the number of cases declined in recent years. Some persons also used the threat of legal action or eviction to intimidate poor and vulnerable persons into selling their land at below-market values. As of July a local NGO reported 44 new cases of land grabbing and forced evictions. Another human rights NGO investigated 33 new cases of land grabbing as of June, affecting 1,327 families across the country.

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

Although the law provides for the privacy of residence and correspondence and prohibits illegal searches, NGOs reported police routinely conducted searches and seizures without warrants. The government routinely leaked personal correspondence and recordings of telephone calls by opposition and civil society leaders to government-aligned media.

NGOs and international media reported that in May the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the cabinet published fake videos on social media in an attempt to smear the reputation of internationally renowned activist monk Luon Sovath. The videos of Sovath–known for his work documenting land rights abuses–included doctored recordings of his telephone conversations. The government used the social media postings as the reason for defrocking Sovath and charging him with sexual assault. Sovath subsequently fled the country and applied for political asylum in Switzerland.

Local authorities reportedly entered and searched community-based organizations and union offices.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

On April 29, a new state of emergency law went into effect. The law, which the prime minister claimed was necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic, allows the government to ban or limit freedoms of travel, assembly, information distribution, and the ability to leave one’s home during a declared emergency. NGOs and UN experts condemned the law, arguing that it lacked an effective oversight mechanism and could be used to infringe on the rights of the people. As of November the government had not declared a state of emergency.

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. Since 2017, however, the government has carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media and dissenting voices in the country and enacted ever-greater restrictions on free expression; many individuals and institutions reported widespread self-censorship.

Freedom of Speech: The constitution grants freedom of speech except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive implementing the criminal defamation law reiterates these limits.

Election laws require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaigns and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties in the media.

The government arrested and prosecuted citizens on disinformation and incitement charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Police and courts interpreted “incitement” broadly; as of June authorities had made more than 17 arrests for statements posted to social media, many related to the COVID-19 pandemic. NGOs reported that police forced 11 individuals to sign agreements not to post “fake news” in exchange for dropping charges. On March 12, police in Kampot forced a 14-year-old to apologize in front of her school after a classmate posted on social media her private message claiming that three persons had died of COVID-19 in her town. A Kampot NGO recorded 27 cases of violations of freedom of speech.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government, military forces, and the ruling party continued to own or otherwise influence newspapers and broadcast media; there were few significant independent sources for news. The three largest progovernment newspapers did not criticize the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. In April the Ministry of Information revoked the license of radio station Rithysen after the station owner criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Election Committee (NEC) code of conduct for the 2018 election established a substantial fine for reporters who interviewed any voter near a polling station or published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election.

Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. On June 25, the government arrested Ros Sokhet for “incitement to provoke social chaos” after he criticized on Facebook the government’s pandemic response. In April the government arrested Sovann Rithy, the owner of TV FB, on the same charge, after he posted on social media an exact quote from the prime minister telling motorbike taxi and tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers to sell their vehicles if they had trouble making ends meet amid the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On October 27, the Supreme Court ruled against an appeal by former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, allowing an investigation into espionage charges against the two to continue. The two were charged in 2017 with “collecting information illegally for a foreign nation” and in 2018 with distributing pornography. If found guilty of the first charge, the two face seven to 15 years in prison. NGOs and observers argued that the case was politically motivated and pointed to the prolonged trial and confiscation of the journalists’ passports as proof of government intimidation of media.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government, however, used other means to censor media, most notably through its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or the CPP. Private media admitted to practicing self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. Reporters claimed that newspaper editors told them not to write on topics that would offend the government and have also reported self-censoring due to the chilling effect of recent criminal cases against journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law limits expression that infringes on public security or libels or slanders the monarch, and it prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame the king, government leaders, or public institutions. The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests.

National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ and media’s rights to criticize government policies and officials.

From January to March, the government arrested 17 individuals who shared information about COVID-19 on social media. Government spokesperson Phay Siphan stated this information sharing was “disturbing and dangerous” and could affect national security and spread panic.

Internet Freedom

There were credible reports that government entities monitored online communications.

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

The government has the authority to shut down any social media page or website that publishes information leading to “turmoil in the society that undermine[d] national defense, national security, national relations with other countries, the economy, social order, discrimination, or national culture or tradition.” In April the government revoked the license of popular Facebook news site, TV FB, when the director posted–on his personal social media account–a quote from coronavirus-related remarks made by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A “cyber war team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit was responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. In 2019 the prime minister threatened that his cyber experts could in four minutes identify, to within five feet, the telephone of anyone who posted a defamatory Facebook post. On October 26, the prime minister played a recording of a private Zoom session in which exiled opposition parliamentarian Ho Vann allegedly urged opposition supporters to protest in front of the Chinese embassy. Hun Sen warned Ho Vann to “behave appropriately” as his wife and children were still living in Cambodia.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no formal or overt government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although scholars tended to exercise caution when teaching political subjects due to fear of offending politicians. Many individuals in academia resorted to self-censorship or expressed their opinions anonymously.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this right. Only 40 percent of respondents in a survey released in July for the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project said they felt free to assemble peacefully, compared with 65 percent in 2016.

The law requires advance notification for protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security–terms left undefined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation–as reasons for denying permits.

There were credible reports the government prevented associations and NGOs from organizing human rights-related events and meetings because those NGOs failed to receive permission from local authorities; although the law requires organizers to notify local authorities at least five days in advance of a demonstration, it does not require preapproval of such events. Government authorities occasionally cited the law to break up meetings and training programs deemed hostile to the government.

Despite these restrictions, the press reported a number of unauthorized public protests related to a variety of issues, including land and labor disputes and demands to release political prisoners. Since the arrest of union leader Rong Chhun on July 31, authorities on multiple occasions forcibly dispersed protesters demanding his release, leading to at least four injuries. In other cases police arrested and charged some demonstrators for trespassing on private property and protesting without a valid permit. On September 7, police arrested several organizers of a protest gathering in Phnom Penh planned for the following day to demand the release of Rong Chhun and other activists. The gathering went ahead, and some participants were arrested.

According to a local NGO, as of July there had been 62 cases of violations of freedom of assembly. Another human rights NGO recorded 185 assemblies–101 related to land rights, 68 to workers’ rights, and 16 others–taking place from April 2019 to March. Of those, authorities restricted 53 in some way and stopped 21 more.

On July 10, the fourth anniversary of the death of prominent government critic Kem Ley, authorities closed a convenience store at the Caltex Bokorpetrol gas station where he had been shot and stopped NGOs and activists from gathering in his hometown to prevent possible demonstrations or protests.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government continued to restrict it, targeting specifically groups it believed could be involved in political dissent. The law requires all associations and NGOs to register and to be politically neutral, which not only restricts the right to association but also restricts those organizations’ rights to free expression.

Vague provisions in several laws prohibiting any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and the culture of Cambodian society” created a substantial risk of arbitrary and politicized restriction of the right of association. According to critics, the laws on associations and trade unions establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, reinforcing legal and political objections to registering groups. Laws on reporting activities and finances, including the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts also impose burdensome obligations that also allow officials to restrict or close organizations for petty reasons. Some NGOs and unions complained that police carefully monitored their activities and intimidated participants by sending uniformed or plainclothes police to observe their meetings and training sessions.

A local NGO recorded 333 cases of the government restricting freedom of association from April 2019 to March, targeting the former opposition party in 182 cases, NGOs in 103, worker unions in 25, and informal community groups in 23.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. In April the government restricted the movement of persons into and out of the capital during the lunar new year holiday in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Exile: Some government critics and opposition politicians have gone into self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The system, however, is not equally accessible to all refugees and asylum seekers and is not transparent. Asylum seekers who enter the country without documentation or overstay their visas are vulnerable to deportation. The government does not grant resident status or a resident “book” to refugees, only a “refugee card.”

Freedom of Movement: Authorities restrict the movement of refugees. For example, local authorities require Montagnards who have been granted refugee status to stay confined to their temporary homes, aside from shopping trips for groceries and other essential items.

Employment: The law allows refugees to work and operate a business. Refugees, however, are generally not provided with resident status or resident books, making it difficult to exercise these rights.

Access to Basic Services: The government’s refusal to grant resident status and resident books to refugees limits their access to basic services.

g. Stateless Persons

The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless. According to UNHCR, there were an estimated 57,444 stateless persons in country as of the end of 2019, primarily ethnic Vietnamese. The government did not effectively implement laws or policies to provide such persons the opportunity to gain nationality (see section 6, Children). The most common reason for statelessness was lack of proper documents from the country of origin. According to an NGO, individuals without proof of nationality often did not have access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the courts, or the right to own land.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, in practice there is no such ability. By law the government has the ability to dissolve parties and ban individuals from party leadership positions and political life more broadly. The law also bars parties from using any audio, visual, or written material from a convicted criminal.

As of August only 12 of 118 CNRP officials barred from political activity from 2017-22 had applied for and been granted restoration of their political rights–three during the year and nine in 2019. Local experts and opposition party members complained the “rehabilitation” process is arbitrary, creates a false appearance of wrongdoing on the part of the banned politicians, and allows the prime minister to choose his own political opponents. The original ban on political activity followed the Supreme Court’s 2017 dissolution of the CNRP, a decision many decried as driven by political bias, noting that the decision was based on the accusation that its leader had committed “treason” before its leader was convicted on any charges. When the CNRP was dissolved, 5,007 local elected officials from the party were removed from their positions and replaced with CPP officials. The CPP dominates all levels of government from districts and provincial councils to the National Assembly.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national election occurred in 2018. Although 20 political parties participated, the largest opposition party, the CNRP, was excluded. The 19 non-CPP parties that competed in the election, many newly established, had limited support.

Although campaign laws require news outlets to give equal coverage to each party participating in an election, there was no evidence of the law’s enforcement during the 2018 election; news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties. Given the decline in independent media outlets, government-controlled news outlets provided the majority of content and coverage prior to the election. This was particularly the case in rural areas, where voters had less access to independent media.

Approximately 600,000 ballots cast in 2018 were invalid, compared with an estimated 100,000 in the previous election. Observers argued this was a sign of protest; given the pressure to vote and the absence of the CNRP from the ballot, many voters chose to spoil their ballots intentionally rather than vote for a party. According to government figures, 83 percent of registered voters went to the polls. The ruling CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Government statistics could not be verified due to a lack of independent observers.

Most independent analysts considered the entire election process seriously flawed. Most diplomatic missions to the country declined to serve as official observers in the election. Major nonstate election observation bodies, including the Carter Center and Asian Network for Free Elections, also decided against monitoring the election after determining the election lacked basic credibility. The National Election Committee accused the international community of bias, arguing the international community supported it only when the CNRP was on the ballot. Although nominally independent, the government installed closed-circuit television cameras in the committee offices, enabling it to observe the committee’s proceedings.

Political Parties and Political Participation: As of July a local NGO reported that 55 political parties were registered with the Ministry of Interior. Excepting the CPP and several small progovernment parties, political parties suffered from a wide range of legalized discrimination, selective enforcement of the law, intimidation, and biased media coverage. These factors contributed significantly to the CPP’s effective monopolization of political power. Membership in the CPP was a prerequisite for many government positions.

As of July there had been 23 incidences of threats to political activists, according to a local NGO. On October 19, two assailants on a motorbike assaulted Din Varin, secretary general of the executive committee of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, while he was walking home from a cafe in Phnom Penh, hitting him on the face with a large rock. As of November at least 10 opposition officials suffered similar assaults, but the government has not arrested any suspects.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of ethnic minorities in the political process, but cultural practices that relegate women to second-class status–epitomized by the Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct for women which dates back to the 14th century–limited women’s role in politics and government. Despite repeated vows by the CPP to increase female representation, the number of women elected to the National Assembly in the 2018 national election declined to 19, from 25 in the 2013 national election. The 2017 local elections saw participation for the first time of the Cambodia Indigenous People’s Democracy Party.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

Corruption: The penal code defines various corrupt acts and specifies penalties for them. The anticorruption law establishes the National Council against Corruption and the Anticorruption Unit to receive and investigate corruption complaints. The unit did not collaborate frequently with civil society and was considered ineffective in combating official corruption. Instead, it focused on investigations of opposition figures, leading to a widespread perception the unit served the interests of the ruling CPP.

The Anticorruption Unit has never investigated a high-level member of the ruling party, despite widespread allegations of corruption at senior levels of the party and government. For example, according to a Radio Free Asia report in September, the two daughters of senior minister and former commander-in-chief of the armed forces Pol Saroeun acted as fronts in a real estate fraud in Australia valued at roughly $100 million. A Radio Free Asia report in April said that Hun Kimlong, niece of Prime Minister Hun Sen and husband of police chief Neth Savoeun, spent $2.7 million on villas in Cyprus. Hun Kimlong and Neth were two of eight politically connected Cambodian elites identified in an October 2019 Reuters report as having gained Cypriot citizenship by investing more than $2.2 million each in that country.

Civil servants must seek clearance and permission from supervisors before responding to legislative inquiries about corruption allegations.

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

Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index report noted the judiciary remained the most corrupt sector of government for the fifth year in a row, followed by law enforcement.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public servants, including elected and appointed officials, to disclose their financial and other assets. The Anticorruption Unit is responsible for receiving the disclosures, with penalties for noncompliance ranging from one month to one year in prison. Senior officials’ financial disclosure statements were not publicly available and remained sealed unless allegations of corruption were filed. Only one financial disclosure statement has ever been unsealed, that of the then National Assembly vice president Kem Sokha. NGOs have long advocated amending anticorruption laws to place on the public record all property owned by government officials.

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

There were multiple reports of a lack of official cooperation with human rights investigations and in some cases, intimidation of investigators by government officials. The government threatened legal action against three NGOs–Licadho, STT, and Central–over the publication of a report on the negative effects of microlending on loan recipients.

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Although the government generally permitted visits by UN representatives with human rights responsibilities, authorities often turned down their requests for high-level meetings and denied them access to opposition officials, including Kem Sokha. Government spokespersons regularly chastised UN representatives publicly for their remarks on a variety of human rights problems.

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

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia continued to investigate and prosecute leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime who were most responsible for the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers are a hybrid tribunal, with both domestic and international jurists and staff, governed by both domestic law and an agreement between the government and the United Nations. Two separate cases, those of Meas Muth and Ao An, remained before the chambers. In August the Supreme Court moved to close the latter case, as there was no agreement to indict Ao An. As of November, the Extraordinary Chambers had not ruled whether they would proceed with either of the remaining cases.

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

Women

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

Rape and domestic violence were likely underreported due to fear of reprisal, social stigma, discrimination, and distrust of police and the judiciary. Women comprised a small proportion of judicial officials: 14 percent of judges, 12 percent of prosecutors, and 20 percent of lawyers, which likely contributed to underreporting of rape and domestic abuse. NGOs reported authorities inadequately enforced domestic violence laws and avoided involvement in domestic disputes.

Rape and domestic violence sometimes led to death: a local NGO reported 10 killings in a 2018 investigation of 39 cases of domestic violence and 18 of rape. In these 57 cases, authorities arrested only 23 perpetrators. Most observers believed neither authorities nor the public generally regarded domestic violence as a criminal offense.

The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs implemented a code of conduct for media reporting on violence against women, which bans publication of a survivor’s personal identifiable information, photographs of victims, depictions of a woman’s death or injury, depictions of nudity, and the use of certain offensive or disparaging words against women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also operated a reporting system within the government to increase accountability and transparency in the government’s response to violence against women.

Sexual Harassment: The penal code criminalizes sexual harassment, imposing penalties of six days to three months’ imprisonment and modest fines. Workplace sexual harassment is believed to be widespread (see section 7.d.).

On July 10, four female police officers submitted a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng reporting sexual assault by Ouk Kosal, the police chief of Kampong Thom Province. The letter stated they had reported the case on multiple occasions since 2018 but had yet to receive justice. The police chief resigned and became a monk within days of the letter going public, but as of November, no legal action was taken against him.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

According to the country’s 2019 census, the maternal mortality rate was 141 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 178 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015. Major factors influencing high maternal mortality rates included shortages of adequate health facilities, medications, and skilled birth attendants. According to the 2014 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey, the latest such survey available, the modern contraceptive prevalence rate among married women between 15 and 49 years was approximately 39 percent, and 12 percent of women between ages 15 to 19 years had given birth or were pregnant with their first child.

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

Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal rights for women and men, including equal pay for equal work and equal status in marriage. The government did not effectively enforce the law. For the most part, women had equal property rights, the same legal right as men to initiate divorce proceedings, and equal access to education, but cultural traditions and child-rearing responsibilities limited the ability of women to reach senior positions in business and government or even participate in the workforce (see section 7.d.).

The government expected women to dress according to “Khmer traditions.” In February Prime Minister Hun Sen accused some women of wearing “skimpy clothing” while selling goods online and ordered authorities to investigate. Two days later, police arrested Ven Rachana, a Facebook vendor, on charges of pornography for dressing in a way that “affects the honor of Cambodian women.” On April 24, she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Children

Birth Registration: By law children born to one or two ethnic Khmer parents are citizens. A child derives citizenship by birth to a mother and father who are not ethnic Khmer if both parents were born and living legally in the country or if either parent acquired citizenship through other legal means. Ethnic minorities are considered citizens. The Ministry of Interior administered the birth registration system, but not all births were registered immediately, primarily due to lack of public awareness of the importance of registering births and corruption in local government.

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

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

Child Abuse: Child abuse was common, and legal action against perpetrators was rare, according to observers. According to UNICEF’s Violence Against Children Report, approximately one in two Cambodian children had experienced extreme violence. Child rape continued to be a serious problem, and reporting of the crime rose in the past several years. As of July a local human rights NGOs investigated 67 cases of children’s rights violations, 56 of which were rape or attempted rape. On October 4, police arrested a 15-year-old autistic boy, accusing him of stealing property from the opposition party’s headquarters. Police handcuffed him and forced him to sign an agreement to stop entering prohibited areas before releasing him after two days in detention.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both men and women is 18; however, children as young as 16 may legally marry with parental permission.

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

The country remained a destination for child sex tourism. The government used the law to prosecute both sex tourists and citizens for the sexual exploitation of children. The law provides penalties ranging from two to 20 years in prison for commercial sexual exploitation of children. The law also prohibits the production and possession of child pornography.

Local human rights organizations and local experts were concerned about the government’s failure to punish appropriately foreign residents and tourists who purchase or otherwise engage in sex with children. Endemic corruption at all levels of the government severely limited investigations and prosecutions of child sex traffickers, and the government took no action to investigate or prosecute complicit officials.

Displaced Children: Displaced children represented a serious and growing problem. The government offered limited, inadequate services to street children at a single rehabilitation center in Phnom Penh. In 2017 a local NGO estimated there were 1,200 to 1,500 displaced street children in Phnom Penh with no relationship to their families and 15,000 to 20,000 children who worked on the streets but returned to families in the evenings.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs and other observers alleged many private orphanages were mismanaged and populated by sham orphans to lure donations from foreigners. From 36,000 to 49,000 children lived in residential care institutions or orphanages, according to UNICEF and research conducted by Columbia University in 2018. Approximately 80 percent of these children had at least one living parent. The study also found that residential care resulted in lower developmental and health outcomes for children and put them at higher risk for future exploitation. There were no state-supported or -operated orphanages or other child protection programs that provided safe alternatives for children.

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

Anti-Semitism

A small Jewish foreign resident community lived in Phnom Penh. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination, neglect, exploitation, or abandonment of persons with physical or intellectual disabilities but was not effectively enforced. The law does not address access to transport. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth has overall responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, although the law assigns specific tasks to other ministries, including the Ministries of Health, Education, Public Works and Transport, and National Defense.

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

Children with limited physical disabilities attended regular schools. According to a Ministry of Education report in 2019, there were 60,284 disabled students throughout the country. The ministry worked to train teachers on how to integrate students with disabilities into the class with nondisabled students. Children with more significant disabilities attended separate schools sponsored by NGOs in Phnom Penh; education for students with more significant disabilities was not available outside of Phnom Penh.

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Experts acknowledged an increase in negative attitudes towards the rising number of Chinese nationals in the country, in part due to perceived links with criminal activity, particularly in Sihanoukville. Khmer-language newspapers regularly reported stories of crimes committed by Chinese residents and business owners, including gang violence, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, pornography, drunk driving, and drug possession. On August 15, authorities arrested 29 Chinese nationals and charged them with kidnapping. In November the government reported it had deported 542 foreign nationals for illegal activities, most of them Chinese nationals, in the first nine months of the year. On November 20, Sihanoukville officials deported two Chinese women for prostitution.

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

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

LGBTI persons generally had limited job opportunities due to discrimination and exclusion. LGBTI persons were occasionally harassed or bullied for their work in the entertainment and commercial sex sectors.

A local LGBTI rights organization reported incidents of violence or abuse against LGBTI persons, including domestic violence by family members. Stigma or intimidation may have inhibited further reporting of incidents. Police did not prioritize investigations into LGBTI-related complaints.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law broadly provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, to bargain collectively, and to strike. The law excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, puts significant restrictions on the right to organize, limits the right to strike, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, and imposes minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices. The government failed to enforce applicable laws effectively. Penalties for discrimination in hiring and dismissing employees were commensurate with penalties for other types of discrimination.

Onerous registration requirements amounted to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. Union registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The law forbids unregistered unions from operating. Civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health-care, and informal sectors may form only “associations,” not trade unions, affording them fewer worker protections than unionized trades. The law also restricts illiterate workers from holding union leadership. The labor ministry approved 67 new unions in the first nine months of the year, down from 635 in 2017, although the COVID-19 pandemic may have interfered with the union registration process.

