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Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Read A Section: The Area Administered By Turkish Cypriots

Republic of Cyprus

Since 1974 the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus.  The northern part of Cyprus, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in 1983.  The United States does not recognize the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” nor does any country other than Turkey.  A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island.  A buffer zone, or “Green Line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, separates the two sides.  This report is divided into two parts:  the Republic of Cyprus, and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The northern part of Cyprus has been administered by Turkish Cypriots since 1974 and proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” nor does any country other than Turkey. In 2020 Ersin Tatar was elected “president” in free and fair elections. In 2018 voters elected 50 “members of parliament” in free and fair elections. The “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” “constitution” is the basis for the “laws” that govern the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities.

Police are responsible for enforcement of the “law.” The “chief of police” reports to a “general,” who is nominally under the supervision of the “prime ministry,” which holds the security portfolio. Police and Turkish Cypriot security forces are ultimately under the operational command of the Turkish armed forces, as provided by the “constitution,” which entrusts responsibility for public security and defense to Turkey. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious restrictions on freedom of expression and the press including criminal libel laws; refoulement of asylum seekers; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national minorities.

Authorities took steps to investigate officials following allegations of human rights abuses. There was evidence, however, of impunity.

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

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

There were no reports the “government” or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The police force and “military court” are responsible for investigating and pursuing prosecutions for alleged arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The “law” prohibits such practices, but there were reports during the year that police abused detainees. The “law” does not refer explicitly to torture but does prohibit police mistreatment of detainees under the section of the “criminal code” that deals with assault, violence, and battery.

The “attorney general’s office” reported they received three complaints concerning police battery and use of force during the year and had launched investigations into all three cases.

The “attorney general’s office” reported investigating two complaints concerning police battery and use of force in 2019. One of the cases involved alleged police brutality. Based on hospital documents and nurse testimony, the “attorney general’s office” determined that the complainant’s injuries resulted from a traffic accident that occurred three days prior to the alleged abuse. The complainant was charged with providing false statements to the police. The “attorney general’s office” was considering whether any further action was needed at year’s end.

The “attorney general’s office” completed a 2018 investigation against a police officer. Due to the pandemic, the trial had not yet started at year’s end.

In August 2019 local press published a video showing a Turkish Cypriot police officer kicking a detained tourist in the presence of other officers at the Ercan (Tymbou) airport. According to local press, the detainee was drunk and yelled at police for getting his cell phone wet during the security screening. Police suspended the officer from duty and completed the investigation. A “court” hearing was scheduled to take place in October.

In July a local newspaper interviewed two female international students who reported that while they were waiting for a cab, they were forced into a vehicle by four undercover police officers, beaten in the vehicle and police station, and then released 24 hours later without any explanation. The students reported that the police officers hit their heads on the concrete at the station. The women reported the incident to the press and filed a complaint at a police station. Press published photos of their bruised faces. The “attorney general’s office” reported appointing a “prosecutor” and launching an investigation.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions did not meet international standards in a number of areas, in particular for sanitary conditions, medical care, heating, and access to food.

Physical Conditions: The “Central Prison,” the only prison in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, is in the northern part of Nicosia and has a stated capacity of 311 inmates. According to authorities, additional rooms were converted into cells and a bunkbed system was installed to increase the capacity to 568. As of September it reportedly held 587 prisoners and pretrial detainees. Authorities reported that at its peak during the year, the total number of prisoners and pretrial detainees at the “Central Prison” reached 635. As of October there were no juveniles at the “Central Prison.”

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and the “ombudsman” reported overcrowding remained a problem. An NGO reported receiving complaints about overcrowding and police mistreatment of detainees in police detention centers. Most of the complaints alleged inhuman detention conditions and that police officers verbally abused the detainees. The prison did not separate adults and juveniles, and there were no detention or correction centers for children. Due to lack of space, pretrial detainees and prisoners occupied the same cells. NGOs reported conditions were better in the women’s section of the prison.

In March media outlets reported the “Central Prison” was operating above capacity and inmates were sharing mattresses placed on the ground and in the corridors. In the same month, inmates began a hunger strike citing unhealthy conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and demanding temporary release. Their families gathered outside the prison urging the “government” to improve prison conditions. When tensions rose after protesters started a fire, 10 persons were detained and then released.

In March a local newspaper reported that approximately 93 pretrial inmates were released due to a change in the “parole board regulations.” They had been unable to post bail and were being held pending trial but were offered lower bail amounts as part of their release. In April the “ministry of interior” claimed that the release of inmates from the “Central Prison” helped minimize the risk of COVID-19 but offered no specifics on those released.

NGOs reported that lack of security cameras at detention centers and in parts of the “Central Prison” allowed police officers and prison guards to abuse detainees with impunity. An NGO reported there were two deaths at the “Central Prison” that were not investigated and alleged that there were signs of drug overdose.

In June a local newspaper reported that the “Central Prison” had admitted a new convict without administering a COVID-19 test, in violation of standard practice, and therefore had risked the health of approximately 500 inmates.

NGOs reported that detainees frequently received no food while held, sometimes for periods longer than a day. They instead relied on relatives to bring them food.

NGOs reported sanitation remained a significant problem in the “Central Prison” and that inadequate access to hot water failed to meet inmates’ hygiene needs. Authorities said hygiene supplies were insufficient due to an increasing number of inmates. An NGO also reported the police detention facilities lack hygiene conditions, direct sunlight, proper ventilation, and access to water.

NGOs claimed that prison health care was inadequate, lacking sufficient medical supplies and a full-time doctor. NGOs reported testing for contagious diseases at the “Central Prison” was haphazard and inconsistent. In June the Prison Guards’ Association chair stated that overcrowding in prison cells created a breeding ground for contagious diseases. Authorities reported all inmates were subject to hospital health checks before entering the “Central Prison.” Authorities said a doctor visited the prison twice a week and was on call for emergencies. A dentist visited the prison once per week, a dietician visited twice per week, and there were two full-time psychologists at the prison, according to authorities.

An NGO reported the detention center at Ercan (Tymbou) airport lacked proper ventilation and access to natural light. The NGO said hygiene was a concern because there is only one bathroom inside each detention room and no regular cleaning.

Administration: The “ministry of interior” reported receiving only nonadministrative personal complaints, which the “Central Prison” administration took into consideration. Authorities stated facilities were available for Muslim prisoners and detainees to conduct their religious observance and that an imam visited the “Central Prison” on the religious days of Bayram.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities generally permitted prison monitoring and reported that foreign missions visited the “Central Prison” during the year. An NGO reported the physical conditions at the “Central Prison” could not be observed in detail, as their staff were not allowed to visit the cells. They were only allowed to conduct detainee interviews in the visitor waiting room or areas designated for private conversation.

Improvements: Authorities reported the “ministry of health” provided disinfectant and masks to the “Central Prison” to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Authorities also said they attempted to keep pretrial detainees and convicts separated as much as possible.

The “Central Prison” was closed to visitors during March and April due to COVID-19 concerns. Beginning in May, authorities enabled inmates to visit virtually with family and friends through online video conferencing.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

“Judicial warrants” are required for arrests. According to the “law,” police must bring a detained person before a “judge” within 24 hours of arrest. Police can then keep the detainee in custody for up to three months, but a “judge” must review the detention after the third day and every eight days thereafter. Authorities generally respected this right and usually informed detainees promptly of charges against them, although they often held individuals believed to have committed a violent offense for longer periods without charge.

Bail may be granted by the “courts” and was routinely used. “Courts” confiscated detainees’ passports pending trial. An NGO reported that translators were not available for non-Turkish speakers, forcing defense attorneys or NGOs to provide one. According to one lawyer, during the detention review process officials pressured detainees to sign a confession in order to be released on bail. The lawyer cited situations in which police used the threat of prolonged detention to induce detainees to plead guilty.

According to the “constitution,” indicted detainees and prisoners have the right of access to legal representation. Authorities usually allowed detainees prompt access to family members and a lawyer of their choice, but NGOs reported there were cases in which authorities prevented detainees from seeing a lawyer. Authorities provided lawyers to the indigent only in cases involving violent offenses. Police sometimes did not observe legal protections, particularly at the time of arrest. Suspects who demanded the presence of a lawyer were sometimes physically intimidated or threatened with stiffer charges.

A lawyer said a “Central Prison” “regulation” prohibits sentenced individuals in solitary confinement from meeting with a lawyer without the “prison director’s” permission. The “prison director” may deny the visit without providing justification.

In January a lawyer announced two university student clients were beaten by police and forced to sign a statement. The students allegedly had cannabis in their dormitories. During the hearing the lawyer testified that police beat his clients with a wooden mop handle, resulting in bruises on their faces and legs. The lawyer also claimed his clients were not provided appropriate medical treatment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The “law” provides for an independent judiciary, and authorities generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Most criminal and civil cases begin in “district courts”, from which appeals are made to the “supreme court.” Civilian “courts” have jurisdiction in cases where civilians face charges of violating military restrictions, such as filming or photographing military zones.

Trial Procedures

The “law” provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and independent judicial authorities generally enforced this right.

Defendants enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence. NGO representatives and human rights lawyers said defendants generally enjoyed the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. The “constitution” provides for fair, timely, and public trials, the defendant’s right to be present at those trials, and the defendant’s right to consult with an attorney in a timely manner (or, in cases of violent offenses, to have one provided at public expense if unable to pay). Criminal defendants enjoy the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense.

There was insufficient free interpretation for some languages and insufficient professional translation in “courts.” Lawyers and NGOs claimed authorities haphazardly recruited nonprofessional translators who did not translate everything said during proceedings. Inadequate translation delayed hearings and prolonged defendants’ detentions.

Defendants may question prosecution witnesses and present evidence and witnesses on their behalf. They cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have a right to appeal.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of detention and deportation to Turkey of persons with alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen and his movement. The Turkish government holds Gulen responsible for the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and designated his network as the “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”). In July the Turkish “ambassador” said the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) was the first “foreign country” to define FETO as a terror organization and that cooperation between Turkish and “TRNC” authorities would continue toward identifying additional members of Gulen’s network.

In June police arrested Caner Sahmaran, a fellow police officer on charges of being affiliated with the Gulen movement. Police confiscated approximately $35,000 in cash, mobile telephones, and other electronics during the arrest.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic “courts.” After exhausting local remedies, individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions that involve human rights to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Property Restitution

Greek Cypriots continued to pursue property suits in the ECHR against the Turkish government for the loss of property in the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities since 1974.

A property commission handles claims by Greek Cypriots. As of October the commission has paid more than 312 million British pounds ($414 million) in compensation to applicants.

For information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

The “law” prohibits such actions. There were reports police subjected Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities to surveillance. A Maronite representative asserted that during the year the Turkish armed forces occupied 18 houses in the Maronite village of Karpasia.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The “law” provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and authorities generally respected this right. Individuals were usually able to criticize authorities publicly without reprisal, with some exceptions.

Freedom of Speech: It is a criminal offense to insult the “government,” the Turkish government, or “government” officials. This often led journalists and others to self-censor. According to a journalist association, authorities advised some journalists not to criticize the Turkish government. A journalist association reported that due to perceived pressure and potential reaction from Turkey, some journalists did not express their thoughts and preferred to remain silent.

In April then “prime minister” Ersin Tatar filed a criminal complaint with police after a well-known visual arts and communications lecturer, Senih Cavusoglu, posted on social media a photoshopped image of Tatar portraying him in a straitjacket with the caption, “boss went mad.” Police called Cavusoglu in for interrogation, but no criminal charges had been filed at year’s end.

In June former “president” Mustafa Akinci filed a complaint with the “attorney general’s office” to block access to a video posted online showing a man stuck at Istanbul airport. The person filming the video can be seen making derogatory comments towards Akinci. The “presidency” confirmed that “the government” banned access to the video in June for allegedly threatening liberal and democratic thought as well as to a second video that allegedly proposed to kill Akinci by stating, “There’s an easy way; send two people and make it seem like Akinci had an accident.” In July the “presidency” announced Akinci withdrew his complaint on the airport video after the person posting it allegedly apologized and erased the video on social media.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While authorities usually respected press and media freedom, at times they obstructed journalists in their reporting.

In October the Turkish Cypriot Journalists Association criticized then “prime minister” Ersin Tatar for claiming that a local online news website Ozgur Gazete was allegedly “collaborating with foreign intelligence organizations to affect elections.” The association said Tatar’s statement threatened freedom of the press. Basin-Sen, another journalist union, said Tatar targeted journalists in an attempt to prevent reporting of such stories.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports defendants in some “court” cases allegedly threatened journalists, who also faced pressure for their reporting from companies that advertised in their publications.

A journalist association reported some journalists were verbally and physically attacked at “court” hearings by detainees or their families or friends. Journalists also reported they were at times prevented from doing their jobs, verbally and sexually assaulted, and their equipment damaged while reporting at “courts,” hospitals, and police stations.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists cannot interview or report on persons under control of the armed forces.

Journalists practiced self-censorship for fear of losing their jobs. A journalist reported some press representatives censored themselves when reporting on Turkey’s role in Cyprus and on the Turkish leadership.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported that Kibris, the largest Turkish Cypriot daily, censored a pre-election poll favoring the incumbent, who was at odds with the president of Turkey, in favor of his challenger who was reportedly closely aligned with the Turkish president. RSF also reported that the owner of the newspaper allegedly met with the Turkish president prior to the poll’s publication.

An activist reported that in May a local Turkish Cypriot television channel DIYALOG TV was removed from Turkey’s TURKSAT satellite network, allegedly due to criticism aired on the channel that targeted Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish Cypriot television channels can only broadcast through TURKSAT. DIYALOG TV continued to broadcast only on social media.

Libel/Slander Laws: The “law” criminalizes libel and blasphemy, although in practice “courts” often declined to convict defendants on those charges, citing free speech precedents.

In July a cybercrime “law” was passed in “parliament” and approved by the “presidency.” According to the “law” any attacks (physical or verbal) made with deliberate intent to harm individuals, institutions, or organizations over the internet is considered a crime. Penalties range from six to 200 times the minimum monthly wage and from one to 10 years imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were some “government” restrictions on cultural events. There were no reports of blocked visits during the year, although for much of the year foreign tourists were not permitted to enter.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The “government” sometimes limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

According to local press reports, in July police prevented TC Secondary Education Teacher’s Union (KTOEOS) members from entering and conducting a sit-in protest inside the “public service commission’s” building. KTOEOS members continued their demonstration outside the building and protested the “commission” for hiring temporary teachers and delaying appointment exams for permanent teachers until after elections.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The “law” provides for the right of peaceful assembly, and the government usually respected this right, although some restrictions were reported. A labor union reported “police” interfered in demonstrations and at times used force against peaceful demonstrators.

Some union representatives reported “police” obstructed unions and civil society organizations from demonstrating and opening banners in front of the Turkish “embassy” during demonstrations and protests.

Freedom of Association

While the “law” provides for the freedom of association, and while the “government” usually respected this right, some organizations faced lengthy registration processes.

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 movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Authorities generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: Authorities required individuals to show identification when crossing the “Green Line.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some border crossings on the island were closed during the year, at times causing altercations with authorities (see section 2.d. of the Republic of Cyprus report).

In March approximately 200 Turkish Cypriot demonstrators in the north gathered at Ledra Street checkpoint to protest the Greek Cypriot decision to close four checkpoint crossings as measures against COVID-19. Press reported Greek Cypriot police used pepper spray and clubs on peaceful Turkish Cypriot demonstrators calling for the opening of the closed checkpoint. Several Turkish Cypriot demonstrators and journalists were taken to hospital. Several were treated in ambulances onsite for pepper spray inhalation.

UNFICYP officials requested that Turkish Cypriots not go to the government checkpoint for their own safety and asked families and children to leave the demonstration site immediately. The Turkish Cypriot Foreign Press Association and Journalists Association condemned the use of pepper spray on demonstrators and claimed government police violated press freedom. Former “president” Akinci condemned the use of pepper spray by Greek Cypriot police and added that it was a disproportionate use of force.

The Turkish Cypriot Bar Association stated, “Tear gas and pepper spray are life threatening chemical weapons whose use is even prohibited in international warfare under both the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and can only be used during domestic violent riots by the police.”

Foreign Travel: Only Turkey recognizes travel documents issued by the “TRNC.” Some Turkish Cypriots used Turkish travel documents, but many obtained travel documents issued by the Republic of Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots born after 1974 to parents who were both Republic of Cyprus citizens prior to 1974, obtained passports relatively easily compared to Turkish Cypriots born after 1974 to only one Cypriot parent.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Turkish Cypriots considered those displaced as a result of the island’s 1974 division to be refugees, although they fell under the UN definition of internally displaced persons (IDPs). At the time of the division, the number of IDPs in the north was approximately 60,000.

f. Protection of Refugees

Turkish Cypriot authorities at times cooperated with Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) NGO implementing partner, the Refugee Rights Association, and other humanitarian organizations with regard to asylum seekers and refugees. UNHCR reported cooperation was more frequent during the first half of the year, when authorities allowed Refugee Rights Association lawyers to interview Syrian asylum seekers seeking access to international protection in Cyprus. Following the introduction of a “visa” requirement for Syrian nationals in June, cooperation between Turkish Cypriot authorities and UNHCR was less frequent. With the involvement of these organizations, several asylum seekers gained access to asylum procedures in Turkey or in the government-controlled area.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR reported asylum seekers generally were treated as illegal migrants because an official framework for asylum does not exist in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Most were either denied entry or deported, irrespective of the risk of refoulement.

In May some 100 Syrian asylum seekers who had been housed in a building in Iskele were deported to Turkey. The asylum seekers had arrived in the north on March 21 and were a part of a group of 175 asylum seekers who were denied entry by Republic of Cyprus officials. The Refugee Rights Association (RRA) reported sending their staff to monitor the housing in Iskele. Each family of asylum seekers were provided separate apartments. The RRA also reported that a nurse was on duty 24 hours a day and food and water was provided by the Iskele “municipality.” Each apartment had its own balcony, proper bedding, and a kitchen. Some apartments were crowded and leaving them was forbidden. Doors were locked at all times other than for food delivery.

On July 9, a boat carrying 30 Syrian asylum seekers who landed near Morphou were shot at by “TRNC” police, allegedly for not stopping despite warnings and for trying to flee. The boat’s captain and two of the asylum seekers were shot and injured by police after attempting to flee. The “president” requested a police investigation of the incident which had not yet concluded at year’s end. Several refugee rights groups, including the Turkish NGO Refugee Rights Center, issued a statement criticizing police for shooting at asylum seekers seeking safety.

Refoulement: Authorities did not provide protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened. According to NGOs “authorities” at ports often denied entry to asylum seekers and extradited a number of persons designated by the Turkish government as alleged affiliates of Gulen. Some observers considered these deportations refoulement, as the individuals were denied the opportunity to seek refuge in the territory of Cyprus and were at substantial risk of mistreatment in Turkey or forcible return to Syria by Turkish authorities (also see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Turkey).

Access to Asylum: The “law” does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and authorities have not established a system for providing protection to refugees. An NGO reported approximately 100 persons of concern to UNHCR were able to stay in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots with UNHCR protection papers.

There were reports Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to deport numerous asylum seekers during the year before UNHCR’s implementing partner could interview them to obtain information necessary for assessing their asylum claims. Some potential asylum seekers who attempted to enter the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities illegally were arrested, taken to “court,” and deported after serving their prison sentences.

Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots could not travel abroad because they would be unable to return due to their lack of “legal” status.

Employment: According to immigration “law,” employers need official permission from the “department of labor” to register foreign workers. Persons holding UNHCR protection papers receive the same access to the labor market as third country nationals, although NGOs reported “authorities” refused to issue work permits to some individuals with UNHCR protection papers. An NGO reported that many refugees were unemployed during the COVID-19 mitigation lockdown and suffered economically. The NGO also reported asylum seekers were prohibited from receiving “state” social welfare benefits. UNHCR reported access to employment improved during the year after authorities lifted requirements that job seekers post a guarantee and hold a valid passport.

Access to Basic Services: Persons holding UNHCR protection papers could access basic services, including primary health care and education, but persons of concern to UNHCR lacked access to residence permits or welfare assistance, which rendered them at risk of exploitation and put vulnerable individuals at risk of destitution.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Turkish Cypriots choose a leader and a representative body at least every five years. In 2018 Turkish Cypriots held “parliamentary elections” that observers considered free and fair. In October Turkish Cypriots elected Ersin Tatar as “president” in elections that were also considered free and fair.

Political Parties and Political Participation: While membership in the dominant party did not confer formal advantages, there were widespread allegations of political cronyism and nepotism.

In August the Turkish Cypriot Public Sector Employee’s Union (KTAMS) announced in a press release that over 290 persons were employed by the National Unity Party-HP “government” unjustly and unfairly, and that the move was an “election investment” right before the “presidential” elections. Unions said the “government’s” approach was partisan.

In September Rebirth Party “member of parliament” Bertan Zaroglu, who had tested positive for COVID-19, released a recording complaining about the hygiene of the hospital room that he was placed in. Local press reported that Zaroglu allegedly called the National Unity Party “minister of health,” yelled at him, and then the “ministry” placed him at a hotel because of his status as a “member of parliament.” Press outlets also reported that Zaroglu left the hospital room and drove himself to the hotel, risking spreading the virus to others. He was subsequently transferred to Turkey for further treatment.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No “laws” limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women remained underrepresented in senior political positions. Only nine of the 50 “members of parliament” were women.

Turkish Cypriot authorities did not permit Greek Cypriots and Maronites residing in the north to participate in elections they administered. Greek Cypriots and Maronites residing in the north were eligible to vote in elections in the government-controlled area but had to travel there to do so. Greek Cypriot and Maronite communities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities directly elected municipal officials, but Turkish Cypriot authorities did not recognize them. There was no minority representation in the 50-seat “parliament” or in the “cabinet.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The “law” provides criminal penalties for corruption by “officials.” Authorities did not implement the “law” effectively, and “officials” sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of “government” corruption during the year. Observers generally perceived corruption, cronyism, and lack of transparency to be serious problems in the legislative and executive branches.

Corruption: In 2018 National Unity Party “member of parliament” Aytac Caluda was investigated for claims of misconduct/malpractice, allegedly losing 283 million Turkish lira ($37 million) in “state” funds for signing foreign worker permits without necessary prepermissions and waiving the fee. Caluda’s “parliamentary” immunity was lifted in 2018 for the investigation. In March the “high court” announced that Caluda could not be prosecuted because the alleged crimes did not fall under “high court” jurisdiction. The “attorney general’s office” reported that another court hearing was scheduled for December.

In July a civil servant working as a cashier at the “tax department” was arrested for embezzling one million Turkish lira ($130,000) in driver’s license fees since 2016. The “court” ordered an asset freeze for the cashier. According to a police report, other senior officials did not report the missing funds and will also be investigated. The case was under investigation at year’s end.

Financial Disclosure: The “law” requires persons who hold elective office, appointees of the “council of ministers,” “judges” and “prosecutors,” the “ombudsman,” the chair of the “attorney general’s office,” and members of the “attorney general’s office” to declare their wealth and assets. Every five years employees subject to this “law” must declare any movable and immovable property, money, equity shares, stocks, and jewelry worth five times their monthly salary as well as receivables and debts that belong to them, their spouses, and all children in their custody. The disclosure is not publicly available. Once a declaration is overdue, the employee receives a written warning to make a disclosure within 30 days. If an employee fails to do so, authorities file a complaint with the “attorney general’s office.” Penalties for noncompliance include a fine of up to 5,000 Turkish lira ($650), three months’ imprisonment, or both. The penalties for violating confidentiality of the disclosures include a fine of up to 10,000 Turkish lira ($1,300), 12 months’ imprisonment, or both.

In January 2019 local press reported that former National Unity Party leader and “prime minister” Huseyin Ozgurgun inaccurately declared his assets, according to an “attorney general” investigation. Although police charged Ozgurgun with failing to accurately declare wealth and for abuse of public office for private gain and the “parliament” voted to remove Ozgurgun’s immunity, no trial has yet been held as Ozgurgun has been living in Turkey since January. Ozgurgun announced that he resigned from his position as “member of parliament.” In October the “parliament” announced an asset freeze for all of Ozgurgun and his spouse’s assets in the “TRNC.”

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

A limited number of domestic human rights organizations operated in the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities. Authorities were rarely cooperative or responsive to their views and requests. NGOs promoted awareness of domestic violence; women’s rights; rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants; trafficking in persons; police abuse; and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons. These groups had little effect on “legislation” to improve the protection of human rights. Local NGOs liaised with the United Nations, UNHCR, and international NGOs on human rights issues. Government Human Rights Bodies: There is an “ombudsman,” whose portfolio includes human rights issues. The “ombudsman” investigates and reports on institutions that exercise administrative and executive powers and ensures that “legislation” and “court” decisions are properly implemented. The “ombudsman” can initiate investigations in response to media reports, complaints from individuals and organizations, or on its own initiative. The “ombudsman” was not always effective because it could not enforce its recommendations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: There is an “ombudsman,” whose portfolio includes human rights issues. The “ombudsman” investigates and reports on institutions that exercise administrative and executive powers and ensures that “legislation” and “court” decisions are properly implemented. The “ombudsman” can initiate investigations in response to media reports, complaints from individuals and organizations, or on its own initiative. The “ombudsman” was not always effective because it could not enforce its recommendations.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The “law” criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, and provides for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Authorities and police did not enforce the “law” effectively. No “laws” specifically address domestic violence. The “law” prohibits domestic violence under various assault and violence or battery clauses, with a maximum sentence of four years’ imprisonment.

Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a major problem. The Nicosia Turkish Municipality operated a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and there were local NGOs that supported rape and domestic violence victims. Turkish Cypriot authorities also reported establishing gender focal points at relevant “ministries” to respond to complaints of violence against women.

In one example police arrested a man in April 2019 on suspicion of killing his 47-year-old wife in Alaykoy (Yerolakkos). The victim’s daughter and sister told press outlets the suspect had physically abused and threatened to kill the victim on many occasions. They claimed the victim complained to police many times and alleged that police did not take her complaints seriously. In 2019 the suspect was sent to prison pending trial, which continued at year’s end.

