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Armenia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

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.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted 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. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.

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

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

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combatting low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels. Media reported the arrest of the mayor of Agstafa on December 19 for accepting bribes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

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

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

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

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

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

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of corruption, nepotism, and regional hiring bias at all levels of government throughout the year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

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

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

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

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

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

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

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

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

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

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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

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

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

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

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

Uzbekistan is a constitutional republic with a political system dominated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his supporters. In 2016 Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister, won the presidential elections with 88 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR), in its final election observation report, noted, “the campaign lacked competitiveness and voters were not presented with a genuine choice of political alternatives,” with OSCE/ODIHR observers citing “serious irregularities inconsistent with national legislation and OSCE commitments, including proxy voting and indications of ballot box stuffing.” Parliamentary elections took place on December 22. According to the OSCE observer mission’s preliminary conclusions, the elections took place under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not yet demonstrate genuine competition and full respect of election-day procedures. Parliamentary elections in 2014 did not meet international commitments or standards, according to that election’s OSCE observer mission.

The government authorizes four different entities to investigate criminal activity and provide security. The Ministry of Interior controls the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of order, and the investigation of general crimes. It also investigates and disciplines those officers accused of human rights violations. In March the National Guard took over many functions of the Ministry of Interior, including to ensure public order, security of diplomatic missions, security of radio and television broadcasting, and security of other state entities. The State Security Service, headed by a chairman who reports directly to the president, deals with national security and intelligence issues, including terrorism, corruption, organized crime, border control, and narcotics. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, but security services permeated civilian structures. Civilian authorities opaquely interacted with security services’ personnel, making it difficult to define the scope and limits of civilian authority.

Significant human rights issues included: Reports of physical and psychological abuse of detainees by security forces; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado and prolonged detention; political prisoners; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and the internet, including censorship, criminal libel, and website blocking; restrictions on assembly and association, including restrictions on civil society, with human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government subject to harassment, prosecution and detention; restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation in which citizens were unable to choose their government in free, fair, and periodic elections; criminalization of sexual relations between men and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and conduct; and human trafficking, including forced labor.

Impunity remained pervasive, but government prosecutions of officials on corruption charges significantly increased during the year.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights for both online and offline media.

Freedom of Expression: The government exercises official and unofficial restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime for which conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: While authorities relaxed some controls, independent media did not operate freely because the state exercises control over media coverage. All media entities, foreign and domestic, must register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. Print media must also provide hard copies of publications to the government. The law holds all foreign and domestic media organizations accountable for the accuracy of their reporting, prohibits foreign journalists from working in the country without official accreditation and subjects foreign media outlets to domestic mass media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, the government continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertys accreditation request. Nevertheless, the government accredited the BBC Uzbek service. Two reporters also received accreditations: One who writes for The Economist and other publications, and one who writes for Eurasianet.

The law holds bloggers legally accountable for the accuracy of what they post and prohibits posts potentially perceived as defaming an individual’s “honor and dignity.” The law also prohibits perceived calls for public disorder, encroachment on constitutional order, posting pornography or state secrets, issuing “threats to the state,” and “other activities that are subject to criminal and other types of responsibilities according to legislation.”

The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred.

Articles in state-controlled newspapers reflected the government’s viewpoint. The main government newspapers published selected international wire stories. The government prohibited legal entities with more than 30 percent foreign ownership from establishing media outlets. The government allowed publication of a few private newspapers with limited circulation containing advertising, horoscopes, and some substantive local news, including infrequent stories critical of the government’s socioeconomic policies. Some government-controlled print media outlets published articles that openly criticized local municipal administrations.

A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint. During the year, however, press and news organizations broadcast and published a wider variety of views and news, to include criticisms of policies enacted under former president Karimov. The government launched Ozbekiston, a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts current affairs and news in Uzbek, Russian, and English, in 2017. The channel interviewed visiting high-level foreign officials.

Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to arrest, harassment, and intimidation as well as to bureaucratic restrictions on their activity. According to reports by BBC Uzbek and Radio Ozodlik, local authorities in Shahrikhan arrested blogger Nodirbek Khojimatov in September after he published a piece on Facebook calling on President Mirziyoyev to investigate two local officials for corruption. A district court convicted Khojimatov for violating the administrative code’s Article 41, which addresses offenses against a person’s dignity. Khojimatov’s father reported that the court did not allow him or his son to testify at trial, where Khojimatov was not represented by a lawyer. The court sentenced Khojimatov to 10 days in prison, even though the stated penalties for violating this provision of the code includes only a fine. Prior to his arrest, Khojimatov announced that the officials he alleged engaged in corruption had threatened him and a local prosecutor had pressured him no longer to publish blog posts criticizing government officials.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. Continuing the past trend of moderate criticism of the government, online publications like Kommersant.uz and Nuz.uz published critical stories on issues, such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. In addition, Adobiyat Gazetesi, a literary journal, published stories by authors who are still on a “black list” that limits their ability to publish elsewhere.

During the year the government unblocked the website of privately owned Kun.uz, blocked in 2018. The outlet published articles critical of the government, including about regional and district officials’ involvement in illegal demolitions.

There was often little distinction between the editorial content of government and privately owned newspapers. Journalists engaged in limited investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed some problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons.

Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government has used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Some bloggers and activists nonetheless openly criticized the government on social media without reprisal.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government sometimes restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

In-country Movement: Authorities required citizens to have a domicile registration stamp in their internal passport before traveling domestically or leaving the country. The government at times delayed domestic and foreign travel and emigration during the visa application process. Individuals needed permission from local authorities to move to Tashkent City or the Tashkent Region from other parts of the country, but permission is no longer required to work in Tashkent. The law stipulates that Tashkent City or Tashkent Region registration are required for individuals to be eligible to receive city services, work legally, send their children to school, or receive routine medical care.

The government requires hotels to register foreign visitors with the government on a daily basis. The government requires foreigners staying in private homes to register their location within three days of arrival. Authorities recently simplified these registration procedures, which allow foreigners to register through an online portal.

Foreign Travel: The government officially abolished the Soviet-era exit visa, which citizens previously needed for most foreign travel. Citizens must obtain a separate passport issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purpose of foreign travel. This passport has a 10-year validity for adults and a five-year validity for minors, as opposed to a two-year exit visa validity for all ages with previously issued passports. The government generally granted passports to travel or emigrate outside the Commonwealth of Independent States. Authorities sometimes interfered in foreign travel, such as that of former political prisoners. Former political prisoner Bobomurod Abdullayev reported that it took almost two months for him to receive his travel passport, though the law requires issuance within 10 working days.

Girls and women living in the capital are no longer required to be interviewed by the migration and citizenship departments to obtain permission to travel abroad. In addition, girls and women no longer need permission from their spouse or a warrant from an authorized person, certificates from the mahalla, or to take any tests in order to qualify for foreign travel.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

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.

As of 2018, there were 14 individuals (10 cases) remaining under the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate. UNHCR undertakes the following activities in coordination with the UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tashkent, through its staff under UNDP contract, and under the overall supervision of the UN resident coordinator: Issuing mandate refugee certificates to existing refugees, monitoring their rights situations and providing counseling and making interventions for them when necessary, and providing financial assistance to some of the refugees, based on their specific vulnerability.

In addition, UNHCR or UNDP staff can provide counselling to asylum seekers when they arrive.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The government did not conduct free and fair elections, restricted freedom of expression, and suppressed political opposition.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides for 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: President Mirziyoyev and the courts took steps to hold officials accountable for their corrupt practices. The Supreme Court sentenced the former prosecutor general, Rashidjon Qodirov, on June 26 to 10 years in prison for bribe-taking, extortion, financial fraud, tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and money laundering. President Mirziyoyev dismissed Qodirov’s successor, Otabek Murodov, on June 21. Authorities subsequently arrested Murodov and began investigating him for bribery.