Some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew contracts with short-term employees who joined unions. (Most workers in the formal manufacturing sector were on short-term contracts.) Employers and local government officials often refused to provide necessary paperwork for unions to register. Some employers took advantage of the prolonged registration process to terminate elected union officials prior to the unions’ formal registration, making them ineligible to serve as union officers and further retarding the registration process.

Labor activists reported many banks refused to open accounts for unregistered unions, although unions are unable by law to register until they provide banking details. Provincial-level labor authorities reportedly stalled registration applications indefinitely by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice has decreased, particularly for garment- and footwear-sector unions.

Workers reported various other obstacles while trying to exercise their right to freedom of association. There were reports of government harassment of independent labor leaders, including the use of spurious legal charges. Several prominent labor leaders associated with the opposition or independent unions had charges pending against them or were under court supervision. Most notably, in July authorities arrested longtime union leader and head of the pro-opposition Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Rong Chhun, for “incitement” over comments he made to media criticizing the government for its handling of the border dispute with Vietnam. As of November, Rong was still in detention.

On January 17, authorities arrested four union leaders at a factory making handbags and charged them with “incitement” for organizing a protest to demand the reinstatement of three union members who had been fired. For nearly two months, until May 28, government officials, allegedly at the behest of her employer, Superl Cambodia, detained a union leader at a factory making women’s handbags after she posted on social media about the company’s plans to lay off workers.

In 2019 some 140 workers faced criminal charges for their union activities, with approximately 20 of them convicted, according to public reports.

Reports continued of other forms of harassment, sometime violent. In February, five masked men assaulted a union leader, sending him to the hospital. Some unions complained that police monitored their activities and intimidated members and guests by sending uniformed police to stand outside their offices during meetings (see section 2.b.). A construction workers union complained that authorities interrupted its meetings to ask for the union’s registration and lease documents.

Several unions reported increased union-busting activity amid the sharp economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in April, two factories fired five union leaders after they organized a protest against the government’s decision to postpone the Khmer New Year holiday. In July the Le Meridien Hotel in Siem Reap fired three union activists for social media comments and other advocacy for better wages for workers at the hotel.

The law stipulates that workers can strike only after meeting several requirements, including the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as conciliation, mediation, and arbitration); the completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the absolute majority of union members; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers can be criminally charged if they block entrances or roads or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. A court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers. In January a court issued such an injunction ordering workers at the NagaWorld hotel and casino complex not to strike; approximately 3,000 workers defied that court order and went on strike, ultimately securing higher wages and the reinstatement of a union leader whom NagaWorld had fired.

There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. Unions initiated most strikes without meeting all the requirements stated above, making them technically illegal, according to Better Factories Cambodia (BFC). Participating in an illegal strike, however, is not in itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers failed to renew the short-term contracts of union activists; in others, they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. Government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals were generally ineffective.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training’s Strike Demonstration Resolution Committee reported that during the first half of the year, 50,700 workers conducted 92 strikes and demonstrations, compared with 26 strikes involving 16,585 workers in the same period of 2019. The report stated the committee resolved 57 of the 92 cases successfully while 35 others went to the Arbitration Council. Most of the strikes concerned unpaid wages and denial of benefits following factory closures due to the sharp economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the year the government restricted workers’ right to assembly. Authorities turned down most union requests for rally permits on the grounds that social distancing would be difficult or impossible during such events. Unions complained that police prevented them from marching and broke up such activities before marchers could reach their destination.

The resolution of labor disputes was inconsistent, largely due to government officials’ ability to classify disputes as “individual” rather than “collective” disputes. The Arbitration Council only hears collective disputes. Unions reported progress in “minority” unions’ ability to represent workers in collective disputes. The Arbitration Council noted it received 45 cases in the first seven months of the year, down from 68 cases for the same period in 2019.

There is no specialized labor court. Labor disputes that are designated “individual” disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent.

The law places significant, detailed reporting responsibilities on labor unions, such as a requirement to submit annual financial statements, including, under some circumstances, independently audited statements. Union representatives feared many local chapters would not be able to meet the requirements, and unions that fail to meet these requirements face fines.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.

The government did not effectively enforce the law, and while there were penalties for employing forced labor or hiring individuals to work off debts (a maximum of one month’s jail time or a fine), they were not commensurate with penalties for analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping (at least one year of imprisonment). Officials reported forced labor was likely most common in the construction sector. Moreover, there was evidence that employers, particularly those operating brick kilns, were violating the law prohibiting forced or bonded labor.

Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear.

Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to a report from the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, by the end of 2019 more than 2.6 million persons in the country had loans from microfinance lenders totaling some $10 billion, contributing to an increase in child labor and bonded labor. The Cambodia Microfinance Association and Association of Banks in Cambodia disputed the size of the problem.

Forced overtime remained a problem in factories making products for export. Unions and workers reported some factory managers had fired workers who refused to work overtime.

Children were also at risk of forced labor (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law establishes 15 as the minimum age for most employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. Although the law prohibits work by children younger than 15, it does not apply to children outside of formal employment relationships. The law permits children between the ages of 12 and 15 to engage in “light work” that is not hazardous to their health and does not affect school attendance; an implementing regulation provides an exhaustive list of activities considered “heavy work.” These include agriculture, brickmaking, fishing, tobacco, and cassava production. The law limits most work by children between the ages of 12 and 15 to a maximum of four hours on school days and seven hours on other days and prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

Ministry of Labor regulations define household work and set the minimum age for it at 18. The regulation, however, does not specify rights or a minimum age for household workers employed by relatives.

The law stipulates fines for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions, but such sanctions were rarely imposed. The penalties for employing child labor were not commensurate with penalties for analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping (at least one year of imprisonment), with the exception of employing children in working conditions that affected the child’s health or physical development, which carries a two- to five-year prison sentence (10 years if the working conditions cause the child’s death).

Child labor inspections were concentrated in Phnom Penh and provincial formal-sector factories producing goods for export rather than in rural areas where the majority of child laborers work. Inadequate training also limited the local authorities’ ability to enforce child labor regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors. In addition, the National Committee on Countering Child Labor reported the labor inspectorate does not conduct inspections in hospitality or nightlife establishments after business hours because the inspectorate lacks funds to pay inspectors overtime. In 2019 the government stated it had imposed penalties on only three firms for violations of child labor standards.

Many children worked with their parents on rubber, cassava, cashew, and banana plantations, according to a union active in the agriculture sector. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of workers on those plantations were children.

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

Child labor in export-sector garment factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC has found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 550 covered factories. In its latest available report covering 2019, the BFC discovered only two children younger than 15 working in export garment factories. The BFC and others expressed concern, however, that child labor and other abuses may be more prevalent in factories making footwear and travel goods for export and with subcontractors to export-sector garment factories, as the BFC does not monitor these sectors or subcontractors.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

The government generally did not enforce these laws. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines, civil, and administrative remedies.

Harassment of women was widespread. Penalties for sexual harassment (six days to three months in jail, plus a fine, according to the criminal code) were not commensurate with penalties for several types of election interference (one to three years’ imprisonment). A 2018 BFC report stated that more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in their factory and 40 percent did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage covered only the garment and footwear sector. It was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.

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

Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained that employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10, including overtime. Workers often faced dismissal, fines, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the government did not do so effectively. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. Penalties for violating laws on minimum wage (six days to one month’s imprisonment) and overtime (a fine of 31 to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage) were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud (six months to three years’ imprisonment). Outside the export garment industry, the government rarely enforced working-hour regulations. The government enforced standards selectively due to poorly trained staff, lack of necessary equipment, and corruption. Ministry officials admitted their inability to carry out thorough inspections of working hours and stated they relied upon the BFC to do such inspections in export-oriented garment factories.

Because most construction companies and brick factories operated informally and without registration, workers in those sectors had few benefits. They are not entitled to a minimum wage, lack insurance, and work weekends and holidays with few days off. The majority of brick-factory workers did not have access to the free medical care provided by the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), because those factories were not registered as fund members.

By law workplace health and safety standards must be adequate to provide for workers’ well-being. Labor inspectors assess fines according to a complex formula based on the severity and duration of the infraction as well as the number of workers affected. Labor Ministry inspectors are empowered to assess these fines on the spot, without the cooperation of police, but no specific provisions protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law effectively. Government inspection of construction worksites was insufficient. Penalties for violating occupational safety and health laws (typically a fine of 30 to 120 times the prevailing daily base wage) were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud (six months to three years’ imprisonment.)

Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF noted that 239 workers in three factories reportedly fainted during the first six months of the year, down from 417 workers during the same period in 2019. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticides in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from production processes all continued to contribute to mass fainting.

Compliance with safety and health standards continued to be a challenge in the garment export sector due largely to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities.

Workers and labor organizations raised concerns that the use of short-term contracts (locally known as fixed-duration contracts) allowed firms, especially in the garment sector where productivity growth remained relatively flat, to avoid wage and legal requirements. Fixed-duration contracts also allowed employers greater freedom to dismiss union organizers and pregnant women simply by failing to renew their contracts. The law limits such contracts to a maximum of two years, but more recent directives allow employers to extend this period to up to four years. The Arbitration Council and the International Labor Organization disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee should be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract” (also see section 7.a.).

Work-related injuries and health problems were common. On January 4, a building still under construction collapsed in the coastal tourist town of Kep, killing 36 local workers and injuring 23 others. In July a crane collapse at a construction site in the border town of Poipet killed five persons.

Canada

Executive Summary

Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a federal parliamentary government. In a free and fair multiparty federal election held in October 2019, the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, won a plurality of seats in the federal parliament and formed a minority government.

National, provincial, and municipal police forces maintain internal security. The armed forces are responsible for external security but in exceptional cases may exercise some domestic security responsibility at the formal request of civilian provincial authorities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police report to the Department of Public Safety, and the armed forces report to the Department of National Defence. Provincial and municipal police report to their respective provincial authorities. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were reports members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of the use of unlawful deadly force by police; police use of undue or excessive force and harassment against indigenous persons; and official discrimination and violence against indigenous women and girls.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who may commit human rights 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 several reports that police committed unlawful killings. Indigenous leaders asserted that a disproportionate number of indigenous persons, who constitute approximately 5 percent of the country’s population, were killed during their interactions with law enforcement. In June a media outlet reported that, according to its analysis of all police shootings over the previous three years, an indigenous person was 10 times more likely than a white person to be killed by police. The media outlet found that 38 percent of individuals killed by police between January 2017 and June 2020 were indigenous. It also found that 46 percent of fatal police shootings that occurred during that time remained under investigation; law enforcement were charged with regard to one case, and 53 percent of officers involved in fatal shootings had been cleared.

On June 4, police in Edmundston, New Brunswick, killed indigenous woman Chantel Moore during a welfare check on her. On June 12, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) killed indigenous man Rodney Levi after they were called to remove him from an event at a pastor’s house in a community in New Brunswick. Provincial government investigations into both cases were in progress at year’s end.

In June, two RCMP officers were charged with criminal negligence resulting in death for their roles in the fatal shooting of Clayton Crawford at a highway rest area in 2018. Police sought to interview Crawford as a witness in a case. He was killed when police shot into his moving vehicle.

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. In April the government announced it would not appeal the Supreme Court’s March 2019 ruling that solitary confinement of longer than 15 days constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and the prohibition against use of solitary confinement went into effect. In June, however, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a federal prison ombudsman, determined federal prisons utilized solitary confinement as a means of controlling or preventing coronavirus outbreaks within prisons. In August prison advocacy groups stated that delays in furnishing a federal oversight panel with data on segregation practices implemented in federal prisons in lieu of solitary confinement made it impossible to determine whether the government adhered to the law. In the same month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission filed suit against the province, alleging it failed to respect its commitments to end use of solitary confinement in the provincial correctional system for persons with mental health disabilities.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. Seven provinces had civilian units to investigate killings by police officers and complaints against police actions, and two provinces and three territories called in investigators from other police forces to investigate incidents involving their officers.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were some reports that prison and detention center measures designed to control the spread of coronavirus raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns in prisons and detention centers regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse. Adults and juveniles were held separately, although minors were held with their parents in immigration detention centers as an alternative to separating families.

In April and June, the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator reported that certain prison measures designed to control the spread of the coronavirus, including nearly total confinement to inmates’ cells and lack of ability to communicate with the outside world, violated prisoners’ human rights and could not be justified under federal and international law despite the public health crisis.

Administration: Independent authorities investigated credible allegations of mistreatment and documented the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner, although such investigations slowed starting in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by independent nongovernmental human rights observers, although such visits were largely curtailed starting in March due to prison visitation restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Authorities generally relied upon warrants in the apprehension of persons. A judge may issue a warrant if satisfied a criminal offense might have been committed. A person arrested for a criminal offense has the right to a prompt, independent judicial determination of the legality of the detention. Authorities respected this right, although court operations were disrupted starting in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, which reduced prompt access to the judicial system. Authorities provided detainees with timely information on the reason for their arrest and provided prompt access to a lawyer of the detainee’s choice, or, if the detainee was indigent, a lawyer was provided by the state. Bail was generally available. Authorities may hold persons under preventive detention for up to seven days, subject to periodic judicial review.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality, although public trials were suspended starting in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and resumed beginning in July.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the independent judiciary generally enforced this right prior to the start of the pandemic, when public trials across the country were temporarily suspended as a public health measure. Aside from the pandemic, trials occur before a judge alone or, in more serious cases, before a judge and jury. Defendants have the right to a timely trial, to be present at their trial, and to consult with an attorney of their choice in a timely manner. The government provides an attorney at public expense if needed when defendants face serious criminal charges, and defendants may confront or question witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. Defendants and their attorneys generally had adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Defendants also enjoy a presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them (with free interpretation as necessary), the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, and the right of appeal.

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 and access to a domestic court to bring a suit seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation. Remedies can be monetary, declaratory, or injunctive. Federal or provincial human rights commissions may also hear alleged human rights violations. Individuals may also bring human rights complaints to the United Nations or Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Civil judicial procedures were particularly impacted by the pandemic, as courts prioritized criminal cases where possible.

Property Restitution

Canada helped draft the Terezin Declaration and endorsed it in 2009. It also endorsed the Terezin Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. Experts stated that Canada did not enact immovable property restitution laws because no such property was seized in the country during the Holocaust. According to the government, “the issue of displaced cultural property primarily affects those art museums and private collectors that acquired European fine and decorative art of unknown provenance from the period of 1933-1945.” The government’s Canadian Heritage Information Network hosts an online database known as Artefacts Canada, which contains five million object records and one million images from Canadian museums. Both museum professionals and the general public can access the database, which may assist museum professionals and Holocaust survivors and their heirs in identifying confiscated or looted movable property.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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 Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Freedom of Speech: According to Supreme Court rulings, the government may limit speech to counter discrimination, foster social harmony, or promote gender equality. The court ruled that the benefits of limiting hate speech and promoting equality are sufficient to outweigh the freedom of speech clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the country’s constitutional bill of rights.

The criminal code prohibits public incitement and willful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group in any medium. Inciting hatred (in certain cases) or genocide is a criminal offense, but the Supreme Court sets a high threshold for such cases, specifying that these acts must be proven to be willful and public. Provincial-level film censorship, broadcast-licensing procedures, broadcasters’ voluntary codes curbing graphic violence, and laws against hate literature and pornography impose some restrictions on media.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamatory libel with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, but courts seldom imposed such a punishment.

In June police arrested Andrzej Kumor, the publisher of Ontario Polish-language publication Goniec, related to anti-Semitic statements he published online. According to B’nai Brith Canada, police warned Kumor that he would be criminally charged for willful promotion of hatred if he published any additional anti-Semitic material, and he was released without charges. He later reportedly removed all anti-Semitic materials from Goniec’s online platforms.

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.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights prior to the start of the global pandemic. In the months after the pandemic began in March, however, the government implemented measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus that restricted movement. For example, the government closed the country’s borders to the arrival of new foreign travelers with limited exceptions, imposed a 14-day quarantine upon anyone permitted to enter from another country (such as returning citizens and residents), and recommended that citizens and residents of the country minimize foreign travel.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement from third countries and facilitated local integration (including naturalization), particularly of refugees in protracted situations. The government assisted the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection (in the form of temporary residence permits) to persons who may not qualify as refugees.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR, by the end of 2019, there were 3,790 persons in the country who fell under the UN statelessness mandate; 3,400 were considered as permanent residents and 390 as nonpermanent residents.

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: Following a free and fair federal election in October 2019, the Liberal Party won a plurality of seats in the federal parliament and secured a mandate to form a national government.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. In the 2019 federal election, 726 of 2,146 House of Commons candidates were women, which was a record high. Women won a record 29 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. The government of New Brunswick provided financial incentives to political parties to field female candidates in provincial elections.

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 allegations of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: In July the federal ethics commissioner launched investigations into the failure of the prime minister and finance minister to recuse themselves from the award of a sole source 900 million Canadian dollar (C$) ($692 million) pandemic-relief contract to the nonprofit organization WE Charity to administer a youth program. The prime minister, his family, his chief of staff, and some ministers, including the finance minister, had previously volunteered or fundraised for WE Charity, and some close family members of the prime minister and finance minister had earned income (e.g., speaking fees, direct wages, or salary) from the WE organizations. The commissioner also launched an investigation into the finance minister’s acceptance of approximately C$41,000 ($32,000) in personal travel from WE Charity, which the minister said was an oversight and repaid when the matter became public.

Financial Disclosure: Public officeholders, including elected members of the executive branch and their staffs and designated senior nonelected officials, are legally obligated to disclose information about their personal financial assets. Members of the legislative branch are not required to disclose financial holdings. These declarations, as well as an annual report, are available to the public through regular reports by a commissioner for conflict of interest and ethics. The commissioner may impose an administrative monetary penalty for noncompliance, but the law does not provide for criminal sanctions. Provincial governments provide independent audits of government business and ombudsman services.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: Federal and provincial human rights commissions enjoyed government cooperation, operated without government or party interference, and had adequate resources. Observers considered the commissions effective. Parliamentary human rights committees operated in the House of Commons and the Senate. The committees acted independently of government, conducted public hearings, and issued reports and recommendations to which the government provided written, public, and timely responses. Most federal departments and some federal agencies employed ombudsmen. Nine provinces and one territory also employed an ombudsperson.

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, as sexual assault, and the government enforced the law effectively. Penalties for sexual assault carry prison sentences of up to 10 years, up to 14 years for sexual assault with a restricted or prohibited firearm, and between four years and life for aggravated sexual assault with a firearm or committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with, a criminal organization. Most victims of sexual assault were women.

The law provides protections against domestic violence for both men and women, although most victims were women. Although the criminal code does not define specific domestic violence offenses, assault, aggravated assault, intimidation, mischief, or sexual assault charges apply to acts of domestic violence. Persons convicted of assault receive up to five years in prison. Assaults involving weapons, threats, or injuries carry terms of up to 10 years. Aggravated assault or endangerment of life carry prison sentences of up to 14 years. The government generally enforced the law effectively. Police received training in treating victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and agencies provided hotlines to report abuse.

Approximately 1,180 indigenous women disappeared or were killed from 1980 to 2012, according to a 2014 RCMP report. Indigenous advocates and a report issued in 2019 by the government-commissioned National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG) stated the number was probably far higher, since many deaths had gone unreported. Indigenous women and girls make up an estimated 4 percent of the country’s women but represented 16 percent of the women killed, according to government statistics.

The NIMMIWG concluded in June 2019 that the government’s treatment of indigenous peoples amounted to “deliberate race, identity, and gender-based genocide,” continued and required immediate action. The government failed to release an expected national action plan for addressing the inquiry’s 231 recommendations, attributing delay to a number of factors including the pandemic. Critics noted the federal government took few steps during the year to implement the recommendations. On June 3, the national inquiry’s former commissioners called for the government to appoint an impartial international organization to oversee implementation of the recommendations, which they said was “essential to address Canada’s responsibility for the commission of genocide and for violations of fundamental human rights.”

The government’s Family Violence Initiative involved 15 federal departments, agencies, and crown corporations, including Status of Women Canada, Health Canada, and Justice Canada. These entities worked with civil society organizations to eliminate violence against women and to advance women’s human rights. The government continued a national strategy to prevent and address gender-based violence, budgeting C$101 million ($77.8 million) over five years to create a center of excellence within Status of Women Canada for research, data collection, and programming. The 2018 federal budget allocated an additional C$86 million ($66 million) over five years, starting in 2018-19, and C$20 million ($15.4 million) per year thereafter, to expand the strategy with a focus on preventing teen-dating violence, bullying, and cyberbullying; health care for victims; investigative policing; police training; research; funding for rape crisis and sexual assault centers; and programs to prevent gender-based violence in postsecondary educational institutions. Provincial and municipal governments also sought to address violence against women, often in partnership with civil society.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C of women and girls and prosecutes the offense, including parents of minors, as aggravated assault with a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment. FGM/C occurred on occasion, predominantly in diaspora communities. While internal government reports leaked to media asserted that FGM/C practitioners and victims often travelled to the country of the practitioners’ origin for the illegal procedure, officials also sought to prevent the entry of FGM/C practitioners into the country.