Nicosia district police in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots operated the specialized Combating Violence against Women Unit to respond to complaints of domestic violence, including calls to a dedicated hotline. Turkish Cypriot police reported they investigated 801 reports of abuse against women from January to September. The unit reported they received 241 complaints regarding physical violence, 135 complaints of verbal violence, and 124 general disturbances. The unit reported they receive 89 cases per month on an average basis. The unit reported there was a 12 percent decrease in the number of cases during the lockdown between March and May.

In April the Nicosia Turkish Municipality’s Domestic Violence Project coordinator reported that “there is an increase in domestic violence cases due to COVID-19 because women are forced to stay at home” and that women’s access to support mechanisms was limited. The coordinator noted that, according to an EU-funded survey conducted in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, in January, 40 percent of women were subject to physical violence, 60 percent were subject to psychological violence, and 25 percent to sexual violence.

In May the Side-by-Side against Violence project coordinator stated that 35 female survivors of violence applied for protection in March and April, marking an increase in domestic violence cases due to COVID-19 and lockdown. The group stated that the municipality received an average of seven complaints monthly in 2019.

At the end of August, the Combating Violence against Women Unit reported that it received 1,765 complaints from women since it opened in 2018. The unit reported that 41 percent of the complaints were for verbal violence; 38 percent were for physical violence; 5 percent were for violence towards property (including cell phones, houses, cars, etc.); and 4 percent concerned sexual violence, including rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment.

In January the Kyrenia “court” sentenced a man to six years in jail for torturing his wife with a belt. The penalty was reported to be the highest given by a “court” for domestic violence in the history of the community.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, a 45-year-old woman, Elif Lort, was stabbed repeatedly in the middle of the street in Kyrenia by her husband. Lort died in the hospital; police apprehended and arrested the husband. An investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

Sexual Harassment: The “criminal code” prohibits sexual harassment and considers it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months’ imprisonment, an unspecified fine, or both. According to NGOs sexual harassment went largely unreported. A group of international students reported widespread sexual harassment of female international students and that police routinely dismissed complaints of sexual harassment from international students.

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

Discrimination: The “law” provides the same “legal” status and rights for women and men, but authorities did not enforce the “law” effectively. Women experienced discrimination in such areas as employment, credit, owning or managing businesses, education, and housing. For example, female teachers were reportedly instructed to schedule their pregnancies in order to deliver during summer break.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive “citizenship” from their parents, and there was universal registration at birth, including of children born to migrants.

Child Abuse: The “law” does not explicitly prohibit child abuse, but it does prohibit sexual abuse of children, which carries a penalty of up to six years’ imprisonment. There were reports of child abuse. As with domestic violence, there were social and cultural disincentives to seeking legal remedies for such problems.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage for girls and boys is 18. A “court” may allow marriages of minors who are 16 or 17 if they receive parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The “law” prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, and authorities generally enforced the prohibition. The age of consent is 16. Statutory rape or attempted statutory rape of a minor younger than 16 is a felony, and the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. If the offender is younger than 18 and two years or fewer apart in age from the victim, the act is a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison, an unspecified fine, or both. The new cybercrime “law” enacted in July makes possession or production of child pornography punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Anti-Semitism

There were approximately 150 persons in the Jewish community, which primarily consisted of nonresident businesspersons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The “law” protects the rights of persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to social benefits, and prohibits discrimination against them. Authorities did not effectively enforce all parts of the “law.” For example the disability community complained of the absence of accessible infrastructure in public areas, including lack of sidewalks, blocked sidewalks, and inaccessible public transportation.

The Turkish Cypriot Orthopedic Disabled Persons Association reported many buildings, sidewalks, and public bathrooms were not accessible to persons with disabilities. The association claimed the “government” had not employed a single person with disabilities since 2006, although the “law” requires 4 percent of public-sector positions be filled by persons with disabilities.

Children with disabilities attend specific schools that are “state” funded.

Authorities reported as of August 2019, more than 270 persons with disabilities worked in the “government.” In September the “council of ministers” decided to provide social security and provident fund contributions to persons with disabilities employed in the private sector to create incentives for private-sector employment. Authorities also reported that nearly 4,986 persons with disabilities received financial aid from the “government” as of September.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The “law” prohibits discrimination, and the 1975 Vienna III Agreement remains the legal source of authority regarding the treatment of the 310 Greek Cypriot and 62 Maronite residents in the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities.

Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots could take possession of some of their properties in that area but were unable to leave their properties to heirs residing in the government-controlled area. Maronites living in the government-controlled area could use their properties in the north only if those properties were not under the control of the Turkish military or allocated to Turkish Cypriots.

Foreign domestic workers faced discrimination and, at times, violence.

Public Sector Workers Union (KTAMS) reported that many foreign workers receive salaries below minimum wage.

An NGO reported that seasonal workers who came from Turkey during the pandemic were not paid and were stranded in Cyprus for several months until authorities ultimately provided transportation back to Turkey. In February, approximately 300 Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan foreign workers employed by Omag Construction reported to police that they had not received their salaries for four months. The foreign workers told police they each gave $1,390 to the company for “visa/permit fees,” and were threatened by people at Omag Construction posing as police officers to remain silent about not receiving their wages. The workers also reported they believed the false “police officers” to be members of the mafia and that they had taken three of the workers, who had not been heard from since.

On March 13, the “council of ministers” adopted a decision to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and barred private sector workers in the north, including domestic workers, from traveling to households to work. The “government” announced a 1,500 Turkish lira ($195) monthly assistance payment for some private sector workers affected by COVID-19 pandemic-related business closures but limited the subsidy to “TRNC” and Turkish citizens and excluded all other foreign workers.

There were reports of social and job discrimination against Kurds in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, as well as allegations that police closely monitored Kurdish activities.

Some of the approximately 10,000 African students reportedly studying at universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriot authorities reported racial discrimination in housing, employment, and interactions with law enforcement. Thirty to forty thousand foreign students, excluding Turkish students, study at universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. In April the Voice of International Students in Cyprus (VOIS) said authorities excluded foreign students from receiving food packages that citizens were receiving. VOIS claimed that authorities ignored foreign students and deprived them of medical and other support during the lockdown and pandemic. A student organization reported an African student, a single mother, asked authorities at the Famagusta police station to arrest her hoping that she and her child would be provided food in jail.

In March, VOIS criticized former “prime minister” Ersin Tatar for making a racist statement on television when he said, “The responsibility to take care of the thousands of African students who live in the ‘TRNC’ lies on those who brought them here. Either universities or employers. Before the COVID-19 crisis this was already a problem. This is now an opportunity to clean them out. This is not racism, but we have to protect our citizens.”

In June, VOIS announced the results of an online survey of foreign university students living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots: 88.2 percent of those interviewed said they had been victims of racism; 52.6 percent of this racial discrimination happened on campus, and 40 percent happened off campus. In addition 81.4 percent said racism was a serious problem in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots that needed to be addressed within society.

The RRA said the minister of interior did not provide enough support to foreign students. The RRA identified the groups at highest risk, whose numbers were unknown, as unregistered students, workers, and migrants. The RRA also said NGOs were unable to leave their houses to investigate complaints or distribute donations to those in need due to COVID-19 related restrictions.

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

The “law” prohibits discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Authorities did not effectively enforce the “law.”

While there were no cases recorded of official or societal discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, or access to education or health care, members of the LGBTI community noted an overwhelming majority of LGBTI persons concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid potential discrimination.

The Queer Cyprus Association said LGBTI persons often could not access legal remedies to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity because authorities declined to enforce them.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The “law” provides for the rights of workers, except members of police and other Turkish Cypriot security forces, to form and join independent unions of their own choosing without prior authorization. The “law” allows unions to conduct their activities without interference and provides for their right to strike, with the provision that a union notify authorities in writing if members planned to strike for longer than 24 hours. The “law” does not permit “judges,” members of the police force, or other Turkish Cypriot security forces to strike. The “council of ministers” has the power to prohibit a strike in any individual sector twice a year for up to 60 days if it affects the general health, security, or public order, or if it prevents the provision of essential services. There is no list of what constitutes essential services.

The “law” provides for collective bargaining. The “ministry of labor” reported that employers could not condition employment on membership or nonmembership in a union or participation in strikes. The “law” does not provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activities.

The “government” did not effectively enforce applicable “laws.” Despite having freedom of association and the right to engage in collective bargaining, very few private-sector workers were unionized, according to labor union representatives. A union representative said that if private-sector workers affected business operations while exercising their rights, employers would likely dismiss them. Some companies pressured workers to join unions that the company led or approved. Officials of independent unions claimed authorities created public-sector unions as rivals to weaken the independent unions.

Turkish Cypriot Public Sector Workers Union (KTAMS) reported that 35 percent of the public sector and 0.5 percent of the private sector workers are members of labor unions. Police and members of other Turkish Cypriot security forces cannot join unions.

Labor authorities did not effectively enforce the “law.” Penalties for employers convicted of violating the “law” were not commensurate with those for violating other “laws” involving the denial of civil rights and were sporadically enforced.

In March the DEV-IS labor union began an indefinite strike for their members employed at the Buyukkonuk municipality. The union claimed their members had not received their salaries since November and their customary 13th month bonus from 2019. On the eighth day of the strike, the “council of ministers” banned the strike on the grounds that “it prevented the provision of essential services.” Union members employed at the municipality then began a work slowdown. Police launched an investigation on the grounds that they did not comply with the “council of ministers’” decision. In April, DEV-IS members and the “mayor” of Buyukkonuk were invited to the “ministry of interior” to sign an agreement that included the payment of December and January salaries, and the payment of the 13th month bonus in installments. The union reported the 13th month bonus has not been paid, but all other salaries were paid with a one month delay.

Public and semipublic employees benefited from collective bargaining agreements. Semipublic employees worked for companies run jointly by public and private enterprises where, for example, the “government” handled administration while the company’s budget came from private sources.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The “law” prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the “government” did not effectively enforce it. Penalties for violations of the “law” were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

There were reports of forced labor during the year, primarily in agriculture, construction, and the industrial sector. A labor union representative reported migrant workers in the construction and agricultural sectors were subjected to reduced wages, nonpayment of wages, beatings, and threats of deportation.

A researcher reported that universities were used to smuggle and traffic large numbers of Africans and South Asians. Some foreign students who could not pay their tuition after arriving in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots became vulnerable to exploitation, including forced labor.

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The “law” prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for restricted employment is 15, the last year at which education is compulsory. Employers may hire children between the ages of 15 and 18 in apprentice positions under a special status. Children older than 15 are restricted to not more than six hours of work per day and 30 hours per week. The “law” prohibits children between the ages of 15 and 18 from working during mealtimes, at night, in heavy physical labor, and under dangerous conditions. The “law” also states that every six months the employer must prove, with medical certification, that the physical work done by a child is suitable for children. Written parental consent is also required, and children are entitled to the hourly wage of a full-time employee.

Authorities reported they received three complaints to the child labor hotline during the reporting period: two children working at construction sites and one at a market.

The “ministry of labor and social security” is responsible for enforcing child labor “laws” and policies. Resources and inspections were not sufficient and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

Authorities did not always effectively enforce the “laws,” and NGOs reported that primarily Turkish children often worked alongside their families in the agricultural, manufacturing, automotive, and construction sectors. NGOs reported children worked in dangerous conditions, such as on construction sites, and were subjected to heavy physical work despite “legal” prohibitions.

Child labor in the urban informal economy was also a problem, albeit to a lesser extent than in agriculture and manufacturing. It was common in family-run shops for children to work after school and for young children to work on family farms.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The “law” generally prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation on the basis of race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, and social status. The “law” does not specifically address discrimination with respect to religion, political opinion, or HIV-positive status, which were addressed by general “regulations.” Authorities did not effectively enforce the “law” and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for violating other “laws” related to civil rights. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, ethnicity, sex, disability, and gender.

Authorities reported there were more than 49,495 registered foreign workers in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriot authorities, mainly from Turkey, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Foreign migrant workers faced societal discrimination based on their ethnicity, race, and religious belief. Greek Cypriots faced social and employment discrimination.

Women faced sexual harassment in the workplace, but most instances of sexual harassment went unreported. Women held far fewer managerial positions than men.

LGBTI individuals often concealed their sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace to avoid discrimination. Persons with disabilities routinely found it physically difficult to access workplaces.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The “government” increased the minimum wage during the year, but it remained below the poverty level for a family of four, as inflation and the cost of living outpaced the increase. The “ministry of labor and social security” is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage, but it did not effectively do so. The penalties for noncompliance were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes.

According to the “statistics department,” the poverty threshold was estimated at 3,769 Turkish lira ($450) per month.

There was premium pay for overtime in the public sector. Premium pay for overtime is also required, but frequently not paid, in the private sector. The “law” prohibits compulsory overtime and provides for paid annual holidays.

Occupational safety and health standards were insufficient. Authorities did not effectively enforce safety and health standards, and the number of inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance. Multinational companies reportedly met health and safety standards. Workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Authorities could conduct unannounced inspections or initiate sanctions, but according to unions and associations, inspections were not adequately carried out. Authorities commonly deported migrant workers claiming violations. Authorities did not penalize violators, and inspections were not adequate to protect worker rights. The “government” has not established social protections for workers in the informal economy. Accommodations for migrant workers, either as part of their compensation or for those made to pay, were substandard.

There was little improvement in working conditions, particularly in hazardous sectors and for vulnerable groups. Authorities reported there were 179 major industrial accidents occurred during the year that caused two deaths. “Authorities” also reported they provided eight persons with pensions (based on their) incapacity to work.

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Republic of Cyprus

Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister, elected by parliament, heads the government; the president, also elected by parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. During 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 parliament. According to the assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service 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 National Security Service 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 heads of the Special Investigative Service and Investigative Committee upon the prime minister’s recommendations. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, re-established control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan near Tavush from July 12 to July 16. Following the September 27 outbreak of hostilities, the government declared martial law under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. The restrictions were lifted December 2, and only provisions for partial mobilization of troops remained in effect at year’s end. (See sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 5, and 6; and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan for conflict-related abuses.)

Significant human rights issues included: torture; arbitrary detention, although with fewer reports than in 2019; harsh and potentially life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with judicial independence; arbitrary interference with privacy; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting civil society figures and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and use of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings and civilian casualties.

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

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

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

Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns over noncombat deaths in the army and the failure of law enforcement bodies to conduct credible investigations into those deaths. During the year there were major personnel changes in the army, and some observers noted a drastic decrease of suicides in the army following the appointments as well as increased public attention to the problem.

According to civil society organizations and families of the victims, the practice of qualifying many noncombat deaths as suicides at the onset of investigations made it less likely that abuses would be uncovered and investigated. According to human rights lawyers, the biggest obstacle to investigation of military deaths was the destruction or nonpreservation of key evidence, both by the military command (in cases of internal investigations) and by the specific investigation body working on a case. In addition, human rights NGOs disagreed with the statistics on military deaths presented by the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense, citing arbitrary decision making as to whether the deaths were classified as related or not related to military service. They also decried the government’s failure to provide the public with prompt and complete information on nonmilitary deaths. The NGO Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor reported a doubling in the number of reported suicides in the army in the first half of the year, as compared with 2019.

On February 2, the family and community members of military conscript Vahram Avagyan, who allegedly committed suicide on January 30, attempted to bring his body to Yerevan and blocked the Armavir-Yerevan road in protest against the investigative body’s declaration that Avagyan’s death was a suicide. Following then minister of defense Davit Tonoyan’s personal assurance that a proper investigation would be conducted and any culprits punished, the family returned to their village to hold the funeral. On the same day, the Investigative Committee reported the arrest of three of Avagyan’s fellow conscripts–Davit Movsisyan, Khachik Gasparyan, and Spartak Avetisyan–on charges of violating statutory relations leading to grave consequences.

Responding to a question during a February 12 National Assembly session, Prime Minister Pashinyan stated that noncombat military deaths were caused by the continued existence of a criminal subculture throughout society. Human rights activists asserted, however, that the criminal subculture, which they agreed was prevalent in the military, was not created by conscripts but instead created and maintained by officers and commanders. Human rights NGOs reported that improvements to material conditions, food quality, and safety at duty locations were carried out prior to the September 27 to November 10 fighting but called on authorities to take concrete measures to punish those maintaining the criminal subculture.

On February 28, then deputy minister of defense Gabriel Balayan stated that human rights defenders’ call on authorities to seek out elements of a criminal subculture among the command staff was destructive, averred that they revel at each new unfortunate event, and stated that law enforcement bodies would soon look into the organizations and their funding. On February 29, the NGO Human Rights House condemned Balayan’s statements, called upon authorities to refrain from attempts to discredit human rights defenders and threaten them with legal action, to examine if there were grounds to discipline Balayan and have him issue an apology, and for the Defense Ministry to take measures to strengthen public oversight over the armed forces.

In response to continued demands from families whose sons died in the army under noncombat conditions, on August 3, Prime Minister Pashinyan signed a decree to form a working group to look into eight outstanding criminal cases. Consisting of three independent attorneys and three experts from the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister’s Office, the group was reportedly granted full access to case materials without having to go through law enforcement structures that the families stated they do not trust. In October 2019 the government approved the Judicial and Legal Reform Strategy for 2019-2023 and action plan for its implementation that envisage the creation of a fact-finding group to examine noncombat deaths, among other human rights problems. The action plan’s deadline, however, for adopting relevant legislation and establishing the commission was not met.

During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (also see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 5, and 6; and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.

On December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the cutting of an Azerbaijani border guard’s throat while the guard was gagged and bound, and it assessed that the guard received a wound that led to his death. According to Amnesty, Azerbaijani media named the border guard as Ismail Irapov. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”

For example, on October 4, Human Rights Watch reported “Armenian forces” struck Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city located about 28 miles from the areas involved in active fighting at the time. Azerbaijani government officials reported one civilian was killed and 32 injured as a result of the missile strike. On October 17, another Armenian missile struck Ganja, killing 14 civilians.

On October 30, Human Rights Watch reported that on October 28, Armenian or separatist forces fired cluster munitions from a Smerch installation, striking the Azerbaijani town of Barda, located approximately 10 miles east of the front. The Armenian Ministry of Defense denied allegations that Armenian forces had conducted the attack. It later published a list of military targets it claimed were located in Barda. The Azerbaijani government reported that 26 civilians were killed on October 27 and 28 in attacks on the city, including a humanitarian aid worker from Azerbaijan’s Red Crescent Society, confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”

On December 11, Human Rights Watch documented 11 incidents in which “Armenian forces” used ballistic missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and large-caliber artillery projectiles, which Human Rights Watch reported resulted in the deaths and injuries of dozens of civilians.

Authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting. The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the conflict.

There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.

There was no progress in the investigation into the 2018 death of Armen Aghajanyan, who was found hanged in the Nubarashen National Center for Mental Health where he had been transferred from Nubarashen Penitentiary for a psychological assessment. His family believed Aghajanyan was killed to prevent his identification of penitentiary guards who beat him prior to his transfer to the hospital. One of the alleged attackers, Major Armen Hovhannisyan, was initially charged with torture and falsification of documents, but the trial court requalified his actions as exceeding official authority and released him on the basis of a 2018 amnesty. During the year the family appealed the decision to the court of appeal with no success. The investigation into the death continued.

During the year hearings continued into a high-profile case against former officials for their alleged involvement in sending the military to break up protests following the 2008 presidential election, in which eight civilians and two police officers were killed. Charges filed in this and associated criminal cases included allegations of overthrowing the constitutional order, abuse and exceeding official authority, torture, complicity in bribery, official fraud, and falsification of evidence connected with the investigation of the 2008 postelection events.

High-profile suspects in the cases included former president Robert Kocharyan, former minister of defense Mikhail Harutyunyan, former deputy minister of defense Yuri Khachaturov, former defense minister Seyran Ohanyan, former chief of presidential staff Armen Gevorgyan, former police chief Alik Sargsyan, former prosecutor general Gevorg Kostanyan, and others. In July 2019 Kocharyan was charged with overthrowing the constitutional order in connection with the violent suppression of protests in 2008. On June 19, Kocharyan, who also faced corruption charges, was released after paying two billion drams bail (approximately four million dollars). As of May 19, the case against Gegham Petrosyan, a former deputy police commander charged in June 2019 with the murder of Zakar Hovhannisyan during suppression of the protests remained under investigation.

In September family members of victims of the postelection violence in 2008 announced they would refuse to attend further court hearings, given that two years into the trial, the court had not yet started discussing the merits of the case, following countless motions and appeals, often similar, by the defense. The families accused the defense of purposely dragging out the process and blamed the Prosecutor General’s Office for turning the trial into a farce and not taking effective measures to move the case forward.

b. Disappearance

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

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Armenians and Azerbaijanis remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. According to police, as of 2019 a total of 867 Armenians were missing from the conflict in the 1990s. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting. At year’s end the government was working to clarify the number missing.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. Nevertheless, there were reports that members of the security forces continued to torture or otherwise abuse individuals in their custody. According to human rights lawyers, while the criminal code defines and criminalizes torture, it does not criminalize other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. There were no convictions of officials for torture since the 2015 adoption of a new definition of torture in the criminal code.

According to human rights activists, impunity for past instances of law enforcement abuse continued to contribute to the persistence of the problem. Furthermore, observers contended that the failure to prosecute past cases was linked to the lack of change in the composition of law enforcement bodies since the 2018 political transition, other than at the top leadership level.

On May 22, the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor published a report on torture and degrading treatment, the third of a series of reports on the human rights situation in the country under the state of emergency to combat COVID-19. In the period covered by the report (March 16 to May 16), the Helsinki Citizens Assembly-Vanadzor received eight complaints from citizens alleging police had subjected them to degrading treatment, torture, or physical and psychological violence. According to the report, these numbers exceeded the number of similar cases registered under normal circumstances and indicated that some police officers took advantage of their broadened authorities under the state of emergency. There were no reports of police officers being held responsible for these wrongdoings.

On September 13, weight-lifting champion Armen Ghazaryan filed a police report stating that police officers from Yerevan’s Nor Nork district had kidnapped and tortured him. According to the report, which he provided to the media, on September 6, Ghazaryan was outside an acquaintance’s home in Yerevan when he witnessed plainclothes police officers apprehending a person. When he asked the officers what they were doing, he was “kidnapped” by the officers in their personal car. According to Ghazaryan, they told him they would “break him too, fold him up,” while beating him and cursing. Ghazaryan said that he later discovered the officers had detained the other man due to a personal dispute involving one of the officers. While in the police station, Ghazaryan was beaten by a group of officers, heard sounds of beatings coming from another room, and was subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment. He said the beating made it hard for him to breathe and that he was not sure he would make it out of the station alive. He was released after three hours, after being forced to sign papers he was not permitted to read. A medical examination indicated chest and lung injuries. Ghazaryan reported that after he filed a police report, employees of the Nor Nork police department began pressuring him to recant his testimony, threatening to frame him if he did not. Ghazaryan said that he was more shocked by the level of impunity the officers believed they enjoyed than by the violence done to him. On September 17, the SIS announced that it had opened a criminal case on charges of torture and, on September 25, announced it had arrested three officers on torture charges and the department chief on charges of abuse of authority for trying to interfere with the internal investigation following Ghazaryan’s complaint. On December 15, SIS forwarded the case against the three officers, who remained under pretrial detention, to the trial court on charges of torture. On November 30, authorities dropped the charges against the chief of the department, citing his repentance.

There were reports of abuse in police stations, which, unlike prisons and police detention facilities, were not subject to public monitoring. Criminal justice bodies continued to rely on confessions and information obtained during questioning to secure convictions. According to human rights lawyers, procedural safeguards against mistreatment during police questioning, such as inadmissibility of evidence obtained through force or procedural violations, were insufficient. According to human rights lawyers, the videotaping in police stations was not effective in providing safeguards against abuse, given that the same police stations had control over the servers storing the recordings and were able to manipulate them.

There was no progress in the investigation of the April 2019 death of Edgar Tsatinyan, who died in a hospital after having been transferred from Yerevan’s Nor Nork Police Department, where he had been in custody. Tsatinyan died of a drug overdose after swallowing three grams of methamphetamine, with which police reportedly intended to frame him after he refused to confess to a murder. The investigation of the torture charges launched by SIS in April 2019 remained underway; no suspects had been identified as of year’s end.

The trial of the former chief of the internal police troops, Lieutenant General Levon Yeranosyan, on charges of exceeding official authority committed with violence and leading to grave consequences during the 2018 postelection violence against protesters continued at year’s end.

There were no reports regarding the scale of military hazing in the army and whether it constituted torture. According to the NGO Peace Dialogue, the lack of legislative clarity concerning the functions and powers of military police as well as a lack of civilian oversight mechanisms, made it possible for military police to employ torture and other forms of mistreatment against both witnesses and suspects in criminal cases.

On September 9, Syunik regional trial court judge Gnel Gasparyan made an unprecedented decision, ruling in the case of Artur Hakobyan that investigators had failed to carry out a proper investigation into Hakobyan’s torture claims. The judge ruled that investigators should undertake a psychological assessment of the victims that adhered to provisions in the Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol. In 2015 Hakobyan had been released from the army early due to a mental disorder. According to his family and lawyer, Hakobyan was in good mental health before joining the army but experienced deep psychological trauma as a result of torture and abuse. In January 2019 the Court of Cassation recognized there had been a violation of Hakobyan’s right to freedom from torture, but, up to the September 9 trial court decision, the case had been stalled due to continuing appeals and counterappeals.

As of year’s end, authorities had not reported any arrests linked to alleged abuses.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were marked by poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, and predation by hierarchical criminal structures (“thieves-in-law”), and in some cases they were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding was no longer a problem at the prison level but still existed at the cell level in Nubarashen Prison.