Financial Disclosure: Government officials are required by law to disclose income from outside employment, but such disclosures were not publicly available. While many officials received income from outside employment, there were no reports of an official’s disclosure being questioned or sanctions being employed for not complying with the law.

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

A number of domestic human rights groups operated in the country, although the government often hampered their ability to operate, investigate, and publish their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, but at times the government harassed and intimidated human rights and civil society activists. Governmental decrees and administrative orders on civil society sought to encourage its growth and offered procedural rules and some new limitations for the actions of Ministry of Justice inspectors (see section 2.b.).

Two domestic human rights NGOs, Ezgulik and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan are registered with the government. Ezgulik representatives reported substantially improved cooperation with government officials over the year. The government continued to deny the registration requests submitted by all other domestic groups.

International NGOs, including those that focus on human rights, continued to face obstacles in legally registering. The government does not allow unregistered international organizations to open or use local bank accounts, limits the periods of validity for international NGO workers’ visas for them to legally live and work in the country, and has not created a path to overcome previous Supreme Court rulings banning certain organizations from the country, thereby allowing them to register again.

In June a representative of Human Rights Watch was verbally harassed and physically intimidated in the lobby of his hotel in Tashkent when a video blogger and four others surrounded him and blocked his attempts to leave. After berating the representative for 20 minutes regarding his NGO work, the group told him to “get the hell out of Uzbekistan.”

Human rights activists and political opposition figures generally assumed that security agencies covertly monitored their telephone calls and activities. One group reported police surveillance of cotton harvest monitoring, including around-the-clock surveillance of an activist’s telephone and apartment, although International Labor Organization (ILO)-affiliated cotton harvest monitors reported no harassment. Security service personnel, including a detective from an antiterrorism unit, visited one activist at home to discuss issues pertaining to family members. Other activists reported finding listening devices that authorities planted to record their meetings with international human rights interlocutors.

Government officials spoke informally with domestic human rights defenders, some of whom were able to resolve cases of human rights abuses through direct engagement with authorities if they did not publicize these cases.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government cooperated with and sometimes permitted visits by UN representatives as well as those from UN specialized agencies, such as the ILO and other international organizations that monitor human rights. The government hosts the regional office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and has signed a “roadmap” with UNODC that includes, among other things, projects on criminal justice reform.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The goals of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office included promoting observance and public awareness of fundamental human rights, assisting in shaping legislation to bring it into accordance with international human rights norms, and resolving cases of alleged abuse. The Ombudsman’s Office mediated disputes among citizens who contacted it and made recommendations to modify or uphold decisions of government agencies, but its recommendations were not binding. The Ombudsman’s Office is permitted to make unannounced inspections of prisons and has established a separate division to investigate government abuse of businesses.

The National Human Rights Center is a government agency responsible for educating the public and officials on the principles of human rights and democracy and for ensuring that the government complies with its international obligations to provide human rights information.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law allows workers to form and join independent unions and bargain collectively. Individuals have not been able to exercise these rights because no independent labor unions operated in the country. The law neither provides for nor prohibits the right to strike but does prohibit antiunion discrimination. The law on trade unions states that workers may not be fired due to trade union membership, but it does not clearly state whether workers fired for union activity must be reinstated. Volunteers in public works and workers employed by individuals without documented contracts do not have legal protection.

There is no public information available regarding government enforcement of applicable laws, as there are no known cases of attempts to form independent unions. The law provides penalties for violating freedom of association laws equal to five to 10 times the minimum salary. The government amended the law on “professional unions, rights, and guarantees of their activities.” Despite legal protections, in practice, as stated above, workers have not successfully formed or joined independent unions. Workers continued to worry that attempts to create independent alternative unions would be repressed. Unions remained centralized and dependent on the government.

The state-run Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan incorporated more than 35,000 primary organizations and 14 regional trade unions, according to official reports. Regional and industrial trade unions remained state managed.