Sexual Harassment: The law offers protections from sexual harassment at the workplace but does not articulate a specific offense of “sexual harassment” outside of work; instead it criminalizes harassment (defined as stalking), punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and sexual assault, with penalties ranging from 10 years for nonaggravated sexual assault to life imprisonment for aggravated sexual assault. Federal, provincial, and territorial human rights commissions have responsibility for investigating and resolving harassment complaints. Employers, companies, unions, educational facilities, professional bodies, and other institutions had internal policies against sexual harassment, and federal and provincial governments provided public education and guidance.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. No significant legal, social, or cultural barriers or government policies adversely affected access to contraception; cost has been cited as the most important barrier to contraception access in the country, particularly for young and low-income women. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including through dedicated sexual assault care centers. Skilled health attendants were available during pregnancy and childbirth and were publicly funded, although women in rural and Arctic areas had more difficulty accessing care. The country’s adolescent birth rate varied widely by province. In Ontario, the most populous province which includes multiple urban centers, the birth rate was 4.3 per 1,000 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19, while in the rural northern territory of Nunavut, the rate was 97.3 per 1,000.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of the government during the year. In 2018 the Ministries of Indigenous Services and Health sent a letter to provincial and territorial ministers as well as to members of the medical community expressing concern over reports from indigenous women that they were involuntarily sterilized after giving birth. More than 100 women reported they had been sterilized without their proper and informed consent. At least 60 women joined a class action litigation against the province of Saskatchewan for their coerced sterilization between 1972 and 2017; the case was pending as of August.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status and rights in the judicial system as men, and the government enforced these rights effectively.

In January the government released data regarding female representation on corporate boards. The government determined that in 2017 (the most recent year for which data was available), 18 percent of board seats were held by women. Solely men composed 61 percent of boards. Seven provinces and two territories require private-sector companies to report annually on their efforts to increase the number of women appointed to executive corporate boards. The government’s statistical agency reported that hourly wages for women were, on average, lower than for men but that the wage gap had narrowed to 87 cents for women for every dollar earned by men, except at the top of corporate structures.

First Nations women living on reservations (where land is held communally) have matrimonial property rights. First Nations may choose to follow federal law or may enact their own rules related to matrimonial real property rights and interests that respect their customs.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived both by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. Births are registered immediately and are neither denied nor provided on a discriminatory basis.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes violence and abuse against children, including assault, sexual exploitation, child pornography, abandonment, emotional maltreatment, and neglect. Provincial and territorial child welfare services investigate cases of suspected child abuse and may provide counseling and other support services to families, or place children in child welfare care, when warranted.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law establishes 16 years as the legal minimum age of marriage with parental consent. Early marriages were not known to be a major problem.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, and offering or procuring a child for child prostitution and practices related to child pornography. Authorities enforced the law effectively. The minimum age of consensual sex is 16 years. Persons convicted of living from the proceeds of the prostitution of a child younger than age 18 face between two and 14 years’ imprisonment. Persons who aid, counsel, compel, use, or threaten to use violence, intimidation, or coercion in relation to a child younger than age 18 engaging in prostitution face between five and 14 years’ imprisonment. Persons who solicit or obtain the sexual services of a child younger than age 18 face between six months’ and 10 years’ imprisonment. Children, principally teenage girls, were exploited in sex trafficking. Children from indigenous communities, at-risk youth, runaway youth, and youth in the child welfare system were at high risk for trafficking.

The law prohibits accessing, producing, distributing, and possessing child pornography. Maximum penalties range from 18 months’ imprisonment for summary offenses to 10 years’ imprisonment for indictable offenses.

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

Anti-Semitism

Approximately 1 percent of the population is Jewish.

The B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights received 2,207 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, the latest available figures and an 8 percent increase from 2018. Out of this total, there were 2,011 incidents of anti-Semitic harassment in 2019, up 11 percent from 2018. B’nai Brith also reported there were 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence and 221 reports of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2019.

In January a Quebec man appeared in court on charges of inciting hatred and advocating genocide for posting alleged racist and homophobic slurs on social media in 2019 and in January. The posts targeted Jews, Muslims, black persons, and homosexuals, and it promoted Aryan supremacy. In June he pled guilty to inciting hatred against an identifiable group through social networks. A court sentenced him to seven and one-half months in prison and released him with credit for time served in pretrial detention.

In June an Ontario man was arrested for allegedly painting swastikas and the names of Adolf Hitler, senior Nazi officials related to the Holocaust, and Anne Frank at nine different sites in Barrie, Ontario. The man was charged with nine counts of mischief for vandalism of property.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. Federal and provincial governments effectively implemented laws and programs mandating access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities, but regulation varies by jurisdiction. The federal Accessible Canada Act became law in June 2019 to “identify, remove, and prevent” accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction.

Disability rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that persons with disabilities experienced higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, lower rates of job retention, and higher rates of poverty and economic marginalization than the broader population. Mental-disability advocates asserted the prison system was not sufficiently equipped or staffed to provide the care necessary for those in the criminal justice system, resulting in cases of segregation and self-harm.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law prohibits discrimination because of race. Federal, provincial, and territorial human rights commissions investigated complaints and raised public awareness. The federal Canadian Race Relations Foundation coordinates and facilitates public education and research and develops recommendations to eliminate racism and promote harmonious race relations.

In September, five indigenous persons attacked and stabbed a black man in a Manitoba park while yelling racial slurs. Police arrested three of the perpetrators charged them with assault and public incitement of hatred, and continued to search for the other two assailants.

Indigenous People

Indigenous peoples constituted approximately 5 percent of the national population and much higher percentages in the country’s three territories: Yukon, 23 percent; Northwest Territories, 52 percent; and Nunavut, 86 percent. Disputes over land claims, self-government, treaty rights, taxation, duty-free imports, fishing and hunting rights, and alleged police brutality and harassment were sources of tension. Indigenous peoples remained underrepresented in the workforce, leadership positions, and politics; more susceptible than other groups to suicide, poverty, chronic health conditions, and sexual violence; and overrepresented on welfare rolls and in prison populations. In January the government announced the proportion of indigenous persons serving federal sentences had reached a record high: indigenous women constituted 42 percent of all incarcerated women, and more than 30 percent of all incarcerated individuals were indigenous. According to the government’s statistical agency, approximately 22 percent of all homicide victims in 2018 were indigenous, and the rate of homicide was five times higher for indigenous persons than nonindigenous persons.

The law recognizes individuals registered under the Indian Act based on indigenous lineage and members of a recognized First Nation as Status Indians and eligible for a range of federal services and programs. Status and services are withheld from unregistered or nonstatus indigenous persons who do not meet eligibility criteria for official recognition or who may have lost status through marriage to a nonindigenous person or other disenfranchisement. In 2016, according to the government’s statistical agency, 52 percent of children in foster care were indigenous, although indigenous children accounted for less than 8 percent of the child population. Approximately 14,970 of 28,665 foster children in private homes younger than age 15 were indigenous. In January a law came into effect that affirms and recognizes First Nations, Inuit, and Metis jurisdiction over child and family services with the goal of keeping indigenous children and youth connected to their families, communities, and culture. In July the government of Ontario announced reform of its child welfare system with a goal of reducing the number of indigenous children in provincial foster care by 25 percent and mandating that 85 percent of placements be made with caregivers related to a child’s family of origin to allow children to retain cultural, familial, and community connections.

The law recognizes and specifically protects indigenous rights, including rights established by historical land claims settlements. Treaties with indigenous groups form the basis for the government’s policies in the eastern part of the country, but there were legal challenges to the government’s interpretation and implementation of treaty rights. Indigenous groups in the western part of the country that had never signed treaties continued to claim land and resources, and many continued to seek legal resolution of outstanding issues. As a result the evolution of the government’s policy toward indigenous rights, particularly land claims, depended on negotiation or legal challenges.

The law imposes statutory, contractual, and common-law obligations to consult with indigenous peoples on the development and exploitation of natural resources on land covered by treaty or subject to indigenous land claims. According to a Supreme Court ruling, the federal government has the constitutional duty to consult and, where appropriate, accommodate indigenous peoples when the government contemplates actions that may adversely affect potential or established indigenous and treaty rights.

A Supreme Court decision affirmed that indigenous title extends to territory used by indigenous peoples for hunting, fishing, and other activities prior to contact with Europeans, as well as to settlement sites. Provincial and federal governments may develop natural resources on land subject to indigenous title but are obliged to obtain consent of the indigenous titleholders in addition to existing constitutional duties to consult, and where necessary, accommodate indigenous peoples in matters that affect their rights. If governments cannot obtain consent, they may proceed with resource development only based on a “compelling and substantial objective” in the public interest, in which the public interest is proportionate to any adverse effect on indigenous interests. The court has established that indigenous titles are collective in nature.

First Nations, Inuit, and Metis former students of federal and provincial government-funded day schools filed a national class-action lawsuit in 2018 for alleged physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and loss of culture and language, which they claimed they suffered in church-run schools they were legally compelled to attend since 1920. In May 2019 the federal court approved a settlement between the government and former students who suffered harm while attending the schools, whereby some former students would receive C$10,000 ($7,700) in individual compensation, and students who experienced physical and sexual abuse were eligible for additional compensation, ranging from C$50,000 ($38,500) to C$200,000 ($154,000). The claims period was scheduled to remain open until July 2022.

Contaminated drinking water was a problem in many indigenous communities. The 2018 budget provided C$172.6 million ($133 million) over three years for infrastructure projects to support high-risk water systems. The government committed to end all drinking water advisories on indigenous lands by March 2021.

In October, Joyce Echaquan, an indigenous woman, used her cellphone to record derogatory and discriminatory comments made to her by nurses at a Joliette, Quebec, hospital as she lay dying and asked for pain relief. The hospital fired a nurse and orderly when the recording became public. The prime minister publicly deplored the abuse as an example of systemic racism. The premier of Quebec, whose government has jurisdiction over health care, issued a public, formal apology to the Echaquan family and publicly committed to investigating complaints of racism and mistreatment of indigenous patients at the hospital and to introducing training on indigenous culture for physicians and nurses. At the request of the Quebec government, the provincial chief coroner ordered a public inquiry into Echaquan’s death that remained pending at year’s end.

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

Conversion therapy designed to change a person’s sexual orientation is lawful, and government data reflected that approximately 20 percent of sexual minority men had undergone some form of conversion therapy. The law prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services, including health care, and the government enforced the law.

Police-reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation declined 15 percent in 2018 (the most recent data available) to 173 incidents.

In June a gay man camping in British Columbia was assaulted by seven strangers and suffered a concussion. The group reportedly yelled antigay slurs at the man while beating him. Police investigated the incident but as of October had made no arrests.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

There were reports of societal violence and discrimination against members of other minority, racial, and religious groups, but the government generally implemented effectively the law criminalizing such behavior.

There were reports of harassment of members of East Asian communities, especially ethnic Chinese, related to the coronavirus pandemic, including name-calling, negative social media posts, and intimidation. In March a white man shoved an elderly East Asian man with dementia out of a Vancouver convenience store and onto the ground while yelling racist slurs related to the coronavirus. Police charged the assailant with assault.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Federal and some provincial laws, including related regulations and statutory instruments, provide for the right of workers in both the public and the private sectors to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. Workers in the public sector who provide essential services, including police and armed forces, do not have the right to strike but have mechanisms to provide for due process and to protect workers’ rights. Workers in essential services had recourse to binding arbitration if labor negotiations failed. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination or other forms of employer interference in union functions.

Federal labor law applies in federally regulated sectors, which include industries of extra provincial or international character, transportation and transportation infrastructure that cross provincial and international borders, marine shipping, port and ferry services, air transportation and airports, pipelines, telecommunications, banks, grain elevators, uranium mining and processing, works designated by the federal parliament affecting two or more provinces, protection of fisheries as a natural resource, many First Nation activities, and most state-owned corporations. These industries employed approximately 10 percent of workers.

The law requires the government and a bargaining unit to negotiate an essential services agreement defining an essential service and identifying the number and type of employees and the specific positions within the bargaining unit necessary to provide such essential service and, consequently, do not have the right to strike. If the parties are unable to agree, either party can apply to the independent Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board for a resolution. The law also allows a bargaining unit to choose between arbitration and conciliation as the process for resolving collective bargaining disputes if it is unable to resolve the dispute directly with the employer.

Provincial and territorial governments regulate and are responsible for enforcing their own labor laws in all occupations and workplaces that are not federally regulated, leaving categories of workers excluded from statutory protection of freedom of association in several provinces. Some provinces restrict the right to strike. For example, agricultural workers in Ontario and Quebec do not have the right to organize or bargain collectively, or experience restrictions on such rights, under provincial law. Migrant workers in specific occupations, such as agriculture or caregiving, may also be exempt from minimum wage, overtime, and other labor standards protections in specific provinces.

The government generally respected freedom of association and the right of collective bargaining. The government effectively enforced applicable laws and regulations, including with remedies and penalties such as corrective workplace practices and criminal prosecution for noncompliance and willful violations. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations and were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were not subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the government effectively enforced the law. The law prescribes penalties that are sufficiently stringent to deter violations. The government investigated and prosecuted cases of forced labor, including domestic servitude, and penalties were commensurate with penalties for other analogous serious crimes. The government’s efforts to identify victims and address forced labor, through both law enforcement and victim identification and protection measures, remained inadequate.

The federal government held employers of foreign workers accountable by verifying employers’ ability to pay wages and provide accommodation and, through periodic inspections and mandatory compliance reviews, ensuring that employers provided the same wages, living conditions, and occupation specified in the employers’ original job offer. The government can deny noncompliant employers the permits required to recruit foreign workers for two years and impose fines of up to C$100,000 ($77,000) per violation of the program. Some provincial governments imposed licensing and registration requirements on recruiters or employers of foreign workers and prohibited the charging of recruitment fees to workers.

There were reports that employers subjected employees with temporary or no legal status to forced labor in the agricultural sector, food processing, cleaning services, hospitality, construction industries, and domestic service. During the pandemic there were also reports that some employers barred migrant workers from leaving the work location, hired private security to prevent workers from leaving, and deducted inflated food and supply costs from their wages. NGOs reported bonded labor, particularly in the construction industry, and domestic servitude constituted the majority of cases of forced labor and that some victims had participated in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

In June the prime minister publicly acknowledged that the government had “not done enough” to protect migrant farm workers from the coronavirus pandemic. In August the government committed C$58.6 million ($44.9 million) to improve the health and safety of migrant farm workers, including increased inspections and better accommodations.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. There is no federal minimum age for employment. In federally regulated sectors, children younger than age 17 may work only when they are not required to attend school under provincial legislation, provided the work does not fall under excluded categories (such as work underground in a mine, on a vessel, or in the vicinity of explosives), and the work does not endanger health and safety. Children may not work in any federally regulated sector between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The provinces and territories have primary responsibility for regulation of child labor, and minimum age restrictions vary by province. Enforcement occurs through a range of laws covering employment standards, occupational health and safety, education laws, and in regulations for vocational training, child welfare, and licensing of establishments for the sale of alcohol. Most provinces restrict the number of hours of work to two or three hours on a school day and eight hours on a nonschool day and prohibit children ages 12 to 16 from working without parental consent, after 11 p.m., or in any hazardous employment.

Authorities effectively enforced child-labor laws and policies, and federal and provincial labor ministries carried out child-labor inspections either proactively or in response to formal complaints. There were reports that limited resources hampered inspection and enforcement efforts. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

There were reports child labor occurred, particularly in the agricultural sector. There were also reports children, principally teenage girls, were subjected to sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children).

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin or citizenship, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, HIV-positive status, or other communicable diseases. The law does not include restrictions on women’s employment concerning working hour limits, occupations, or tasks. In June 2019 Quebec overrode constitutional protections of freedom of religion for a period of five years to pass a law that restricts the wearing of visible religious symbols–including hijabs, kippahs, turbans, and crosses–by certain public-sector employees to enforce a policy of religious neutrality in the delivery of provincial public services. Some provinces, including Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the Northwest Territories, prohibit employment discrimination on the grounds of social origin, “social condition,” or political opinion. The government enforced the law effectively, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were generally commensurate to laws related to civil rights.

Federal law requires, on a complaint basis, equal pay for equal work for four designated groups in federally regulated industries enforced through the Canadian Human Rights Commission: women, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and visible minorities. Ontario and Quebec have pay equity laws that cover both the public and private sectors, and other provinces require pay equity only in the public sector.

Authorities encouraged individuals to resolve employment-related discrimination complaints through internal workplace dispute resolution processes as a first recourse, but federal and provincial human rights commissions investigated and mediated complaints and enforced the law and regulations. Some critics complained the process was complex and failed to issue rulings in a timely manner. Foreign migrant workers have the same labor rights as citizens and permanent residents, although NGOs alleged discrimination occurred against migrant workers and that some refugee claimants faced language and other nonlegal barriers that made it difficult to enter the workforce.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. In 2018 the government adopted the Market Basket Measure as its first official poverty line. The income level varies based on family size and province; for example, the threshold for a family of four in Ottawa was $47,233 in 2018, the most recent date for which data was available. The government effectively enforced wage rates, and penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.

Standard work hours vary by province, but the limit is 40 or 48 hours per week, with at least 24 hours of rest. The law requires payment of a premium for work above the standard workweek. There is no specific prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime, which is regulated by means of the required rest periods in the labor code that differ by industry. Some categories of workers have specific employment rights that differ from the standard, including commercial fishermen, oil-field workers, loggers, home caregivers, professionals, managers, and some sales staff.

Federal law provides safety and health standards for employees under federal jurisdiction. Provincial and territorial legislation provides for all other employees, including foreign and migrant workers. Standards were current and appropriate for the industries they covered. Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations resides with authorities, employers, and supervisors, not the worker. Federal, provincial, and territorial laws protect the right of workers with “reasonable cause” to refuse dangerous work and to remove themselves from hazardous work conditions, and authorities effectively enforced this right. The government also promoted safe working practices and provided training, education, and resources through the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, a federal agency composed of representatives of government, employers, and labor.

Minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational health and safety standards were effectively enforced, and penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes. Federal and provincial labor departments monitored and effectively enforced labor standards by conducting inspections through scheduled and unscheduled visits, in direct response to reported complaints, and at random. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Some trade unions claimed that limited resources hampered the government’s inspection and enforcement efforts.

NGOs reported migrants, new immigrants, young workers, and the unskilled were vulnerable to violations of the law on minimum wage, overtime pay, unpaid wages, and excessive hours of work. NGOs also alleged that restrictions on the types of labor complaints accepted for investigation and delays in processing cases discouraged the filing of complaints.

According to the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada, during 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 1,027 workplace fatalities.

Central African Republic

Executive Summary

The Central African Republic is a presidential republic. Professor Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected in the second round of presidential elections in 2016 for a five-year term. In February 2019 the government and 14 armed groups signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation. President Touadera appointed Firmin Ngrebada as prime minister. The first round of presidential and legislative elections were held on December 27. Violence by armed groups reportedly prevented 26 out of 68 subprefectures from voting, and interrupted the vote in an additional six subprefectures. Observers noted minor irregularities in voting locations. Election results were still pending at year’s end.

Police and gendarmes have responsibility for enforcing law and maintaining order. The Central African Armed Forces report to the Ministry of Defense. Police and the gendarmerie report to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security. Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces continued to improve but remained weak. Members of the security forces committed some abuses. State authority beyond the capital improved with the increased deployment of prefects and troops in provincial capitals. Armed groups, however, still controlled significant swaths of territory throughout the country and acted as de facto governing bodies in those areas, taxing local populations and appointing armed group members to leadership roles.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest by security forces; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including killing of civilians, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuses or punishment, unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers and other conflict-related abuses by armed groups; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct between adults; and forced child labor.

The government took steps to investigate and prosecute government officials for alleged human rights abuses, including in the security forces. Nevertheless, a climate of impunity and a lack of access to legal services remained obstacles.

Intercommunal violence and targeted attacks on civilians by armed groups continued. Armed groups perpetrated serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law during these internal conflicts. Ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups committed unlawful killings, torture and other mistreatment, abductions, sexual assaults, looting, and destruction of property. The government stated it was investigating several high-profile cases of intercommunal violence during the year and considering charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes against perpetrators.

Note: This report refers to the “ex-Seleka” for all abuses attributed to the armed factions associated with Seleka, including the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic, the Union for Peace, which occurred after the Seleka was dissolved in 2013. Although the 3R armed group is not a member of the ex-Seleka, they also committed serious human rights abuses during 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 several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year (see section 1.g.). In a report published by the Human Rights Council in August, the UN’s independent expert stated that state security forces allegedly committed human rights abuses against civilians, including rape, use of minors at checkpoints, theft of cattle from the Peuhls, torture, and killing. Consistent with the code of military justice enacted in March 2017, military tribunals, martial courts, appeals courts, and the Court of Cassation have jurisdiction to try any violation by the military. The last session of the military court, however, dated back to 2013, and existing practice is for military offenses to be tried at the criminal court, which holds only two session a year.

In August a member of the armed forces stationed in Baoro, west of the country near the town of Bouar, killed a driver and his girlfriend out of jealousy.

In December media reports indicated a group that included Russian private military contractors, invited to the country by the government to assist with election security, and the country’s military elements used excessive force against civilians at a road checkpoint in Grimari, resulting in the death of at least four civilians, including a local employee of an international humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were reports that forces from the ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups were responsible for politically motivated disappearances. Those abducted included police and civilians (see section 1.g.).

There were multiple reports of disappearances committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for the purposes of recruitment and extortion (see section 1.g.).

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

Although the law prohibits torture and specifies punishment for those found guilty of physical abuse, there were reports from NGOs that Central African Armed Forces (FACA) soldiers, gendarmes, and police were responsible for torture (see section 1.g.).

In June an NGO reported that a female employee of a local bank was arrested and tortured by a police unit known as the Office for the Repression of Banditry (OCRB).

Impunity remained persistent throughout the country. Contributing factors included poorly trained officials, inadequate staffing, and insufficient resources. Additionally, claims of corruption among top government officials, delayed receipt of salaries for law enforcement and judiciary employees, and threats from local armed groups if officials arrested or investigated members persisted. The mechanisms to investigate abuses included the gendarmerie and the court prosecutors. Military tribunals, martial courts, appeal courts, and the court of cassation have jurisdiction to try any violation by the military. The last session of the military court dated back to 2013. Consequently, military offenses, such as torture, are tried at the criminal court, which holds only two sessions a year.