Physical Conditions: According to the Prison Monitoring Group (PMG), a coalition of local NGOs, prison renovations underway since 2019 had not resulted in major improvements for inmates. Conditions in Nubarashen Prison, one of the country’s 12 penitentiaries, in some cases were harsh and potentially life threatening. Human rights observers and the PMG also continued to express concern regarding the physical conditions of Armavir Penitentiary, which did not have an air ventilation or cooling system, which allowed recorded cell temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit in past summers. Some efforts were made to improve ventilation during the year, but they were piecemeal. On June 18, the minister of justice announced there was a criminal case in progress to investigate why a ventilation system had not been built, despite inclusion in the original Armavir construction plan.

According to the ombudsman and the PMG, impunity related to the deaths of inmates and the lack of a systemic approach to their prevention continued to be one of the most significant human rights problems in prison. There were no investigations into the circumstances of deaths due to illness, such as whether an illness was acquired due to incarceration or if the illness had been preventable or treatable. Nonetheless, the government reported improvements in medical treatment during the year, including more rapid access to treatment, and stated that despite COVID-19 risks, there were only five prison deaths (none due to COVID-19), in contrast to 21 deaths in 2019.

There was no progress in the government’s investigation into the January 2019 death of Mher Yeghiazaryan, the deputy chairman of the Armenian Eagles: United Armenia Party, nine days after he ended a hunger strike at Nubareshen Prison.

The Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG continued to note the need for better psychological services in prisons. According to the PMG, there was a shortage of psychologists on staff and hundreds of inmates in need of care. The PMG linked the absence of psychological care to numerous instances of self-mutilation and suicide. According to research published by the PMG on April 15, the number of patients per psychologist, overwhelming amounts of paperwork, and inappropriate working conditions, as well as the ambiguous role of prison psychologists, contributed to the failure of psychological services and led to burn out among the few existing specialists. The ombudsman criticized the practice of punishing inmates who self-mutilated instead of providing them with appropriate medical and psychological care.

The government reiterated its zero-tolerance policy towards corruption in prisons and expressed its determination to root out the organized hierarchical criminal structure dominating prison life, in which select inmates (called “watchers”) at the top of the informal prison hierarchy controlled the inmate population and prison life. Serious gaps in prison staffing both led to and exacerbated the situation, as prison officials relied on the watchers to keep order.

According to some reports, the government’s efforts to combat the criminal hierarchy at times led to the violation of prisoners’ human rights. On August 24, the president of the NGO Journalists for Human Rights, Zhanna Alexanyan, reported that masked men had abused three inmates located in a cell at the Nubarashen Penitentiary. In later reports, the wife of one of those beaten said that approximately 10 to 12 masked persons used their hands, feet, batons, and a Taser to abuse the three inmates.

The Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated on August 24 that unplanned searches were occasionally carried out in the penitentiaries to find prohibited items and that penitentiaries had the right to use proportionate physical force in cases of noncompliance or obstruction of official legal demands. In response the Ombudsman’s Office and the PMG visited inmates and reported violations of their rights, including numerous bodily injuries, which were initially recorded as resulting from falling from a bed. In a special report to the Ministry of Justice, the PMG noted this was one of the worst cases of inmate abuse it had witnessed in several years. The PMG also reported what it believed was a crime to the Prosecutor General’s Office. On September 4, the PMG received information that SIS had open a criminal case into an incident of exceeding official authority with violence.

On August 31, SIS reported the arrest of former Nubarashen Penitentiary chief Samvel Mkrtchyan for his role in arranging and covering up the February attack on inmate Vahagn Abgaryan. Mkrtchyan was released on September 2 after a trial court refused to satisfy the SIS motion for pretrial detention. Mkrtchyan was charged with fraud and abuse of power for the February 24 beating of Abgaryan (reportedly a member of the criminal hierarchical system) by other inmates. To hide the circumstances of the attack, which according to earlier official reports was instigated by orders from “criminal authorities” from abroad, Mkrtchyan instructed employees to report that Abgaryan had slipped exiting the bathroom. Other penitentiary employees were also arrested in the case.

According to observers, political will at the highest level to eradicate corruption in the penitentiaries had not yet been translated into institutional change, despite the punishment of individual staff for corruption. Experts assessed that corruption was likely to continue as long as the criminal subculture continued to exist.

Since September 2019 the Penitentiary Medicine Center, a state noncommercial organization reporting to the Ministry of Justice, provided medical care in penitentiaries. Nevertheless, health-care services in prisons remained understaffed and poorly equipped, and there were problems with access to specialist care. There was also a shortage of specialized medication despite a threefold increase in the budget for medication in prisons since 2018. In some cases inmates had to rely on family members to bring them specific medications or medications that were more effective than ones provided by the penitentiaries.

Most prisons continued to lack accommodations for inmates with disabilities.

According to the PMG and other human rights organizations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals continued to experience the worst prison conditions. Prison administrators reinforced and condoned abusive treatment and held LGBTI individuals in segregated cells in significantly worse conditions. The PMG noted that homosexual men or those assumed to be homosexual, those associating with them, and inmates convicted of crimes such as rape, as well as those who refused to live by the “unwritten prison rules,” were segregated from other inmates and forced to perform humiliating tasks, such as cleaning toilets, picking up trash for other prisoners, and providing sexual services. Food preparation and cutlery for these prisoners was kept separate, they had a separate laundry machine, and even a separate solitary confinement cell.

On April 3, an advisor to the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that the prosecution would apply to the courts to change the detention measures of 20 defendants who were in a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications.

Administration: Authorities did not conduct prompt investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment.

Convicts and detainees did not always have reasonable access to visitors due to the lack of suitable space for visits. Visits during the year were also limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted domestic and international human rights groups, including the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, to monitor prison and detention center conditions, and they did so regularly. Authorities allowed monitors to speak privately with prisoners and permitted the ICRC to visit prisons and pretrial detention centers.

There were limits, however, to independent monitoring by domestic groups. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny PMG monitors access to those individuals in whose cases the investigation body had put a restriction on communication. The PMG was also unable to check the conditions of confinement for those individuals. The PMG asserted the restriction was arbitrary and that the investigation body’s decision should not apply to the PMG. Furthermore, on November 19, the PMG criticized the Ministry of Justice for the March 20 adoption of a new decree regulating PMG activities, which contradicted prior agreements. According to a PMG statement, the decree added further restrictions to their activities, such as a new requirement to obtain permission from the prison administration before visits during nonworking hours.

During the 2019-20 academic year, the Ministry of Justice Center for Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs (CLERP) provided secondary education to 11 students at Abovyan and Armavir Prisons. After COVID-19 pandemic restrictions led authorities to stop providing in-person education, CLERP was retasked with providing online secondary education to inmates younger than 19.

The government made some progress in tackling corruption during the year and improved food provision in all penitentiaries. In January, to address corruption as well as staff shortages in prisons, the government increased the salaries of penitentiary officers by 30 percent. On January 22, the National Assembly adopted amendments to criminalize criminal subculture, also known as “thieves-in-law,” a set of hierarchical criminal groups. Under the new law, “creating or leading a criminal subculture group” is punishable by five to 10 years in prison and confiscation of assets. “Membership” or “participation” in a group is punishable by four to eight years of imprisonment and possible confiscation of property. The definition of what constitutes a group is broad, allowing members to be arrested, even if they have not committed a crime.

During the year the prison food pilot program that was initially launched at two penitentiaries was expanded to cover all 12 penitentiaries in the country. According to the PMG, the quality of food provided to prisoners improved, with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners prepared daily on the premises of the penitentiaries by specialized chefs. To ensure variety, the contracted company offered a new menu every week, while maintaining the dietary quality, caloric value, and other criteria approved by prison wardens.

Observers reported significant improvements during the year in the early release and release on parole of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment: 13 prisoners with life sentences were moved from high-security isolation wards to lower security wards (from closed to semiclosed type); eight were moved from semiclosed to semiopen facilities; and two were released on parole based on their good behavior while in prison.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were reports of arbitrary arrest during the year.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

By law an investigative body must either arrest or release individuals within three hours of taking them into custody. Within 72 hours the investigative body must release the arrested person or file charges and obtain a detention warrant from a judge. The law requires police to inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or arrest as well as their rights to remain silent, to legal representation, and to make a telephone call. Bail was a legal option. According to human rights lawyers, following the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” courts were initially less likely to apply pretrial detention, opting for other preventive measures such as bail and signed undertakings not to leave the country.

Since 2019, however, observers noted courts’ increasing tendency to fall back into the previous practice of applying pretrial detention, with suspects bearing the burden of proof to demonstrate they did not present a flight risk or would not hamper an investigation. Trial courts were more likely to deny bail and apply pretrial detention in ordinary criminal cases, while more frequently rejecting prosecution requests for pretrial detention in high-profile corruption cases involving former government officials, causing some observers to question the judges’ impartiality. Experts also noted that in high-profile cases, the prosecution often failed to present compelling cases for detention to the courts.

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

Armenian and Azerbaijani officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (also see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Azerbaijan). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of remaining detainees.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were several reports of arbitrary arrest during the year. For example, on August 6, media outlets reported the detention and subsequent release of Helsinki Association for Human Rights chair Nina Karapetyants after she conducted a solo picket against the development of a gold mine, even though the state of emergency provisions did not prohibit solo actions. On the same day, police detained and later released a number of other human rights defenders and environmental activists, including the Helsinki Association’s lawyer, Ara Gharagyozyan, and Coalition to Stop Violence against Women coordinator Zaruhi Hovhannisyan, for demonstrating against the mine. According to police, those detained failed to obey legal demands made by police. In its annual report, the Helsinki Committee of Armenia noted an increase in arrests at public assemblies in the July 2019-June 2020 period and criticized the authorities’ decision to permit gatherings of up to five persons for cultural, entertainment, holiday, or commemorative events under COVID-19 emergency rules while not permitting groups of five for public protest.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. Some observers saw investigators’ use of excessive pretrial detention as a means of inducing defendants to confess or to reveal self-incriminating evidence.

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

On January 21, the Ombudsman’s Office released a special report on the lack of mechanisms to ensure court system accountability for compliance with time standards or to obtain redress if a trial has not met the reasonable timeframe requirement. According to the report, 2019 data from the Supreme Judicial Council indicated 155 criminal and 1,628 civil cases in Yerevan alone had continued for more than two years, some for more than 10 years. A total of 1,123 such cases were handled by just seven judges.

On June 1, media outlets reported Armen Ghazaryan was acquitted by the court of appeals after spending six years and three months in detention on charges of robbery, kidnapping, and battery. After six years in pretrial detention, trial court judge Gagik Petrosyan had convicted him and sentenced him to 6.5 years in prison.

Although on March 24 the Supreme Judicial Council ruled that measures such as the use of online communications tools must be adopted to ensure that trials continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, trial delays continued. According to the joint monitoring report of the NGOs Helsinki Association for Human Rights and Human Rights Power, a number of courts faced significant delays, apparently due to a lack of technical preparedness; the sessions that were delayed included those devoted to the discussion of urgent matters such as detention measures. The law does not allow for telecommunication measures in criminal cases, and according to observers, delays in such cases were mostly due to the failure of the judges and the prosecutors to appear in court.

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary did not generally exhibit independence and impartiality. Popular trust in the impartiality of judges continued to plummet, while civil society organizations highlighted that the justice sector retained many officials who served the previous authorities and issued rulings consistently favorable to them. Corruption of judges remained a concern. During the year NGOs continued to report on judges who had acquired significant amounts of property and assets that were disproportionate to their salaries, and they noted that the absence of vetting of all standing judges based on objective criteria–particularly of those in the Supreme Judicial Council and Constitutional Court–undermined the integrity of the judiciary.

According to human rights lawyers and other observers, after the 2018 political transition, and on numerous occasions during the year, courts released from detention or refused to issue detention orders for former officials standing trial for major corruption, embezzlement, and other charges. These lawyers noted former president Robert Kocharyan was released on bail in June and that the former chief of the internal police troops, Lieutenant General Levon Yeranosyan, was released with a promise not to leave the country when they charged him with exceeding official authority. By contrast, less famous individuals have been held for lengthy periods in pretrial detention.

On April 20, a group of civil society organizations criticized the mechanisms to check the integrity of judicial candidates that were adopted by the National Assembly on March 25. According to the statement, the extremely limited scope of the integrity review was fundamentally disappointing, as it will be conducted only for candidates for Constitutional Court judgeships, prosecutors, or investigators, but not for serving judges, prosecutors, or investigators. The government responded that the mechanisms would enable a gradual transition.

Following widespread concerns about the impartiality of Constitutional Court judges appointed under the former regime, the National Assembly in June approved constitutional amendments requiring all Constitutional Court judges who had served 12 years or more to retire, while those who had not yet met the 12-year tenure limit would continue to serve on the court. Under the amendments, court chair Hrayr Tovmasyan–who was widely viewed as beholden to political interests–was forced to step down although he continued to serve as a judge on the court, not yet having reached the 12-year limit. Parliament adopted the constitutional amendments the day before receiving Venice Commission recommendations. The amendments were mostly in compliance with Venice Commission recommendations but lacked a transitional period for the dismissal of judges. On September 15, the National Assembly approved three new Constitutional Court members, despite civil society concerns, especially regarding Yervand Khundkaryan and the Corruption Prevention Commission’s reported negative advisory opinion on him.

According to observers, administrative courts had relatively more internal independence but were understaffed and faced a long backlog.

Authorities enforced court orders.

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

Trial Procedures

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

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

According to human rights lawyers, in an illustrative example of a flawed trial, on September 23, Forrights.am reported that Tigran Badalyan, who had been in pretrial detention in Armavir Penitentiary for approximately a year, nailed his feet to the ground on the 29th day of a hunger strike he had undertaken to protest the charges against him. According to another media report, Badalyan allegedly found and sold five aluminum sheets in his village. He was later arrested and charged with stealing the aluminum and selling it for 15,000 drams ($30) and stealing 10,000 drams ($20) in cash from a neighbor. According to Badalyan’s lawyer, there was no evidence against Badalyan, no witnesses, and even the owner of the stolen cash and aluminum did not believe Badalyan was the culprit. According to the lawyer, police suspected him due to a prior conviction (unrelated to theft), for which he served a conditional sentence. On September 25, trial court judge Tatul Janibekyan found Badalyan guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison.

The law provides that defendants may confront witnesses, present evidence, and examine the government’s case in advance of a trial, but defendants and their attorneys had very little ability to challenge government witnesses or police, while courts tended to accept prosecution materials routinely. In particular the law prohibits police officers from testifying in their official capacities unless they were witnesses or victims in a case. Judges were reluctant to challenge police experts, hampering a defendant’s ability to mount a credible defense. Judges’ control over witness lists and over the determination of the relevance of potential witnesses in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Defense attorneys complained that judges at times did not allow them to request the attendance at trial of defense witnesses. According to lawyers and domestic and international human rights observers, including the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, the prosecution retained a dominant position in the criminal justice system. Human rights organizations reported there were insufficient provisions for prosecutorial impartiality and accountability and no objective criteria for the nomination and selection of candidates for general prosecutor.

Defendants, prosecutors, and injured parties have the right to appeal a court verdict and often exercised it. In an example of a trial that even the victim’s family deemed unjust to the accused, criminal proceedings–originally opened in 2013–against Karen Kungurtsev for the alleged killing of Davit Hovakimyan, continued during the year. A 2018 Court of Cassation order returned the case to trial court and released Kungurtsev on bail. Kungurtsev was originally acquitted in 2015, but in 2017 the criminal court of appeal reversed the acquittal and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The victim’s family and the Helsinki Association for Human Rights continued to support Kungurtsev’s claim of innocence, asserting that Hovakimyan’s real killer was the son of a National Security Service (NSS) official who had used his position to influence police and prosecutors to investigate Kungurtsev. Since the resumption of the trial in 2018, two key witnesses in the case apologized to Kungurtsev and the victim’s father for providing false testimony six years earlier under pressure from law enforcement officers and gave potentially exonerating testimony in support of Kungurtsev.

The prosecutor in charge of the current trial insisted on hearing all the witnesses in the case, which led to further delays as most of them were outside the country. According to Kungurtsev’s lawyer, the two prosecutors in charge of the initial (preliminary) examination of the case failed to manage the investigation and trial correctly but were subsequently promoted to high positions within the prosecutorial system. He assessed the prosecutors were personally interested in pushing the case forward to avoid facing responsibility for their actions.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

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

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

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

Authorities may not legally wiretap telephones, intercept correspondence, or conduct searches without obtaining the permission of a judge based on compelling evidence of criminal activity. The constitution, however, stipulates exceptions when confidentiality of communication may be restricted without a court order when necessary to protect state security and conditioned by the special status of those in communication. Although law enforcement bodies generally adhered to legal procedures, observers claimed that certain judges authorized wiretaps and other surveillance requests from the NSS and police without the compelling evidence required by law. By contrast there were no reports that courts violated legal procedures when responding to such authorization requests from the SIS, the Investigative Committee, and the State Revenue Committee.

On March 31, the National Assembly amended the law on the Legal Regime of State of Emergencies permitting the use of cell-phone data to track COVID-19 cases and requiring telecommunications companies to provide authorities with telephone records. Authorities may use the data to identify, isolate, require self-isolation, or monitor anyone infected with COVID-19 or those who have been in close contact with infected persons. Health-care providers are obliged to report data to authorities on “people tested, infected, persons having disease symptoms, persons treated in hospitals, or persons who had contacts with the patient.”

The amendments raised societal and international concerns about privacy as well as the security of collected data and questions about the identity of the software developers. According to a September 23 report on Civilnet.am, data tracking was suspended with the end of the state of emergency on September 11 and parliamentarians were notified to be present at the destruction of the digital data collected, scheduled by law to take place within two weeks after the end of the state of emergency.

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; while the government generally respected this right, it restricted it in the COVID-19-related state of emergency and war-related declaration of martial law.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. On April 15, the National Assembly amended the criminal code to criminalize public calls for violence. Penalties for violations include a fine of 50,000 or 100,000 drams ($100 to $200), detention for up to two months, or imprisonment for up to one month. The law is stricter for officials, who may be deprived of the right to hold office. Sexual and gender identity is not among the protected grounds enumerated in the law.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: During the first month of the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed restrictions on media, setting administrative fines for posting or publishing information on the pandemic that did not reflect reports from official government sources. The government justified the measure as needed to prevent panic and the potential spread of misinformation during the state of emergency. As a result, police officers conducted a spate of visits to the editorial offices of various media outlets, forcing them to remove certain articles under threat of fines.

Media representatives, along with local and international media watchdogs, criticized the move. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media stated: “Publishing only information provided by the authorities is a very restrictive measure which would limit freedom of the media and access to information disproportionately.” Similar views were expressed by Reporters without Borders, which stated, “control of information does not help in the fight against the epidemic but rather spreads gossip and fear.” On April 13, the government lifted all COVID-related restrictions on media.

Following the outbreak of fighting beginning September 27, the government declared martial law. Martial law restrictions included a requirement that local media outlets and broadcasters provide only official government information regarding military activity. Subsequent amendments adopted to the decree on martial law in October banned the publication of reports criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict, refuting actions of state and local government bodies and officials taken in the context of martial law and state security, and questioning or deprecating the effectiveness of those actions “in any way.”

Media outlets in general 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, which underwent leadership change during the year, continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint. On several occasions independent media experts expressed concern about cases of bias on public television, claiming such bias was especially obvious during critical political debates and coverage of developments. Nonetheless, public television was largely balanced and open and accessible to opposition voices and continued to cover more diverse topics of public interest than prior to the 2018 revolution.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the 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,” anonymous Telegram channels, and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government. There was a particular spike in misinformation on COVID-19-related topics, which led to stronger fact-checking efforts by a number of journals and other local organizations.

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

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. The July 17 Law on Audiovisual media that replaced the Law on Television and Radio did not foster 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. According to local media watchdogs, the July 17 Law on Audiovisual media did not provide a realistic path for the creation of private multiplexes, did not solve the issue of digital broadcasting for regional television stations, and did not reform outdated television licensing procedures.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported two cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. In one case, on June 16, journalists were injured in a scuffle near the NSS building. News.am news correspondent Liana Sargsyan, Tert.am journalist Ani Ghorgyan, Yerkir.am correspondent Tatik Kostandyan, Kentron TV journalist Arthur Hakobyan, and MegaNews.am website editor Margarita Davtyan said that they incurred injuries while covering a protest by supporters of Prosperous Armenia Party head and National Assembly member Gagik Tsarukyan in front of the NSS building. Local media organizations condemned the violence against media representatives performing their professional duties and demanded that police conduct an investigation into the incident. Since the events were taking place during the state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19, media organizations urged outlets to refrain from exposing their staff to crowds while covering mass gatherings and to provide clear security instructions if this was not possible.

There were cases of current or former officials impeding the work of journalists or attempting to do so. For example, on August 8, former chief of police Vladimir Gasparyan obstructed the work of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Armenian Service crew working on a report about government plans to dismantle some private houses illegally constructed near Lake Sevan. Gasparyan, who was already facing charges for abuse of office, fraud, and embezzlement, drove his vehicle towards the two reporters and reportedly came close to hitting them as they filmed near the lakeside area where his house was located. Gasparyan then threatened the reporters, saying “I’ll shoot you” and “I’ll slaughter you.” Using epithets, the former police chief demanded that the reporters not show his house in their report. Police opened a criminal case into the incident on charges of obstructing journalistic activity.

On December 1, police reportedly interfered with the work of journalists and attempted to detain Yerkir Media TV cameraman Hayk Sukiasyan during a protest against the government’s agreement to a Russia-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

There also were reports of intimidation of journalists by law enforcement bodies. For example, on July 3, police visited ArmNews and Channel 5 television stations, which were affiliated with the former government, purportedly with the aim of initiating administrative proceedings against them because their personnel were not wearing masks on air. Media watchdogs condemned the actions as abuse of power, exhorted law enforcement officials to refrain from interfering with media activities, advocated loosening pandemic-related restrictions on media outlets, and called on outlets not to violate state of emergency regulations, given their role in protecting the health of both the public and their employees.

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts noted a decrease in the number of libel and defamation cases against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 55 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year.

Internet Freedom

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, and the government expressly supported academic freedom.

Observers criticized some government officials for nepotism in connection with appointments to public educational institutions. One prominent case involved the appointment of Diana Galoyan as rector of the State University of Economics. After allegations arose that parts of her doctoral thesis were plagiarized, the Higher Qualifying Committee (the government body responsible for reviewing doctoral qualifications) overturned the 2015 decision granting her a doctorate. The previous acting rector resigned over a similar issue. The Higher Qualifying Committee chairman, Smbat Gogyan, asserted that the deputy minister of education acted as Galoyan’s patron. Gogyan submitted his resignation over the case in May, but it was not accepted. On August 17, the Ministry of Education revoked the annulment of Galoyan’s doctoral thesis and degree, thereby removing the obstacle to her appointment as rector.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government generally respected these rights but restricted assembly under the COVID-19-related state of emergency and conflict-related imposition of martial law.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Freedom of assembly was restricted during the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. The curbs remained in force until August 12, when the government lifted most restrictions on freedom of assembly, permitting demonstrations, marches, and rallies so long as participants wore masks and observed social distancing requirements.

Freedom of assembly also was restricted under martial law, which was imposed on September 27 after the outbreak of fighting with Azerbaijan. Martial law restrictions included a ban on rallies. Although the restrictions were officially lifted on December 2, on December 21, Goris mayor Arush Arushanyan was arrested on charges of organizing an illegal rally, according to his lawyer. Arushanyan had called on local citizens to block roads to the Syunik region to prevent a visit by the prime minister, as a result of which the official visit was curtailed. The following day Yerevan’s trial court ruled the arrest unlawful, and Arushanyan was released.

From November 11 through the end of the year, the opposition held rallies and other protest actions throughout Yerevan demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan. Prior to the lifting of the ban on assemblies on December 2, police occasionally detained opposition leaders and rally participants for violating martial law provisions. While some claimed the detentions were politically motivated, human rights NGOs largely dismissed the claims.

According to the monitoring report of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, for the period from July 2019 through June, protection of freedom of assembly decreased compared with its monitoring report covering July 2018 to June 2019. According to the report, police actions were inconsistent in the strictness of their application of the ban on meetings and varied depending on who protest organizers were and the issue they raised. Separately, the report also noted that organizers and participants of certain rallies continued the use of hate speech aimed at a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious views.

According to civil society organizations, there was no progress in establishing accountability for police use of disproportionate force against protesters during the largely peaceful protests of 2018.

Freedom of Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government generally respected these rights but restricted them in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-country movement: Through April 23, internal travel was restricted, with interregional travel banned and travel within cities permitted only for a limited number of reasons. Internal movement was subsequently not restricted.

Foreign Travel: On February 24, the government closed the country’s border with Iran to individual travelers due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Armenia and Georgia jointly closed their border on March 14. Only citizens and a few restricted categories of foreigners were permitted to enter the country by air until the restriction was lifted on August 12. Land borders, however, remained closed through the end of the year. The entry restrictions and land border closure affected asylum seekers and refugees.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

As of December 2018, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-94 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities. The government did not have specific programs and policies aimed at promoting the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs. According to the government, the fall fighting displaced approximately 100,000 individuals, although some reportedly returned.

f. Protection of Refugees

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.

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.

During the year, seven foreigners seeking asylum were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border by land or air. 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.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. During the COVID-19 state of emergency, an electronic asylum system was introduced. While processing cases of individuals in detention was suspended, processing of other cases continued. Remote interpretation (partially funded by UNHCR) was made available when needed, and consideration of most asylum claims was reported to be fair. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities, and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. The law was generally enforced to the extent resources allow. Refugees who are not ethnic Armenians may apply for facilitated naturalization, which requires passing a constitutional knowledge test. Such citizenship, however, was rarely granted.

During the COVID-19 state of emergency, there were at least two cases in which individuals who sought asylum were turned away at the border crossing with Iran. As of year’s end, 12 asylum seekers were detained, including four from Iran and two from Azerbaijan.