Government-organized unions demonstrated minimal bargaining power. For example, government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, in consultation with the Federation of Trade Unions, continued to set wages for government employees and production quotas in certain sectors. In the emerging private sector, management established wages or negotiated them individually with persons who contracted for employment. There was no state institution responsible for labor arbitration.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except as legal punishment for such offenses as robbery, fraud, or tax evasion or as specified by law. Certain sections of the criminal code allow for compulsory labor as a punishment for offenses including defamation and incitement of national, racial, ethnic, or religious enmity. Penalties are not sufficient to deter violations.

Inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations have authority to enforce laws on forced labor. The lead for issues related to forced labor or trafficking in persons is the special rapporteur of the National Commission on trafficking in persons and forced labor. The ILO increased the scope of its third-party monitoring on child and forced labor in the cotton harvest during the year.

The government continued its efforts to combat all forms of forced labor. During the year the government informed the public of the prohibition against forced labor, including in the annual cotton harvest.

A July 30 presidential decree instructed the government to begin a process of criminalizing forced labor violations, which heretofore had been punished only by administrative fine. In December the parliament adopted legislation criminalizing forced labor, however, forced labor violations are only criminalized in the second instance. The first violation is still punished by administrative fines. The decree additionally created a national commission for trafficking in persons and forced labor to oversee and coordinate government efforts. The national commission is divided into subcommittees for trafficking in persons, chaired by the minister of the interior, and for forced labor, chaired by the minister of employment and labor Relations. Both act as deputy chairs to the national commission itself.

The government appointed a special rapporteur for the national commission, Tanzila Narbaeva, who also serves as chair of the Senate. The government empowered the special rapporteur to report on the issue directly to the president and to set up regional or territorial commissions to oversee the implementation of the decree at the local level. This decree also called for the drafting of an amendment to the law on combatting trafficking in persons to include a mechanism for identifying trafficking victims and mandated an update to legislation on human trafficking and forced labor that criminalizes forced labor.

While the government maintained formal prohibitions on the use of forced labor in all economic sectors–and enforced these provisions–the laws as written were not sufficient to comply with international labor standards. Because cotton production quotas remained in place, there continued to be pressure on local officials to meet production targets. Such pressure encouraged the use of forced labor. Administrative penalties against the use of forced labor were increased: The minimum fine for first offense is between 10- to 30-times the minimum monthly salary, and for repeated offenses the penalty is 30- to 100-times the minimum monthly salary. As stated above, the law adopted in December will impose criminal penalties for repeated instances of forced labor. In October the president approved the Agriculture Development Strategy 2030, which is designed to phase out quotas for agricultural products by 2023.

The government allowed the ILO access in real time to its feedback mechanism for reporting labor violations to see how it responded to complaints. The government additionally made efforts to meet with international organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations, and local activists to discuss the issue of forced labor publicly and to receive feedback including suggestions and criticism to enable it to improve its approach to forced labor in the cotton harvest. The government acknowledged its problem with forced labor and sought assistance to eliminate it.

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 law sets the minimum working age at 16 and provides that work must not interfere with the studies of those younger than 18. The law does not allow children younger than 15 to work at all, but this provision was not always observed. Children aged 15, with permission from their parents, may work a maximum of 24 hours per week when school is not in session and 12 hours per week when school is in session. Children who are 16 through 18 may work 36 hours per week while school is out of session and 18 hours per week while school is in session. Decrees stipulate a list of hazardous activities forbidden for children younger than 18 and prohibit employers from using children to work under specified hazardous conditions, including underground, underwater, at dangerous heights, and in the manual harvesting of cotton, including cotton harvesting with dangerous equipment.

Children were employed in agriculture; in family businesses, such as bakeries and convenience stores; and in services, such as street vending and scrap metal collection.

Inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations have authority to enforce laws on child labor. No information was available on the enforcement of these laws. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. There was no systemic use of child labor, although individual instances of child labor violations continued to exist.

There was no evidence of any government-compelled child labor. The government prohibition against the use of students remains in force.