The government worked with the EU to provide training on human rights for FACA and gendarme units.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

According to an independent expert with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international NGOs, conditions in prisons did not generally meet international norms and were often inhuman.

The UN Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) detained and transferred to government custody several medium- and high-level armed group members.

Physical Conditions: The government operated three prisons in or near Bangui: Ngaragba Central Prison, its high-security Camp de Roux annex for men, and Bimbo Women’s Prison. A combination of international peacekeepers, FACA, prison officers trained by MINUSCA and the Ministry of Justice, and judicial police guarded both men’s and women’s prisons.

On April 25, President Touadera signed a decree granting pardon to 227 prisoners to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. The pardon was directed at convicted minors, pregnant or breastfeeding women, prisoners ages 60 and older, and those with a chronic, serious, or contagious disease. Prisoners charged or convicted of murder, war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, attacks against the internal security of the State, burning of a residential house, and rape of minors younger than age 14 were excluded from the pardon.

On June 24, local press reported that Moussa Fadoul, former mayor of the fifth district of Bangui, died at Camp de Roux military prison due to medical neglect. Fadoul was apprehended in April 2019 by the police service from the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry (OCRB) during an attempted theft of a humanitarian vehicle. Following the death of Fadoul, the remaining prisoners protested, demanding better living conditions, medical care, and adequate legal provisions. In a press conference held on September 30, Central African judicial authorities noted that of the 38 prison centers in the country, 13 had been rehabilitated by the partners of the Central African Republic, mainly MINUSCA.

Nine prisons were operational outside the Bangui area: Bangassou, Bouar, Berberati, Bimbo, Bossangoa, Bambari, and Mbaiki. In March detention facilities rehabilitated by MINUSCA in Bangassou and Paoua reopened. In other locations, including Bossembele and Boda, police or gendarmes kept prisoners in custody. Most prisons were extremely overcrowded. Necessities, such as food, clothing, and medicine, were inadequate and were often confiscated by prison officials. Prisons lacked basic sanitation and ventilation, electricity, basic and emergency medical care, and sufficient access to potable water. Diseases were pervasive in all prisons. Official statistics regarding the number of deaths in prison were not available. Conditions were life threatening and substantially below international standards. The national budget did not include adequate funds for food for prison inmates.

Authorities sometimes held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and failed to separate prisoners by gender. In Bangui, however, prisoners were separated by gender. Smaller prisons in cities such as Bouar, Mbaiki, Berberati, and Bossangoa segregated male prisoners from female prisoners, but conditions were substantially below international standards. Female prisoners were placed in facilities without ventilation or electricity. All detainees, including pregnant women, slept on thin straw mats on concrete floors.

There were no detention centers or separate cells in adult prisons for juvenile offenders. The accusations against detainees ranged from murder to witchcraft and petty crimes. Police and gendarmes held individuals beyond the statutory limits for detention before imposing formal charges.

Prisons were consistently underfunded with insufficient operating resources for the care of prisoners. Additionally, prison guards and administrators were accused of charging prisoners, prisoners’ family members, and other visitors’ unofficial fees. The Central African Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH) reported that a prison officer at Ngaragba prison refused to release a prisoner despite the judge’s release order.

Administration: Prison detainees have the right to submit complaints of mistreatment, but victims rarely exercised this option due to the lack of a functioning formal complaint mechanism and fear of retaliation from prison officials. There were reports that complainants paid police or gendarmes fees for their complaints to be heard. Authorities seldom initiated investigations of abuse in prisons.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by UNHCR independent experts and international donors. The government also permitted monitoring by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert on human rights in the CAR.

Improvements: On May 28, the UN Development Program completed renovation on the prison in Camp de Roux. According to MINUSCA, the prison structure met international standards.

On June 23, 149 civilian prison officers from the first phase of initial training at the National School of Administration and Magistracy started their practical training. This training is part of a national strategy for the demilitarization of prisons, one of the priorities of the Ministry of Justice, jointly supported by MINUSCA, the UN Development Program, and UN Women.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government sometimes observed these requirements. There were, however, reports of arbitrary detention and lengthy pretrial detention. Problems included a lack of affordable legal representation and slow, if any, response from the judiciary system.

MINUSCA’s uniformed force of 12,870 military personnel, police officers, and military observers was tasked to protect the civilian population from physical violence within its capabilities and areas of deployment. MINUSCA’s 2,080 police officers were authorized to make arrests and transfer persons to national authorities.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Judicial warrants are not required for arrest. The law, however, stipulates that authorities must inform detainees of their charges and present them before a magistrate within 72 hours. This period is renewable once, for a total of 144 hours. The only exceptions are suspects involving national security. Authorities often did not respect these deadlines, in part due to poor recordkeeping, inefficient and slow judicial procedures, and insufficient number of judges.

Authorities sometimes followed legal procedures in cases managed by gendarmes or local police. Many detainees could not afford a lawyer. Although the law provides that a lawyer be provided for those unable to pay in felony cases where a sentence of 10 years or more could be imposed, lawyers are not provided for nonfelony cases. Remuneration for state-provided attorneys was 5,000 CFA francs ($8.80) per case, which deterred many lawyers from taking such cases. After lawyers protested for higher wages, their remuneration was increased for the 2019-20 criminal sessions to 50,000 CFA francs ($90) per case.

For individuals detained by ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka and placed in illegal detention centers, legal procedures were not followed and access to lawyers was not provided.

Prosecution of persons subject to sanctions by the UN Sanctions Committee did not occur during the year.

Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Arbitrary arrest was a serious problem, however, and ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups arbitrarily targeted and detained individuals.

On June 2, ex-Seleka Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC) forces detained and tortured three men in Bria accused of malfeasance. One of the detainees was subsequently released that day after the local civic leaders intervened.

Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention was a serious problem; after he visited the prison of Ngaragba in Bangui in September, the magistrate stated that 500 of 700 detainees were in pretrial detention. Although recordkeeping of arrests and detentions was poor, the slow investigation and processing of a case was the primary cause of pretrial detention. The judicial police force charged with investigating cases was poorly trained, understaffed, and had few resources, resulting in poorly processed cases with little physical evidence. The court system did not hold the constitutionally mandated two criminal sessions per year. Judges resisted holding sessions due to security concerns and insisted on receiving stipends beyond their salaries.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Although the law provides detainees the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court, many detainees were not able to exercise this right due to a lack of affordable legal services and an unresponsive justice system.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, there was a lack of independence of the judiciary from political actors. In 2013 the Seleka destroyed court buildings and records throughout the country, leaving the judicial system barely functional. In 2017 the president issued a decree that appointed eight members to the Constitutional Court, four of whom, including the president of the court, were women. A total of 18 of 27 first instance and appellate courts were operating during the year, including 16 outside of Bangui. The courts in Bangui and some other major cities, notably Bangassou, Bouar, Berberati, Bossangoa, Mbaiki, Boda, and Bimbo, resumed operation, but the deployment of magistrates and administrators outside Bangui was inadequate. Many judges were unwilling to leave Bangui, citing security concerns, the inability to receive their salaries while in provincial cities, and the lack of office space and housing.

Corruption was a serious problem at all levels. Courts suffered from inefficient administration, understaffing, shortages of trained personnel, salary arrears, and lack of resources. Authorities, particularly those of high rank, did not always respect court orders.

In 2018 the National Assembly adopted the rules of procedure and evidence for the Special Criminal Court (SCC), and later that year the SCC officially began investigations and publicly launched a prosecutorial strategy. In 2019 the SCC moved into permanent offices. The SCC was established by law in 2015 in the domestic judicial system and operates with both domestic and international participation and support. In August, five national magistrates were sworn in after taking an oath, but the SCC was confronted with serious difficulties in recruiting international judges, delaying the opening of effective trials. The SCC has jurisdiction over serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

MINUSCA assisted in setting up the SCC victim and witness protection unit, as provided for by the SCC founding law and the SCC rules of proceedings and evidence. Some victims and witnesses were already under the unit’s protection during ongoing SCC proceedings. Additional unit protection staff were added and more were under recruitment; protection equipment was being delivered and more was in procurement; court procurement; court personnel and other individuals in contact with victims and witnesses were receiving training on protection and other subjects.

In May the SCC accepted the cases of nine members of the armed group UPC arrested for crimes committed in the towns of Obo, Zemio, and Bambouti, located in the southeastern CAR. As of September the SCC received 122 complaints and opened preliminary investigation on one case. Seven cases were being analyzed, and three were ready for preliminary investigations but postponed because of the COVID-19 crisis. Ten cases were transmitted to examining judges, and seven others were referred to ordinary courts.

Operations of the courts of appeals for criminal courts in two of the country’s three judicial districts–the Western District based in Bouar and the Central District based in Bambari–held criminal sessions during the year.

In February parliament passed a bill establishing the Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC) to support the 2019 Accord for Peace and Reconciliation. The law includes a wide range of responsibilities for the TJRRC, including establishing truth, determining nonjudicial responsibility for violations, creating a reparations fund, and promoting reconciliation. The TJRRC is further intended to cooperate with the SCC and create a final report with recommendations.

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 penal code presumes defendants innocent until proven guilty. Trials are public, and defendants have the right to be present and consult a public defender. Criminal trials use juries. The law obliges the government to provide counsel for indigent defendants; this process delayed trial proceedings due to the state’s limited resources. Defendants have the right to question witnesses, present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and file appeals. The government sometimes complied with these requirements. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free interpretation as necessary) from the moment charged through all appeals, to receive adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Authorities, however, seldom respected these rights.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary in civil matters, but citizens had limited access to courts in order to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. In 2015 the civil courts resumed operations with regular sessions. There is no system for protecting victims and witnesses from intimidation and insecurity. Consequently, victims, who often lived side-by-side with perpetrators, were reluctant to testify against perpetrators because there was no assurance of their safety and a credible judicial process.

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

The law prohibits searches of homes without a warrant in civil and criminal cases, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.

g. Abuses in Internal Conflict

There were serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by armed groups. The ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed group fighters operated freely across much of the country. Reports of abuses included unlawful killings, torture, abductions, sexual assaults, looting, and destruction of property.

UN agencies and NGOs stated that humanitarian actors had not perpetrated any sexual violence during the year.

Killings: In December 2019 clashes between criminal self-defense groups and armed merchants in Bangui’s PK5 district resulted in the deaths of 50 individuals and 72 injured. The minster of public security and MINUSCA stated they opened an investigation on the case. In January judicial authorities investigated with the assistance of MINUSCA and arrested 20 suspects.

Between March and April, a series of intercommunal clashes occurred between the Runga and Goula factions of the ex-Seleka groups in N’dele, Bamingui-Bangoran Prefecture. Approximately 50 individuals were reported killed, including civilians and a UN employee. The fighting forced 1,200 civilians to flee their homes. In April, after visiting the town of N’dele where violent clashes took place between the Goula and Rounga tribes, Eric Tambo, the general prosecutor of the High Court of Bangui, stated the court would investigate the case and prosecute the perpetrators for the charge of crime against humanity and war crimes.

The 3R, MPC, UPC, FPRC, and Anti-balaka groups participated in ethnic killings related to cattle theft (see section 6).

On August 24, armed men from the Party of the Rally of the Central African nation attacked and killed 11 civilians, wounded 20, and set fires to homes in the village of Bornou, near the town of Bria, in reprisal of the killing of one of their men. Approximately 400 persons fled their homes, including children, women, and the elderly.

In January, two Anti-balaka leaders, Crepin Wakanam and Kevin Bere-Bere, and 29 combatants were tried before the Criminal Court of Bangui for their responsibility in the 2017 massacre of numerous civilians and the killing of 10 peacekeepers in southeastern region. According to the United Nations, 72 persons were killed, 76 injured, and 4,400 displaced during the attack. They were tried for “crimes against humanity, war crimes, looting and murder.” During the year 20 cases were tried, resulting in more than 40 convictions. The sentences varied from five years to life in prison.

Abductions: The NGO Invisible Children reported that on April 6, an LRA group, composed of men, women, and children, camped near the community of Bougoua, in the prefecture of M’Bomou, and looted food and other items from the community, forcing 15 boys to porter the stolen goods. The boys were released later that day.

Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Members of armed groups, including the ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka, reportedly continued to mistreat, assault, and rape civilians with impunity.

Child Soldiers: Armed militias associated with Anti-balaka, ex-Seleka, the LRA, and other armed groups forcibly recruited and used child soldiers; however, there were no verified cases of the government supporting units recruiting or using child soldiers during the year. Armed groups recruited children and used them as combatants, messengers, informants, and cooks. Girls were often used as sex slaves. The United Nations also documented the presence of children operating checkpoints and barricades.

The MPC, FPRC, and UPC are all signatories to the United Nation’s action plan combatting the use of child soldiers; however, they continued to use child soldiers. The FPRC and UPC issued orders barring the recruitment of children; however, NGOs reported the continued presence of children among these groups.

The country is a party to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibit the involvement of children in armed conflicts. In addition, on June 15, President Touadera signed the decree enacting the Child Protection Law. The law prohibits and criminalizes the recruitment and the use of children into armed groups and their exploitation for sexual purposes; perpetrators may be sentenced from 10 years of imprisonment to hard labor. In addition the law provides a child who has served in an armed force or group may not be subject to criminal prosecution on this ground. The child must be considered a victim and not an alleged perpetrator, and the law favors social reintegration mechanisms for children.

During the year the government, UNICEF, and various NGOs worked with the armed groups to combat the exploitation of child soldiers. UNICEF stated that from January to August, 1,125 children left armed groups and registered for reintegration programs. The United Nations estimated the number of children who remained active in armed groups at approximately 5,000. On September 4, President Touadera signed a decree appointing a focal point for children affairs in the Unit in Charge of Demobilization, Reintegration, and Repatriation Program. The focal point is tasked with the mission to promote children rights and facilitate their social reintegration.

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

Other Conflict-related Abuse: On April 22, MPC leader Alkhatim Mahamat stole construction materials sent by a National Assembly member to the town of Kabo for construction of a school.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression and the press. The government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Speech: Public discussion and political debates were generally free from state authorities’ influence. In areas controlled by armed groups, freedom of expression, however, was inhibited due to the risk of retaliation by armed groups.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. All print media in the country were privately owned. Radio was the most widespread medium of mass communication. There were a number of alternatives to the state-owned radio station. Independent radio stations operated freely and broadcast organized debates and call-in talk shows that were critical of the government, the election process, ex-Seleka, and Anti-balaka militias. International media broadcast within the country. The High Commission for Communication is the regulatory body in charge of controlling the content of information broadcast or published in media. Opposition political candidates alleged that the state-owned media favored the existing administration during the presidential election campaign.

In August police briefly detained a journalist from the Association of Journalists for Human Rights radio station while she was investigating irregularities in the issuing of the national identification card. Also in August Henri Grothe, a blogger who resided in France and regularly criticized CAR authorities on social media, was briefly arrested and his passport confiscated upon his arrival at Bangui M’poko international airport. Grothe was released without any charge.

The government monopolized domestic television and national radio station broadcasting, with coverage typically favorable to government positions.

Nongovernmental Impact: In areas controlled by armed groups, freedom of expression was inhibited due to the risk of retaliation.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no reports that the government restricted academic freedom or cultural events. The country’s sole university was open.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government denied a number of requests to protest that were submitted by civil society groups, citing insecurity in Bangui. In September the government denied the permit request made by the Civil Society Working Group (GTSC) to organize a ville morte (ghost city). The GTSC was demanding the arrest of Ali Darassa, UPC commander in chief, and the resignation of Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada. To deter individuals from participating in the demonstration, the government deployed interior security forces and the presidential guards in the streets. Some GTSC representatives were briefly arrested. On October 13, the youth movement known as “4500,” which intended to demonstrate in front of the office of the judicial police regarding an increase in the cost of a national identification card, was prevented by police from holding its sit-in in Bangui. Three members of the movement were arrested by police and released shortly thereafter.

Freedom of Association

A law prohibiting nonpolitical organizations from uniting for political purposes remained in place.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not always respect these rights.

In-country Movement: Armed groups and bandits made in-country movement extremely dangerous. Government forces, armed groups, and criminals alike frequently used illegal checkpoints to extort funds.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of September there were an estimated 659,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. Between August 2019 and August 2020, the number of IDPs increased by 8 percent, from 590,000 to 641,000. An estimated 67 percent of IDPs lived with host families, while 33 percent lived on IDP sites.

Humanitarian actors provided assistance to IDPs and returnees and promoted the safe voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs. The government allowed humanitarian organizations to provide services.

Even after reaching safe locations, IDPs frequently risked assault by criminals, often assumed to be associated with armed groups that IDPs encountered if they ventured outside of camps to search for food. Women and girls were particularly at risk of sexual violence on the sites and when venturing outside, such as to go to markets or for agricultural activities. In many affected areas, humanitarian assistance was limited to strictly life-saving interventions, due to limited access and insecurity. The presence of armed groups continued to delay or block planned humanitarian deliveries.

Humanitarian organizations remained concerned regarding evidence that members of armed groups continued to hide in IDP sites and attempted to carry out recruitment activities, putting at risk IDPs and humanitarian staff. Recent survey data indicated an estimated one-third of IDPs residing in IDP sites were concerned regarding their security. Of registered deaths in IDP households surveyed in the three months prior to the mid-year survey, 25 percent were linked to armed conflict.

Security concerns, related to criminality as well as armed group clashes resulting in violence, prevented aid organizations from operating in certain areas. For example, 17,000 IDPs in N’dele were without assistance after aid agencies temporarily suspended operations in May when security incidents in the wake of fighting between armed groups and attacks on civilians made it untenable to continue. Also in N’dele, an estimated 9,700 IDPs sought refuge at an IDP site near MINUSCA to escape fighting between armed groups in early March. By mid-March, however, the site had been emptied as a result of pressure from armed elements.

On February 6, armed individuals broke into the residences of International Committee of the Red Cross employees in Kaga-Bandoro. The attackers assaulted guards and stole material goods. On March 23, in N’dele, attackers broke into the premises of the international NGO War Child and stole computers and office equipment.

During the year two humanitarian workers were killed and 21 injured. There were 304 reported incidents affecting humanitarian workers, premises, and assets between January and September, a 39 percent increase compared with the same period in 2019.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Individuals who had fled their countries of origin and had prior criminal records, however, were immediately repatriated.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Presidential and legislative elections were held on December 27. Armed groups interfered with voter registration and the distribution of election materials. On election day, threats and violence by armed groups reportedly stopped the vote in 26 of 68 subprefectures and interrupted the vote in six other subprefectures. At year’s end it was unclear what percentage of voters were unable to vote due to insecurity. Most of the violence committed around the elections was committed by armed groups. There were no reports government security actors attempted to interfere with the election or prevent individuals from voting. If needed, a second round of presidential and legislative elections may be held in February 2021 and local elections are scheduled to be held later in 2021. The government did not attempt to restrict eligible voters from registering, but armed groups interfered with registration.

International and NGO observers reported high voter turnout in Bangui; however, some media reported the threats of violence suppressed the turnout in insecure areas. NGO observers reported minor irregularities in places where the vote occurred, most commonly citing a lack of indelible ink and legislative ballots at certain sites and cases where voters who did not have a voter identification card were allowed to vote with a certificate from the National Elections Authority. A local NGO group, National Observatory of Elections, stated the irregularities did not undermine the credibility of the elections. The African Union observation mission reported the vote in Bangui conformed to CAR’s electoral code and international standards. Election results were expected to be announced in early January 2021.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. Five of the 39 cabinet members were women, as was the senior presidential advisor for national reconciliation. There were 11 women among the 140 members of parliament. Some observers believed traditional attitudes and cultural practices limited the ability of women to participate in political life on the same basis as men. In July 2019 the national assembly rejected the provision on gender parity provided in the draft electoral code and decided instead that political parties’ candidate lists must be composed of at least 35 percent women.

Societal and legal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons prevented them from effectively advocating for their interests in the political sphere.

In March 2019, 14 members of parliament, including three women, were elected to the Executive Bureau for one-year terms. The election of only three women did not comply with the law on parity, which requires there be a minimum of 35 percent representation by women in state and private institutions for a period of 10 years. The 2016 gender equality law also prohibits gender discrimination and provides for an independent National Observatory for Male/Female Equality to monitor compliance; however, the National Observatory had not been established by year’s end.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not effectively implement the law, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. In 2017 President Touadera issued a decree appointing members of the High Authority for Good Governance, an independent body mandated by the constitution. It is charged with protecting the rights of minorities and those with disabilities and ensuring the equitable distribution of natural resource revenues. In December 2019 President Touadera launched the National Good Governance Strategy.

Corruption and nepotism have long been pervasive in all branches of government, and addressing public-sector corruption was difficult in view of limited government capacity.

Corruption: No corruption cases were brought to trial. There were widespread rumors and anecdotal stories of pervasive corruption and bribery. In February an audio recording circulated on social media alleging fraud during the vote of state budget by the national assembly. The fraud was allegedly orchestrated by the first vice president of the national assembly. The CAR government took no legal actions.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires senior members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the beginning of their terms to declare publicly their personal assets and income to the Constitutional Court. The constitution specifies that the law determine sanctions for noncompliance. Declarations are public. The constitution requires ministers to declare their assets upon departing government but is not explicit on what constitutes assets or income.

As of September there was no evidence that any ministers declared their assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses 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 abuses and violations of law. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2017 President Touadera signed into law an act establishing an independent National Commission on Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties. The commission has the authority to investigate complaints, including the power to call witnesses and subpoena documents. In 2019 the commission collaborated with the Ministry of Justice, MINUSCA, and the African Union to draft the country’s National Human Rights Policy. In addition, the government was setting up the SCC’s victim and witness protection unit with MINUSCA’s assistance (see section 1.e.).