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in training and capacity of eligibility determination officers, with no sustainable quality assurance mechanism and a lack of professional development of staff. Judicial practices continued to improve but were inconsistent; judges who received training on refugee and asylum law issued better quality decisions than those without such training. Asylum-related cases continued to be assigned to judges lacking in-depth knowledge of relevant law, in the absence of a system to assign specific cases to specialized judges. Judicial review remained a lengthy process as judges remained overloaded with cases. Outcomes depended upon individual judges, and there was a lack of consistency in decisions across judges. The courts generally drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than in prior years.

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 refugees who became naturalized citizens.

While the 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, due to a lack of job openings, difficulty in accessing opportunities, and language barriers.

Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the close quarters in the refugee center (a housing facility where some asylum seekers were accommodated) also gave rise to fears of infection, although no COVID-19 cases were reported in the center during the year. 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.

During the COVID-19 state of emergency, restrictions on internal movement and the closure of in-person services at government offices hampered access to basic services for individuals whose documents expired during this time. Although the government declared that expired documents would be considered valid until the end of the state of emergency, no instructions were issued to state authorities, including those responsible for medical care, social protection, and education, to accept the expired documents. Delayed access to services continued until the State Migration Service instructed duty officers to issue refugee certificates. Although refugees and asylum seekers were instructed to apply for support programs that the government created to assist persons during the state of emergency, many were found ineligible for technical and other reasons. Obtaining COVID-19 tests was reportedly problematic, with some individuals paying for their own tests while others did not receive their results and had to be retested. A total of 16 refugees (who lived in apartments, not the reception center) had tested positive as of August 10. Access to education for many refugees became difficult after the government suspended in-person education in March. Due to a lack of devices to access online programs, UNHCR provided 166 tablet computers to facilitate distance education throughout the year. Children were able to view educational programs on television.

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. As of January 1, there were 1,319 refugees who fled from Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In November 2019 the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing for up to 112 families who fled from Azerbaijan who were also granted citizenship along with the housing and thus no longer considered refugees. As of August, 106 applications had been approved and six refused. A second tranche of the program was approved in the spring for another 185 beneficiaries.

g. Stateless Persons

According to official data, as of August 10, there were 976 stateless persons, an increase from 929 in November 2019. The increase was believed to be related to the increasing number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. The whereabouts of these individuals was unknown, as many were believed likely to have entered the Russian Federation. There was no assessment to determine how many may have received another country’s citizenship. Authorities also considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless as of July.

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2018 the country held snap parliamentary elections, preceded by a short and heated, but free and competitive, campaign with generally equal opportunities for contestants. Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step coalition won more than 70 percent of the vote and most seats in the National Assembly; the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties also won seats, with 8.3 percent and 6.4 percent of the vote, respectively. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) 2018 preliminary and March 2019 final reports noted, “Early parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms…The general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition.” The final report noted, however, that although electoral stakeholders did not report any systematic efforts of vote buying and other electoral malfeasance, several interlocutors alleged that short-term contracting of a number of campaign workers and citizen observers was done, mainly by the Prosperous Armenia Party, possibly for the purpose of buying their votes.

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

On June 18, the National Assembly adopted amendments to the electoral code and other relevant laws, which transitioned the system for local elections from majoritarian to proportional representation. The amendments apply to communities with more than 4,000 voters and multisettlement communities. The amended law was a result of cooperation between the government and all three parliamentary factions aimed at elevating the role of political parties at the local level and enhancing the scope for their participation and development.

Political participation was sometimes marred by mutual personal insults between members of the ruling My Step faction and some opposition parties, which at times were followed by violence. For example, on May 8, verbal altercations led to violence on the National Assembly floor when My Step member of parliament Sasun Mikaelyan hit Edmon Marukyan, chair of the opposition Bright Armenia faction, leading to a scuffle between members. The prime minister denounced the violent incident but blamed the opposition, stating it provoked the ruling faction and was serving the former administration’s interests.

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

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, but the patriarchal nature of society inhibited large-scale participation by women in political and economic life and in decision-making positions in the public sector. Women held 7 percent of ministerial positions, 9 percent of elected seats in local legislatures, and 23 percent of the elected seats in parliament. There were no female governors in the country’s 10 regions; the first female mayor was elected in 2018.

The OSCE’s reports on the 2018 parliamentary elections noted all candidate lists met the 25 percent gender-quota requirement and that women accounted for 32 percent of the 1,444 total candidates. The OSCE stated, however, that this quota did not provide for the same proportion of representation of women in parliament, as one-half of the seats are distributed according to preferential votes. Parties rarely featured women candidates in their campaigns; women only occasionally campaigned on their own and rarely appeared as speakers in rallies. Female parliamentarians and other female officials often faced gender-related insults, rather than content-based criticism.

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

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

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

Corruption: The country has a legacy of systemic corruption in many areas, including construction, mining, public administration, parliament, the judiciary, procurement practices, and provision of state assistance. There were allegations of embezzlement of state funds and involvement of government officials in questionable business activities. Combatting corruption continued to be a top priority for the government, and the government continued to take measures to eliminate corruption throughout the year. Authorities continued to adopt legal measures, such as civil forfeiture laws, integrity checks, new forms of asset declaration, and changes to the bank secrecy law, to institutionalize anticorruption measures. The government initiated criminal corruption cases in the tax and customs services, environmental and social affairs ministries, parliament’s urban development committee, and the judiciary.

On July 17, the Supreme Judicial Council upheld the motions of the Prosecutor General’s Office to detain Bankruptcy Court judges Ara Kubanyan and Gevorg Narinyan. Narinyan had been charged with multiple crimes, including illicit enrichment, money laundering, and presenting fake asset declarations, while Kubanyan had been charged with abuse of official authority. On July 21, the Supreme Judicial Council suspended the judges’ authorities while the investigation continued.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of June 30, enforcement bodies and tax services uncovered violations estimated to have caused 129 billion drams (almost $267 million) in damages to the state as a result of embezzlement, abuse of power, illicit enrichment, and bribery. Of this amount, 25 billon drams ($52 million) was reportedly paid to the state budget and assets in the amount of 26 billion drams ($55 million) were frozen or seized. NGOs continued to raise 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 and criteria by which the government accepted or negotiated such arrangements remained unclear.

In June the State Revenue Committee (SRC) announced several criminal cases had been opened against Mikayel Minasyan, former president Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law, who served as Sargsyan’s first deputy chief of staff and ambassador to the Vatican. In March he was charged with illicit enrichment, false asset disclosure, and money laundering. The SRC reported that Minasyan’s asset declarations indicated a significant unexplainable increase in his wealth. Minasyan was also charged with receiving preferential tariffs for the sale of electricity from a hydroelectric power plant in which he had an ownership interest after regulations were changed to benefit him.

In December 2019 the NSS arrested Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport Gevorg Loretsyan, a member of the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party, as part of a corruption investigation. According to the NSS, Loretsyan, who coordinated the sports department within the ministry, helped an Armenian businessperson win government contracts for sportswear and sports equipment in exchange for a bribe. Loretsyan’s case was forwarded to the court in September, and he remained under pretrial detention at year’s end while the trial was in progress.

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 Commission on the Prevention of Corruption (CPC), which replaced the Ethics Commission for High-Ranking Officials in November 2019, conducts asset declaration analysis.

The CPC is broadly authorized to check the integrity of appointees to public positions, including candidates for the Constitutional Court, prosecutors, and investigators, but plays an advisory role. The CPC also supports development of anticorruption policy and conducts anticorruption awareness and training.

For several years a number of 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 2018 change in government, authorities initiated several investigations of discrepancies or unexplained wealth identified in the declarations. In October 2019 the government adopted an anticorruption strategy that, among other actions, envisages the creation by 2021 of a separate special law enforcement body, the Anticorruption Committee, as well as specialized anticorruption courts.

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

Following the 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. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Civil society organizations considered the change in government a window of opportunity for closer collaboration. The initially high expectations, however, led to growing civil society criticism of government reforms, especially in the areas of law enforcement and the judiciary, where some observers argued that the slow speed of reforms not only allowed former regime representatives to enjoy continued impunity for past crimes, but also gave them the time to regroup and try to push back against reforms. On June 23, a group of prominent human rights and other civil society organizations released a statement urging the government to make an immediate assessment of past human rights violations and implement systemic changes to foster the administration of justice, separation of powers, judicial independence, and parliamentary oversight.

In a trend that increased dramatically in 2019 and grew rapidly throughout the year, human rights and other civil society organizations, and individual human rights advocates continued to be vilified and threatened, including via death threats. Some journalists who promoted democratic reforms also received threats. Such intimidation took several forms. In at least two cases, government officials threatened or vilified human rights protectors. On November 10, the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Open Society Foundation-Armenia (OSF) were ransacked; on November 13 the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor (HCAV) office was attacked. Subsequently, NGO members reported increasing threats to their persons, while online users urged attacks on personnel “and not just offices.” In December a group of young persons entered the premises of the Article 3 Club (an organization that raises awareness of and promotes human rights), live-streaming as they insulted and intimidated those present. NGO members reported little was done to protect them. The intimidation also came from online trolls, media outlets, malign news outlets, and nationalist groups, many of which were affiliated with the former government and, some local experts alleged, Russian actors. The following were especially targeted: those promoting human rights, women’s and children’s rights, and deeper law enforcement and judicial reforms, particularly OSF.

According to civil society reports, the NSS harassed members of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights NGO and launched a criminal case on the basis of material that lawyers assessed as unsubstantiated. On December 5, the anti-OSF “Veto” movement published a video vilifying multiple human rights organizations, which was broadcast the same day by ArmNewsTV (a channel belonging to the opposition).

There was no strong government support for the role of human rights defenders and civil society more broadly, but there were occasional government efforts to push back against attacks on civil society. On December 29, parliament voted to end parliamentarian Naira Zohrabyan’s chairmanship of the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee due to intolerant statements she made. On December 30, the ombudsman noted the increase in the number of “insults” directed at civil society at large and called on the government to protect them.

As a result of hate campaigns, increasing numbers of academics and other opinion makers became reluctant to voice their opinions in public, particularly online. As a result, constructive discourse around human rights and other important matters decreased. The government adopted legislation criminalizing public calls for violence. It did not, however, take any effective measures to prevent the increasing marginalization of civil society actors. Rather, on some occasions, officials’ public comments contributed to the problem.

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. 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. In December 2019 the government adopted the 2020-22 National Strategy for Human Rights Protection and related action plan and launched the e-rights.am portal as a public oversight tool.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, and conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years; general rape statutes apply to the prosecution of spousal rape. Domestic violence was prosecuted under general statutes dealing with violence and carried various sentences depending on the charge (murder, battery, light battery, rape, etc.). Law enforcement bodies did not effectively investigate or prosecute most allegations of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women was widespread and was exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions on movement. According to some officials, the absence of a definition of domestic violence in the criminal code hampered their ability to fight domestic violence.

There were reports that police, especially outside Yerevan, were reluctant to act in cases of sexual and domestic violence and discouraged women from filing complaints. According to the Sexual Assault Crisis Center NGO, the investigation of sexual violence cases did not differ from the investigation of any other criminal case in terms of secrecy, investigator sensitivity, or number of interrogations, and survivors were obliged to testify or otherwise participate in investigations multiple times, including in face-to-face encounters with their abusers. In reports on standard forensic examinations into alleged rape, the expert reportedly addressed whether the subject was a virgin. Most domestic violence cases were considered by law as offenses of low or medium seriousness, and the government did not hire enough female police officers and investigators for fieldwork to address these crimes appropriately.

According to the NGO Women’s Rights Center, during the COVID-19 state of emergency, cases of domestic violence increased; experts blamed the rise in part on social isolation. The persisting social stigma against seeking support, along with the inaccessibility of some support services during the pandemic, further worsened the situation. The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women registered an increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and noted that the ban on public transportation during the state of emergency made it very difficult for some women to reach police precincts or support centers. In one case, a woman escaped from her husband, who had abused her for 25 years, without any money and approached a police officer on the street asking for help. He referred her to a police station without offering any assistance in reaching it. She only managed to reach a shelter after persuading a taxi driver to help her. According to the coalition, the incident demonstrated the need for more sensitivity training and referral mechanisms throughout the police force, especially for those patrolling the streets.

During the year a number of domestic violence cases captured widespread attention, leading to calls for stronger legislation against domestic violence. On March 5, media outlets reported the death of a woman at the hands of her partner in Gyumri. The perpetrator had also beaten the woman’s 13-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized with numerous injuries and underwent a long recovery. Visiting the daughter in the hospital, Prime Minister Pashinyan commented, “many of us feel sorry for this girl and her murdered mother, but let’s finally admit that this girl and her mother are also victims of the notion that violence in general and violence against women in particular can be justified.”

Activists and NGOs that promoted gender equality were frequent targets of hate speech and criticized for allegedly breaking up “Armenian traditional families” and spreading “Western values.” On July 7, a former police official, who was registered as a domestic violence offender, verbally assaulted a lawyer for the Women’s Support Center and other employees after a civil case hearing. According to the NGO, there were no legal measures in place to protect the center’s employees or to bring the offender to criminal responsibility.

The narrow definitions in the law combatting family violence prevented abuse survivors who were not married or in common law relationships with their partners from receiving protections and support under the law. During the year the government continued to support domestic violence victims’ support centers throughout the country.

Sexual Harassment: Although the law addresses lewd acts and indecent behavior, it does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment. There are no criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment experienced in the workplace.

Observers believed sexual harassment of women in the workplace and the political arena was widespread and was not adequately addressed by the government, which did not have a functioning, all-encompassing labor inspectorate or other avenues to report such harassment.

Reproductive Rights: The law gives couples and individuals the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health. They generally had the information to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Due to the patriarchal nature of Armenian society, however, the husband and his parents often sought to control decisions on the number, spacing, timing, and sex of a couple’s children (see section 6, Gender-biased Sex Selection). Skilled attendance during childbirth was more accessible in large towns and other population centers where birthing facilities were located. There were no government programs to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: Men and women enjoy equal legal status, but discrimination based on gender was a continuing problem in both the public and private sectors. There were reports of discrimination against women with respect to occupation, employment, and pay. Women remained underrepresented in leadership positions in all branches and at all levels of government. The law does not prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on sex.

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

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Despite legislative changes banning such practices and related public-awareness campaigns, data on newborns continued to indicate a skewed sex ratio. According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the boy to girl ratio at birth was 110 to 100 in 2019, a slight improvement from the 2018 ratio of 112 to 100. Women’s rights groups considered sex-selective practices as part of a broader problem of gender inequality in the country. According to a household survey conducted from February to March by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, for the first time, more than one-half of those questioned (55 percent) said they did not have a gender preference for a child if a family had one child, and 34 percent reported they would prefer a boy. These figures represented a significant change since the question was last asked in 2010, when 54 percent of respondents reported preferring a boy, while 35 percent said it “did not matter.”

Children

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

Education: Although education is free and compulsory through grade 12, in practice it was not universal. Children from disadvantaged families and communities and children with disabilities lacked access to early learning programs despite government efforts to raise preschool enrollment. Slightly more than half of children between the ages of three and five benefited from preschool education, with far fewer in rural areas. Inclusive preschool education was limited to a few preschools located in the capital.

Enrollment and attendance rates for children from ethnic minority groups, in particular Yezidis, Kurds, and Molokans, were significantly lower than average, and dropout rates after the ninth grade were higher. Only a few schools throughout the country offered Yezidi, Assyrian, Kurdish, or Greek language classes at the primary and secondary level. These classes–not part of the formal academic curriculum–were not regulated. Yezidi parents, in particular, continued to complain that the classes did not adhere to any standards and were largely ineffective.

According to a December 2019 NGO report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, most Yezidi children grew up speaking their native tongue and had little or no command of Armenian upon entering schools. The absence of preschool educational services in most Yezidi villages created problems for Yezidi children, who struggled in school and fell behind their Armenian-speaking classmates.

The COVID-19 global pandemic reduced access to education and exacerbated existing inequalities. Surveys indicated that more than 10 percent of the school-aged student population was likely left out of the educational process due to a lack of equipment, internet access, and tech-savvy teachers. Public criticism was directed at the government for providing insufficient online instruction or virtual learning alternatives and failure to include all students equally in the educational process, particularly students with disabilities. The government tried to make up for the gaps by offering training for teachers, finding resources for technical equipment, and offering additional instruction during the summer, but these efforts failed to close the learning gaps.

Two of every three children attended schools in earthquake-prone areas where school buildings did not comply with earthquake-resistant standards. To address the problem, the government introduced a new program for safer schools in 2019 and allocated funding for constructing 22 new small-size schools in rural or remote areas incorporating safety standards.

In a March 2019 report on monitoring the water and sanitation situation in 121 schools and 80 preschools throughout the country, the Ombudsman’s Office raised concerns regarding poor sanitary conditions in many of the buildings and lack of accessible restrooms in most.

Child Abuse: According to observers, the government prioritized combatting violence against children and took steps to address it, although violence against children continued to be reported and gaps in both legislation and practice remained. In late August media outlets reported the hospitalization of seven children from one household, two of whom were gravely beaten while the others were poisoned by family members. One of the children, a six-year-old boy, died in the hospital from his injuries.

According to observers, psychological and physical violence were widely used to discipline both boys and girls, and there was a lack of state supported positive parenting programs. Indirect data showed that peer-to-peer violence was quite common in schools, with no mechanisms in place to address it. Gender inequality and stereotyping also contributed to violence against both girls and boys, and created barriers to access to justice for victims. Complex regulations on referrals and reporting within the child protection system, together with an unclear division of duties and responsibilities within the system, resulted in ineffective responses to violence against children. Despite the 2017 law on prevention of family violence, secondary legislation to ensure its implementation was still not in place.

According to observers, two-thirds of the sexual crimes in the country were committed against minors. According to official statistics, during the first six months of the year, the Investigative Committee examined 206 crimes against children, almost a quarter of which involved sexual violence. According to observers, however, the real picture of sexual violence was even worse, since the strong stigma around such violence led to nonreporting by victims and their families.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. Early marriage of girls was reportedly widespread within Yezidi communities, and girls consequently left school. The government did not take measures to document the scale of the problem or address the practice.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the sexual exploitation of children and provides for prison sentences of seven to 15 years for conviction of violations. Conviction for child pornography is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. On June 18, the government established a referral mechanism for child victims of trafficking and exploitation.

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

Institutionalized Children: The closure and transformation of residential institutions for children in difficult life circumstances and those without parental care continued, with the government allocating resources for family support and prevention services. The government, with support from international organizations and other partners, decreased the number of children in institutional care from 2,400 in 2018 to 1,300 as of January. Most children returned to their biological or extended families, while a smaller number of children were provided with alternative family and community-based options.

Despite the decrease in the number of institutionalized children, the number of children with disabilities in residential and educational institutions remained high, and children with disabilities continued to be less able to access community-based and family-type care options. Nonresidential services for children with disabilities and expansion and accessibility for children and families remained a government priority.

The government continued support for the development of foster-care services. In part due to a fourfold increase in state funding for foster care in 2018, the number of foster families continued to increase, from 45 in 2018 to 75 as of August.

During the year the government made efforts to promote the emergency foster-care system to address the needs of children left without parental care in emergency situations, including due to COVID-19. The government, with UNICEF support, took efforts to prevent child abandonment due to disabilities.

In December 2019 the ombudsman published an ad hoc report on the right to be heard among children and legally incapable adults who were placed in psychiatric institutions. The report noted that the consent of an individual’s legal representative was considered legally sufficient for children and incapable adults to be put into psychiatric care, including placement into a psychiatric hospital. As a result, the rights of such individuals to be heard and to give informed consent were violated. Due to legal gaps, there were frequent cases of persons who were officially kept in psychiatric hospitals “on a voluntary basis” due to the consent of their legal representatives, but who were in fact subjected to compulsory confinement. Legal regulations prevented them from obtaining a court decision for their treatment. Following the ombudsman’s application, in February the Constitutional Court found that the failure to take the opinion of children and incapable adults into consideration when deciding on their placement in psychiatric institutions was unconstitutional.

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

In November 2019 the NSS announced it had uncovered an organized crime ring that dealt in illegal adoption, resulting in the sale of more than 30 children to foreigners. According to the press release, the suspects used blackmail, coercion, and fraud to force mothers in vulnerable social situations to carry pregnancies to term and to give up their newborns. In some cases mothers were told that the children were born with grave health problems or were stillborn. The group first transferred the children to orphanages and then falsified documents to permit adoptions by foreign families (local law prioritizes local adoption). The investigation continued at year’s end.

Anti-Semitism

Observers estimated the country’s Jewish population at between 500 and 1,000 persons. Prior to fighting with Azerbaijan in the fall, no anti-Semitic acts had been reported, although some anti-Semitic comments appeared in social media, smearing government representatives and activists. The government did not condemn such anti-Semitic comments.

The fall fighting with Azerbaijan contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers, who largely attributed this trend to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. The number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Joint Tragedies Memorial were defaced with paint on October 14 and burned on October 22. (Also see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report.)

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

Through a process that included individuals with a range of disabilities as well as relevant NGOs, the government developed a new model for assessing a person’s disability status based on a comprehensive assessment of their needs, rather than a strictly medical and social examination.

During the year the government expanded state disability assistance to include services provided by daycare centers, which the Coalition for Inclusive Legal Reforms considered an important step toward deinstitutionalization and promoted independent living for persons with disabilities. During the year, following an open competition, the government signed grant agreements with 12 NGOs (an increase from three in 2019) across a wider geographic area, to provide monthly care and social-integration services to 460 persons with disabilities, compared with 190 in 2019. According to the coalition, during the year more NGOs working on disability rights were involved in various public councils, including those under municipalities and ministries, thus creating more opportunities for the NGOs to participate in public decision making.

Although the law on general education provides for a transition from general education to inclusive education for children with disabilities by 2025, and despite the increasing trend towards inclusive education, practices continued to be fragmented and discriminatory and did not lead to an extensive and sustainable change of the education system and social norms. Many NGOs continued to report that schools lacked physical accessibility and accessible learning materials and made limited effort to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

The transition to distanced education during the COVID-19 pandemic set back the quality of education provided to children with disabilities who needed accommodation or educational support, in particular children with hearing, visual, and intellectual disabilities. Many children, suffering from a lack of appropriate technology, computer skills, or due to behavioral or other problems, were not able to participate in school programs from March through the end of the school year. Teachers did not have sufficient training to use alternative methods, and as a result, children with disabilities were largely left out of the educational process or did not receive adequate education. In-person classes resumed in the fall.

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. During the intensive fighting involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan from September 27 to November 10, atrocities were reportedly committed by all sides (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

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

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

The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the legal, social, and economic inequalities faced by LGBTI individuals. The majority of such persons were employed in the service sector or relied on street-based work or charity and lost their livelihoods during the state of emergency. This affected their access to food, accommodation, and other basic necessities. Some LGBTI individuals who had previously left abusive families risked homelessness, while others were locked down with family members who did not accept them. Many LGBTI individuals also found that they were unable to avail themselves of any of the various government programs to support vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis while discrimination by health-care providers severely limited their access to health care.

Throughout the year the NGO PINK documented a total of 41 cases of direct and associated discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as compared with 37 such cases throughout 2019. These included hate crimes such as physical violence, sexual violence, repeated psychological violence, and violation of property, as well as threats toward the life and health of a person. In most cases the victims did not seek help from law enforcement bodies or the courts, deeming such efforts ineffective since law enforcement was unlikely to respond.

The NGO New Generation reported 130 cases of alleged violations of the rights of LGBTI individuals during the year. The cases occurred in families (37 percent), the conscription process and military service (20 percent), labor relations within the service sector (20 percent), law enforcement (12 percent), and health services (11 percent).

In 2018 the NGO Right Side conducted the first survey on hate crimes against transgender persons, identifying 100 cases of hate-motivated violence in a 12-month period during 2016-17. Most incidents took place in public spaces, usually at night. Victims reported they were more likely to seek support from friends or LGBTI NGOs than from a victim support group or medical professionals. Only a small number of respondents said police were supportive. According to human rights groups, transgender women faced many barriers to accessing medical counseling and treatment, from lack of awareness to outright discrimination by medical personnel. Gender reassignment was not regulated as a health service in the country. As a result, transgender persons underwent reassignment surgeries secretly by doctors invited from abroad, with no further access to relevant medical services and rehabilitation care.

Domestic violence against LGBTI persons was reported during the year. Examples included a lesbian, G.L., who sought assistance from New Generation NGO in July. After her family learned the year before of her sexual orientation, her father beat her and kept her locked up. She managed to escape and eventually ended up at her aunt’s house, but her father continued to threaten her. She appealed to police, who instructed her father to stay away from her. He continued to threaten her, leading her to escape to Yerevan. In another example, a transgender woman, G.K., reported in September that her family had subjected her to domestic violence due to her gender identity. She eventually left, living on the street until she managed to rent an apartment; however, she said the apartment owner evicted her upon learning she was transgender.

There was no progress in bringing to accountability the residents of Shurnukh village who attacked LGBTI activists in 2018. On August 4, the criminal court of appeal ruled that investigators had not carried out a proper investigation and had not taken into consideration the psychological suffering of the victims and the discriminatory nature of the crime; the court ordered that the case be reopened. As of early September, however, the prosecutor had not reopened the case, and investigators were not able to obtain psychological assessments of all of the victims (five of the nine victims had left the country).

On June 3, there was a similar attack on LGBTI friends at a country house in Yerevan’s Shengavit district. One individual, A.A., received serious head wounds and reported the incident to police. After a forensic examination and a preliminary investigation, a criminal case was initially opened on July 6 under a minor charge. After a legal appeal to requalify the case as hooliganism (a more serious charge), the case was sent back for a new investigation.

Openly gay men are exempt from military service. An exemption, however, requires a medical finding based on a psychological examination indicating an individual has a mental disorder; this information appears in the individual’s personal identification documents and is an obstacle to employment and obtaining a driver’s license. Gay men who served in the army reportedly faced physical and psychological abuse as well as blackmail by fellow soldiers and the command. In an example, when fellow soldiers discovered a gay man’s sexual orientation, they subjected him to harassment. He turned to the New Generation NGO for help on March 31, which appealed to the Defense Ministry to exempt him from service. His case continued at year’s end.