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

Laws and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, gender, religion, and language. The labor code states that differences in the treatment of individuals deserving of the state’s protection or requiring special accommodation, including women, children, and persons with disabilities, are not to be considered discriminatory. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, or social origin. HIV-positive individuals are legally prohibited from being employed in certain occupations, including those in the medical field that require direct contact with patients or with blood or blood products as well as in cosmetology or haircutting. There were insufficient publicly available data to determine government enforcement of these laws and regulations. There were no reliable data on employment discrimination.

The Uzbek labor code prohibits refusing employment based on an applicant’s criminal record or the criminal record of a close relative.

Foreign migrant workers enjoy the same legal protections as Uzbek workers as long as their employers follow all legal procedures for their employment. The law provides for a number of punishments of Uzbek employers who do not follow all legal procedures. The government did not strictly enforce employment law, primarily due to insufficient staffing of relevant entities and endemic corruption.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage. The government did not provide an estimate for poverty income levels. According to international estimates, 11.4 percent of the population met the definition of being below the poverty line in 2018. No figures were available for 2019.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 40 hours and requires a 24-hour rest period. The law provides for paid annual holidays. The law provides overtime compensation as specified in employment contracts or as agreed with an employee’s trade union. Such compensation may be provided in the form of additional pay or leave. The law states that overtime compensation should not be less than 200 percent of the employee’s average monthly salary rate. Additional leave time should not be less than the length of actual overtime work. An employee may not work more than 120 hours of overtime per year, but this limitation was not generally observed, particularly in the public sector. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The government effectively enforced these laws in the formal economy. No data was available on enforcement of these laws in the informal economy.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations establishes and enforces occupational health and safety standards in consultation with unions. According to the law, health and safety standards should be applied in all sectors. The government effectively enforced these laws in the formal economy. No data was available on enforcement of these laws in the informal economy.

Employers are responsible for ensuring compliance with standards, rules, and regulations on labor protection as well as obligations under collective agreements. The law provides that workers may legally remove themselves from hazardous work if an employer fails to provide adequate safety measures for the job, and the employer must pay the employee during the time of the work stoppage or provide severance pay if the employee chooses to terminate employment. Workers generally did not exercise this right because it was not effectively enforced and employees feared retribution by employers. The law requires employers to insure against civil liability for damage caused to the life or health of an employee in connection with a work injury, occupational disease, or other injury to health caused by the employee’s performance on the job. In addition, a company’s employees have the right to demand, and the administration is obliged to provide them with, information on the state of working conditions and safety at work, available personal protection means, benefits, and compensations.

The number of labor inspectors increased throughout the year, and there was a rise in the number of public complaints received as well as penalties issued.

The Ministry of Labor maintains protocols requiring investigation into labor complaints within five business days. The ministry or a local governor’s office could initiate a selective inspection of a business, and special inspections were conducted in response to accidents or complaints. A 2017 presidential decree prohibited unannounced inspections of private businesses, including labor inspections, in an effort to crack down on corrupt government practices, but the government reversed itself, and unannounced inspections are legal again.

Reports suggested that enforcement was uneven. The law remained unenforced in the informal economy, where employment was usually undocumented. Despite an increase in the number of labor inspectors, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations still lacks adequate staff to enforce compliance. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations in the informal sector.

The government continued with the extension of the ILO’s Decent Work Country Program until 2020. The most common labor violations were working without contracts, receiving lower than publicly announced payments, delayed payments, and substandard sanitary or hygienic working conditions.

Many employees had official part-time or low-income jobs and many continued to work informally. The government worked closely with the ILO’s Decent Work Country Program on efforts to shift more of the economy from an informal to the formal economy and to provide labor and social protections to those working informally.

Workers did not report any occupational health and safety violations. Private sector employers most commonly committed violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards. Although regulations provide for safeguards, workers in hazardous jobs often lacked protective clothing and equipment. More specific information on sectors in which violations were common and on specific groups of workers who faced hazardous or exploitative working conditions was not available.

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