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, although it does not specifically prohibit spousal rape. Rape is punishable by imprisonment with hard labor, but the law does not specify a minimum sentence. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

Domestic abuse, rape, and sexual slavery of women and girls by armed groups threatened their security, and sexual violence was increasingly used as a deliberate tool of warfare. Attackers enjoyed broad impunity. In 2019 MINUSCA verified 322 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, affecting 187 women, 124 girls, three men, two boys, and six women of unknown age. These incidents included 174 rapes or attempted rapes and 15 cases of forced marriage.

Although the law does not specifically mention spousal abuse, it prohibits violence against any person and provides for penalties of up to 10 years in prison. Domestic violence against women was common, although there are laws and instruments prohibiting violence against women. The government took no known action to punish perpetrators.

As of July the Mixed Unit for the Repression of Violence against Women and the Protection of Children (UMIRR) received 501 complaints from victims of various profiles, including 227 victims of sexual violence (rape, assault, forced marriage) and 232 cases of other form of violence. According to UMIRR, there were 266 reported cases of women who were victims of societal abuse in the country.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C of women and girls, which is punishable by two to five years’ imprisonment and a moderate to substantial fine.

Nearly one-quarter of girls and women had been subjected to FGM/C, with variations according to ethnicity and region. Approximately one-half of girls were mutilated between ages 10 and 14. Both the prevalence of FGM/C and support for the practice has substantially declined in recent years.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but the government does not effectively enforce the law, and sexual harassment was common. The law prescribes no specific penalties for the crime.

Reproductive Rights: After recurrent military-political crises, the CAR continued to be characterized by widespread insecurity and impoverishment. The state was largely absent outside of Bangui. This situation created barriers to providing adequate assistance, including health and reproductive care, to vulnerable populations. Many displaced families were in makeshift sites, in the bush, or in fields far from existing basic social services. Of the 814 hospitals and dispensaries in the country, only 55.3 percent were functional in 2015. Anecdotal evidence suggests NGOs were nearly entirely responsible for the provision of healthcare services outside of Bangui.

Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of children. Nevertheless, most couples lacked access to contraception, prenatal care, skilled attendance during childbirth, and essential obstetric care and postpartum care.

The government has committed to implementing the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action held in Cairo. Law number 06.005 of June 20, 2006, authorized abortion for pregnancy resulting from rape. The law prohibits certain acts that endanger sexual and reproductive health, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Article 29 of the law criminalizes all forms of sexual violence and exploitation in all its forms that target women.

Citizens, in particular women and girls, were affected by high rates of conflict-related sexual violence. The country experienced multiple armed conflicts in the last 20 years, and customs and traditions in the country influenced the existence and exacerbation of gender-based violence, in particular sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence were discriminated against, and the government was unable to provide adequate care, including health and social services to survivors. Sexual violence committed by armed actors increases the risk of spreading of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

According to UNICEF’s 2018-2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) Findings Report, 82.2 percent of women did not use any form of contraceptive. For girls aged 15 to 19 years, 88.7 percent do not use contraception (MICS IV 2018-2019). The World Health Organization reported 22 percent of women said their need for family planning was satisfied with modern methods. The prevalence of HIV among people aged 15 to 49 years was 4.9 percent (MICS 2010; contacts at the Institute Pasteur in Bangui reported the infection rate in the capital was approximately 18 percent. Data from the MICS IV survey (2018-2019) indicated that the infant mortality rate was 100 deaths per 1,000 live births, and 53 percent of deliveries were assisted.

The maternal mortality rate was 829 per 100,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization. The major factor involved in the high maternal death rate was the lack of access to adequate healthcare. Only 18.9 percent of women reported receiving prenatal care for their last pregnancy (MICS IV 2018-2019). Fertility was very high (6.4 per MICS IV 2018-2019), and 42.8 percent of women reported having a child before age 18 (MICS IV 2018-2019). The lack of sexual and reproductive education led to early fertility among girls, which was more prevalent in rural than in urban areas (MICS 2010). These factors partly contributed to high maternal and neonatal mortality. Only 53.4 percent of births in 2006 were attended by qualified health personnel (83 percent in urban areas, 35 percent in rural areas).

Women were victims of many forms of gender-based violence, including FGM/C, sexual violence, and early marriage. This gender-based violence is exacerbated by conflicts. According to the MICS 2006 survey, nearly 45 percent of women suffered physical violence from their husbands or relatives; 51.6 percent suffered verbal abuse, 32.2 percent were raped. According to MICS 2010, 24 percent of women aged 15-49 had undergone some form of FGM/C. Although UNICEF did not yet publish the 2020 MICS, contacts reported FGM/C remained a widespread issue in the country and rates may be higher now than in 2010. No information was available on the FGM/C’s implication on maternal morbidity. The MICS 2010 indicated that the induced abortion rate was 6.9 percent among women aged 15 to 45.

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

Discrimination: The formal law does not discriminate against women in inheritance and property rights, but a number of discriminatory customary laws often prevailed. Women’s statutory inheritance rights often were not respected, particularly in rural areas. Women experienced economic and social discrimination. Customary law does not consider single, divorced, or widowed women, including those with children, to be heads of households. By law men and women are entitled to family subsidies from the government, but several women’s groups complained of lack of access to these payments for women.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth in the national territory or from one or both parents. Birth registration could be difficult and less likely to occur in regions with little government presence. Parents did not always register births immediately. Unregistered children faced restrictions on access to education and other social services. The lack of routine birth registration also posed long-term problems.

Education: Education is compulsory from ages six to 15. Tuition is free, but students have to pay for items such as books and supplies and for transportation. Few Ba’aka, the earliest known inhabitants of the forests in the south, attended primary school. There was no significant government assistance for efforts to increase Ba’aka enrollment.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes parental abuse of children younger than 15. UMIRR is in charge of investigating abuses against women and children. As of July children’s rights abuses were reported in 42 households. According to UMIRR, 214 girls and seven boys were reported victims of societal abuse.

With the support of UNICEF, Bethanie, a local NGO, provided legal, psychological, and socioeconomic assistance to 900 vulnerable children, including 200 children victims of sexual violence, 100 children accused of witchcraft, 250 children with HIV, and 350 children victims of other forms of violence in the prefecture of Ombella M’poko and Bangui.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law establishes 18 as the minimum age for civil marriage. A 2017 UNICEF report indicated that 68 percent of girls married before age 18 and 29 percent of girls married before age 15, and that 27 percent of boys married before age 18. The practice of early marriage was more common in Muslim communities. There were reports during the year of forced marriages of young girls to ex-Seleka and Anti-balaka members. The government did not take steps to address forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: On June 15, the government enacted the Child Protection Act. The legislation has a series of measures that address the exploitation of minors. The family code prescribes penalties for the commercial exploitation of children, including imprisonment and financial penalties. The minimum age of sexual consent is 18, but it was rarely observed.

Armed groups committed sexual violence against children and used girls as sex slaves (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: Armed conflict resulted in forced displacement, with the number of persons fleeing in search of protection fluctuating based on local conditions. The country’s instability had a disproportionate effect on children, who accounted for 64 percent of IDPs, 48 percent of whom were children younger than five, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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

Anti-Semitism

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

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with both mental and physical disabilities but does not specify other forms of disabilities. It requires that in any company employing 25 or more persons, at least 5 percent of staff must consist of sufficiently qualified persons with disabilities if they are available. The law states that at least 10 percent of newly recruited civil service personnel should be persons with disabilities. There are no legislated or mandated accessibility provisions for persons with disabilities. There were no available statistics concerning the implementation of this provision.

The government did not enact programs to provide access to buildings, information, and communications. The Ministry of Labor, of Employment and Social Protection’s Labor Inspectorate has responsibility for protecting children with disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Violence by unidentified persons, bandits, and other armed groups against the Peuhl (also known as Fulani or Mbororo), primarily nomadic pastoralists, was a problem. Their cattle wealth made them attractive targets, and they continued to suffer disproportionately from civil disorder in the north. Additionally, since many citizens viewed them as inherently foreign due to their transnational migratory patterns, the Peuhl faced occasional discrimination with regard to government services and protections. In recent years the Peuhl began arming themselves against attacks from farmers who objected to the presence of the Peuhl’s grazing cattle. Several of the ensuing altercations resulted in deaths.

In December 2019 a young man from the subprefecture of Baboua, who was heading to the cattle market, was killed by unidentified armed men. The population of Baboua accused the Peuhl community of being the perpetrators. On December 30, dozens of young persons armed with machetes, knives, and other bladed weapons retaliated against a Peuhl citizen from a neighboring commune of Baboua, killing him.

Indigenous People

Discrimination continued against the nomadic pastoralist Peuhl minority, as well as the forest dwelling Ba’aka. The independent High Authority for Good Governance, whose members were appointed in 2017, is tasked with protecting the rights of minorities and those with disabilities, although its efficacy had yet to be proven.

Discrimination against the Ba’aka, who comprise 1 to 2 percent of the population, remained a problem. The Ba’aka continued to have little influence in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, and the exploitation of natural resources. Forest-dwelling Ba’aka, in particular, experienced social and economic discrimination and exploitation, which the government did little to prevent.

The Ba’aka, including children, were often coerced into agricultural, domestic, and other types of labor. They were considered slaves by members of other local ethnic groups, and even when they were remunerated for labor, their wages were far below those prescribed by the labor code and lower than wages paid to members of other groups.

Reports by credible NGOs, including the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, stated the Ba’aka were effectively “second-class citizens,” perceived as barbaric and subhuman and excluded from mainstream society.

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

The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct. The penalty for conviction of “public expression of love” between persons of the same sex is imprisonment for six months to two years or a moderate to substantial fine. When one of the participants is a child, the adult could be sentenced to two to five years’ imprisonment or a moderate to substantial fine. There were no reports police arrested or detained persons under these provisions.

While official discrimination based on sexual orientation occurred, there were no reports the government targeted LGBTI persons. Societal discrimination against LGBTI persons was entrenched due to a high degree of cultural stigmatization. The IOM reported the case of an LGBTI person who had to move due to physical violence against him by neighbors due to his sexuality. There were no known organizations advocating for or working on behalf of LGBTI persons.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Persons with HIV/AIDS were subjected to discrimination and stigma, and many individuals with HIV/AIDS did not disclose their status due to social stigma.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Violent conflict and instability in the country had a religious cast. Many, but not all, members of the ex-Seleka and its factions were Muslim, having originated in neighboring countries or in the remote Muslim north, a region the government often neglected.

During the worst of the crisis, some Christian communities formed Anti-balaka militias that targeted Muslim communities, presumably for their association with the Seleka. The Interfaith Religious Platform, which includes Muslim and Christian leaders, continued working with communities to defuse tensions and call for tolerance and restraint. Local leaders, including the bishop of Bossangoa, and internationally based academics warned against casting the conflict in religious terms and thus fueling its escalation along religious lines.

Ethnic killings often related to transhumance movements occurred. The major groups playing a role in the transhumance movements were social groups centering on ethnic identity. These included Muslim Fulani/Peuhl herders, Muslim farming communities, and Christian/animist farming communities. Armed group conflict at times devolved into ethnic violence, such as the Kara/Rounga conflict in Birao. Throughout the year, there were recorded acts of violence among the various ethnic groups–primarily between the Rounga and the Goula ethnic groups. Violence between the groups continued in Birao and spread to Ndele.

The law prohibits the practice of witchcraft. Conviction of witchcraft is punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment and a moderate to substantial fine. Individuals accused of sorcery or witchcraft experienced social exclusion. According to a legal advocate, the penal code does not have an established definition of witchcraft, and the state does not typically intervene in these cases. District chiefs often preside over witchcraft trials: however, the accused are also often killed by the local population. For instance, on August 27, local press reported that in the village of Barka-Panziin, in the prefecture of Mambere-Kadei, a 60-year-old woman suspected of witchcraft by the inhabitants was severely beaten by her own children and buried alive by the local population. She was rescued by gendarmes stationed at a timber company located two miles away. Women accused of witchcraft faced the possibility of sexual violence in prison while waiting for their trial or serving their sentence. Those accused of witchcraft reported psychological harm from fearing for their physical safety due to the accusations.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, except for senior-level state employees, security force members, and foreign workers in residence for less than two years, to form or join independent unions without prior authorization. The labor code provides for the right of workers to organize and administer trade unions without employer interference and grants trade unions full legal status. The law requires union officials be full-time, wage-earning employees in their occupation and allows them to conduct union business during working hours if the employer is informed 48 hours in advance and provides authorization. The labor code provides that unions may bargain collectively in the public and private sectors.

Workers have the right to strike in both the public and private sectors, but the law prohibits security forces, including the armed forces and gendarmes, from striking. Requirements for conducting a legal strike are lengthy and cumbersome. For a strike to be legal, the union must first present its demands, the employer must respond to these demands, labor and management must attend a conciliation meeting, and an arbitration council must find that the union and the employer failed to reach agreement on valid demands. The union must provide eight days’ advance written notification of a planned strike. The law states that if employers initiate a lockout that is not in accordance with the code, the employer is required to pay workers for all days of the lockout. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Protection (Ministry of Labor) has the authority to establish a list of enterprises that are required by law to maintain a “compulsory minimum service” in the event of a strike. The government has the power of requisition or the authority to end strikes by invoking the public interest. The code makes no other provisions regarding sanctions on employers for acting against strikers.

The law expressly forbids antiunion discrimination. Employees may have their cases heard in labor court. The law does not state whether employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities, although the law requires employers found guilty of such discrimination to pay damages, including back pay and lost wages.

The government generally enforced applicable laws and respected laws concerning labor actions. The enforcement of penalties was not sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with other violations of civil rights. Workers exercised some of these rights, but only a relatively small part of the workforce, primarily civil servants, exercised the right to join a union. While worker organizations are officially outside government or political parties, the government exerted some influence over the leadership of some organizations.

Labor unions did not report any underlying patterns of discrimination or abuse. The president of the labor court stated the court did not hear any cases involving antiunion discrimination during the year.

Collective bargaining occurred in the private sector during the year, although the total number of collective agreements concluded was unknown. The government was not generally involved if the two parties were able to reach an agreement. Information was unavailable on the effectiveness of collective bargaining in the private sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The labor code specifically prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The penalties for these crimes were commensurate with the penalties for similar crimes. The enforcement of penalties was not sufficient to deter violations. The labor code’s prohibition of forced or compulsory labor also applies to children, although the code does not mention them specifically. The penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations because the government did not enforce the prohibition effectively. There were reports such practices occurred, especially in armed conflict zones.

Employers subjected men, women, and children to forced domestic labor, agricultural work, mining, market or street vending, and restaurant labor, as well as sexual exploitation. Criminal courts sentenced convicted persons to imprisonment and forced labor, and prisoners often worked on public projects without compensation. This practice largely took place in rural areas. Ba’aka, including children, often were coerced into labor as day laborers, farm hands, or other unskilled labor and often treated as slaves (see section 6, Children). No known victims were removed from forced labor during the year.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The labor code forbids some of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from performing “hazardous work,” but the term is not clearly defined and does not specify if it includes all of the worst forms of child labor. The mining code specifically prohibits child or underage labor. The employment of children younger than 14 is prohibited under the law without specific authorization from the Ministry of Labor. The law, however, also provides that the minimum age for employment may be as young as 12 for some types of light work in traditional agricultural activities or home services. Additionally, since the minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, some children may be encouraged to leave school to pursue work before completion of compulsory education. The law stipulates the types of hazardous work prohibited for children.

The government did not enforce child labor laws. The government trained police, military, and civilians on child rights and protection, but trainees lacked resources to conduct investigations. The government announced numerous policies related to child labor, including those to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, but there was no evidence of programs to eliminate or prevent child labor, including its worst forms. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with similar crimes. Government officials were alleged to have subjected minors to military-related labor at two checkpoints.

Child labor was common in many sectors of the economy, especially in rural areas. Local and displaced children as young as age seven frequently performed agricultural work, including harvesting peanuts and cassava and helping gather items subsequently sold at markets such as mushrooms, hay, firewood, and caterpillars. In Bangui many of the city’s street children worked as street vendors. Children often worked as domestic workers, fishermen, and in mines, often in dangerous conditions. For example, children were forced to work without proper protection or were forced to work long hours (i.e., 10 hours per day or longer). Children also engaged in the worst forms of child labor in diamond fields, transporting and washing gravel as well as mining gold, digging holes, and carrying heavy loads. Despite the law’s prohibition on child labor in mining, observers saw many children working in and around diamond mining fields. No known victims were removed from the worst forms of child labor during the year.

Children continued to be engaged as child soldiers. There were reports of ex-Seleka, Anti-balaka, and other armed groups recruiting child soldiers during the year (see section 1.g.).

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

It is illegal to discriminate in hiring or place of employment based on race, national or social origin, gender, opinions, or beliefs. The government did not effectively enforce the law; however, if rigorously enforced, the laws would be sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with the penalties for other civil rights violations. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation based on disability, age, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, social status, HIV-positive status, or having other communicable diseases.

Discrimination against women in employment and occupation occurred in all sectors of the economy and in rural areas, where traditional practices that favor men remained widespread. There were legal restrictions against women in employment, including limiting occupations and tasks. The labor code prohibits the employment of women in jobs that exceed their strength. Furthermore, carrying, dragging, or pushing any load is prohibited during pregnancy and within three weeks of returning to work after giving birth. Women are not allowed on the premise if persons work with certain dangerous chemicals, and women are restricted in the work they may do in other trades, including working on the manufacture of sulfuric acid, application of rubber coatings, and pickling or galvanizing of iron.

Migrant workers experienced discrimination in employment and pay.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The labor code states the Ministry of Labor must set minimum wages in the public sector by decree. The government, the country’s largest employer, set wages after consultation, but not negotiation, with government employee trade unions. The minimum wages in the private sector are established based on sector-specific collective conventions resulting from negotiations between employers and workers’ representatives in each sector.

The minimum wage in the private sector varied by sector and type of work. The minimum wage in all sectors was below the World Bank standard for extreme poverty.

The minimum wage applies only to the formal sector, leaving most of the economy without a minimum wage. The law applies to foreign and migrant workers as well. Most labor was performed outside the wage and social security system in the extensive informal sector, especially by farmers in the large subsistence agricultural sector.

The law sets a standard workweek of 40 hours for government employees and most private-sector employees. Household employees may work up to 52 hours per week. The law also requires a minimum rest period of 48 hours per week for citizen, foreign, and migrant workers. Overtime policy varied according to the workplace. Violations of overtime policy may be referred to the Ministry of Labor, although it was unknown whether this occurred during the year. There is no legal prohibition on excessive or compulsory overtime. The labor code, however, states that employers must provide for the health and security of employees who are engaged in overtime work. Penalties were commensurate with other crimes.

There are general laws on health and safety standards in the workplace, but the Ministry of Labor did not precisely define them. The labor code states that a labor inspector may force an employer to correct unsafe or unhealthy work conditions.

If information exists concerning dangerous working conditions, the law provides that workers may remove themselves without jeopardy to their employment. In such instances the labor inspector notifies the employer and requires that conditions be addressed within four working days. The high unemployment and poverty rates deterred workers from exercising this right.

The government did not effectively enforce labor standards, and violations were common in all sectors of the economy. The Ministry of Labor has primary responsibility for managing labor standards, while enforcement falls under the Ministry of Interior and Public Safety and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The government did not have an adequate number of labor inspectors to enforce compliance with all labor laws. Penalties were seldom enforced and were insufficient to deter violations. Violations for occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. Employers commonly violated labor standards in agriculture and mining.

Diamond mines, which employed an estimated 400,000 persons, were subject to standards imposed by the mining code and inspection by the Miners’ Brigade. Nevertheless, monitoring efforts were underfunded and insufficient. Despite the law requiring those working in mines to be at least 18, observers frequently saw underage diggers. Diggers often worked in open pits susceptible to collapse, working seven days a week during the peak season. Diggers were employed by larger mine operators, worked in dangerous conditions at the bottom of open pits, and lacked safety equipment.

Miners, by contrast, had a share in ownership and participated in the proceeds of diamond sales. Often miners supplemented these earnings with either illegal diamond sales or wages from other sectors of the economy.

The government does not release information on workplace injury and deaths or other OSH statistics, and officials failed to respond to International Labor Organization direct requests to provide this information.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

Costa Rica is a constitutional republic governed by a president and a unicameral legislative assembly directly elected in multiparty elections every four years. In 2018 voters elected Carlos Alvarado of the Citizen’s Action Party as president during a second round of elections. All elections were considered free and fair.

The country has no military forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the 13 agencies that have law enforcement components, including the judicial branch’s Judicial Investigative Organization. The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for the uniformed police force, drug control police, border police, air wing, and coast guard. The Immigration Office is responsible for the immigration police. The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation supervises the traffic police, the Ministry of Environment supervises park police, and the Ministry of Justice manages the penitentiary police. Several municipalities manage municipal police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were isolated instances where members of the security forces committed abuses.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights 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, and there were no reports that government officials employed them during the year.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh due to gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. As of July the prison population exceeded the designed capacity of prisons by 27 percent, according to official statistics. Although the Ministry of Justice made efforts to expand prison capacity and improve conditions in accordance with international standards, a majority of prisons, as well as the comprehensive care units, remained overcrowded, with the population in pretrial detention experiencing the most overcrowding. Authorities held male pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners on occasion.

The Ministry of Justice was responsible for the prison system, while the Immigration Office maintained a migration facility in Heredia holding illegal migrants until they were deported or regularized their migration status.