In March 2019 Epress.am published the story of A.A., detailing his account of getting an exemption from military service due to his sexual orientation. The experience included a mandatory check in a psychiatric hospital that violated his confidentiality as well as physical violence at the final round of examination, when the examination committee head, Henrik Muradyan, verbally assaulted A.A. and hit him in the face while the 15-person committee verbally abused him. A.A. received a formal diagnosis of having a psychiatric illness. Observers noted that diagnosis codes used in these cases are codes for actual psychiatric diseases–such as schizophrenia or cerebral cortex damage–that, while relieving men from mandatory military service, also impose a number of legal limitations.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to human rights groups, persons regarded as vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, such as sex workers (including transgender sex workers) and drug users, faced discrimination and violence from society as well as mistreatment by police. Such discrimination was especially noticeable when HIV-positive persons sought medical care.

On April 29, the NGO New Generation reported the case of a person with HIV who was denied surgical care in Izmirlyan Hospital on March 16. Although the patient’s doctor classified the case as urgent, he refused to hospitalize the patient. As it was explained to the patient, hospital management requires the isolation of persons with HIV and the lack of an unoccupied bed at the time did not allow them to provide the needed care. The individual later received treatment at a different hospital. Responding to information sent by the NGO, the Health and Labor Inspection Body inspected Izmirlyan Hospital, registered violations, and issued an order to introduce procedures to comply with legislation with 30 days. According to a 2018 UN Human Rights Council report by the rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, stigma and discrimination in health-care settings were major barriers to accessing treatment and services for persons with HIV/AIDS. According to Real World, Real People, women with HIV/AIDs faced double discrimination and were more at risk of becoming the subject of physical and psychological violence in their families.

According to the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated access to health services for HIV-positive persons, since most hospitals providing multiprofile services to HIV-positive persons were repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients only. Restrictions on movement during the early months of the COVID-19 state of emergency also made it impossible for some pregnant women with HIV/AIDS to obtain care, since only one hospital in the country (in Yerevan) provided prenatal care and childbirth services to such women.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

Certain groups and individuals as well as online and broadcast media, predominantly connected to the former regime, promoted acts of discrimination targeting government officials, LGBTI individuals, members of religious minorities, individual civil society representatives, foundations, and human rights defenders. Some of these groups aimed to discredit human rights work and democratic values in general and to silence human rights defenders’ voices in particular. Civil society activists noted that antidemocratic activists appeared to target individuals one at a time with overwhelming amounts of hate speech and posted photographs online to indicate that the individual was being monitored. This caused some individuals to stop contributing to online fora. The government did not take effective measures to counter such campaigns and at times fed into the narratives promoted by the hate groups.

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.

During the year the Health and Labor Inspection Body (HLIB) began exercising its authority to conduct preplanned inspections in four areas under its mandate: sanitary-epidemiological safety, health care and services, pharmaceuticals, as well as the worker occupational safety and health and protection of the labor rights of minors sections of the labor code. The HLIB conducted 27 inspections in the mining sector. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other denials of civil rights. In December 2019 the National Assembly adopted changes to the labor code reviving the state oversight function of the HLIB over the full scope of labor legislation, to come into effect in July 2021.

In July the government approved the hiring of an additional 80 inspectors to start in April 2021. Of the total 340 staff, plans call for 84 to carry out inspections pertaining to the labor code starting in July 2021.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 29, the National Assembly amended the labor code to allow the HLIB to carry out full oversight of the labor code during the prevention or elimination of natural disasters, technological accidents, epidemics, accidents, fires and other emergencies. The amendments also provide other protections of worker rights, including regulations covering telework and related wage issues. These changes, as well as amendments to HLIB bylaws from July 3, allowed the HLIB to act upon labor law violations based on written complaints.

During the COVID-19 state of emergency, the HLIB and other state inspection bodies were tasked with carrying out numerous daily inspections to ensure compliance with regulations to prevent disease transmission. All such inspections were related to the enforcement of the health and safety of the employees as mandated by the warden’s office; however, inspectors acted on labor code violations if any were uncovered during the COVID-19 visits.

Labor organizations remained weak because of employer resistance, high unemployment, and poor economic conditions; however, the HLIB acted to strengthen labor unions by promoting a stronger labor union inside its structure. Experts reported that the right to strike, although provided in the constitution, was difficult to realize due to mediation and voting requirements.

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. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Prosecutions were not proactive and heavily relied on victim self-identification; the most recent labor-trafficking conviction was in 2014. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to identify forced labor cases at large due to the lack of an effective labor inspection mechanism. Penalties for labor-trafficking violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but were seldom applied.

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 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 may not work overtime; in harmful, strenuous, or dangerous conditions; at night; or on holidays. Authorities did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but were not sufficient to compel compliance. The absence of unannounced inspections impeded the enforcement of child labor laws. During the year the HLIB examined several cases of child labor and issued a fine in one case of a minor younger than 14 working in a bakery.

Children younger than age 14 worked in a variety of industries, including agriculture, construction, and begging. Children living in rural areas were more vulnerable to forced labor in the agricultural sector. In addition, while the government made an effort to reduce institutionalization of children with disabilities, those living in institutions were more vulnerable to child labor.

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 applicable laws, and there were no effective legal mechanisms to implement applicable regulations. 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 for violations were not commensurate with those for violations of other similar laws involving the denial of civil rights.

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. The International Monetary Fund cited the gender pay gap in the country as being strikingly large. Statistics indicate that women faced a wage gap of more than 30 percent compared to men. According to a 2019 Asian Development Bank report, the labor force participation rate was lower for women than men, and women were more likely to work in part-time positions. The report also stated that occupational stereotypes limited women’s choices, and more than 60 percent of women worked in just three sectors: agriculture, education, and health. Women were underrepresented in management positions, and only one in five small or medium-sized enterprises had a female owner.

Many employers reportedly practiced 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 the problem. 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, and pregnant women also faced discrimination in employment. Religious minorities reportedly faced discrimination in public employment.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The 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 informal sectors, and penalties for violations of wage, hour, and occupational safety and health standards were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes. According to lawyers, workers’ rights remained unprotected due to the absence of a viable labor inspectorate and lack of independent trade unions. Nonetheless, according to the HLIB, the fact that many of the labor-related complaints received since July were resolved by employers without waiting for HLIB’s ruling attested to some improvement in the area, as well as to HLIB’s existence serving as deterrent against violations. While administrative courts have a mandate to rule on labor-related cases within three months, few employees applied to the courts to reinstate their rights due to legal costs, the complexity of the application process, and distrust of the judiciary. It was unclear if the overloaded courts were able to meet the legally required three-month window for resolving those labor disputes that were submitted to them.

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. Employers often 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, only 48 percent of those employed by small businesses had contracts. The survey also revealed problems involving the inability of workers 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. A 2019 World Bank report found that approximately 13 percent of the country’s wage employees did not have a written contract and did not have access to any form of benefits related to paid leave, childcare, or sick leave. The agricultural orientation of the country’s economy tended to drive informal employment. According to official statistics, the government’s anticorruption efforts and active efforts by the tax authorities led to a notable increase in the number of officially registered employees in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the issue of informal employment. The government offered benefits to registered workers or those who had lost their work due to pandemic; unregistered or self-employed workers received much lower benefits. The government admitted there was a problem identifying informal employees and the self-employed due to the absence of a universal income declaration system and ultimately decided to provide assistance to families based on indicators, such as the presence of underage children or situations where both parents did not have formal employment before the pandemic. Some of those who lost their livelihoods, however, were not captured by any of the additional assistance programs.

On September 14, Hetq.am reported that trial court judge Tatevik Stepanyan ruled to satisfy the claim of about 100 current employees of Rusal Armenia CJSC, one of the country’s largest industrial enterprises, and to grant them 717 million drams (about $1.5 million) for unpaid overtime accrued from 2007 to 2019. The lawyer representing the employees said that they worked 12-hour days every day with only a 57-minute break during that period.

On September 15, Hetq.am published the story of electrician Vachagan Nalbandyan, who suffered grave injuries on the job after falling 26 feet from an electrical tower and being hit by a crane that subsequently fell on him. According to the report, his employer (T-Construction CJSC, which belongs to Tashir Capital group owned by Russia-based Samvel Karapetyan and family) refused to pay for the urgent surgeries Nalbandyan needed, claiming they were awaiting an expert assessment and had no responsibility for the crane, which was owned by another person.

Safety and health conditions remained substandard in numerous sectors. According to a January 17 Hetq.am report, there were 39 fatal workplace accidents from 2017 to 2019. According to the report, the greatest number of workplace accidents occurred in open-pit mines in the Syunik region, followed by accidents in the processing industry. 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.

Due to limitations on HLIB’s authority and a still limited number of inspectors, inspection efforts remained insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors did not have the authority to make unannounced inspections.

On June 22, the Ombudsman’s Office released a brief on the nature of labor violation complaints it received in 2019. Reported problems included employers failing to pay what they owe to terminated employees; unjustified dismissals from work; violations of disciplinary action procedures vis-a-vis employees; retaining unjustified amounts of money from the workers’ salaries; and transferring workers to other jobs without their consent. The Ombudsman’s Office also identified widespread and systemic violations such as an absence of signed contracts, forcing employers to submit resignation letters, and failure to pay for overtime work. Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor NGO, in a report released on June 24, reported similar problems based on its monitoring of the labor rights situation in 2019.

The outbreak of COVID-19 caused many businesses to close in April, with some gradually reopening beginning in early May. Health, safety, and epidemiological oversight covered both employees and patrons of Armenian businesses. Inspectors shut down numerous businesses for periods of several days for failing to comply with antiepidemic regulations.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The 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. On February 9, the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment, which prevented genuine competition in these elections.

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 matters. 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. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since 1995 the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of international mediation by the cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group (the United States, France, and Russia). There was also an outbreak of violence with casualties along the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia near Tovuz from July 12 to July 16. During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, authorities restricted freedom of movement and access to information.

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; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; 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 and slander, 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; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; and existence of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings, civilian casualties, and inhuman treatment.

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

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

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

There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

The Office of the Prosecutor General is empowered to investigate whether killings committed by the security forces were justifiable and pursue prosecutions.

Reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings in police custody continued. For example, on November 9, Talysh historian and activist Fakhraddin Abbasov reportedly died in Gobustan prison under suspicious circumstances. Prison authorities stated he committed suicide. On October 13, he reportedly announced that his life was in danger and warned family and supporters not to believe future claims he had died by suicide. Some human rights activists also noted suicide was against Abbasov’s religious views.

During the 44 days of intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions and civilian casualties (see sections 1.b., 1.c., 1.d., 2.a., 5, and 6, and the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). The sides to the conflict submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) accusing each other of committing atrocities. The cases remained pending with the ECHR.

In early October, two videos surfaced on social media of Azerbaijani soldiers humiliating and executing two Armenian detainees in the town of Hadrut. On October 15, the videos were assessed as genuine by independent experts from Bellingcat, the BBC, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL). Armenian authorities identified the victims as civilian residents Benik Hakobyan (age 73) and Yuriy Adamyan (age 25). Digital forensic analysis by the DFRL and Bellingcat concluded the video footage was authentic, noting it was filmed in Hadrut, Nagorno-Karabakh, and showed the captives being taken by men speaking Russian and Azerbaijani and wearing Azerbaijani uniforms. One of the captors in the video was wearing a helmet typically worn by members of the Azerbaijani special forces, according to the Atlantic Council and Bellingcat analyses. The government stated the videos were staged.

In another high-profile example, on December 10, Amnesty International issued a report based on 22 videos it had authenticated, out of dozens of videos circulating on social media depicting atrocities committed by both Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians. Among these 22 videos, the Amnesty report documented the execution by decapitation of two ethnic Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani forces, one of whom wore a helmet that Amnesty reported was associated with special operations forces. Amnesty urged both countries to investigate what it described as “war crimes.”

There were credible reports of Azerbaijani forces and Armenian or ethnic Armenian separatist forces firing weapons on residential areas and damaging civilian infrastructure with artillery, missiles, and cluster munitions. Such attacks resulted in significant civilian casualties.

Azerbaijani armed forces allegedly used heavy artillery missiles, combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and aerial bombs, as well as cluster munitions, hitting civilians and civilian facilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani government denied the accusations that the military shelled civilian structures. For example, on October 3 and December 11, Human Rights Watch criticized Azerbaijan’s armed forces for repeatedly using weapons on residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 5, Amnesty International crisis response experts corroborated the authenticity of video footage–consistent with the use of cluster munitions–from the city of Stepanakert that was published in early October and identified Israeli-made cluster munitions that appeared to have been fired by Azerbaijani armed forces. The Hazardous Area Life-support Organization (HALO) Trust, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) working in Nagorno-Karabakh to clear unexploded ordnance, confirmed the use of cluster munitions in operations striking civilian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh during intensive fighting in the fall.

On November 2, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized continuing attacks in populated areas in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet noted that “homes have been destroyed, streets reduced to rubble, and people forced to flee or seek safety in basements.”

The Azerbaijani government reported 98 civilians killed and more than 400 wounded during the fighting. Armenian authorities reported 75 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed and 167 were wounded during the fighting.

There also was an outbreak of violence–including the exchange of fire using heavy weaponry and deployment of drones–at the international border between Azerbaijan and Armenia from July 12 to July 16. Recurrent shooting along the Line of Contact caused civilian deaths.

b. Disappearance

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

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) processed cases of persons missing in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and worked with the government to develop a consolidated list of missing persons. According to the ICRC, approximately 4,500 Azerbaijanis and Armenians remained unaccounted for as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. The State Committee on the Captive and Missing reported that, as of December 1, there were 3,890 citizens registered as missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting in the 1990s. Of these, 719 were civilians. On December 15, the ICRC reported it had received thousands of calls and visits from families of individuals missing and received hundreds of tracing requests for civilians and soldiers connected with the fall fighting.

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

While the constitution and criminal code prohibit such practices and provide for penalties for conviction of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, credible allegations of torture and other abuse continued. Most mistreatment took place while detainees were in police custody, where authorities reportedly used abusive methods to coerce confessions and denied detainees access to family, independent lawyers, or independent medical care. There also were credible reports that Azerbaijani and Armenian forces abused soldiers and civilians held in custody.

During the year the government took no action in response to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reports on six visits it conducted to the country between 2004 and 2017. In the reports the CPT stated that torture and other forms of physical mistreatment by police and other law enforcement agencies, corruption in the entire law enforcement system, and impunity remained systemic and endemic.

There were several credible reports of torture during the year.

For example, human right defenders reported that on April 28, Popular Front Party member Niyamaddin Ahmadov was taken from the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees and driven to an unknown location with a bag over his head, where he was beaten and physically tortured in an effort to obtain an allegedly false confession concerning illegal financing of the party. There were also reports that he was subsequently beaten in Baku Detention Center No.1, where he was moved after the government opened a criminal case against him.

Human rights defenders reported the alleged torture of Popular Front Party members Fuad Gahramanli, Seymur Ahmadov, Ayaz Maharramli, Ramid Naghiyev, and Baba Suleyman, who were arrested after a major rally the night of July 14-15 in support of the army following intensive fighting on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border (also see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). The detainees’ location remained unknown for days, and they were deprived of access to lawyers and family members. Throughout their detention, friends, relatives, and lawyers were not allowed to visit for an extended period. The independent Turan News Agency reported that Gahramanli was “severely tortured” in Baku Detention Center No.1 after his arrest. Gahramanli reportedly refused the services of his independent lawyer after being forced to do so by government authorities. He was deprived of the right to call or meet with his family for months with the exception of one short call to his brother 10 days after his detention, when he informed him that he was alive. The call followed social media allegations that Gahramanli had died after being tortured in custody.

There were developments in the 2017 government arrest of more than 100 citizens in Terter who were alleged to have committed treason by engaging in espionage for Armenia. Family members and civil society activists reported that the government had tortured the accused in an effort to coerce their confessions, as a result of which up to nine detainees reportedly died. According to the independent Turan News Agency, four of the deceased were acquitted posthumously and investigators who had fabricated the charges against them were prosecuted, convicted, and received prison sentences of up to seven years. Following a closed trial of 25 individuals, at least nine remained in prison, some serving sentences of up to 20 years. On September 14, relatives of those killed or imprisoned in the case attempted to hold a protest at the Presidential Administration. They called for the release of those incarcerated, posthumous rehabilitation of those who died after being tortured, and accountability for those responsible.

There were numerous credible reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in custody. For example, activist Fuad Ismayilov reported that on March 7, he was beaten in Police Department No. 32 of Surakhani District. Relatives reported that on June 21, he was also beaten by police officers in the Detention Center for Administrative Detainees.

Media outlets reported the mistreatment of imprisoned Muslim Unity Movement deputy Abbas Huseynov. Huseynov conducted a hunger strike of approximately three weeks to protest the ban on family-provided food parcels because of quarantine rules, as well as the high prices for food in the prison market. In response prison officials barred Huseynov from bathing or communicating with family. The prison administration also placed him in solitary confinement.

On June 8, police used excessive force while conducting an early morning raid in a residential building in Baku. A day earlier, building residents had thrown garbage at police officers while they were detaining a neighbor for violating the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine regime. During the operation police also treated some detainees in a humiliating manner by not allowing them to dress properly before removing them from their homes. On June 9, Karim Suleymanli, one of those detained, stated that police had beaten him for five hours while he was in custody. On June 10, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Suleymanli’s lawyer stated Suleymanli had obtained a medical report declaring that he had been severely beaten. According to Suleymanli, all 11 detained individuals were beaten in Police Department No. 29. Courts later sentenced them to administrative detention for periods of from 10 to 30 days. On June 9, Suleymanli’s sentence was postponed, and he was released because of his health condition. On June 16, the Baku Court of Appeal replaced his previous 15-day administrative detention with a fine. Following the event the Ministry of Internal Affairs dismissed one police officer for publicly insulting a local resident.

Authorities reportedly maintained an implicit ban on independent forensic examinations of detainees who claimed abuse and delayed access to an attorney. Opposition figures and other activists stated these practices made it easier for officers to mistreat detainees with impunity.

There were credible allegations that authorities forcibly committed opposition Popular Front Party member Agil Humbatov to a psychiatric hospital in Baku twice after he criticized the government. Human rights NGOs reported he was institutionalized on March 31 after posting a social media message criticizing the country’s leadership on March 30. On April 1, he reportedly was released; however, on April 2, he was reinstitutionalized after posting a message complaining authorities had forcibly placed him in the psychiatric hospital due to his political views. On July 1, he was released.

There were credible reports that Azerbaijani forces abused soldiers and civilians in their custody (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). For example, on December 2, Human Rights Watch reported that Azerbaijani forces inhumanly treated numerous ethnic Armenian soldiers captured in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to the report, Azerbaijani forces subjected the detainees to physical abuse and humiliation in actions that were captured on videos and widely circulated on social media. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the locations and times but was confident that none of the videos was posted before October-November.

Human Rights Watch closely examined 14 such cases and spoke with the families of five detainees whose abuse was depicted. According to one family’s account, on October 2, the parents of a youth named Areg (age 19) lost contact with him. On October 8, a relative alerted the family to two videos that showed Areg lying on top of an Azerbaijani tank and then sitting on the same tank and, on his captor’s orders, shouting, “Azerbaijan” and calling the Armenian prime minister insulting names. In mid-October according to the Human Rights Watch report, three more videos with the same person appeared on social media. One showed Areg, apparently in the back seat of a vehicle wearing a flowery smock and a thick black blindfold, repeating on his captors’ orders, “long live President Aliyev” and “Karabakh is Azerbaijan” and also cursing Armenia’s leader.

On December 10, an Amnesty International report authenticated 22 of the dozens of videos circulating on social media, which included–among other abuses–the mistreatment of Armenian prisoners and other captives (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Armenia). According to Amnesty International, seven of the videos showed what it termed “violations” by “Azerbaijani forces.” According to the report, in some videos, Azerbaijani soldiers kicked and beat bound and blindfolded ethnic Armenian prisoners and forced them to make statements opposing their government.

As of year’s end, authorities had arrested four soldiers for desecrating bodies and grave sites.

According to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijani armed forces reportedly used artillery missiles, aerial bombs, and cluster munitions, against Stepanakert and struck civilian infrastructure. According to the Armenian government and Armenian media reports, a diverse range of nonmilitary sites was hit, including medical emergency service centers and ambulances, food stocks, crops, livestock, electricity and gas plants, and drinking-water installations and supplies, as well as schools and preschools. According to the BBC, many homes in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, were left without electricity or water. The Azerbaijani government denied these accusations.

According to various international observers, Azerbaijani armed forces on multiple occasions struck near humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC and HALO Trust, located in Stepanakert. On October 2, the Azerbaijani armed forces struck the emergency service administrative building in Stepanakert, wounding nine personnel and killing one. On October 14, three aircraft reportedly dropped bombs on the military hospital in Martakert, damaging the hospital and destroying nearby medical vehicles, all clearly marked as medical. On October 28, more than 15 strikes hit various areas of Stepanakert and Shusha. An Azerbaijani missile hit rescue personnel conducting humanitarian functions in Shusha, killing one person and seriously injuring five. Another missile, reportedly a high-precision, Long Range Attack (LORA) missile struck a Stepanakert hospital maternity ward. Unexploded missiles were later found inside the hospital. On November 2, an Azerbaijani UAV destroyed a fire truck transporting fresh water to civilians in the Askeran region.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

According to prison monitoring conducted by a reputable organization prior to the onset of COVID-19, prison conditions reportedly were sometimes harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding; inadequate nutrition; deficient heating, ventilation, and sanitation; and poor medical care. Detainees also complained of inhuman conditions in the crowded basement detention facilities of local courts where they were held while awaiting their hearings. There was no reporting or evidence that conditions improved during the year.

Physical Conditions: Authorities held men and women together in pretrial detention facilities in separate blocks, and held women in separate prison facilities after sentencing. Local NGO observers reported female prisoners typically lived in better conditions, were monitored more frequently, and had greater access to training and other activities. The same NGOs noted, however, that women’s prisons suffered from many of the same problems as prisons for men. The law allows convicted juvenile offenders to be held in juvenile institutions until they reach age 20.

While the government continued to construct prison facilities, some operating Soviet-era facilities continued to fail to meet international standards. Gobustan Prison, Prison No. 3, Prison No. 14, and the penitentiary tuberculosis treatment center reportedly had the worst conditions.

Human rights advocates reported guards sometimes punished prisoners with beatings or by placing them in solitary confinement. Local and international monitors reported markedly poorer conditions at the maximum-security Gobustan Prison.

Prisoners claimed they endured lengthy confinement periods without opportunity for physical exercise. They also reported instances of cramped, overcrowded conditions; inadequate ventilation; poor sanitary facilities; inedible food; and insufficient access to medical care. Former prisoners and family members of imprisoned activists reported prisoners often had to pay bribes to meet visiting family members, watch television, use toilets or shower rooms, or receive food from outside the detention facility. Although the law permits detainees to receive daily packages of food to supplement officially provided food, authorities at times reportedly restricted access of prisoners and detainees to family-provided food parcels. Some prisons and detention centers did not provide access to potable water.

Administration: While most prisoners reported they could submit complaints to judicial authorities and the Ombudsman’s Office without censorship, prison authorities regularly read prisoners’ correspondence, monitored meetings between lawyers and clients, and restricted some lawyers from taking documents into and out of detention facilities. The Ombudsman’s Office reported that it conducted systematic visits and investigations into complaints, but activists claimed the office regularly dismissed prisoner complaints in politically sensitive cases.

Authorities limited visits by attorneys and family members, especially to prisoners widely considered to be incarcerated for political reasons. For example, family members of political activists detained after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for the first several weeks of their detention.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted some prison visits by international and local organizations, including the ICRC and CPT.

Authorities generally permitted the ICRC access to prisoners of war and civilian internees held in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The ICRC conducted regular visits throughout the year to provide for protection of prisoners under international humanitarian law and regularly facilitated the exchange of messages between prisoners and their families to help them re-establish and maintain contact.

A human rights community prison-monitoring group, known as the Public Committee, was allowed access to prisons without prior notification to the Penitentiary Service.

Improvements: The Ministry of Justice reported that more than 2500 Azerbaijanis avoided incarceration during the year with the use of GPS-enabled electronic bracelets.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, the government generally did not observe these requirements.

NGOs reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service detained individuals who exercised their rights to fundamental freedoms. Several citizens reported they had been summoned to police departments for their posts on social media critical of the government’s response to COVID-19, and many were forced to delete their posts. For example, media outlets reported that Facebook-user Rahim Khoyski was called to a police department for making recommendations to the government on his social media account to freeze debts and loans, to stop collecting taxes from entrepreneurs, and to provide monetary assistance to citizens who had lost their income. Police warned him not to make such recommendations and ordered him to delete his post.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that persons detained, arrested, or accused of a crime be accorded due process, including being advised immediately of their rights and the reason for their arrest. In all cases deemed to be politically motivated, due process was not respected, and accused individuals were convicted under a variety of spurious criminal charges.

According to the law, detainees must appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, and the judge may issue a warrant either placing the detainee in pretrial detention or under house arrest, or releasing the detainee. At times, however, authorities detained individuals for longer than 48 hours without warrants. The initial 48-hour arrest period may be extended to 96 hours under extenuating circumstances. During pretrial detention or house arrest, the Prosecutor General’s Office must complete its investigation. Pretrial detention is limited to three months but may be extended by a judge up to 18 months, depending on the alleged crime and the needs of the investigation. There were reports of detainees not being informed promptly of the charges against them during the year.

A formal bail system existed, but judges did not utilize it during the year.

The law provides for access to a lawyer from the time of detention, but there were reports that authorities frequently denied lawyers’ access to clients in both politically motivated and routine cases. Human rights defenders stated that many of the political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally were denied access to effective legal representation and were forced to rely on state-appointed lawyers who did not adequately defend their clients due to fear of government reprisal.