Overcrowding continued to make security and control difficult. On May 25, a prisoner died after a dispute among prisoners at La Reforma Prison. When police opened the gate of the cell module to calm down prisoners, there was a stampede; two prisoners were seriously injured with a knife, one of whom died later at a hospital.

Poor conditions included inadequate space for resting, deteriorated mattresses on the floor, and inadequate access to health services. Illegal narcotics were readily available in the prisons, and drug abuse was common. In the San Sebastian detention center, where most of the prisoners in pretrial detention were held, prisoners lived in unsanitary conditions.

Administration: The Ombudsman’s Office investigated all prisoner complaints, including credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by international and local human rights observers. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitored the migration detention facility, and the government ombudsman monitored all other detention centers, with UNHCR visiting monthly and the ombudsman preparing annual reports.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires issuance of judicial warrants before police may make an arrest, except where probable cause is evident to the arresting officer. The law entitles a detainee to a judicial determination of the legality of detention during arraignment before a judge within 24 hours of arrest. The law provides for the right to post bail and prompt access to an attorney and family members. Authorities generally observed these rights. Indigent persons have access to a public attorney at government expense. Those without sufficient personal funds are also able to use the services of a public defender. With judicial authorization, authorities may hold a suspect incommunicado for 48 hours after arrest or, under special circumstances, for up to 10 days. Special circumstances include cases in which pretrial detention previously was ordered and there is reason to believe a suspect may reach an agreement with accomplices or may obstruct the investigation. Suspects were allowed access to attorneys immediately before submitting statements before a judge. Authorities promptly informed suspects of any offenses under investigation. Habeas corpus provides legal protection for citizens against threats from police; it also requires judges to give a clear explanation of the legal basis for detention of and evidence against a suspect.

Arbitrary Arrest: On June 30, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled against the state for an “unreasonable, disproportionate, and unnecessary” detention of an individual for six hours on June 16. Judicial police did not explain to the detainee the reasons for taking him into custody and did not show him an arrest warrant or any evidence of a crime. Police were also criticized for detaining individuals protesting COVID-19 lockdown measures. On August 7, the Constitutional Chamber ruled in favor of an activist detained on June 24 by uniformed police while she was protesting a lockdown in Tamarindo, Guanacaste.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of June persons in pretrial detention constituted approximately 20 percent of the prison population, compared with 22 percent in 2019. The average length of pretrial detention was 90 to 180 days. In some cases delays were due to pending criminal investigations and lengthy legal procedures. In other cases the delays were a result of court backlogs. The length of pretrial detention generally did not equal or exceed the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. The law establishes that preventive detention should be proportional to the sentence for the alleged crime, and authorities generally complied with that mandate.

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.

All defendants have the right to the presumption of innocence, to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, and to trial without undue delay. In practice, however, the legal system experienced significant delays in the adjudication of criminal cases and civil disputes and a growing workload.

All trials, except those that include juvenile defendants, are public. Trials that involve victims or witnesses who are minors are closed during the portion of the trial in which the minor is called to testify. Defendants have the right to be present during trial and communicate with an attorney of choice in a timely manner or to have one provided at public expense. Defendants enjoy the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and free assistance of an interpreter as necessary. Defendants may confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

An independent and impartial judiciary presides over lawsuits in civil matters, including human rights violations. Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through domestic courts or through administrative or other mechanisms established by law. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.

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

The 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 Expression, Including for the Press

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

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On July 15, a daily newspaper filed a petition for constitutional protection before the Constitutional Court against the government for allegedly denying access to information during the daily coronavirus pandemic press briefings, arguing that journalists should not be limited in the number of questions they ask. The association of journalists also pressed the government to explain its communication strategy.

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 communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. The law requires authorities to process the claims within three months of receipt, but decisions took an average of 24 months and an additional 12 months for the appeals process.

The coronavirus pandemic affected persons seeking asylum. During the first months of the year, the Migration Authority handled a growing number of migrants requesting refugee status, with the majority from Nicaragua. The number of asylum seekers dropped significantly when Costa Rica closed its borders in March, from an average of 2,000 new claims per month to fewer than 100 per month. Asylum seekers could seek refugee status at the borders only. Submission of asylum claims and interviews were conducted only at the borders, except in cases in which individuals were known to be at immediate risk or for national security reasons. As of March 17, asylum seekers filed claims by email if they were in the country before the pandemic started. As of July migration authorities reported receiving 11,022 asylum claims, of which three-fourths were made by Nicaraguans. The average time for resolving a pending asylum claim was 24 months from the submission of the asylum request; however, after March 17, no interviews were scheduled due to COVID-19. As of July the Migration Authority estimated 2,500 Nicaraguan asylum seekers had withdrawn their asylum requests and decided to return to Nicaragua.

As of June 30, the Appeals Tribunal, which adjudicates all migration appeals, had a backlog of 361 asylum cases but stated these figures would increase as pending claims moved to the appeals process. UNHCR provided support to the Refugee Unit and the Appeals Tribunal to hire additional legal and administrative personnel to assist with reduction of the backlog and to continue a process of regionalization of services.

Employment: Refugee regulations provide asylum seekers an opportunity to obtain work permits if they have to wait beyond the three months the law allows for a decision on their asylum claim (which occurred in virtually all cases). The waiting period for a work permit was compounded by the months-long delay most asylum seekers faced in obtaining an appointment to file an asylum application, at which point the three-month period begins. Refugees and asylum seekers reported that job opportunities were scarce. In the case of professionals, refugees and asylum seekers faced significant bureaucratic processes in obtaining a license to practice locally. The Refugee Unit continued receiving requests by email and issuing work permits during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Access to Basic Services: By law asylum seekers and refugees have access to public services and social welfare programs, but access was often hampered by lack of knowledge about their status in the country, failure of service providers to recognize the identification provided to asylum seekers by the Migration Authority, and feelings of xenophobia among some service providers. For example, asylum seekers without employers (who constituted the majority of asylum seekers) faced restrictions when enrolling voluntarily as independent workers in the public health system.

Asylum seekers received provisional refugee status documents legalizing their status after appearing for an interview with the General Directorate of Immigration, for which the estimated wait time was eight months before the pandemic; however, the interview process was suspended due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Provisional refugee identity cards do not resemble other national identity documents, and although government authorities generally accepted them, many private citizens did not. Upon receiving refugee status, which typically took two years, refugees could obtain an identity document similar to those used by nationals at a cost of 40,000 colones ($68), renewable every two years.

Refugees and asylum seekers reported that access to health services was difficult. They qualified for public health services only if they were minors, pregnant, or facing a life-threatening emergency, but some individuals reported being denied services even in emergency situations. In February, UNHCR signed an agreement with the social security system to broaden health insurance coverage for refugees and asylum seekers.

Displaced university students who had fled Nicaragua due to harassment for their political opposition activities reported difficulty registering for classes because Costa Rican institutions were inflexible in requiring academic records that the students could not obtain from Nicaraguan authorities.

Durable Solutions: The government implemented a Protection Transfer Arrangement in coordination with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration for refugee resettlement in third countries. In September, the government suspended resettlement operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional guidance was released in November. For those obtaining refugee status, the government was committed to their local integration both legally and socially and to facilitating their naturalization process.

g. Stateless Persons

Citizenship is obtained from birth within the country’s territory or can be derived if either parent is Costa Rican. There continued to be problems of statelessness of indigenous children and children of seasonal workers in the border areas with Panama and Nicaragua, derived from the difficulties linked to birth registrations. Members of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group from Panama often worked on Costa Rican farms and occasionally gave birth there. In these cases parents did not register Ngobe-Bugle children as Costa Rican citizens at birth because they did not think it necessary, although the children lacked registration in Panama as well. Government authorities worked with UNHCR on a program of birth registration and provision of identification documents to stateless persons known as Chiriticos. Mobile teams went to remote coffee-growing areas for case identification and registration. UNHCR and the National Civil Registry continued a project along the northern border for individuals of Nicaraguan origin to facilitate procedures for late birth registration.

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: In 2018 voters elected Citizen’s Action Party’s (PAC) Carlos Alvarado president during a second round of elections, after no candidate achieved 40 percent of the first-round vote. Presidential and legislative elections are simultaneous. In 2018 legislative elections, the National Liberation Party (PLN) gained the most seats, but it did not achieve a majority in the National Assembly. In internal legislative elections in May, the Christian evangelical National Restoration Party won the presidency of the National Assembly for one year in an alliance that included PAC and PLN.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

Women and persons of African descent were represented in government, but indigenous persons were not. In national elections political parties must guarantee gender parity across their electoral slates and confirm that gender parity extends vertically. The electoral code requires that a minimum of 50 percent of candidates for elective office be women, with their names placed alternately with men on the ballots by party slate.

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 during the year.

Corruption: On February 28, the attorney general, together with judicial police officers, searched the Presidency as part of an investigation for the alleged breach of personal data, abuse of authority, and prevarication due to the creation of a data analysis unit in 2018 without legal foundation. On February 17, the government published an executive order in the official gazette indicating the presidential data analysis unit would have access to confidential information of citizens; however, on February 21, the government annulled the executive order due to the turmoil it caused. On March 4, Minister of the Presidency Victor Morales resigned for having approved the executive order. The Ombudsman’s Office began an administrative investigation, and the National Assembly formed a special committee to investigate the creation of the data analysis unit.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws that require senior officials to submit sworn declarations of income, assets, and liabilities. The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials. The content of the declarations is not available to the public. The law stipulates administrative sanctions for noncompliance and identifies which assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare. Officials are required to file a declaration annually and upon entering and leaving office.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses 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 were often cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsman’s Office reviews government action or inaction that affects citizens’ rights and interests. The ombudsman is accountable to the National Assembly, which appoints the person to a four-year term and funds office operations. The ombudsman participates in the drafting and approval of legislation, promotes good administration and transparency, and reports annually to the National Assembly with nonbinding recommendations. International institutions and nongovernmental organization observers recognized the Ombudsman’s Office as an independent and effective instrument for promoting human rights.

A special committee of the National Assembly studies and reports on problems relating to the violation of human rights, and it also reviews bills relating to human rights and international humanitarian law.

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, and it provides penalties from 10 to 18 years in prison for rape. The judicial branch generally enforced the law effectively.

The law prohibits domestic violence and provides measures for the protection of domestic violence victims. Criminal penalties range from 10 to 100 days in prison for aggravated threats and up to 35 years in prison for aggravated homicide, including sentences of 20 to 35 years for persons who kill their partners. The government enforced the laws effectively.

Violence against women remained a serious problem, and as of July 29, the government reported that 44 women had been violently killed, including seven killed by a partner or spouse. The government and local governments in coordination with diplomatic missions launched public campaigns to support women at risk of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security generally enforced this prohibition. The government enforced the law effectively. The law imposes penalties ranging from a letter of reprimand to dismissal, with more serious incidents subject to criminal prosecution. On August 10, the president signed legislation that criminalizes sexual harassment in public places and punishes it with prison sentences and fines.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. According to human rights experts, challenges related to access of reproductive health services remained for lesbian and bisexual, indigenous, and afro-descendent women, and women with disabilities.

There were some barriers to access contraception. The Ministry of Health approved the use of emergency contraceptive pills; however, according to human rights experts, emergency contraception was not widely available, and access was especially difficult for at-risk populations.

Some social barriers adversely affected access to skilled health care providers during pregnancy and childbirth. Women in rural areas and indigenous women did not always have access to health care during childbirth due to geographic isolation. Some women had difficulty accessing prenatal care. Government regulations state that all pregnant women, including undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, have access to health services. In practice, however, refugees and asylum seekers reported that access to health services was difficult. Refugee and migrant advocates stated that this population only qualified for public health services if they were minors, visibly pregnant, or facing a life-threatening emergency, but some individuals reported being denied services even in emergency situations.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. Human rights experts identified challenges such as revictimization and access to antiretroviral therapy.

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

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men; however, the law restricts women’s ability to work the same hours as men or in sectors deemed dangerous. The law prohibits discrimination against women and obligates the government to promote political, economic, social, and cultural equality. The law requires that women and men receive equal pay for equal work. The government enforced the laws effectively, although an official study reported a pay gap of 13 percent for highly skilled jobs.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is obtained from birth within the country’s territory or can be derived if either parent is Costa Rican. Birth registration was not always automatic, and migrant children were especially at risk of statelessness since they did not have access to legal documents to establish their identity if their parents did not seek birth registration for them.

Child Abuse: The autonomous National Institute for Children (PANI) reported violence against children and adolescents continued to be a concern, but there was no marked increase in the number of cases of child violence or abuse. In April the attorney general created a prosecutorial unit specializing in violent crimes against children.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age of marriage is 18. The law establishes penalties for sex with minors and prohibits child marriage. The crime carries a penalty of up to three years in prison for an adult having sex with a person younger than age 15, or younger than 18 if the age difference is more than five years.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes the commercial sexual exploitation of children and provides sentences of up to 16 years in prison for violations. The law provides for sentences of two to 10 years in prison for statutory rape and three to eight years in prison for child pornography. The law establishes a statute of limitations of 25 years for sexual crimes against minors. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18 years. The country was a destination for child sex tourism.

Institutionalized Children: The Ombudsman’s Office established a plan to conduct random inspections as a follow-up measure to reduce overcrowding in PANI shelters. Authorities detained two child-care workers after receiving a report of physical and psychological abuse during an inspection. During a random inspection conducted by the Ombudsman’s Office, a child reported that the workers were beating children in the shelter, depriving them of meals, and forcing them to go to sleep during the day. PANI reported that they took immediate actions to guarantee the protection of the nine victims and opened a disciplinary procedure against the workers while the judicial investigation continued.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish Zionist Center estimated there were between 3,000 and 3,500 Jewish persons in the country. There were isolated reports of anti-Semitic comments on social media and of a student movement at a public university promoting anti-Semitism.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. The law also establishes a right to employment for persons with disabilities and sets a hiring quota of 5 percent of vacant positions in the public sector. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

Although the law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, the government did not enforce this provision, and many buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The Ombudsman’s Office reported inadequate sidewalks and difficulties in access to public transportation as factors hindering the mobility of persons with disabilities. The government policy on education and the national plan for higher education aimed to increase educational opportunities for students with disabilities. Children with disabilities were generally integrated in educational facilities serving children without disabilities.

The Supreme Elections Tribunal took measures (voting procedures, facilities, materials, and trained personnel) to provide for fully accessible elections for all persons with disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The constitution establishes that the country is a multiethnic and multicultural nation. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, however, the country lacked the legal framework to ensure adequate mechanisms to combat discrimination, facilitate the adoption of affirmative action for individuals who suffer discrimination, and establish sanctions for those who commit discriminatory acts.

Indigenous People

Violence against indigenous persons increased during the year. Land ownership continued to be a problem in most indigenous territories. The law protects reserve land as the collective, nontransferable property in 24 indigenous territories; however, 38 percent of that land was in nonindigenous hands. Violence led to the killing of indigenous leader Jerhy Rivera in February. In March the government established a plan for the recovery of indigenous territories. The plan seeks to comply with the Indigenous Law mandating the return of land to indigenous communities and protecting the rights of indigenous populations.

In July the Inter-American Human Rights Commission decided to review a case regarding the Teribe indigenous people. The complaint stated the government ignored the indigenous institutions and authorities of the Teribe people and limited their rights of governance. One of the violations listed was the construction of a hydroelectric project in Puntarenas that the government suspended in 2018.

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

No law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. Discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by a series of executive orders and workplace policies but not by national laws.

There were cases of discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation, ranging from employment, police abuse, and access to education and health-care services. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals experienced discrimination within their own families due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on HIV/AIDS in health care, housing, employment, and education, some discrimination was reported.

Labor discrimination towards HIV patients continued; some persons reported losing their jobs due to discrimination, their deteriorating health, or both, although the problem was not widespread. The government took no concrete steps to combat discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status despite having adopted a national strategic plan on HIV and AIDS (2016-21).

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The government respected these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Unions must register, and the law provides a deadline of 15 days for authorities to reply to a registration request. The law permits foreign workers to join unions but prohibits them from holding positions of authority within the unions, except for foreign workers who are married to citizens of the country and have legally resided in the country for at least five years.

The labor code stipulates that at least 50 percent of the workers in an enterprise must vote to support a strike. The law, however, adds that even if there is no union at the enterprise or if the union lacks the support of 50 percent of the workforce, a strike may be initiated if 35 percent of the workers call for a vote by secret ballot. The law restricts the right to strike for workers in services designated as essential by the government, including in sectors such as oil refineries and ports that are not recognized as essential services under international standards. On January 27, the president signed into law a bill regulating strikes, which includes a prohibition on strikes by workers in nine essential public services and allows employers to suspend the pay of public-service workers who are on strike.

The law also permits two other types of worker organizations unique to the country: “solidarity associations,” legal entities recognized by the constitution that have both management and employee membership and serve primarily to administer funds for severance payments; and “permanent committees,” enterprise-level bodies made up of three workers elected to negotiate “direct agreements” with employers. Both entities may coexist and share membership with labor unions. The law also requires that permanent committee members be elected freely by secret ballot without intervention of the employer.

The law requires employers to initiate the bargaining process with a trade union if more than one-third of the total workforce, including union and nonunion members, requests collective bargaining, but the law also permits direct bargaining agreements with nonunionized workers. The law establishes a scope of implementation and procedures for negotiations. The law prohibits solidarity associations from representing workers in collective bargaining negotiations or in any other way that assumes the functions or inhibits the formation of trade unions. Although public-sector employees are permitted to bargain collectively, the Supreme Court held that some fringe benefits received by certain public employees were disproportionate and unreasonable, and it repealed sections of collective bargaining agreements between public-sector unions and government agencies, thus restricting this right in practice. A court’s decision ratified the ceiling of 12 years for severance pay when an employee is terminated. As of July the Ministry of Labor reported 10 requests for conciliation in collective labor disputes related to union rights; eight of them took place in the agricultural sector (pineapple and banana farms).

The government effectively enforced applicable laws, and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of individual rights, such as discrimination. While the law establishes sanctions (fines and fees) for infractions, only the judiciary has the authority to apply such sanctions. The amount of fines and fees is determined by the severity of the infraction and is based on the minimum wage. The law requires labor claims to be processed within two years and sets up a special summary procedure for discrimination claims. The law also provides labor union members protections against discrimination based on labor affiliation and special protections via special expedited proceedings.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining were generally respected. Labor unions asserted that solidarity associations set up and controlled permanent committees at many workplaces, which in turn conducted negotiations and established direct agreements. Labor unions also asserted that employers sometimes required membership in a solidarity association as a condition for employment. To the extent that solidarity associations and permanent committees displaced trade unions, they affected the independence of workers’ organizations from employers’ influence and infringed on the right to organize and bargain collectively. In recent years the International Labor Organization (ILO) reported an expansion of direct agreements between employers and nonunionized workers and noted its concern that the number of collective bargaining agreements in the private sector continued to be low when compared with a high number of direct agreements with nonunionized workers.

In some instances employers fired employees who attempted to unionize. The Ministry of Labor reported two allegations of antiunion discrimination from January to June. There were reports some employers also preferred to use “flexible,” or short-term, contracts, making it difficult for workers to organize and collectively bargain. Migrant workers in agriculture frequently were hired on short-term contracts through intermediaries (outsourcing), faced antiunion discrimination and challenges in organizing, and were often more vulnerable to labor exploitation. In early June, after the Ministry of Health identified a wave of COVID-19 cases in the northern zone of the country, including several clusters of cases among workers in the agricultural sector and packaging industry, an interagency team inspected agricultural companies and found violations related to migration; occupational health and labor laws, including failure to comply with work schedules; minimum wages; and overtime pay. Twenty-eight companies received warning notices from the labor inspectorate.

The ILO noted no trade unions operated in the country’s export-processing zones and identified the zones as a hostile environment for organizing. Labor unions asserted that efforts by workers in export-processing zones to organize were met with illegal employment termination, threats, and intimidation and that some employers maintained blacklists of workers identified as activists.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government effectively enforced the law. The law establishes criminal penalties for trafficking in persons crimes that were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Forced labor of migrants occurred in the agricultural sector. On June 22, the Judicial Investigative Police identified 14 migrant workers (including eight irregular migrants and six refugees, one of whom had a COVID-19 quarantine order) living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions on a farm in Pococi, Limon. In 2019 the Attorney General’s Office reported a conviction of trafficking for labor exploitation involving four male victims.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The child and adolescence code prohibits labor of all children younger than age 15 without exceptions, including the worst forms of child labor; it supersedes the minimum working age of 12 established in the labor code. Adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18 may work a maximum of six hours daily and 36 hours weekly. The law prohibits night work and overtime for minors. The law prohibits children younger than age 18 from engaging in hazardous or unhealthy activities and specifies a list of hazardous occupations. The government generally enforced child labor laws effectively in the formal sector but not in the informal sector.

Child labor occurred primarily in the informal economy, especially in the agricultural, commercial, and industrial sectors. The worst forms of child labor occurred in agriculture on small third-party farms in the formal sector and on family farms in the informal sector. Forced child labor reportedly occurred in some service sectors, such as agriculture, construction, fishing, street vending, and domestic service, and some children were subject to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children). Authorities suspected that adults used children to transport or sell drugs; some of these children may have been trafficking victims.

While the Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing and taking administrative actions against possible violations of, or lack of compliance with, child labor laws, the Prosecutor’s Office intervenes in cases regarding the worst forms of child labor. The government effectively enforced the law. As with other labor laws, the authority to sanction employers for infractions lies solely with the judiciary, and the law requires labor inspectors to initiate legal cases with the judiciary after exhausting the administrative process. The amount of fines and fees is determined by the severity of the infraction and is based on an equation derived from the minimum wage. Penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous crimes, such as kidnapping.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The laws and regulations prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation regarding race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, HIV-positive status, or other communicable diseases status. The labor code prohibits discrimination based on age, ethnicity, gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, civil status, political opinion, nationality, social status, affiliation, disability, labor union membership, or economic situation. The government effectively enforced these laws and regulations, and penalties were commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. The Labor Ministry reported seven cases of gender discrimination from January to June. The ministry continued to implement a gender-equality perspective into labor inspections to identify areas of vulnerability. The COVID-19 pandemic affected women’s employment, with women suffering the greatest number of job losses (see section 6, Women). As of July the unemployment rate for women reached 30 percent, compared with 18 percent before the pandemic started. The labor participation rate decreased from 52 percent to 44.5 percent.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to persons with disabilities and the LGBTI population. Discrimination against migrant workers from Nicaragua occurred, and there were reports of instances of employers using threats of deportation to withhold their wages.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The wage council of the Ministry of Labor sets the minimum wage scale for the public and private sectors twice a year. Monthly minimum wages were above the poverty line. The national minimum wage applied to both Costa Rican and migrant workers. The law sets workday hours, overtime remuneration, days of rest, and annual vacation rights. Workers generally may work a maximum of eight hours a day or 48 hours weekly. Workers are entitled to one day of rest after six consecutive days of work, except in the agricultural sector, and annual paid vacations. The law provides that workers be paid for overtime work at a rate 50 percent above their stipulated wage or salary. Although there is no statutory prohibition against compulsory overtime, the labor code stipulates the workday may not exceed 12 hours, except in the agricultural sector when there is “imminent risk of harm…to the harvest” when work cannot be suspended and workers cannot be substituted. While women may work in the same industries as men, there are legal restrictions regarding limits on women’s working hours and tasks. Women and children are prohibited from working in jobs deemed dangerous by law. The government effectively enforced minimum wage and overtime laws mainly in the formal sector, and penalties were commensurate with those for similar labor infractions.

The government maintains a dedicated authority to enforce occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. The OSH standards are appropriate for the main industries in the country, according to the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health. The Labor Ministry’s National Council of Occupational Health and Safety is a tripartite OSH regulatory authority with government, employer, and employee representation. Penalties for violations of OSH laws were commensurate with those for similar labor infractions, although the government did not enforce these standards effectively in either the formal or the informal sectors.

The responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remained with the Labor Ministry’s OSH experts and not the worker. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. According to the Labor Ministry, this is a responsibility shared by the employer and employee. The law assigns responsibility to the employer, including granting OSH officers access to workplaces, but it also authorizes workers to seek assistance from appropriate authorities (OSH or labor inspectors) for noncompliance with OSH workplace standards, including risks at work. The responsibility for occupational accidents and diseases falls on the insurance policy of the employer.

The Ministry of Labor’s Inspection Directorate is responsible for labor inspection, in collaboration with the Social Security Agency and the National Insurance Institute. The directorate employed labor inspectors, who investigated all types of labor violations. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to deter violations. According to the Ministry of Labor, inspections occurred both in response to complaints and at the initiative of inspectors. The directorate stated it could visit any employer, formal or informal, and inspections were always unannounced.

The Labor Ministry generally addressed complaints by sending inspection teams to investigate and coordinate with each other on follow-up actions. As with other labor laws, inspectors cannot fine or sanction employers who do not comply with laws on acceptable conditions of work; rather, they investigate and refer noncompliance results to labor courts. The process of fining companies or compelling employers to pay back wages or overtime has traditionally been subject to lengthy delays.

The Ministry of Labor generally enforced minimum wages effectively in the San Jose area but less effectively in rural areas, particularly where large numbers of migrants were employed, and in the large informal sector, which comprised 40 percent of employment as of June, compared with 47 percent before the pandemic started. The ministry publicly recognized that many workers, including in the formal sector, received less than the minimum wage, mainly in the agricultural sector. The Ministry of Labor’s Inspection Directorate continued operating during the pandemic, and after facing a two-month moratorium at the beginning of it, the labor inspectorate resumed inspections in May, when officials began virtual hearings.

Observers expressed concern about exploitative working conditions in fisheries, small businesses, and agricultural activities. Unions also reported systematic violations of labor rights and provisions concerning working conditions, overtime, and wages in the export-processing zones. Labor unions reported overtime pay violations, such as nonpayment of wages and mandatory overtime, were common in the private sector and particularly in export-processing zones and agriculture. There were reports that agricultural workers, particularly migrant laborers in the pineapple industry, worked in unsafe conditions, including exposure to hazardous chemicals without proper training. The national insurance company reported 42,115 cases of workplace-related illnesses and injuries and 23 workplace fatalities from January to June.

Dominican Republic

Executive Summary

The Dominican Republic is a representative constitutional democracy. In July, Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party was elected president for a four-year term. Impartial outside observers assessed the election as generally free, fair, and orderly.

The National Police are under the minister of interior and police and in practice report to the president. The Airport Security Authority, Port Security Authority, Tourist Security Corps, and Border Security Corps have some domestic security responsibilities and report to the Ministry of Armed Forces and through that ministry to the president. The National Drug Control Directorate, which has personnel from both police and armed forces, reports directly to the president, as does the National Department of Intelligence. Both the National Drug Control Directorate and the National Department of Intelligence have significant domestic security responsibilities. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; torture by police and other government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminal libel for individual journalists; serious government corruption; trafficking in persons; and police violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took some steps to punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but there were widespread reports of official impunity and corruption, especially among senior officials.

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

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

Extrajudicial killings of civilians by officers of the National Police were a problem. According to government data, more than 3,000 individuals died during confrontations with police or security forces between 2007 and March 2019. The exact number of extrajudicial killings was unknown. The Internal Affairs Unit investigates charges of gross misconduct by members of the National Police, including killings. Separately, the district attorney has authority to investigate and prosecute criminal misconduct by members of the National Police. The government stated it was unaware of any extrajudicial killings during the year and added that any such cases would be investigated for possible prosecution. Media and civil society acknowledged that many cases went unreported due to a lack of faith in the justice system to pursue charges.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported on extrajudicial killings by police, with several tied to the nightly curfew imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike in previous years, the NHRC did not report detailed statistics on extrajudicial killings by the national police. The NHRC did, however, highlight several troubling incidents of individuals killed or injured by police for apparent curfew violations. In September a motorcycle police officer shot two persons riding a motorcycle after curfew in Santo Domingo. In April an 11-year-old bystander was killed in her home during a shootout between police and individuals out in violation of the curfew.

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

Although the law prohibits torture, beating, and physical abuse, there were reports that security force members, primarily police, carried out such practices.

In May sex workers in Santo Domingo reported to news outlets that police officers routinely beat them as the sex workers attempted to work in violation of COVID-19 prohibitions.

Impunity was a problem within certain units of the security forces, particularly the national police. The government largely failed to respond to questions regarding internal controls and investigations among the security forces. Through September 1, the government reported a single instance of excessive force by a police officer. It further claimed that all arrests complied with constitutional protections. The government used training to combat official impunity. The national police offered specialized training on human rights as part of their continuing education courses.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions ranged from general compliance with international standards in “new-model” prisons (correctional rehabilitation centers, or CRCs) to harsh and life threatening in “old-model” prisons.

Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding was a problem in old-model prisons. The Directorate of Prisons reported that as of September there were 16,614 prisoners in old-model prisons and 9,986 in CRCs. This ratio remained constant for the past several years because old-model prisons were not phased out. La Victoria, the oldest prison, held 7,236 inmates, although it was designed for a maximum capacity of 2,011. The inmate population at every old-model prison exceeded capacity, while only one of the 22 CRCs was over capacity.

Police and military inmates received preferential treatment and were held in their own separate facilities, as were prisoners with the financial means to rent preferential bed space and purchase other necessities in old-model prisons.

According to the Directorate of Prisons, military and police personnel guarded old-model prisons, while a trained civilian corps guarded CRCs. Reports of mistreatment and violence in old-model prisons were common, as were reports of harassment, extortion, and inappropriate searches of prison visitors. Some old-model prisons remained effectively outside the control of authorities, and there were reports of drug trafficking, arms trafficking, prostitution, and sexual abuse in those prisons. Wardens at old-model prisons often controlled only the perimeter, while inmates controlled the inside with their own rules and system of justice. Although the law mandates separation of prisoners according to severity of offense, authorities did not do so.

In August a journalist released an investigative report showing overt corruption and drug trafficking in La Victoria Prison. Posing as an inmate, he used a hidden camera to record police and prison leadership collecting bribes weekly from inmates. His recordings also showed how guards allowed drugs to be trafficked through the prison. In response to the report, the government dismissed 18 officials, including the warden, certain administrative personnel, and the police officers in charge.

In old-model prisons, health and sanitary conditions were generally inadequate. Prisoners often slept on the floor because no beds were available. Prison officials did not separate sick inmates. After a series of complaints, authorities transferred prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms to separate facilities for treatment. Delays in receiving medical attention were common in both the old-model prisons and CRCs.

All prisons had infirmaries, but most infirmaries did not meet the needs of the prison population. In most cases inmates had to purchase their own medications or rely on family members or outside associates to provide medications. Illness was the primary cause of deaths reported in the prison system. According to the Directorate of Prisons, all prisons provided treatment for HIV and AIDS, but the NHRC stated that none of the old-model prisons was properly equipped to provide such treatment. As of September more than 900 prisoners had contracted COVID-19, resulting in 17 deaths.

In CRCs and certain old-model prisons, a subset of the prison population with mental disabilities received treatment, including therapy, for their conditions. In most old-model prisons, however, the government did not provide services to prisoners with mental disabilities. In general the mental-health services provided to prisoners were inadequate or inconsistent with prisoners’ needs.

The government reported it had installed wheelchair ramps in some prisons for prisoners with physical disabilities. NGOs claimed the majority of prisons still did not provide access for inmates with disabilities.

Administration: Authorities investigated credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits to and monitoring of prisons by independently funded and operated nongovernmental observers, international organizations, and media. The NHRC, National Office of Public Defense (NOPD), Attorney General’s Office, and CRC prison administration together created human rights committees in each CRC that were authorized to conduct surprise visits. In October the NHRC opened a permanent office in the country’s largest prison. Access to migrant detention centers for monitoring, however, was not systematically granted to human rights organizations.

Improvements: In August the government inaugurated the New Victoria prison, a large CRC scheduled to replace the overcrowded Victoria prison. As of September the transfer of prisoners from the old Victoria prison to the New Victoria prison had not begun.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits detention without a warrant unless authorities apprehend a suspect during the commission of a crime or in other special circumstances. The law permits detention without a charge for up to 48 hours. The constitution provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention in court, and the government generally observed this requirement. Arbitrary arrest and detention were problems. There were reports of individuals held and later released with little or no explanation for the detention. NGOs reported detainees were often taken into custody at the scene of a crime or during drug raids. In many instances authorities fingerprinted, questioned, and then released those detainees.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that an accused person may be detained for up to 48 hours without a warrant before being presented to judicial authorities. Nonetheless, there were reports of detainees who remained in police stations for long periods of time, even weeks, before being transferred to a prison. Police stations did not have adequate physical conditions or the resources, including food, to provide for detainees for an extended period.

The law permits police to apprehend without an arrest warrant any person caught in the act of committing a crime or reasonably linked to a crime, such as cases involving hot pursuit or escaped prisoners. Police sometimes detained suspects for investigation or interrogation longer than 48 hours. Police often detained all suspects and witnesses to a crime. Successful habeas corpus hearings reduced abuses of the law significantly. There was a functioning bail system and a system of house arrest.

The law requires provision of counsel to indigent defendants, but staffing levels were inadequate to meet demand. In theory the NOPD provided free legal aid to those who could not afford counsel, but many detainees and prisoners who could not afford private counsel did not have prompt access to a lawyer due to inadequate staffing. Prosecutors and judges handled interrogations of juveniles, since the law prohibits interrogation of juveniles by or in the presence of police.

Arbitrary Arrest: Police made sporadic sweeps or roundups in low-income, high-crime communities during which they arrested and detained individuals without warrants. During these operations police detained large numbers of residents and seized personal property allegedly used in criminal activity.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported cases of Haitian migrants and their children, as well as Dominicans of Haitian descent, being detained and deported because authorities did not permit them to retrieve immigration or citizenship documents from their residences. There were also reports of deportations of unaccompanied children and of women who left children behind. The IOM reported that due to training they provided to migration officials, the number of erroneous deportations of documented and vulnerable persons fell by 58 percent over the past four years.

Civil society organization representatives said the government informally deported individuals by taking them across the border without documentation. The IOM reported that the General Directorate of Migration referred to these cases as “devolutions” or “not admitted” and that there was no due process in these operations. The IOM worked with the government to establish a system for nonadmitted persons.

Pretrial Detention: Many suspects endured long pretrial detention. A judge may order detention between three and 18 months. According to the Directorate of Prisons, as of September, 62 percent of inmates in old-model prisons were in pretrial custody, compared with 53 percent of prisoners in CRCs. The average pretrial detention time was three months, but there were reports of pretrial detention lasting more than three years, including cases involving foreign citizens. Time served in pretrial detention counted toward completing a sentence.

The failure of prison authorities to produce detainees for court hearings caused some trial postponements. Many inmates had their court dates postponed due to a lack of transportation from prison to court. In other cases their lawyer, codefendants, interpreters, or witnesses did not appear or were not officially called by the court to appear. Despite protections for defendants in the law, in some cases authorities held inmates beyond the legally mandated deadlines, even when there were no formal charges against them.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary; however, the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Improper influence on judicial decisions was widespread. Interference ranged from selective prosecution to dismissal of cases amid allegations of bribery or undue political pressure. The judiciary routinely dismissed high-level corruption cases. The NOPD reported the most frequent form of interference with judicial orders occurred when authorities refused to accept writs of habeas corpus to release detainees. Corruption of the judiciary was a serious problem.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a defense in a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary did not always enforce this right. The courts sometimes exceeded the maximum period of time established by the law for setting hearing dates.

The law provides for a presumption of innocence. The District Attorney’s Office is required to notify defendants and their attorneys of criminal charges. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. The indigent have the right to a public defender, but the director of the NOPD stated the number of public defenders was insufficient. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The law provides for free interpretation as necessary. The law provides for the right to confront or question witnesses and the right against self-incrimination. Defendants have the right to present their own witnesses and evidence. The constitution provides for the right to appeal and prohibits higher courts from increasing the sentences of lower courts.

Military and police tribunals share jurisdiction over disciplinary cases involving members of the security forces. Military tribunals have jurisdiction over cases involving violations of military rules and regulations. Civilian criminal courts handle cases of killings and other serious crimes allegedly committed by members of the security forces.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There are separate court systems for criminal law, commercial law, civil law, labor law, real estate law, and administrative law. Commercial and civil courts reportedly had lengthy delays in adjudicating cases, although their ultimate decisions were generally enforced. As in criminal courts, undue political and economic influence in civil court decisions was a problem.

Citizens have recourse to file an amparo, an action to seek redress of any violation of a constitutional right, including violations of fundamental rights.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary entry into a private residence, except when police are in hot pursuit of a suspect, a suspect is caught in the act of committing a crime, or police suspect a life is in danger. The law provides that all other entries into a private residence require an arrest or search warrant issued by a judge. Despite these limits on government authority, police conducted illegal searches and seizures, including many raids without warrants on private residences in poor neighborhoods.

During the months leading up to the national elections in July, human rights groups, opposition politicians, and journalists critical of the government alleged that the Medina administration used unauthorized wiretaps, monitored private email, and used other surreptitious methods to interfere with the private lives of individuals and families. The Medina administration denied this. Opposition political parties alleged that Medina administration officials at times threatened subordinates with loss of employment or offered benefits to compel them to support Dominican Liberation Party candidates.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Media expressed a wide variety of views, but the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The concentration of media ownership, weaknesses in the judiciary, and political influence also limited media’s independence.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals and groups were generally able to criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal, although there were several incidents in which authorities intimidated members of the press. In September the new administration allegedly violated freedom of expression when it dismissed a government whistleblower within the Ministry of Culture after she informed media of the allegedly arbitrary dismissal of several civil service staff within the ministry. The Ministry of Culture never directly addressed or explained these dismissals.

In another instance several media outlets reported that press was granted only limited access to public government events. Media outlets with reporters assigned to the national palace stated they were not informed on time nor given access to public meetings held by the president or his cabinet members. When press representatives requested an explanation for these actions, they were told the events were private. Media also highlighted a lack of coordination by the palace communication team in providing the president’s public schedule and convening media to cover meetings. The Abinader administration’s communication team met journalists to hear their complaints and find a solution.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Dominican Association of Journalists reported at the start of the national COVID-19 lockdown that several journalists from the provinces of Santiago, Bahoruco, Mao, and Santo Domingo were stopped or prevented from transiting freely to report on the pandemic. The association requested the government to instruct police and military officers that journalists were essential workers who could transit after curfew and to avoid any aggression towards them. The government did not make any statement in response to this complaint, but it provided curfew passes for various kinds of workers, including media members, and cases decreased of security forces restricting the movement of journalists. The International Federation of Journalists reported an alleged beating by police officers of a radio journalist who protested for the freedom of a colleague who had allegedly violated the curfew in the province of San Pedro de Macoris. In November the Dominican Association of Journalists announced it would provide stickers and license plates from the organization to identify their members and facilitate identification of journalists by law enforcement.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists and other persons who worked in media were occasionally harassed or physically attacked. Some media outlets reported that journalists, specifically in rural areas, received threats for investigating or denouncing criminal groups and official corruption. Some media outlets omitted the bylines of journalists reporting on drug trafficking and other security matters to protect the individual journalists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution provides for protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and includes a “conscience clause” allowing journalists to refuse reporting assignments. Journalists practiced self-censorship, particularly when coverage could adversely affect the economic or political interests of media owners. Observers suggested the government influenced the press through advertising contracts. In July during the presidential transition period, the government’s communications directorate published expense reports for the outgoing administration. Journalists and observers criticized government spending on advertisements, which according to official figures reached approximately $18.5 million over eight years, describing it as a strategy to influence journalists’ speech.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation and insult, with harsher punishment for offenses committed against public or state figures than for offenses against private individuals. The Dominican Association of Journalists reported that journalists were sued by politicians, government officials, and the private sector to pressure them to stop reporting. The law penalizes libel for statements concerning the private lives of certain public figures, including government officials and foreign heads of state.

In December 2019 the former attorney general’s sister sued a well known journalist for slander after his investigative report alleged that she received no-bid government contracts worth 750 million pesos ($13 million), positioning the company she represented as the sole supplier of asphalt products to the government. The journalist demonstrated that at the time the contracts were signed, the sister was a paid employee of the Ministry of Public Works and Communications. Several preliminary hearings took place during the following months with limited press access, but the trial did not formally start due to COVID-19 restrictions. The lawsuit was withdrawn on August 13, three days before the new administration took office.

In February the Supreme Court upheld a guilty verdict for libel and defamation against a television and online journalist in a case brought by the former president of the lower house of congress. Although it affirmed the verdict, the Supreme Court reduced the damage award from approximately $120,000 to $85,000. The plaintiff, who was the sister of former president Danilo Medina, filed the lawsuit in 2017 alleging the defendant had impugned her honor by insinuating she was involved in a romantic relationship with the former head of the national police.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content without appropriate legal authority; however, there were allegations the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

In June, Afro-Dominican and nationalist groups clashed at a Santo Domingo vigil organized in solidarity with worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. Police dispersed the crowd and arrested organizers of both groups for violating government restrictions on public events during the coronavirus pandemic. Civil society observers denounced perceived unequal treatment during the arrests, stating police treated the Afro-Dominican leaders more roughly. The head of the attorney general’s Human Rights Office intervened to ensure the quick release of leaders from both groups and no charges were filed.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: Civil society representatives reported that citizens of Haitian descent, those perceived to be Haitian, and Haitian migrants faced obstacles while traveling within the country. NGO representatives reported that security forces at times asked travelers to show immigration and citizenship documents at road checkpoints throughout the country. Citizens of Haitian descent and migrants without valid identity documents reported fear of swift deportation when traveling within the country, especially near the border with Haiti (see also section 1.d.).

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated in a limited manner 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, and other persons of concern.

Government officials reported 14,050 Venezuelans migrants, of whom 60 percent had expired documentation, registered under a temporary status with the government. The government and NGOs estimated an additional 100,000 Venezuelans lived in the country in an irregular migration status. In December 2019 the government instituted a regulation requiring Venezuelans to apply for a tourist visa before entering the country. Previously, Venezuelans needed only a valid passport and could receive a tourist visa at the point of entry. Many Venezuelans resident in the country entered legally before the new regulation and stayed longer than the three-month allowance.

The government did not issue guidelines to facilitate the regularization of status for Venezuelans living in the country. The inability to apply for in-country adjustment of status hindered Venezuelans’ access to basic services and increased their vulnerability to labor exploitation and trafficking. Venezuelan refugee and immigrant associations, with the support of the IOM, UNHCR, and Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V Platform), coordinated with the government and civil society organizations to provide public-health and legal services for Venezuelan refugees and migrants. The R4V Platform is a regional interagency platform, led by IOM and UNHCR, for coordinating the humanitarian response for refugees and migrants from Venezuela.

Refoulement: There were reports of persons potentially in need of international protection being denied admission at the point of entry and subsequently being deported to their countries of origin without being granted access to the asylum process (see also section 1.d.).