Access to counsel was poor, particularly outside of Baku. Although entitled to legal counsel by law, indigent detainees often did not have such access. The Collegium of Advocates, however, undertook several initiatives to expand legal representation outside the capital, including the establishment of offices in regional Azerbaijan Service and Assessment Network centers to provide legal services to local citizens.

By law detained individuals have the right to contact relatives and have a confidential meeting with their lawyers immediately following detention. Prisoners’ family members reported that authorities occasionally restricted visits, especially to persons in pretrial detention, and withheld information regarding detainees. Days sometimes passed before families could obtain information regarding detained relatives. Authorities reportedly used family members as leverage to put pressure on selected individuals to stop them from reporting police abuse. Family members of some political activists detained after the July 14-15 rally stated that authorities illegally prohibited communication with their relatives for several weeks to limit the dissemination of information and to hide traces of torture.

Azerbaijani and Armenian officials alleged that soldiers on both sides remained detained following intensive fighting in the fall (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.). As of year’s end, two exchanges resulted in the return of 57 ethnic Armenian detainees and 14 Azerbaijani detainees. ICRC representatives visited a number of the detainees and continued to work with the sides to develop accurate lists and encourage the exchange of any remaining detainees.

Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities often made arrests based on spurious charges, such as resisting police, illegal possession of drugs or weapons, tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of authority, or inciting public disorder. Local organizations and international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government for arresting individuals exercising their fundamental rights and noted that authorities frequently fabricated charges against them.

For example, police regularly detained opposition and other activists mainly on the charges of “violating the quarantine regime,” “resisting police,” or “petty hooliganism,” and subsequently took them to local courts where judges sentenced them to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days. Those charged with criminal offenses were sentenced to lengthier periods of incarceration (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). Human rights defenders asserted these arrests were one method authorities used to intimidate activists and dissuade others from engaging in activism. For example, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention under such charges from mid-March to mid-May. More than 15 Popular Front Party members were sentenced to administrative detention after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku.

Pretrial Detention: Authorities held persons in pretrial detention for up to 18 months, the maximum allowed by law. The Prosecutor General’s Office routinely extended the initial three-month pretrial detention period permitted by law in successive increments of several months until the government completed an investigation.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides that persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis, length, or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The judiciary, however, did not rule independently in such cases, and while sentences were occasionally reduced, the outcomes often appeared predetermined.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges were not functionally independent of the executive branch. While the government made a number of judicial reforms in 2019, the reforms did not foster judicial independence. The judiciary remained largely corrupt and inefficient. Many verdicts were legally unsupportable and largely unrelated to the evidence presented during a trial, with outcomes frequently appearing predetermined. For example, following the July 14-15 proarmy rally, judges sentenced Popular Front Party board members Fuad Gahramanli, Mammad Ibrahim, Bakhtiyar Imanov, and Ayaz Maharramli from three to four months of pretrial detention, although these political activists did not take part in the rally (see section 1.c.). Courts often failed to investigate allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees in police custody.

The Ministry of Justice controlled the Judicial Legal Council, which appoints the judicial selection committee that administers the judicial selection process and examination and oversees long-term judicial training. The council consists of six judges, a prosecutor, a lawyer, a council representative, a Ministry of Justice representative, and a legal scholar.

Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instructions from the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice, particularly in politically sensitive cases. There were also credible allegations that judges routinely accepted bribes.

In April 2019 President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree promulgating limited judicial sector reforms. The decree called for an increase in the salary of judges, an increase in the number of judicial positions (from 600 to 800), audio recordings of all court proceedings, and establishment of specialized commercial courts for entrepreneurship disputes. The decree also ordered increased funding for pro bono legal aid. Some measures called for in the decree, such as the establishment of commercial courts and a raise in judicial salaries, were implemented, while others remained pending at year’s end.

Trial Procedures

The law requires public trials except in cases involving state, commercial, or professional secrets or confidential, personal, or family matters. The law mandates the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. It also mandates the right of defendants to be informed promptly of charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at the trial; to communicate with an attorney of choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to provide adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals; to confront witnesses and present witnesses’ evidence at trial; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both defendants and prosecutors have the right to appeal. Authorities did not respect these provisions in many cases that were widely considered to be politically motivated. Information regarding trial times and locations was generally available. Due to COVID-19 restrictions for most of the year, courts allowed only a small number of individuals to attend hearings, limiting public access to trials.

Although the constitution prescribes equal status for prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges often favored prosecutors when assessing motions, oral statements, and evidence submitted by defense counsel, without regard to the merits of their respective arguments. Members of opposition parties and civil society activists were consistently denied counsel of their choice for days, while government-appointed lawyers represented them, but not in their interest. For example, during the trial of opposition figure Tofig Yagublu, which continued from July 24 until September 3, the judge reportedly did not conduct an unbiased review of the case and repeatedly denied the motions of Yagublu’s lawyers. The judge denied the defendant’s requests for additional information relevant to the case and declined to consider misconduct by law enforcement authorities. For example, the judge did not satisfy a motion by Yagublu’s lawyers to allow data from telecommunications companies. Additionally, police confiscated Yagublu’s cell phone and deleted video footage he had taken during the alleged incident. The judge refused Yagublu’s lawyers’ motions to restore those videos. Judges also reserved the right to remove defense lawyers in civil cases for “good cause.” In criminal proceedings, judges may remove defense lawyers because of a conflict of interest or upon a defendant’s request for a change of counsel.

By law only members of the Collegium of Advocates (bar association) are able to represent citizens in any legal process, whether criminal, civil, or administrative. Representatives of the legal community and NGOs criticized the law, asserting it restricted citizens’ access to legal representation and empowered the government-dominated bar association to prevent human rights lawyers from representing individuals in politically motivated cases by limiting the number of lawyers in good standing who were willing to represent such individuals.

In February, three NGOs reported that, as a result of various punitive measures, more than 24 attorneys had been deprived of the opportunity to practice their profession since 2005. The number of defense lawyers willing and able to accept politically sensitive cases remained small due to various measures taken by authorities, including by the Collegium of Advocates. Such measures included disciplinary proceedings resulting in the censure, suspension, and in some cases disbarment of human rights lawyers. In November 2019 the Collegium suspended the license and initiated disbarment proceedings against lawyer Shahla Humbatova for reasons widely considered to be politically motivated.

In some cases the Collegium of Advocates dropped politically motivated proceedings against lawyers, such as in August those against Zibeyda Sadigova and Bahruz Bayramov. In other cases, however, after dropping proceedings against a lawyer, the Collegium engaged in other punitive measures against the same lawyer. For example, after dropping administrative proceedings against Elchin Sadigov in January, the Collegium issued him a warning and, on September 25, deprived him of the right to continue working as an independent lawyer. Only independent lawyers may represent a client immediately. Those such as Sadigov, deprived of this independent status, are required first to obtain permission to represent a client through a government-approved law firm, which often took days. During this time government-appointed lawyers represented clients and could take action without the approval of or consultation with their clients.

The Collegium issued two other warnings to lawyers during the year: on June 11, to Javad Javadov for sharing information concerning the alleged mistreatment of his client, Kerim Suleymanli, by police (see section 1.c.), and on July 13, to Nemat Karimli for publicly sharing information concerning the alleged October 2019 torture of Tofig Yagublu without waiting for the results of the official investigation.

The majority of the country’s human rights defense lawyers were based in Baku. This continued to make it difficult for individuals living outside of Baku to receive timely and quality legal services, since local lawyers were unwilling or unable to take on such cases.

During the year the Collegium increased its membership from 1,708 to 1,791. Human rights defenders asserted the new members were hesitant to work on human rights-related cases due to fear they would be sanctioned by the Collegium. Some activists and candidate lawyers stated the examination process was biased and that examiners failed candidates who had previously been active in civil society on various pretexts.

In some instances courts rejected the admission of legal evidence. For example, on February 21, the Baku Court of Appeal ruled that video recordings presented by National Assembly candidate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev in support of his election complaint were inadmissible because they were recorded without the permission of the precinct election commissions responsible for conducting the elections in his district. On February 26, the Supreme Court upheld this verdict.

Although the constitution prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence, some defendants claimed that police and other authorities obtained testimony through torture or abuse. Human rights monitors also reported courts did not investigate allegations of abuse, and there was no independent forensic investigator to substantiate assertions of abuse.

Investigations often focused on obtaining confessions rather than gathering physical evidence against suspects. Serious crimes brought before the courts frequently ended in conviction, since judges generally sought only a minimal level of proof and collaborated closely with prosecutors.

Human rights advocates reported courts sometimes failed to provide interpreters despite the constitutional right of an accused person to interpretation. Defendants are entitled to contract interpreters during hearings, with expenses covered by the state budget.

There were no verbatim transcripts of judicial proceedings. Although some of the newer courts in Baku made audio recordings of some proceedings, courts generally did not record most court testimonies, oral arguments, and judicial decisions. Instead, the court recording officer generally decided the content of notes, which tended to be sparse. A provision of an April 2019 presidential decree addressed the problem but had not been implemented by year’s end.

The country has a military court system with civilian judges. The Military Court retains original jurisdiction over any case related to war or military service.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

NGO estimates of political prisoners and detainees at year’s end ranged from at least 90 to 146. Political prisoners and detainees included journalists and bloggers (see section 2.a.), political and social activists (see section 3), religious activists (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report), individuals arrested in connection with the Ganja and Terter cases (see section 1.c.), and the relative of a journalist/activist in exile (see section 1.f.).

In a particularly high profile case, on March 22, a member of the Coordination Center of National Council of Democratic Forces and the Musavat Party, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested and ordered held for three months in pretrial detention for “hooliganism” in connection with a car accident. Human rights defenders considered the arrest a staged provocation against Yagublu. On September 3, the Nizami District Court convicted Yagublu and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. On September 18, the Baku Court of Appeal released Yagublu to house arrest after he was on a hunger strike for 17 days. At year’s end Yagublu was awaiting a ruling on his appeal.

In another case, on April 16, Popular Front Party activist Niyamaddin Ahmadov was detained and sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention. After serving his administrative sentence, on May 18, he was sentenced to four months’ pretrial detention, allegedly on the criminal charge of funding terrorism. Human rights defenders considered the case politically motivated. He remained under pretrial detention at year’s end.

From July 14-15, during a spontaneous rally of more than 20,000 persons supporting the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, a group entered the National Assembly and reportedly caused minor damage before being removed. Some protesters allegedly clashed with police and damaged police cars. On July 16, President Aliyev accused the Popular Front Party of instigating protesters to enter the National Assembly and stated law enforcement bodies would investigate the party.

Human rights defenders reported that authorities used these events to justify the arrest of political activists, including those who did not attend the rally. Law enforcement officials opened criminal cases against at least 16 members of the Popular Front Party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. The formal charges against the remaining individuals included damaging property, violating public order, and using force against a government official. In addition Popular Front Party activists Fuad Gahramanli and Mammad Ibrahim were accused of trying to seize power by force in an alleged attempted coup. Popular Front Party member Mahammad Imanli, along with Mammad Ibrahim’s son and ruling party member Mehdi Ibrahimov, were also accused of spreading COVID-19 during the demonstration, which included thousands of demonstrators who were not wearing masks.

On August 19, the Khatai District Court released Mehdi Ibrahimov, placing him under house arrest. On November 16, the Sabayil District Court released 21 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, placing them under house arrest. These individuals included 12 members of the Popular Front Party and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement. On December 7, the remaining 15 individuals arrested after the July 14-15 rally, including three Popular Front Party activists and a member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, were released and placed under house arrest. On December 1, the Sabunchu District Court convicted and sentenced Mahammad Imanli to one year in prison.

There were developments during the year in long-standing cases of persons considered to have been incarcerated on politically motivated grounds. On April 23, the Plenum of the Supreme Court acquitted opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) party chairperson Ilgar Mammadov and human rights defender Rasul Jafarov. As a result Mammadov and Jafarov no longer faced restrictions based on their criminal records, including restrictions on seeking political office. The court ruled the government must pay 234,000 manat ($138,000) in compensation to Mammadov and 57,400 manat ($33,900) to Jafarov for moral damages, and both could seek additional compensation in civil court. The government paid these compensations to Mammadov and Jafarov. In 2014 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov’s arrest and detention were politically motivated. In 2017 the ECHR ruled that Mammadov had been denied a fair trial. Six others considered to be former political prisoners whose acquittal was ordered by the ECHR were waiting court decisions at year’s end.

On March 17, after serving three years of his six-year prison term, authorities released investigative journalist Afghan Mukhtarli under the condition that he leave the country and relocate to Germany immediately after his release. He remained in Germany at year’s end (also see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2020 for Georgia).

Political prisoners and detainees faced varied restrictions. Former political prisoners stated prison officials limited access to reading materials and communication with their families. Authorities provided international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners and detainees.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

There were reports of government abuse of international law enforcement tools, such as those of Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization), in attempts to detain foreign residents who were activists. There also were reports that the government targeted dissidents and journalists who lived outside of the country through kidnappings, digital harassment, and intimidation of family members who remained in the country.

In January authorities in Gdansk, Poland, detained Dashgyn Agalarli, an Azerbaijani national with refugee status in Norway, reportedly due to an Interpol notice submitted by the Azerbaijan government. He was held for three days and then released on bail. According to news reports in September, however, he remained in Poland and was unable to leave the country.

In December 2019 the State Migration Service reported that political emigrant and government critic Elvin Isayev was deported to Azerbaijan from Ukraine and arrested upon arrival. According to RFE/RL, Ukraine’s State Migration Service and Prosecutor General’s Office denied having ordered his deportation. Isayev was charged with incitement to riot and for open calls for action against the state. On September 8, the Prosecutor General’s Office alleged that seven other political emigrants residing in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland participated in these criminal acts, together with Isayev. On the basis of the Prosecutor General’s Office’s petition, the Nasimi District Court ordered the arrest of all seven emigrants. The emigrants subject to this order included Ordukhan Babirov, Tural Sadigli, Gurban Mammadov, Orkhan Agayev, Rafael Piriyev, Ali Hasanaliyev, and Suleyman Suleymanli. The Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it requested an international search for these individuals from Interpol. On October 30, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes convicted and sentenced Elvin Isayev to eight years in prison.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens have the right to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. All citizens have the right to appeal to the ECHR within six months of exhausting all domestic legal options, including an appeal to and ruling by the Supreme Court.

Citizens exercised the right to appeal local court rulings to the ECHR and brought claims of government violations of commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s compliance with ECHR decisions was mixed; activists stated the government generally paid compensation but failed to release prisoners in response to ECHR decisions. In some cases considered to be politically motivated, the government withheld compensation ordered by the ECHR. For example, on May 7, journalist and former political prisoner Khadija Ismayilova told media that the government owed her 44,500 euros ($53,400) in total based on decisions of the ECHR (see section 4).

Property Restitution

NGOs reported authorities did not respect the laws governing eminent domain and expropriation of property. Homeowners often reported receiving compensation well below market value for expropriated property and had little legal recourse. NGOs also reported many citizens did not trust the court system and were therefore reluctant to pursue compensation claims.

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

The law prohibits arbitrary invasions of privacy and monitoring of correspondence and other private communications. The government generally did not respect these legal prohibitions.

While the constitution allows for searches of residences only with a court order or in cases specifically provided for by law, authorities often conducted searches without warrants. It was widely reported that the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitored telephone and internet communications (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom), particularly those of foreigners, prominent youth active online, some political and business figures, and persons engaged in international communication. Human rights lawyers asserted that the postal service purposely lost or misplaced communications with the ECHR to inhibit proceedings against the government.

Throughout the year some websites and social media sources leaked videos of virtual meetings and recorded conversations of opposition figures. It was widely believed that government law enforcement or intelligence services were the source of the leaked videos.

In an effort to intimidate and embarrass an activist and member of the local municipal council who advocated more transparent governance, local authorities hung photographs of Vafa Nagi in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout her village (see section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups).

Police continued to intimidate, harass, and sometimes incarcerate family members of suspected criminals, independent journalists, activists, and political opposition members and leaders, as well as employees and leaders of certain NGOs. For example, human rights defenders considered Emin Sagiyev to have been incarcerated due to the activities of his brother-in-law, exiled journalist Turkel Azerturk.

There were reports authorities fired individuals from jobs or had individuals fired in retaliation for the political or civic activities of family members inside or outside the country.

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 and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.

Freedom of Speech: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered five journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on November 16, Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites, was convicted of alleged espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. 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.

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 April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.

During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, the government reportedly imposed restrictions on the work of some local and international journalists in the area of the conflict.

Freedom of 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. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

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, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force against journalists, as well as other methods, to prevent their professional activities. On February 12, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement deploring the previous night’s detentions, violent incidents, and mistreatment of at least eight journalists covering an election-related protest in Baku.

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

Civil society activists continued to call on the government to investigate effectively the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.

Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On June 19, the Khatai District Court convicted of alleged hooliganism and sentenced Azadliq journalist Tazakhan Miralamli to limitation of liberty for one year. As a result he was required to wear an electronic bracelet and was prohibited from leaving his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Miralamli and activists asserted the aim of the sentence was to limit his journalistic activities.

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

During the intensive fighting in the fall, there were credible reports of violence against journalists by Azerbaijani forces. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on October 27, a group of reporters wearing bulletproof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving a town 20 miles east of Stepanakert. Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the United Kingdom’s Byline Times news website, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network, and an American crew sent by the Armenian online news site Civilnet.am told the RSF that although they were in cars marked “PRESS” and there were no military objectives in the area, they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones.

On October 8, an Azerbaijani military aircraft bombed the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Cathedral in Shusha. Several hours after the initial bombing, as journalists were reporting live from the site on the damage to the cathedral, the cathedral was bombed a second time, with precision-guided munitions, gravely injuring three of the journalists present. Multiple international observers confirmed that there were no military targets in the vicinity of the cathedral.

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 continued to require 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. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

During the year reports continued that the government restricted or disrupted online access. During a period of martial law from September 27 to December 12 that the government imposed following the outbreak of violence, authorities blocked access to some websites and social networks. Internet blockages occurred from the beginning of the violence until November 14. Blockages included social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram and impeded the functioning of many virtual private networks (VPNs). Throughout the year authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views differing from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country, forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government, and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply. On multiple occasions the government selectively cut or degraded internet access during political protests.

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

On March 19, the Plenum of the Supreme Court reviewed a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies to block alternate means of accessing media banned in the country (through VPNs and secondary transmission of content through sites such as YouTube), including Meydan TV, Radio Azadlig, Azadlig newspaper, Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Saati, and forwarded it for consideration of the Baku Court of Appeal. A decision on the request was pending. Activists asserted that authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs.

On April 13, authorities cut the internet and telephone connections of Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli and his spouse. Their telephone connections were restored, although overnight disruptions continued throughout the year. As of December 31, Kerimli and his spouse remained unable to access the internet. On June 23, the Nasimi District Court refused to review a lawsuit Kerimli and his spouse filed challenging the government’s denial of access to the internet and telephone communications.

From May 15 through the morning of May 19, the news websites Turan.az and its affiliate Contact.az experienced a massive cyberattack and were blocked twice. The attack took place after the websites published articles criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 24, Germany-based independent media outlet Meydan TV experienced a cyberattack that resulted in the deletion of all its Facebook posts since 2018 as well as two months of its content from Instagram.

On November 3, a Baku Court convicted journalist and chief editor of the online publication Azel.TV, Afgan Sadigov, of alleged extortion and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders considered the case to be politically motivated, as Sadigov had criticized officials in his social media posts and was previously convicted for his journalism activities. Sadigov went on a hunger strike while in prison to protest the conviction.

The government requires internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and slander on the internet, which had a further chilling effect on open and free use of the medium.

There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online. On January 14, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported phishing attacks against several civil society figures and an online news platform. The attack sought to disable antivirus software and surreptitiously record key strokes. Based on forensic research, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and its partner Qurium–a media foundation with expertise in digital forensic investigations–concluded the attacker was connected with the government. Some activists were summoned by security forces for making antiwar posts online during the intensive fighting in the fall. For example, in November activist Latif Mammadov reported that State Security Service officials threatened to kill him and his family for his antiwar posts online.

Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report for the period from June 2019 through May again rated the country’s internet status as “not free.” The report concluded the state of internet freedom slightly deteriorated during the period covered. Despite some restrictions, the internet remained the primary method for citizens to access independent media. For example, while Meydan, Azadliq, and other media outlets were blocked, social media users were able to access their reports through Facebook, where videos and articles were shared without restrictions.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government consistently and severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force against or detaining protesters.

Prior to the imposition of restrictions aimed at combating COVID-19 in March, authorities prevented attempts by political opposition groups to organize demonstrations. For example, on February 11, police violently dispersed a protest concerning the conduct of the National Assembly elections and election results in front of the Central Election Commission. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission reported it observed riot police loading protesters onto buses in a disproportionately forceful way and that some protesters were beaten while inside the buses. On February 16, police detained and put approximately 200 protesters into cars and buses, drove them to either the distant suburbs of Baku or other regions of the country, and released them there without explanation or means of return. Following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions, these political groups did not attempt to organize demonstrations that would have otherwise been consistent with the right to freedom of assembly.

During a large and apparently unplanned mid-July gathering in support of the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, there were minor clashes between police and a group of protesters, causing damage to cars and property inside and outside the National Assembly. Police used violence to disperse the crowd. According to Human Rights Watch, police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters.

Following a nationally televised speech in which President Aliyev accused the opposition Popular Front Party of having organized the demonstration, authorities arrested at least 16 members of the party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement on criminal charges. An additional 15 or more members of the Popular Front Party were sentenced to administrative detention. Authorities made apparently politically motivated arrests in connection with the proarmy rally, although the gathering was apparently neither planned by the political parties nor in support of either the opposition or general freedom of assembly rights.

The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include substantial fines and up to one month of administrative detention.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission rather than merely prior notification. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations far from the city center of Baku and with limited access by public transportation. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.

Freedom of Association

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

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

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

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

Government regulations provide for a “single window” mechanism for registering grants. Under the procedures, grant registration processes involving multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.

The Ministry of Justice is permitted by law to monitor NGO activities and conduct inspections of NGOs. The law offers few provisions protecting NGO rights and authorizes substantial fines on NGOs if they do not cooperate.

The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. While the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped criminal cases against the American Bar Association and IREX and ordered their bank accounts unfrozen in July, the two groups continued to face administrative difficulties, such as a remaining tax levy imposed on IREX. Problems remained for other groups. For example, the bank accounts of the Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen, and the organization was unable to operate (see section 5).

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

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.

During the period of martial law following the September 27 outbreak of intensive fighting with Armenia and Armenia-supported separatists, the government imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in six cities, including Baku and Ganja, and 16 districts.

Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli (prohibited from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, 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 and given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 652,326 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as of midyear. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for 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 1,591 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 refugee children, however, were able to enroll at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

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

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 409 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.

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

Stateless persons generally enjoyed freedom of internal movement. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted if they left the country. The law provides stateless persons with access to the basic rights of citizens, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.

The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped one person of citizenship.

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 obstructing the electoral process. While the law provides for an independent legislative branch, the National Assembly exercised little initiative independent of the executive branch.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In December 2019, the president dissolved the National Assembly in response to an appeal to do so by the National Assembly and announced early elections for the body to be held on February 9.

Some opposition parties boycotted the election, citing the restrictive environment, while other opposition parties and groups took part. According to the OSCE ODIHR election observation mission, the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the February 9 elections. ODIHR concluded that voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political competition and discussion. Although many candidates utilized social media to reach out to voters, use of social media generally did not compensate for the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. ODIHR observed several instances of pressure on voters, candidates, and candidates’ representatives. International and local observers reported significant procedural violations during the counting and tabulation of votes, including ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting. ODIHR concluded the flaws “raised concerns whether the results were established honestly.” Domestic nonpartisan election observers concluded the election results did not reflect the will of the people.

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

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

Political Parties and Political Participation: The number of registered political parties increased from 55 to 63 during the year due to the registration of eight political parties, including the REAL party, the first such registrations since 2011. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party, however, continued to dominate the political system. Domestic observers reported membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. Following the February 9 National Assembly elections, the body included only one representative of the country’s main opposition parties. The National Assembly had not included any opposition representatives since 2010.

During the year a Presidential Administration official established direct communication with some of the country’s 63 political parties and groups. The official held meetings with political figures, including representatives of selected opposition parties, throughout the year. Despite the dialogue, however, restrictions on political participation continued.

Opposition members were generally more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. Members of opposition political parties continued to be arrested and sentenced to administrative detention after making social media posts critical of the government or participating in peaceful rallies (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). From mid-March to mid-May, 16 members of the opposition Popular Front Party were arrested and sentenced to administrative detention mainly for violating the quarantine regime and resisting police charges. Human rights defenders estimated the country’s courts sentenced Popular Front Party activists to periods of administrative detention approximately 40 times during the year.

According to domestic NGOs, eight opposition party members were considered to be political detainees or prisoners, including Popular Front Party members Babek Hasanov, Agil Maharramov, Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamli, Pasha Umudov, Elchin Ismayilli, Alizamin Salayev, and Niyamaddin Ahmadov.

Prior to its registration on August 31, the REAL party was unable to rent space to hold a founding congress. In light of this difficulty, the Presidential Administration official responsible for liaising with political parties suggested that the party hold its congress online, which REAL did in August. Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because property owners feared official retaliation. Regional opposition party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in teahouses and other remote locations. Opposition parties also faced formal and informal financing obstacles. For example, authorities continued to limit their financial resources by punishing those who provided material support, firing members of opposition parties, and employing economic pressure on their family members.

Restrictions on local civil society organizations limited their ability to monitor elections. Such restrictions included legal provisions severely constraining NGO activities and the inability of NGOs to obtain registration, which was required for legal status. For example, two nonpartisan election-monitoring organizations (the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) and the Institute for Democratic Initiatives) remained unregistered. The EMDS Center also reported that independent election observers were subjected to physical and psychological pressure during the February 9 National Assembly elections.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The first lady also held the appointed position of first vice president. The head of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children Affairs (SCFWCA), a cabinet-level position, was a woman, and 17.6 percent of members of the National Assembly, including the speaker of the Assembly, were women.

Female activists often faced additional pressure and harassment. For example, local officials launched a gender-based harassment and intimidation campaign against Vafa Nagi, a member of the Kholgaragashli municipal council of the Neftchala District, after she publicly raised governance concerns regarding water access and the illegal sale of lands. On June 16, the local municipal council chair reportedly ordered authorities to hang photographs of Nagi dressed in her swimsuit with the caption “Lady Gaga” throughout the conservative village to shame her and her family members.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the government made some progress in combating low-level corruption in the provision of government services, there were continued reports of corruption by government officials, including those at the highest levels.

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. These problems persisted throughout the year. Media outlets reported the arrests for accepting bribes of the mayors of Neftchala on February 20, Bilasuvar on April 29, Imishli on May 5, and Jalilabad on December 7.

Similar to previous years, authorities continued to punish individuals for exposing government corruption. For example, authorities continued punitive measures against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, including freezing of her bank accounts since 2017, banning her travel since 2016, and failing to implement three ECHR rulings in her favor (see section 1.e.). In March 2019 the Baku Court of Appeals rejected Ismayilova’s appeal of the 2018 decision of the Baku Economic Court holding 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. In August 2019 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.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it completed investigation of 180 criminal cases against 281 officials and sent them to the courts during the year. While no senior officials were prosecuted, several high-ranking officials were arrested and charged. Several such cases remained under investigation at year’s end, including charges of corruption against the minister of culture and other high-ranking ministry officials, multiple ambassadors, several department heads at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several heads and deputy heads of regional executive committees (governors). Although those accused were charged with corruption, the arrests were not accompanied by systemic reforms, such as requiring all officials to comply with the asset declaration law or ending punitive measures against persons who exposed corruption. As a result observers considered the arrests to have political or economic motives that were unrelated to combating corruption.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article in April on the SerbAz company, which brought more than 700 workers from the Balkan region to Baku to build or renovate some its most prominent buildings between 2006 and 2009. The OCCRP revealed that SerbAz’s most powerful backer in the country was Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov. According to the OCCRP, there was strong evidence that the minister awarded contracts to his wife’s company, using public money to benefit his own family. SerbAz appeared to be a subsidiary of a major luxury importer, ItalDizain, a company owned jointly by Rahimov’s wife, Zulfiya Rahimova, and a man who appeared to be Rahimov’s associate. The Ministry of Youth and Sports signed contracts with SerbAz for the renovation of the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Concert Complex, the restoration of the “Palace of Happiness” marriage registration center, and the reconstruction of the Kur Olympic Training and Sports Center. While engaged in construction, workers were kept in inhuman conditions, were deprived of their passports, and reported physical abuse; several workers died.

There was widespread belief that a bribe could obtain a waiver of the military service obligation, which is universal for men between ages 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 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, National Assembly, Ministry of Justice, and 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

While the government provided access to certain areas of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, it restricted access to other areas, limiting reporting from local and international journalists, as well as international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. For example, on August 3, former political prisoner and human rights defender Rufat Safarov was summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office and warned he would face arrest after he publicized reports concerning detentions and alleged torture of political opposition activists Fuad Gahramanli and Seymur Ahmedov after the July 14-15 proarmy rally in Baku (see section 1.c., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

As of December 31, human rights defender Oktay Gulaliyev remained in a coma after having been struck by a car in October 2019 while crossing a Baku intersection, causing head trauma that resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and coma. Doctors did not perform surgery on him until the following day. Some activists and Gulaliyev’s sons stated the collision was an attack on Gulaliyev for his announced 2019 campaign against torture and his advocacy for those accused of wrongdoing by the government in connection with the 2018 unrest in Ganja, and that doctors had purposefully withheld timely medical treatment after the accident. They also noted that Gulaliyev had been warned by authorities not to report on repression and torture. Other activists stated there was no evidence the collision was intentional and that Gulaliyev received 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. During the year Gulaliyev’s family reported delays in the government’s investigation of the case. Gulaliyev’s lawyer complained that law enforcement bodies did not provide him with the findings of the investigation. On October 30, the Nasimi District Court initiated a hearing on the case. At his family’s request, on November 7, Gulaliyev was transported to his home in Baku where he continued to receive medical treatment.

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 same high level as 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. On March 30, human rights defender and journalist Elchin Mammad was detained based on allegations of theft and illegal possession of a weapon. On October 14, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Human rights defenders viewed this verdict as politically motivated.

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. On December 17, however, the ministry registered the Baku Human Rights Club, an organization cofounded by prominent human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Javad Javadov.

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 termed interference in the country’s internal affairs. In response to the adoption of a resolution on political prisoners by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on January 30, member of parliament Nagif Hamzayev commented that the country was treated unfairly and discriminated against. Although government officials and members of the National Assembly had previously criticized the OSCE/ODIHR assessment of the 2018 presidential election, government officials referred to the ODIHR assessment of the 2020 parliamentary elections as “balanced.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: Citizens may appeal violations committed by the state or by individuals to the ombudsperson for human rights for Azerbaijan or the ombudsperson for human rights of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The ombudsperson 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 Ombudsperson’s Office as lacking independence and effectiveness in cases considered politically motivated.

Human rights offices in the National Assembly and 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

Women

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

The law establishes a framework for the investigation of domestic violence complaints, defines a process to issue restraining orders, and calls for the establishment of a shelter and rehabilitation center for survivors. Some critics of domestic violence law asserted that a lack of clear implementing guidelines reduced its effectiveness. Activists reported that police continued to view domestic violence as a family issue and did not effectively intervene to protect victims, including in cases where husbands ultimately killed their wives.

The SCFWCA tried to address the problem of domestic violence by conducting public awareness campaigns and working to improve the socioeconomic situation of domestic violence survivors. On November 27, the president approved the National Action Plan to Combat Domestic Violence for 2020-23. The government and an independent NGO each ran a shelter providing assistance and counseling to victims of trafficking and domestic violence. On December 1, the SCFWCA, together with the UN Population Fund, established an emergency hotline for gender-based violence. Callers could use the hotline to access free legal assistance, counseling support, and information concerning gender and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The government rarely enforced the prohibition of sexual harassment or pursued legal action against individuals accused of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Contraception was available, but limited supplies and lack of education and counseling limited usage. Patriarchal norms based on cultural, historical, and socioeconomic factors in some cases limited women’s reproductive rights.

No legal, social, or cultural barriers or government policies adversely affected access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. In vitro fertilization procedures were available.

The government referred survivors of sexual violence to free medical care including sexual and reproductive services.

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

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

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

Children

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

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

Child Abuse: There is criminal liability for sexual violence against children. The law also stipulates punishment for child labor and other abuse against children. The SCFWCA organized multiple events prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to address the problem of child abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the Worlds Children report, 11 percent of girls in the country were married before they were 18. The problem of early marriage continued during the year. The law provides that a girl may marry at age 18 or at 17 with local authorities’ permission. The law further states that a boy may marry at 18. The Caucasus Muslim Board defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage as dictated by Islam.

In July the SCFWCA organized two awareness-raising online events on prevention of early marriages.

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

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction of recruitment of minors for prostitution (involving a minor in immoral acts) is punishable by up to eight years in prison. The law prohibits pornography, its production, its distribution, or its advertisement, for which conviction is punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Conviction of statutory rape is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Some civil society representatives reported that boys and girls at times engaged in prostitution and street begging.

Displaced Children: Significant government investment in IDP communities largely alleviated the problem of numerous internally displaced children living in substandard conditions and unable to attend school.

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

Anti-Semitism

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

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The law calls for improved access to education, employment, social protection and justice, and the right to participate in political life. Local experts noted that, although financial payments for persons with disabilities increased in 2019, in general the implementation of this law was not satisfactory, and persons with disabilities continued to experience problems.

A common belief persisted that children with disabilities were ill and needed to be separated from other children and institutionalized. According to official statistics, there were approximately 62,951 children with disabilities in the country. A local NGO reported that 6,000 to 10,000 of them had access to segregated educational facilities, while the rest were educated at home or not at all. The Ministries of Education and Labor and Social Protection of the Population continued efforts to increase the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, particularly at the primary education level.

Legislation mandates that access to public or other buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities. Some assistance existed for them, including in education; however, this mandate was not fully implemented. Information and communication technology and most buildings were not accessible to persons with disabilities. Conditions in facilities for persons with mental and other disabilities varied. Qualified staff, equipment, and supplies at times were lacking.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Following the closure of borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1991, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became increasingly prevalent, particularly as an entire generation grew up without interactions with the other side. Civil society activists stated that an entire generation had grown up listening to hate speech against Armenians. Individuals with Armenian-sounding names were often subjected to additional screening at border crossings and were occasionally denied entrance to the country. During the intensive fighting involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Armenia-supported separatists from September 27 to November 10, all sides reportedly committed atrocities (see sections 1.a. and 1.c.).

On May 26, the ECHR rendered a judgment in the case of Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary, finding that Azerbaijan had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of discrimination). In 2004 Azerbaijani soldier Ramil Safarov killed sleeping Armenian soldier Gurgen Markarian while both were attending NATO training in Budapest. Convicted by Hungarian authorities to life imprisonment in 2006, Safarov was pardoned and feted after his transfer to Azerbaijan in 2012. The court did not find the government of Azerbaijan responsible for Ramil Safarov’s actions but criticized Azerbaijani authorities’ failure to enforce the punishment of Safarov, effectively granting him impunity for a serious hate crime. Moreover, the court found Safarov’s pardon and other measures in his favor had been ethnically motivated, citing statements by high-ranking officials expressing their support for his actions targeting Armenian soldiers.

Some groups, including Talysh in the south and Lezghi in the north, reported the government did not provide official textbooks in their local native languages.

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

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

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover LGBTI individuals.

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

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

Local NGOs reported that COVID-19-pandemic-related quarantine measures compounded the impact of the discrimination already faced by members of the LGBTI community. Since these individuals regularly faced discrimination in accessing employment, they were primarily employed informally and received payment on a day-to-day basis.

During the year the ECHR continued a formal inquiry begun in February 2019 into police raids on the LGBTI community in 2017. The raids entailed arrests and detentions of more than 83 men presumed to be gay or bisexual as well as transgender women. Media outlets and human rights lawyers reported that police beat detainees and subjected them to electric shocks to obtain bribes and information regarding other gay men. Detainees were released after being sentenced to up to 30 days of administrative detention, fined up to 200 manat ($118), or both. In 2018 some victims of the raids filed cases against the state in the ECHR.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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

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

The law prohibits discrimination against trade unions and labor activists and requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The law also prohibits retribution against strikers, such as dismissal or replacement. Striking workers convicted of disrupting public transportation, however, may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. No strikes occurred during the year.

The government did not effectively enforce laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those under other laws involving denial of civil rights. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. There were some additional restrictions, 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 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 in the oil and gas sector supersede domestic law and often do not include provisions 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 worker pay but did not deposit the dues in union accounts. 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 commensurate with those for other analogous crimes. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law. Resources and inspections were inadequate, due in part to a moratorium on all routine and unannounced labor inspections. The government worked with the International Finance Corporation on a project to reform the state inspection system.

Broad provisions in the law 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.

Foreign observers made several visits to various regions of the country to observe the 2019 cotton harvest, including the Sabirabad, Saatli, Imishli, Beylagan, Agjabadi, Barda, and other districts located between Baku and the city of Ganja. No cases of forced labor were observed during the harvest.

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 age 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 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 may have prevented effective enforcement of child labor law. Resources and inspections were inadequate to enforce compliance, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. Although the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection could receive and respond to complaints, its response did not include worksite inspections. Instead, the State Labor Inspection Service within the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection investigated complaints by requesting information from the employer in question. Inspectors identified violations and imposed appropriate penalties based on the information they received.

On July 22, the president approved the National Action Plan for 2020-2024 on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The plan tasked the relevant government bodies to continue efforts to: identify victims of human trafficking and forced labor, including children; carry out special work with children engaged in begging; develop general standards of communication with child victims or potential victims of human trafficking; conduct training on the identification and protection of child victims or potential victims of human trafficking; and conduct awareness-raising work with entrepreneurs and employers in order to prevent the exploitation of child labor.

There is no legal employment of children younger than age 15 in the country, and authorities reported no instances of investigated child labor in legal sectors of the economy. There were reports of children engaging in child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, and agriculture. During visits to observe the 2019 cotton harvest, foreign observers did not note any instances of child labor. Some nongovernmental observers, however, reported instances of rural children younger than 15 sometimes working on the family farm or accompanying parents working as day laborers to agricultural fields.

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. Legal penalties for discrimination in employment existed under various articles and laws but were patchwork in nature and not commensurate with those under other laws related to civil rights. The law excludes women from 678 occupations in 38 industries that are framed as inherently dangerous jobs. Many of these positions were higher ranked and better paid than positions that women were 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 2019 the average monthly salary for women was 58 percent of the average monthly salary for men. According to gender experts, gender-based harassment in the workplace was a problem.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was higher than the poverty income level (minimum living standard). 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 not commensurate with those for similar crimes.

In 2017 the government extended its moratorium on scheduled and unannounced labor inspections through 2020. Although inspectors were permitted to request information from employers and relevant employees in order to investigate complaints, complaint response did not include worksite inspections. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that it investigated 8,512 complaints during the year.

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 are known to ignore them. Violations of acceptable conditions of work in the construction and oil and gas sectors remained problematic. A local NGO reported that oil workers were forced to work lengthy shifts at sea because of COVID-19 restrictions.

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 labor law, noting they were unable to receive overtime payments or vacations.

According to official statistics, 48 workers died on the job during the year, including three in the oil and gas sector.

Cyprus

Read A Section: Republic Of Cyprus

Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Since 1974 the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus.  The northern part of Cyprus, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in 1983.  The United States does not recognize the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” nor does any country other than Turkey.  A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island.  A buffer zone, or “Green Line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, separates the two sides.  This report is divided into two parts:  the Republic of Cyprus, and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Republic of Cyprus is a constitutional republic and multiparty presidential democracy. In 2018 voters re-elected President Nicos Anastasiades in free and fair elections. In 2016 voters elected 56 representatives to the 80-seat House of Representatives (Vouli Antiprosopon) in free and fair elections. The remaining seats are designated for Turkish Cypriots and are left vacant.

Police enforce the law and combat criminal activity. Police report to the Ministry of Justice and Public Order. The president appoints the chief of police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national and ethnic minorities; and lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The attorney general and deputy attorney general have the authority to order investigations and pursue prosecutions for arbitrary or unlawful killings committed by the government or its agents.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. There were reports that police at times engaged in abusive tactics and degrading treatment, sometimes to enforce measures adopted by the government to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Members of ethnic and racial minorities were more likely to be subjected to such treatment.

On May 3, the Independent Police Complaints Authority reported receiving 39 complaints against police officers for abuse of power, inappropriate behavior, and unjustifiably issuing fines during the enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions. Three complaints concerned the use of violence during arrest. For example according to a complainant’s lawyer, on March 31, police in Nicosia pushed a garbage collector to the ground and brutally beat and handcuffed him. Police charged the alleged victim with reckless driving, resisting arrest, and failure to present his identification and proof of permission to be outside during curfew.

The most recent report of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), published in 2018, on the country’s prison and detention centers noted persistent credible allegations of police mistreatment of detainees, including allegations received in 2017 that a woman was sexually abused; that three juvenile detainees reported officers kicked, punched, and hit them with clubs during questioning at the Limassol Central Police Station; and that persons detained by police, particularly foreigners, risked physical or psychological mistreatment at the time of apprehension, during questioning, and in the process of deportation.

The ombudsman, who also acts as the country’s national preventive mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, reported a continued decrease in the number of complaints of mistreatment and discriminatory and degrading behavior, including complaints of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, from inmates in detention centers and the Cyprus Prisons Department (CPD), the country’s only prison. The ombudsman reported complaints received during the year regarding abuse at police detention centers were generally insufficiently substantiated. The ombudsman reported that complaints received during the year regarding prisoner abuse at the CPD were still under investigation. Overall the ombudsman noted continued improvement in the treatment of prisoners and detainees in the CPD and in detention centers.

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Physical conditions in some prison and detention centers, including detention centers for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants pending deportation, did not meet international standards.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a problem in the CPD. The prison’s capacity is 547; the maximum number of inmates held during the year was 820. In its 2018 report, the CPT noted that in Blocks 1, 2, 5, and 8 of the CPD, many cells did not have toilets, and prisoners lacked reliable access to toilets at night. Overcrowding was not a problem in the area housing female inmates.

Prison authorities held juvenile pretrial detainees in cells separate from convicted juveniles, but the two groups shared the same grounds in their daily activities under the supervision of prison staff. Authorities reportedly held migrants detained on deportation orders together with detainees charged with criminal offenses in nearly all police stations. Such detentions were limited to a maximum of 48 hours except in cases when the Mennoyia Detention Center for undocumented migrants was full. The ombudsman noted that in practice authorities detained undocumented migrants for longer than 24 hours, which the ombudsman asserted violated international principles for the treatment of detainees.

The ombudsman reported that it had not received complaints from prisoners related to overcrowding or the failure to separate prisoners at the CPD. It did, however, on its own initiative launch an investigation into these problems during the year which was still ongoing.

In response to the March CPT Statement of Principles Relating to the Treatment of Persons Deprived of their Liberty in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government amended the prison law in April to reduce the prison population. Some prisoners received early release, were shifted to an open prison scheme (allowed to work outside the prison and visit family on some weekends), or were allowed to serve the remainder of their sentence under electronic surveillance (bracelet) at home.

During the year the ombudsman inspected Aradippou and Paphos police stations as well as the holding facility at Larnaca Airport. The ombudsman reported that persons convicted for criminal offenses and detained for deportation were held at Paphos police station longer than the 48 hours allowed by law. The report noted that the Paphos police station lacked entertainment and recreation facilities, written information on the rights of detainees were not available in every cell, and there was damage to the infrastructure of the detention center that had not been repaired. The ombudsman also noted insufficient access of detainees to telephone communication at the same police station. A report on the inspection of Aradippou police station was pending.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism (KISA) reported satisfactory physical conditions at the Mennoyia Detention Center for undocumented migrants.

Approximately 44 percent of prisoners in the CPD were non-Cypriots convicted for criminal offenses, mainly theft. Unlike some Cypriot prisoners, foreign prisoners without a temporary residence permit are not permitted to leave the prison to work, spend weekends with family, or apply for parole.

Administration: Authorities generally conducted investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment. In 2018 the CPT raised concerns that insufficient resources as well as personal ties between accused police officers and investigators (most of whom were former police officers) weakened investigations into allegations of police abuse. The ombudsman conducted regular visits to the CPD and detention centers to assess whether conditions and treatment of prisoners and detainees met national and international standards and regulations. In September the ombudsman, acting as the national preventive mechanism, launched an investigation into the overall treatment of prisoners and detainees and the physical conditions at the CPD. By October 22, the ombudsman had conducted six visits to the CPD. Detention centers lacked facilities for religious observance, but religious representatives were permitted to visit inmates. The ombudsman received several complaints from prisoners who claimed they faced health risks due to COVID-19 and requested to be released under conditions of electronic monitoring. The ombudsman was examining the complaints.

The ombudsman conducted regular visits to the CPD and detention centers to assess whether conditions and treatment of prisoners and detainees met national and international standards and regulations. In September the ombudsman, acting as the national preventive mechanism, launched an investigation into the overall treatment of prisoners and detainees and the physical conditions at the CPD. By October 22, the ombudsman had conducted six visits to the CPD. Detention centers lacked facilities for religious observance, but religious representatives were permitted to visit inmates. The ombudsman received several complaints from prisoners who claimed they faced health risks due to COVID-19 and requested to be released under conditions of electronic monitoring. The ombudsman was examining the complaints.

On September 22, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declared inadmissible the application of a CPD prisoner that claimed his detention conditions aggravated the state of his mental health. The ECHR found that the prisoner, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and convicted for murder, received adequate medical, psychiatric, and psychological support at the CPD.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits to prison and detention centers by independent human rights observers, and unrestricted and unannounced visits occurred during the year. Prison officials from other EU countries and diplomats stationed in the country visited the prisons during the year. Representatives of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the Cyprus Red Cross, KISA, and the Cyprus Refugee Council visited the Mennoyia Detention Center multiple times during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements, with the exception of an incident involving several asylum seekers.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires judicially issued arrest warrants, and authorities respected this requirement. Authorities may not detain a person for more than one day unless a court grants an extension. Most periods of investigative detention did not exceed 10 days before the filing of formal charges. Authorities promptly informed detainees of the charges against them in a language they could understand. The attorney general made efforts to minimize pretrial detention, especially in cases of serious crimes.

There is a functioning system of bail. The government claimed the right to deport foreign nationals for specified reasons of public interest, regardless of whether criminal charges had been filed against them or they had been convicted of a crime. Trial delays were common and partially caused by lengthy legal procedures, which created a larger workload for the courts.

Detainees generally had access to an attorney. The law permits detainees to speak to their attorney at any time, including before and during interrogation by police. The CPT reported in 2018, however, that police officers regularly prevented detainees from contacting a lawyer until they had given a written statement, and the bar association reported that the presence of lawyers was not permitted during police interviews.

In one example, in 2019 a British teenager claimed Ayia Napa police denied her access to a lawyer during questioning and pressured her to sign a statement revoking her claim of rape against several Israeli teenagers. After she signed the confession, police charged her with causing public mischief for filing a false police report. The British teenager’s attorney told the press that police had questioned her for eight hours at the police station without a lawyer. On January 7, the court sentenced her to a four-month suspended sentence.

In criminal cases the state provides indigent detainees with an attorney. To qualify for free legal aid, however, detainees first require a court decision confirming their financial need. The Republic of Cyprus Bar Association prohibits lawyers from doing work pro bono. NGOs complained that this has a significant impact on their ability to take the government to court and hold officials accountable for the treatment of asylum seekers.

NGOs reported arbitrary arrests and detention of asylum seekers. According to the UNHCR, on May 11 and 15, police rounded up 67 asylum seekers from hotels and homes, handcuffed them, and transferred them by bus to Kokkinotrimithia reception center, where other refugees and asylum seekers were housed. They were confined to the center due to COVID-19-related movement restrictions. Police reportedly did not present arrest warrants, explain the reason for the arrests, or allow those arrested to bring any personal belongings, including medications.

The ombudsman reported some cases of authorities detaining migrants and asylum seekers, allegedly for the purpose of deportation, for extended periods despite there being no prospect they would actually be deported, either because their country of origin refused to accept them or the detainees refused to consent to the issuance of travel documents by their country of origin. The ombudsman reported that in those cases detention did not exceed the maximum of 18 months permitted by the law. A considerable number of detainees at the Mennoyia Detention Center were awaiting a decision on their request for international protection or for adjudication of their appeals against the rejection of their asylum applications. KISA said that authorities continued to provide only limited information to detainees about the status of their cases. The ombudsman recommended that Civil Registry and Migration Department adopted its past recommendation to have its officers visit Mennoyia Detention Center more frequently to better inform detainees about their cases.

Unlike in some previous years, the ombudsman and NGOs did not encounter cases of detainees deported before final adjudication of their asylum applications. An NGO reported, however, that instead of deporting detainees before final adjudication of their cases, immigration authorities pressured them to sign a voluntary return consent by threatening them with indefinite detention. The ombudsman received a complaint from a female detainee at the Mennoyia Detention Center about the type and quality of food provided. During the course of the ombudsman’s investigation, the detainee was provided the specific diet recommended by the doctor and the investigation was closed.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence. Officials informed defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them. The constitution provides for fair and public trials without undue delay, and defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Authorities provide an attorney for defendants who are unable to afford one and allow defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Authorities provide free interpretation as necessary through all stages of the trial. Defendants have the right to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present evidence or witnesses on their behalf. Criminal defendants enjoy the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The Cyprus Bar Association reported that chronic court delays, particularly in civil trials, impaired the right to a fair trial.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations can seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. Individuals can appeal cases involving alleged human rights violations by the state to the European Court of Human Rights once they have exhausted all avenues of appeal in domestic courts.

Property Restitution

According to the law, the minister of interior is the guardian of the properties of Turkish Cypriots who have not had permanent residence in the government-controlled area since 1974. Ownership remains with the original owner, but the sale or transfer of Turkish Cypriot property under the guardianship of the minister requires the approval of the government. The minister has the authority to return properties to Turkish Cypriot applicants after examining the circumstances of each case. Owners can appeal the minister’s decisions to the Administrative Court.

During the year Turkish Cypriots filed four court cases seeking to reclaim properties located in the government-controlled area. The Administrative Court, the Supreme Court, and Larnaca District Court issued a ruling in five separate cases filed against the guardian by Turkish Cypriot property owners in previous years. The Administrative Court found in favor of one Turkish Cypriot owner who had not received a reply from the guardian to his request to have his property disengaged from the guardianship. The court ruled that the 16 months that had lapsed since he submitted the request until the time of the appeal was not a reasonable period of time and ordered the minister of interior to correct the omission.

For information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

Freedom of Speech: The law criminalizes incitement to hatred and violence based on race, color, religion, genealogical origin, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. Such acts are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,000 euros ($12,000), or both.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

The law penalizes the use of geographical names and toponyms in the country other than those included in the gazetteer the government presented at the 1987 Fifth UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names. According to the law, anyone who publishes, imports, distributes, or sells maps, books, or any other documents in print or digital form that contain geographical names and toponyms on the island other than those permitted, commits an offense punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine of up to 50,000 euros ($60,000), or both.