Access to Asylum: Presidential decrees from the 1980s established a system for granting asylum or refugee status; however, the system was not implemented through legislation and regulations. The constitution prohibits administrative detention for asylum seekers, and the law establishes that asylum seekers should not be detained under any circumstance. The system for providing protection to refugees was not effectively implemented. The government recognized and issued identity documents to very few refugees during the past few years. Rejection rates for asylum claims were close to 100 percent, and asylum applications often remained pending for several years.

The National Commission for Refugees (CONARE), an interministerial body led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is responsible for adjudicating asylum claims. The adjudication process requires individuals to apply for asylum within 15 days of arrival in the country. If an asylum seeker is in the country for more than 15 days without applying for asylum, the individual permanently loses the right to apply for asylum. The law also rejects any asylum application from an individual who was in, or who proceeds from, a foreign country where the individual could have sought asylum. Thus the government makes inadmissibility determinations administratively before an asylum interview or evaluation by CONARE.

NGOs working with refugees and asylum seekers reported there was no information posted at ports of entry to provide notice of the right to seek asylum, or of the timeline and process for doing so. Furthermore, NGO representatives reported that immigration officials did not appear to understand how to handle asylum cases consistent with the country’s international commitments. By law the government must provide due process to asylum seekers. Persons expressing a fear of return to their country of nationality or habitual residence should be allowed to apply for asylum under the proper procedures. Nonetheless, there was generally neither judicial review of deportation orders nor any third-party review of “credible fear” determinations.

UN officials reported asylum seekers were not properly notified of inadmissibility decisions. CONARE did not provide rejected asylum seekers with details of the grounds for the rejection of their asylum application or with information on the appeal process. Rejected applicants received a letter saying they had 30 days to leave the country voluntarily. According to government policy, from the time they receive the notice of denial, rejected asylum seekers have seven days to file an appeal. The notice-of-denial letter does not mention this right of appeal.

UN officials stated a lack of due process in migration procedures resulted in arbitrary detention of persons of concern with no administrative or judicial review (see also section 1.d.). As a result, asylum seekers and refugees in the country were at risk of refoulement and prolonged detention.

UNHCR sponsored training for government authorities designed to ensure that asylum procedures were fair, efficient, and gender sensitive. Nevertheless, no significant improvements were observed in the system. According to refugee NGOs, CONARE does not acknowledge that the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of refugee applies to persons who express a well founded fear of persecution perpetrated by nonstate agents. This lack of acknowledgement had a detrimental effect on persons fleeing sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Freedom of Movement: Persons claiming asylum often waited months to receive a certificate as an asylum seeker and to be registered in the government database. The certificate had to be renewed every 30 days in the national office in Santo Domingo, forcing asylum seekers who lived outside Santo Domingo to return monthly to the capital, accompanied by all their family members, or lose their claim to asylum. Asylum seekers with pending cases only had this certificate, or sometimes nothing at all, to present to avoid deportation. This restricted their freedom of movement. In cases where asylum seekers were detained for lack of documentation, refugee and human rights organizations were able to advocate for their release.

Some refugees recognized by CONARE were either issued travel documents that were not accepted in visa application processes, or they were not issued travel documents at all.

Employment: The government prohibited asylum seekers with pending cases from working. This situation was complicated by the long, sometimes indefinite waiting periods for pending asylum cases to be resolved. Lack of documentation also made it difficult for refugees to find employment. Employment was, nonetheless, a requirement by the government for renewing refugees’ temporary residency cards.

Access to Basic Services: Approved refugees have the same rights and responsibilities as legal migrants with temporary residence permits. Approved refugees have the right to education, employment, health care, and other social services. Nonetheless, refugee organizations reported that problems remained. Only those refugees able to afford health insurance were able to access adequate health care. Refugees reported their government-issued identification numbers were sometimes not recognized, and thus they could not open a bank account or enter service contracts for basic utilities. Refugees sometimes had to rely on friends or family for such services.

Temporary Protection: A plan adopted in 2013, and which remained in force until 2014, enabled undocumented migrants in the country to apply for temporary legal residency. Although the exact number of undocumented migrants was unknown, the law granted temporary residency status to more than 260,000 applicants, 97 percent of whom were Haitian. As of August 2018, 196,000 persons had renewed temporary status, which was due to expire in 2020. Civil society organizations expressed concern that many plan participants lacked passports, which could hinder their ability to renew their status. Government and business closures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 made it more difficult for recipients of this temporary protection to renew their status.

No temporary residence documents were granted to asylum seekers; those found to be admissible to the process were issued a certificate that provided them with protection from deportation but did not confer other rights. This certificate often took months to be delivered to asylum seekers. Due in part to this delay, both refugees and asylum seekers lived on the margins of the migration system. Foreigners often were asked to present legal migration documents to obtain legal assistance or to access the judicial system; therefore, the many refugees and asylum seekers who lacked these documents were unable to access legal help for situations they faced under criminal, labor, family, or civil law.

Refugees recognized by CONARE must undergo annual re-evaluation of their need for international protection, a procedure counter to international standards. Refugees were issued one-year temporary residence permits that could not be converted to a permanent residence permit.

g. Stateless Persons

A constitutional change in 2010 and a 2013 Constitutional Tribunal ruling revised the country’s citizenship laws. One effect was to strip retroactively Dominican citizenship from approximately 135,000 persons, mostly the children of undocumented Haitian migrants, who previously had Dominican citizenship by virtue of the jus soli (citizenship by birth within the country) policy in place since 1929.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that these legal revisions led to statelessness for the persons who lost their Dominican citizenship. UN officials and NGOs stated the legal changes had a disproportionate and negative impact on women and their children. They reported that mothers, especially unmarried mothers of Haitian origin, were unable to register their children on an equal basis with the fathers. The law requires a different birth certificate for foreign women who do not have documentation of legal residency. This led to discrimination in the ability of children born to foreign women and Dominican citizen fathers to obtain Dominican nationality, especially if they were of Haitian descent. This was not true in the reverse situation when children were born to a Dominican citizen mother and a foreign-born father.

These obstacles to timely birth registration, which is necessary to determine citizenship, put at risk children’s access to a wide range of rights, including the right to nationality, to a name and identity, and to equality before the law.

A 2014 law creates a mechanism to provide citizenship papers or a naturalization process to stateless persons. The exact mechanism depends on the documentary status of the individual prior to the 2010 change in the constitution. In practice the new documentation mechanism was only partially successful. Many stateless persons did not register for the mechanism before its deadline.

In July the outgoing government approved the naturalization of 750 individuals, the majority of whom were minors who were stripped of their citizenship by the 2013 Constitutional Tribunal ruling and who were known as Group B. These 750 persons from Group B were the first to be approved for naturalization since the 2014 law was passed.

Through a mechanism outlined in the law for individuals with other circumstances (commonly known as Group A), the government identified and then issued birth certificates and national identity documents to approximately 26,000 individuals. The government identified an additional 34,900 individuals as potentially being part of Group A. As of December these individuals had not received an identity document confirming their Dominican nationality due to apparent concerns regarding the nature of the underlying documentation establishing citizenship. This placed them at a high risk of statelessness. The pool of individuals identified as potentially part of Group A extended back to individuals born as early as 1929. Because a number of those individuals had died or moved out of the country in the ensuing decades, the remaining number of eligible Group A individuals was likely substantially smaller than the 35,000 persons identified by the Central Electoral Board (JCE).

According to observers, many stateless individuals falling under the Group B profile were unable or unwilling to register for the naturalization process during the 180-day application window. As of October there was no way for this group to secure Dominican nationality. In addition there were other individuals born in the country at specific times and in specific circumstances connected to their parents who were in legal limbo related to their citizenship.

Dominican-born persons without citizenship or identity documents faced obstacles traveling both within and outside the country. Beginning in 2015, authorities attempted to deport some of these persons but were prevented by UN agency intervention. Stateless persons do not have access to electoral participation, formal-sector jobs, marriage registration, birth registration, formal loans, judicial procedures, state social protection programs, and property ownership. Their access to primary public education and health care was limited. In addition those able to receive an education do not receive official recognition, such as a diploma, for completed schooling.

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 nearly universal, direct, and equal suffrage. Active-duty police and military personnel are prohibited from voting or participating in partisan political activities.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Municipal elections were scheduled to take place in February. On the day of the election, however, the JCE suspended the election due to the failure of the electronic voting system. According to subsequent reports by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations, the failure was due to the JCE’s poor management of the electronic system, including the failure to audit and gradually implement it. The OAS report led to the dismissal of the JCE’s national computing director. In March voters participated in rescheduled municipal elections. International and domestic observers described the rescheduled elections as largely free and fair.

Presidential and congressional elections were originally scheduled for May 15, but the JCE postponed these elections to July 5 due to the COVID-19 pandemic national state of emergency. In the July 5 election, Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party was elected as president for a four-year term. This was the first time since 2000 that a member of the opposition party won a presidential election. The JCE did not announce final, official results for the presidential election until two days after the election. Results for the congressional races were announced 12 days after the election. Some congressional and municipal races remained contested for weeks, leading to sporadic protests and violence, mainly in the National District regarding seats in the lower chamber of congress. Overall, however, civil society and international observers praised the citizens and electoral authorities for a voting process that was orderly and largely peaceful, in spite of COVID-19 challenges.

During both the municipal and presidential elections, the OAS and domestic observers noted widespread illegal political campaigning immediately outside of voting stations, indications of vote buying, lack of financial transparency by political parties and candidates, and illegal use of public funds during the campaign. Most electoral crimes were not prosecuted.

Political Parties and Political Participation: A 2018 law regulates political parties and formalizes party primaries, party financing, and the establishment of new political parties. The electoral institutions and courts interpreted and implemented the 2018 law during the 2019-20 national electoral cycle, and the Constitutional Court struck down several parts. Civil society representatives commented that the law aided the organization of the 2020 electoral process. Principal political actors, however, largely ignored important sections of the law, particularly those related to campaign financing.

By law major parties, defined as those that received 5 percent of the vote or more in the previous election, receive 80 percent of public campaign finances, while minor parties share the remaining 20 percent. The OAS, domestic NGOs, and minor parties criticized this allocation of funding as unequal and unfair. Civil society groups criticized the government and the then ruling Dominican Liberation Party for using public funds to pay for advertising shortly before the elections, although the law prohibits the use of public funds for campaigns. According to civil society groups, revenue from government advertising influenced media owners to censor voices that disagreed with the Dominican Liberation Party.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law stipulates that at least 40 percent, and no more than 60 percent, of a political party’s nominees should be of a particular gender, but in practice women were underrepresented. Despite the gender balance provision in the political parties law, the July 5 elections resulted in approximately the same number of elected women as in 2016.

Even with the high profile of women during the July 5 political contest, including female vice presidential candidates on every party ticket, more than half of elected women were selected for secondary or substitute positions (vice presidency, vice mayor, etc.) Men won two-thirds of the direct leadership positions (presidency, mayor, senator, etc.). For example, in the municipal elections, 724 of the candidates for mayoral positions were men while only 122 were women. Those numbers were effectively reversed for vice-mayoral positions, where 674 candidates were women and 122 were men.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

NGO representatives said the greatest hindrance to effective investigations was a lack of political will to prosecute individuals accused of corruption, particularly well connected individuals or high-level politicians. Government corruption remained a serious problem and a public grievance.

In compliance with his campaign promise to appoint an independent prosecutor, President Luis Abinader named Miriam German as the new attorney general in August. Following her appointment, German added 19 new members to the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office on Administrative Corruption. On November 29, the specialized anticorruption unit arrested 10 individuals closely associated with former president Danilo Medina’s administration on public corruption charges. The prosecution continued at year’s end.

Corruption: The trial against six of the 14 defendants indicted in 2017 for alleged links to $92 million in bribes paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to obtain public works contracts resumed in September. It was previously scheduled to take place in April but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The six defendants included two former senators, a former lower-house representative, and a former minister of public works. Civil society organizations welcomed the trial as a step forward in the fight against corruption, but activists highlighted what they perceived as a lack of political will thoroughly to investigate the case, which involved the country’s political and economic elites.

NGO representatives criticized the widespread practice of awarding government positions as political patronage. They alleged many civil servants received a government salary without performing any work. In September the Foreign Ministry dismissed 781 officials and stated the majority of them did not fulfill their job duties or did not have the qualifications for the position.

NGOs and individual citizens regularly reported acts of corruption by various law enforcement officials, including police officers, immigration officials, and prison officials. The government on occasion used nonjudicial punishments for corruption, including dismissal or transfer of military personnel, police officers, judges, and minor officials. Widespread acceptance and tolerance of petty corruption, however, hampered anticorruption efforts.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires the president, vice president, members of Congress, some agency heads, and some other officials, including tax and customs duty collectors, to declare their personal property within 30 days of being hired, elected, re-elected, or ending their official responsibilities. These declarations are made public. The constitution further requires public officials to declare the provenance of their property. The Chamber of Accounts is responsible for receiving and reviewing these declarations. On November 27, the government announced the suspension without pay of 36 public officials for failing to submit their sworn declaration of assets on time.

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

A number of domestic and international organizations generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. While government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views, human rights groups that advocated for the rights of Haitians and persons of Haitian descent faced occasional government obstruction.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes the position of human rights ombudsman. The ombudsman’s functions are to safeguard human rights and protect collective interests. There is also a human rights commission, cochaired by the minister of foreign affairs and the attorney general. The Attorney General’s Office has its own human rights division.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, spousal rape, domestic violence, incest, and sexual aggression. Sentences for rape range from 10 to 15 years in prison and a modest fine. The Attorney General’s Office oversees the specialized Violence Prevention and Attention Unit, which had 19 offices in the country’s 32 provinces. The Attorney General’s Office instructed its officers not to settle cases of violence against women and to continue judicial processes even when victims withdrew charges. District attorneys provided assistance and protection to victims of violence by referring them to appropriate institutions for legal, medical, and psychological counseling.

The Ministry of Women promoted equality and the prevention of violence against women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community by implementing education and awareness programs, as well as training other ministries and offices. The ministry operated shelters and provided counseling services, although NGO representatives argued these efforts were inadequate.

In September a woman was attacked with a mix of sulfuric, hydrochloric, and muriatic acid, a concoction commonly referred to as devil’s acid. She suffered chemical burns on 40 percent of her body and lost some of her vision. Her former boyfriend and two other men were arrested in connection with the attack and charged with conspiracy, torture, and gender-based violence. In leaked audio conversations, friends advised the defendant to attack the woman with acid to avoid trouble, instead of killing her. Although outlawed, the acid concoction was easily accessible.

Sexual Harassment: The law defines sexual harassment by an authority figure as a misdemeanor, and conviction carries a sentence of one year in prison and a large fine. Union leaders reported the law was not enforced and that sexual harassment remained a problem.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and generally had access to the means and information to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Low income was a barrier to accessing information.

Family-planning NGOs provided contraceptives without charge. Many low-income women, however, used them inconsistently due to lack of information, irregular availability, societal influences, and cultural male dominance. Religious beliefs and social customs reduced the use of modern methods of family planning.

The government provided some access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence through the Ministry of Women, but most of the burden for providing these services fell on women’s rights NGOs, and abortion is illegal even in the case of rape or incest.

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

Discrimination: Although the law provides women and men the same legal rights, women did not enjoy social and economic status or opportunity equal to that of men. In addition no law requires equal pay for equal work.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship comes with birth in the country, except to children born to diplomats, to those who are “in transit,” or to parents who are illegally in the country (see also section 2.g.). A child born abroad to a Dominican mother or father may also acquire citizenship. Children not registered at birth remain undocumented until the parents file a late declaration of birth.

Child Abuse: Abuse of children younger than age 18, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, was a serious problem. The law contains provisions concerning child abuse, including physical and emotional mistreatment, sexual exploitation, and child labor. The law provides for sentences of two to five years’ incarceration and a large fine for persons convicted of physical and psychological abuse of a minor. Despite this legal framework for combatting child abuse, local NGOs reported that few cases were reported to authorities and fewer still were prosecuted.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage with parental consent is 16 for boys and 15 for girls. Marriage, particularly of female minors, at younger than age 18 was common. According to a 2019 UNICEF-supported government survey, 12 percent of girls were married by age 15 and 36 percent by age 18. In addition, 22 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 had been pregnant, an issue directly related to early marriage. Girls often married much older men. Child marriage occurred more frequently among girls who were uneducated, poor, and living in rural areas. More than one-half of the women in the country’s poorest quintile were married by age 17. In late December, Congress passed a bill prohibiting marriage of persons younger than 18. The bill had the support of the Abinader administration and was expected to take effect in January 2021.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law defines statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone younger than 18. NGO representatives noted that due to the law allowing marriage with parental consent for girls as young as 15, some men arranged to marry girls to avoid prosecution for statutory rape. Penalties for conviction of statutory rape are 10 to 20 years in prison and a significant fine.

Children were exploited for commercial sex, particularly in tourist locations and major urban areas. The government conducted programs to combat the sexual exploitation of minors.

Displaced Children: Large populations of children, primarily Haitians or Dominicans of Haitian descent, lived on the streets and were vulnerable to trafficking.

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

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community comprised approximately 350 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

Although the law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, persons with disabilities encountered discrimination in employment, education, the judicial system, health care, and transportation. The law provides for access to basic services, such as access to the labor market, as well as recreational and cultural activities. It also provides for physical access to all new public and private buildings. It specifies that each ministry should collaborate with the National Disability Council to implement these provisions. Authorities worked to enforce these provisions, but a gap in implementation persisted. Very few public buildings were fully accessible.

The Dominican Association for Rehabilitation received support from the Secretariat of Public Health and from the Office of the Presidency to provide rehabilitation assistance to persons with physical and learning disabilities and to operate specialized schools for children with physical and mental disabilities. Lack of accessible public transportation was a major impediment.

The law states the government should provide access to the labor market and to cultural, recreational, and religious activities for persons with disabilities, but the law was not consistently enforced. There were three government centers for care of children with disabilities, one each in Santo Domingo, Santiago de los Caballeros, and San Juan de la Maguana. These centers served a small percentage of the population with disabilities, offering their services to children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder. They had lengthy waiting lists for children seeking to receive care. The most recent information, from a 2016 Ministry of Education report, found that 80 percent of registered students with disabilities attended some form of school.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of skin color and nationality. There was evidence of racial prejudice and discrimination against persons of dark complexion, Haitians, or those perceived to be Haitian. Civil society and international organizations reported that officials denied health care and documentation services to persons of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants (see also sections 1.d., 2.d., and 2.g.).

In October residents of a neighborhood in Santiago were filmed throwing stones and hitting Haitian residents with sticks in an effort to drive them out of their homes. The group also burned the belongings of the Haitians and threatened to burn down their dwellings if they did not move out of the area immediately. The group claimed the Haitian families were undocumented and posed a health and security risk to the neighborhood.

A mayor posted a video on the city’s official social media accounts where he reprimanded a group of children who appeared to be gambling in a park. Social media commentators said that his video, in which he referred to the youth as “a group of Haitians,” unnecessarily made their nationality a factor in the situation and stoked anti-Haitian sentiment.

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

The constitution upholds the principles of nondiscrimination and equality before the law, but it does not specifically include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected categories. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “social or personal condition” and mandates that the state “prevent and combat discrimination, marginalization, vulnerability, and exclusion.” The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity only for policies related to youth and youth development.

Discrimination limited the ability of LGBTI persons to access education, employment, health care, and other services. NGO representatives reported widespread discrimination against LGBTI persons, particularly transgender individuals and lesbians, in health care, education, justice, and employment. LGBTI individuals often faced intimidation and harassment.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although the law prohibits the use of HIV testing to screen employees, the government, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Labor Organization reported that workers in various industries may have faced obligatory HIV testing. Workers were sometimes tested without their knowledge or consent. Many job applicants found to have HIV were not hired, and some of those already employed were either fired from their jobs or denied adequate health care.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

On a number of occasions, citizens attacked and sometimes killed suspected criminals in vigilante reprisals for theft, robbery, or burglary. The government acknowledged only a single instance of this type of attack and did not provide information on any subsequent investigation or conviction.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, with the exception of the military and police, to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively; however, it places several restrictions on these rights. For example, the law restricts collective bargaining rights to those unions that represent a minimum of 51 percent of the workers in an enterprise. In addition the law prohibits strikes until mandatory mediation requirements have been met.

Formal requirements for a strike to be legal also include the support of an absolute majority of all company workers for the strike, written notification to the Ministry of Labor, and a 10-day waiting period following notification before the strike can proceed. Government workers and essential public service personnel may not strike. The government considers the following as essential workers: teachers and public service workers in communications, water supply, energy supply, hospitals, and pharmacies.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and forbids employers from dismissing an employee for participating in union activities, including being on a committee seeking to form a union. Although the Ministry of Labor must register unions for the unions to be legal, the law provides for automatic recognition of a union if the ministry does not act on an application within 30 days. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without government interference. Public-sector workers may form associations registered through the Office of Public Administration. The law requires that 40 percent of employees of a government entity agree to join for the association to be formed. According to the Ministry of Labor, the law applies to all workers, including foreign workers, those working as domestic workers, workers without legal documentation, and workers in the free-trade zones.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and penalties were not commensurate with other laws involving denials of civil rights. The process for addressing labor violations through criminal courts can take years, leaving workers with limited protection in the meantime. In recent years there were reports of intimidation, threats, and blackmail by employers to prevent union activity. Some unions required members to provide identity documents to participate in the union despite the fact that the labor code protects all workers regardless of their legal status.

Labor NGO representatives reported companies resisted collective negotiating practices and union activities. In recent years companies reportedly fired workers for union activity and blacklisted trade unionists, among other antiunion practices. Workers reported they believed they had to sign documents pledging to abstain from participating in union activities. Companies also created and supported “yellow” or company-backed unions to counter free and democratic unions. Formal strikes occurred but were not common.

Few companies had collective bargaining pacts, partly because companies