Internet Freedom

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

The law criminalizes the use of computer systems to incite and promote racism, xenophobia, prejudice, racial discrimination, hate speech, and violence. Such acts are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 35,000 euros ($42,000), or both.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government maintains a policy of preventing visiting foreign academics and artistic groups from attending conferences or performing in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, in accordance with laws that provide them the right to deny entry to visitors who declare a hotel in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration not originally owned by Turkish Cypriots as the place of stay. There were no reports of blocked visits during the year, although for much of the year foreign tourists were not permitted to enter the country due to COVID-19.

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 within government-controlled areas, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The government imposed restrictions on some internal movements and movements through crossing points to the areas administered by Turkish Cypriots to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and these restrictions were applied equally to all. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government did not restrict Greek Cypriots from traveling to the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned foreigners against spending the night at Greek Cypriot-owned properties occupied by Turkish Cypriots or Turks, gambling in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, or buying or developing property there. Authorities at ports of entry denied admission to nonresidents who listed hotels in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots as their intended place of residence during their visit. NGOs reported the government prohibited recognized non-Cypriot refugees with temporary residence status and asylum seekers from crossing to the area administered by Turkish Cypriots, asserting it could not assure their safety in an area not under its control. Local media reported police officers at the crossing points occasionally harassed Greek Cypriots returning from the area under Turkish Cypriot administration.

On February 29, the government closed four of the nine buffer zone crossings as a temporary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In mid-March, Turkish Cypriot authorities suspended the operation of the remaining crossings, effectively banning all travel across the buffer zone. Movement was partially restored in stages beginning June 8. The Ledra Street pedestrian crossing in Nicosia remained closed by the government as of December. Protests against the crossing point closures staged by Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in late February and early March led to skirmishes with police and the arrest of three protesters. In March Turkish Cypriot press reported Greek Cypriot police used pepper spray and clubs against Turkish Cypriot demonstrators at the Ledra Street crossing. Several demonstrators and journalists were taken to the hospital. The Turkish Cypriot Foreign Press Association condemned the use of force and claimed Greek Cypriot police violated press freedom.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The government considers Greek Cypriots displaced as a result of the 1974 division of the island to be refugees, although they fell under the UN definition of internally displaced persons (IDPs). As of December 2019 there were 228,000 such individuals and their descendants. UNHCR provided assistance to Greek and Turkish Cypriot IDPs from 1974 to 1988, after which it transferred assistance programs to UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and other UN agencies. Depending on their income, IDPs were eligible for financial assistance from the government. They were resettled, had access to humanitarian organizations, and were not subject to attack, targeting, or mandatory return under dangerous conditions.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. In 2019 the Asylum Service accepted the secondment of a UNHCR consultant and established a quality assurance unit to ensure the quality of the refugee status-determination procedures. The government did not accept UNHCR’s offer to second officers to Social Welfare Services to help ensure the mandatory vulnerability assessments of asylum applicants were conducted in a timely and comprehensive manner.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that some Social Welfare Service officers and judges subjected asylum seekers to racist verbal abuse. On April 28, the NGO KISA reported that security personnel at the Social Welfare Services office in Lakatamia physically attacked two asylum seekers and an infant child who had visited the office to inquire about the delay in receiving their food coupons and rent subsidy. The Ministry of Labor reported the incident to the police and asked the private company providing security services to transfer the security guard involved from Social Welfare Services office. The security guard was charged and the case was pending trial at year’s end.

In June UNCHR reported three unaccompanied minors at Kokkinotrimithia reception center renewed their claim that they were sexually harassed by adult residents of the center. The minors reported they were touched inappropriately while waiting in line for food or medical examinations and that adults violated their privacy while showering. The commissioner for the protection of the child, the ombudsman, members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Human Rights, and UNHCR criticized the government for keeping unaccompanied minors in the reception center until their age could be verified. The Asylum Service reported in September that according to its investigation the sexual harassment complaints were unfounded. It did, however, acknowledge it was a mistake and inappropriate to keep those who claimed they were unaccompanied minors with the general population. As a result the Asylum Service established a “safe zone” in the camp for persons claiming to be unaccompanied minors until their age could be verified. The Ministry of Labor reported that Social Welfare Services transferred two of the minors to a shelter for unaccompanied minors and the third to his sister’s house. Authorities referred the cases to the Children’s House, a multidisciplinary government center providing services to victims of child sexual abuse. According to the Ministry of Labor, two of the children interviewed by the center’s specialists did not report that they had been sexually harassed at the center. The third minor did not report sexual harassment and refused to be interviewed.

The government’s policy was not to hold irregular migrants in detention for long periods and to release them and provide them residency permits if they were not deported within 18 months. An NGO reported immigration authorities pressured migrant detainees to sign a voluntary return consent by threatening them with indefinite detention. The same NGO reported that some asylum seekers were detained for reasons of national security and remained in detention for several months without being informed of the evidence against them.

Refoulement: On March 20, marine police directed a boat carrying 115 Syrians to leave Republic of Cyprus territorial waters and return to Syria. Authorities cited COVID-related entry restrictions as the justification. The boat eventually capsized in waters under Turkish Cypriot administration, and Turkish Cypriot authorities deported the Syrians to Turkey. On June 4, a boat reportedly carrying 30 Syrians attempted to enter the country and was pushed back by marine police. The vessel eventually landed in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration. The Syrian passengers reportedly crossed irregularly into the government-controlled area. A third pushback of a boat reportedly carrying 10 Syrians was reported in late July. It also landed in the north and its passengers crossed irregularly into the government-controlled area. Between September 1 and 8, police pushed back six more boats arriving from Lebanon. According to UNHCR, government authorities kept two additional boats, reportedly carrying Syrian nationals, at sea for days. NGOs reported that passengers that came ashore on vessels from Lebanon were not given the opportunity to submit asylum claims. Instead they were immediately quarantined and quickly deported. NGOs claimed some asylum seekers were tricked into boarding buses they believed were going to a hospital, only to be taken to the port and deported on government-chartered vessels.

As of September 8, authorities reportedly deported a total of 115 persons who had arrived by boat from Lebanon. On September 9, a Ministry of Interior spokesperson stated that government officials had boarded the boats and verified the passengers were not asylum seekers but economic migrants. The ministry therefore decided to send them back to Lebanon. A UNHCR spokesperson responded on September 9 that UNCHR was not given access to the passengers of the boats that were pushed back and was therefore not in a position to verify that the passengers did not ask for asylum.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. On March 16, however, the government suspended asylum processing procedures as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Registration of asylum applications resumed in late May. UNHCR and NGOs reported the suspension left many asylum seekers, including vulnerable populations, homeless and without benefits. The ombudsman received one official complaint from an asylum seeker who arrived on March 11 that authorities refused to accept the asylum seeker’s application, citing COVID-19 measures and that their passport had expired. The ombudsman’s investigation continued at year’s end.

Due to a significant increase in asylum claims in recent years and long delays in the examination of applications, more than 18,700 asylum claims were pending examination as of the end of September. The Asylum Service, the ombudsman, UNHCR, and NGOs reported some accelerated examination of asylum applications but the existing backlog remained and delays persisted in the appeals process. The government, UNHCR, and NGOs agreed that a significant proportion of registered asylum claims were not credible. In June 2019 the government established an International Protection Administrative Court (IPAC) to streamline the examination of asylum appeals. NGOs reported the establishment of IPAC was an improvement over the previous system, but there was not sufficient data to evaluate its effect on the duration of appeals.

Freedom of Movement: The government temporarily converted the two reception centers for asylum seekers in Kokkinotrimithia and Kofinou into closed centers with restricted entry and exit as part of the country-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The closure sparked a series of protests by camp residents in Kokkinotrimithia, a center designed to hold asylum seekers no more than 72 hours, who demanded to be allowed to freely exit. While movement restrictions were eased at Kofinou on May 21, entry and exit to Kokkinotrimithia remained restricted due to an outbreak of scabies. On May 27, UNHCR reported the decision effectively confined some 773 asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable persons, to the camp while only two residents were actually treated for scabies.

Media and NGOs reported unsanitary and harsh conditions for some asylum seekers, with insufficient food and lack of basic hygiene facilities, soap, and electricity. On April 23, after a visit to Kofinou and Kokkinotrimithia reception centers, the ombudsman reported that some of the newly installed tents at Kokkinotrimithia were placed on dirt that turned into mud after a heavy rainfall and some did not have electricity. She recommended opening of the centers as soon as pandemic conditions allowed, resumption of asylum procedures, and expediting the interviews of those who claimed to be minors to ensure no minors were left in temporary reception facilities.

There were several reports of arbitrary arrest and detentions of asylum seekers, including the May detention and confinement of 67 asylum seekers reported by the UNHCR (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest or Detention).

Several NGOs reported concerns about deteriorating conditions at the Pournara Migrant Reception Center in Kokkinotrimithia in October and November. The pandemic’s effect on the economy impacted camp residents, and while asylum seekers were free to leave once processed during that time period, many chose not to because they could not find jobs or afford outside accommodation. Adding to the hardship, according to NGOs and government officials, the Social Welfare Service was not functioning effectively, leaving many without basic necessities such as access to food, rent subsidies, or healthcare. UNHCR reported some asylum seekers stay at the center for months.

In November the center reported operating near capacity with 549 total residents, including 52 children. A total of 37 migrants had tested positive for COVID, and 260 residents were confined to the quarantine section of the camp. New arrivals had slowed during the period of April to June when flights to the country were halted or reduced, but from September through early November, the center had processed an average of 20 arrivals per day.

The ombudsman made an unannounced visit on December 4 and issued a report on December 10 with a set of recommendations, including 1) the immediate release of 200 residents who meet the established conditions to leave; 2) the immediate transfer of 13 unaccompanied minors, being held on the basis of COVID mitigation protocols, to other appropriate facilities; 3) the creation of a safe zone for unaccompanied minors in quarantine; 4) an immediate vulnerability assessment of all individuals in the center and transfer of vulnerable persons to other facilities; 5) institution of a preliminary medical screening for all asylum seekers upon admission into the center; 6) speeding up efforts for the establishment of a second, specially designed accommodation facility outside the center to transfer any COVID-19 positive asylum seekers in the center; and 7) immediately transferring individuals who complete 14 days in the quarantine area and test negative for COVID-19 to the main area of the center.

Employment: Authorities allowed asylum seekers whose cases were awaiting adjudication to work after a one-month waiting period. In May 2019 the Ministry of Labor expanded the number of sectors in which asylum seekers could work to include employment in animal shelters and kennels, night shifts in bakeries and dairies, auto-body paint and repair, garden cleaning, and as kitchen assistants and cleaners in hotels and restaurants. The law previously restricted asylum seekers to employment in fisheries, the production of animal feed, waste management, gas stations and car washes, freight handling in the wholesale trade, building and outdoor cleaning, distribution of advertising and informational materials, and food delivery. NGOs and press reported refugees and asylum seekers lost jobs due to the long-term closure of many establishments in the tourism and hospitality sectors due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Prior to the pandemic, many were already dealing with tenuous financial situations and had difficulties finding and maintaining employment due to limited access to the labor market, lack of skills or education, and the lack of social capital and networks.

There were reports of racism by Labor Department officers who met with valid residency applicants seeking a contract of employment. During the year the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance received 2,771 labor contracts applications for asylum seekers and by year’s end had approved 2,269 and rejected 54. NGOs reported the procedure for employing asylum seekers was slow and costly and discouraged employers from hiring asylum seekers.

Access to Basic Services: Recognized refugees have access to public services, such as education, health care, and the courts. The only permanent reception center for asylum seekers, located in Kofinou, remained full, and the majority of asylum seekers lacked proper housing. UNHCR and local NGOs noted a high number of asylum seekers faced homelessness and destitution. They reported that many asylum seekers slept in outdoor parks or temporarily stayed with friends, relatives, or strangers, often sleeping on floors without adequate access to hygiene facilities. The growing number of new arrivals, the limited supply of affordable accommodations, delays in the provision of government financial support, and the backlog in the examination of asylum applications increased the risk of homelessness, according to local NGOs.

Emergency measures introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19 included restrictions on freedom of movement, social distancing requirements, and limits on gatherings, as well as the closure of public spaces and certain businesses, government institutions, and facilities. NGOs and UNHCR reported that these actions had personal, public, economic, and social implications on the human rights and living conditions of refugees and asylum seekers. Primarily these included prolonged detention at overcrowded government reception facilities in poor conditions (see “Freedom of Movement” above); the loss of jobs and livelihoods (see “Employment” above); restrictions in access to healthcare; adverse mental health impacts; delays in social welfare payments; a lack of access to technology, education and personal development opportunities; delays in asylum and migration procedures; and limited access to the legal and judicial systems.

The ombudsman received several complaints concerning the delivery of welfare support and has requested the views of the Ministry of Labor on the matter. NGOs reported that during the lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended housing subsidies provided to asylum seekers who were reportedly forcibly removed from their rented accommodations and transferred to the Kokkinotrimithia reception center. An unspecified number of asylum seekers accommodated by the government in hotels were also moved to Kokkinotrimithia, which the government temporarily turned into a closed reception center for the duration of the restrictions (April 8 to June 15).

UNHCR, NGOs, and asylum seekers reported delays and inconsistencies in the delivery of benefits. On March 18, the Council of Ministers abolished the coupon system for welfare support provided to asylum seekers and replaced it with direct payments. In previous years the ombudsman and NGOs reported that the system of providing welfare support to asylum seekers via coupons did not appropriately accommodate the special needs of vulnerable groups. The coupons could be redeemed only in specific shops that may lack some supplies, were usually more expensive than other grocery stores, and were often inconveniently located. The NGO KISA reported these shops exploited the vulnerable position of asylum seekers and charged up to 20 percent in fees to cash government checks. In October the Social Welfare Service began printing and mailing benefit checks to asylum seekers or paying welfare benefits directly into beneficiaries’ accounts, in accordance with the new system. NGOs complained that many asylum seekers lack reliable, stable mailing addresses and the ability to cash checks, and noted that banks are unwilling or reluctant to open accounts for asylum seekers. Homeless asylum seekers faced difficulties in opening a bank account without a valid address.

Asylum seekers who refused an available job could be denied state benefits. An NGO reported that mothers with young children and asylum seekers with medical conditions that prevented them from working in the permitted sectors of employment were sometimes refused state benefits. The Ministry of Labor reported that it examines the reasons an asylum seeker declined a job offer and if found valid, benefits remain in place.

In May 2019 the Council of Ministers introduced a series of changes to improve the housing condition of asylum seekers. It approved an increase, effective June 1, 2019, in the housing subsidy provided to asylum seekers by Social Welfare Services, established criteria for the number of persons who can reside in a rented establishment based on the number of rooms, and began providing the initial rent deposit directly to the asylum seekers instead of to the landlord. An NGO stated the increase was not sufficient to cover the steep rise in rent prices. The Council of Ministers also authorized continued financial support to asylum seeker families even if a member of the family finds employment, provided that the salary does not exceed the total assistance to which the family is entitled.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government provides subsidiary protection status for citizens or residents of Syria who entered the country legally or illegally. All persons seeking such status were required to provide a Syrian passport or other identification. Authorities granted subsidiary protection to 1,209 persons during the first nine months of the year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law and constitution provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In national elections, Turkish Cypriots who resided in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots were ineligible to vote and run for office in the government-controlled area, although Greek Cypriots living in the north faced no such restrictions. In elections for the European Parliament, Cypriot citizens, resident EU citizens, and Turkish Cypriots who live in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots have the right to vote and run for office.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In 2018 voters re-elected Nicos Anastasiades president in free and fair elections. In 2016 the country held free and fair elections for the 56 seats assigned to Greek Cypriots in the 80-seat House of Representatives. The 24 seats assigned to Turkish Cypriots remained vacant.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women remained underrepresented in senior political positions. Only 27 percent of ministers and 21.4 percent of the members of House of Representatives were women.

In May 2019 more than 5,600 Turkish Cypriots voted in the European Parliament elections at 50 polling stations near buffer-zone crossing points, compared with 1,869 who voted in 2014. According to press reports, between 1,100 and 1,500 Turkish Cypriots were unable to vote because their names did not appear on the electoral list. Voters elected a Turkish Cypriot to one of the country’s six seats in the European Parliament for the first time. The law provides for the registration of all adult Turkish Cypriot holders of a government identity card who resided in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots in the electoral roll for the European Parliament elections. Turkish Cypriots not residing in that area needed to apply for registration in the electoral roll, as did all other citizens residing there. The government did not automatically register an unspecified number of Turkish Cypriots residing in the north because they were incorrectly listed in the official civil registry as residents of the government-controlled area. This problem persisted but to a lesser extent than previous years, as the number of registered Turkish Cypriot voters increased from approximately 56,000 in 2014 to 81,000 in 2019. The media attributed much of this increase to the successful campaigning of the first Turkish Cypriot elected to European Parliament.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the laws effectively. Although the government generally investigated and prosecuted cases of corruption, there were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: On October 12, Al Jazeera aired an expose, The Cyprus PapersUndercover, in which undercover reporters captured extensive evidence of government corruption related to the Citizenship by Investment scheme (CBI). In the video the president of the House of Representatives, Demetris Syllouris, House of Representatives member Christakis Giovani, and CBI facilitators indicated their willingness to assist a fictitious Chinese CBI applicant whom they were told had been convicted of money laundering and corruption. On October 13, the government announced it was terminating the CBI program, effective November 1, and Attorney General George Savvides ordered an investigation into any possible criminal offenses arising from the Al Jazeera report. Syllouris and Giovani resigned from the House of Representatives. On March 11, the former mayor of Larnaca, Andreas Louroudjiatis, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for corruption, bribery, money laundering, and other related charges in connection to waste management plants operated by the municipalities of Larnaca and Paphos. The financial director of the Municipality of Paphos was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and two engineers of the town planning department were sentenced to 42-month and 18-month prison terms in relation to the incident. The company involved, Helector Cyprus Ltd, was fined 183,000 euros ($220,000).

Financial Disclosure: The law requires the president, members of the Council of Ministers, members of the House of Representatives, and members of the State Health Services Organization board to declare their income and assets. The publication of their declarations is obligatory, but there are no specific sanctions for noncompliance. Spouses and children of the same officials are required to declare their assets, but the publication of their declarations is prohibited. Other public officials are not required to declare their assets.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: There is a government ombudsman, whose portfolio includes human rights, and a legislative Committee on Human Rights.

During her independent investigations, the ombudsman generally enjoyed good cooperation with other government bodies. NGOs complained, however, that the Office of the Ombudsman routinely refused to investigate their complaints on the grounds that similar complaints had been investigated in the past. The Office of the Ombudsman reportedly made increased interventions, including at least 52 ad hoc reports during the year to support vulnerable groups, such as migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and women.

The legislative Committee on Human Rights, which most local NGOs considered effective, consists of nine members of the House of Representatives who serve five-year terms. The committee discussed a wide range of human rights problems, including trafficking in persons, violence against women, sexual abuse of women and children, prison conditions, and the rights of foreign workers. The executive branch did not exercise control over the committee.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. The law also criminalizes domestic violence, with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for violations. The government generally enforced the law effectively, although many cases continued to go unreported.

The law establishes clear mechanisms for reporting and prosecuting family violence. A court can issue a same day restraining order against suspected or convicted domestic violence offenders. The number of reported cases of domestic violence increased in recent years. In the first nine months of 2019, 519 cases of domestic violence were reported to police. As of October 2019, police had investigated 181 of the cases and filed 111 cases in court. The NGO Association for the Prevention and Handling of Violence in the Family (SPAVO) stated increased reporting reflected greater awareness of and access to services, rather than an increasing number of incidents. SPAVO said domestic violence victims often faced significant family and social pressure not to report abuse and to withdraw complaints filed with police. The media and NGOs criticized the Social Welfare Services for not providing sufficient support to female victims of domestic violence. In one example, in January a man stabbed and killed his estranged wife, Ghada Al Nouri, while three of their seven children were in the house. Al Nouri had reported abuse to police two weeks earlier, culminating in the man’s arrest and issuance of a restraining order. The perpetrator was released on bail just days later, pending the start of his trial. The director of the Social Welfare Service denied reports that the service did not ensure the victim was protected, stating that social workers were in constant contact with the victim and had offered her the option to move to a safe house. In July the perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

SPAVO reported a steep increase in domestic violence during and immediately after the mandatory lockdown imposed due to COVID-19. In the period March 16 to June 30, the association recorded a 50 percent increase in SPAVO’s call center cases and a 46 percent increase in the number of victims at shelters, compared to the same period in 2019. Survivors of domestic violence had two shelters, each funded primarily by the government and operated by SPAVO.

Police conducted detailed educational programs for officers on the proper handling of domestic violence, including training focused on child abuse. NGOs reported, however, that some police officers continued to dismiss claims of domestic abuse by foreign women and children.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace with a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a 12,000 euro ($14,400) fine, or both. A code of conduct outlines the prevention and handling of sexual harassment and harassment in the public service. NGOs and foreign domestic worker associations reported that authorities did not adequately investigate sexual harassment complaints submitted by foreign domestic workers.

Sexual harassment reportedly remained a widespread, but often unreported, problem. NGOs said permissive social attitudes, fear of reprisals, and lack of family support for victims discouraged victims from reporting instances of sexual harassment. The Department of Labor reported receiving eight sexual harassment complaints, including two from foreign domestic workers, but stated that all the complaints lacked supporting evidence. The ombudsman continued to receive and examine complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace. In July 2019 the major labor unions–the Confederation of Cypriot Workers and the Pancyprian Labor Federation–agreed with the Employers and Industrialists Federation on a code of conduct covering how to treat cases of harassment and sexual harassment at the workplace. Due to the pandemic, the ombudsman cancelled planned training and seminars on sexual harassment and gender mainstreaming for the public sector during the year.

In April 2019 a university student reported to police that her 48-year-old employer at a Nicosia kiosk tried repeatedly to touch, hug, and kiss her without her consent. Following an investigation, including the examination of video footage, police brought charges against the employer, who was released on bail and restraining orders pending trial.

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

The government funded an NGO that provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

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

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men. The government generally enforced the law, but women experienced discrimination in employment and pay in the private sector. Although reporting by Eurostat showed pay parity between the genders in the public sector, NGOs reported vertical and occupational segregation remained a challenge.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from their parents, and there was universal registration at the time of birth. Citizenship is denied, however, when either of the parents entered or resided in the country illegally. The government considers as illegal settlers Turkish citizens who entered and reside in the area under Turkish Cypriot administration. Children born to a Turkish Cypriot parent are not automatically granted citizenship if one or both of their parents were a Turkish national who entered and resided in the country illegally. Their applications for citizenship are reviewed by the Council of Ministers, which has the right to override this provision of the law and grant them citizenship, provided the applicants meet a set of criteria adopted by the Council of Ministers in 2007.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes child abuse. The maximum penalty for child abuse is one year imprisonment, a fine of up to 1,700 euros ($2,000), or both.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18, but persons ages 16 and 17 may marry, provided there are serious reasons justifying the marriage and their legal guardians provide written consent. A district court can also allow the marriage of persons ages 16 and 17 if the parents unjustifiably refuse consent, or in the absence of legal guardians.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, child pornography, offering or procuring a child for prostitution, and engaging in or promoting a child in any form of sexual activity. The maximum penalty for sexual abuse and exploitation of a child who is 13 through 17 years old is 25 years in prison. The penalty for sexual abuse and exploitation of a child younger than 13 is up to life in prison. Possession of child pornography is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment. Authorities enforced these laws. The minimum age for consensual sex is 17.

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

Anti-Semitism

There were approximately 4,500 persons in the Jewish community, which consisted of a very small number of native Jewish Cypriots and a greater number of expatriate Israelis, British, and Russians.

Unlike in previous years, the Jewish community reported that there were no attacks against members of their community.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

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

Children with disabilities attend mainstream schools. The government provides a personal assistant to children with disabilities attending public schools but not to children with disabilities attending private schools. The ombudsman issued a report in September noting that the law obligated private secondary education schools to provide personal assistants for children with disabilities.

During the year the ombudsman examined several complaints from persons with disabilities concerning accessibility issues and discrimination. In May the ombudsman’s office reported that it examined a complaint submitted by parents of children with disabilities that their children were subjected to different conditions and procedures for their return to school under COVID-19-related restrictions. The ombudsman concluded that the additional conditions imposed by the Ministry of Education for their return to school violated the principle of equal treatment and nondiscrimination and called on the ministry to immediately revoke the additional requirements. The Ministry of Education complied with the recommendation.

Problems facing persons with disabilities included limited access to natural and constructed environments, transportation, information, and communications. The Cyprus Paraplegics Organization reported that several public buildings were still not accessible to wheelchair users. The ombudsman examined several complaints from persons with disabilities. In January the ombudsman reported that, in violation of relevant legislation, television broadcasters failed to provide audiovisual services accessible to persons with hearing disabilities. At the ombudsman’s recommendation, the Cyprus Radio-Television Authority (CRA) requested all broadcasters comply with their legal obligations. All broadcasters submitted accessibility action plans to the CRA. The CRA will evaluate their implementation during the course of the next year.

During the year government services implemented recommendations in the ombudsman’s April 3 report to ensure persons with physical and mental disabilities and persons in social care shelters had access to COVID-19 information and protection measures. The ombudsman intervened in a case of several persons with disabilities who were not allowed to abstain from coming to their workplace after colleagues tested positive for COVID-19 and in a case of a single parent of disabled children who was not granted leave to care for them during the pandemic. Both cases were resolved in favor of the complainant.

In February, three nurses at the public Athalassa Psychiatric Hospital reported appalling physical conditions, serious overcrowding, and personnel and medication shortages to the Cyprus Mail newspaper. The nurses reported that the building’s poor condition led to injuries of patients and staff. The ombudsman issued two reports in March and September that confirmed a shortage of nurses, the lack of a permanent pharmacist, and that past improvements to the building failed to create a suitable environment for patients.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance’s Service for the Care and Rehabilitation of the Disabled is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Observers did not consider fines for violating the law against employment discrimination sufficient to prevent abuses (see also section 7.d.).

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Minority groups in the government-controlled area of the country included Catholics, Maronites, Armenians, and Roma. Although legally considered one of the two main communities of Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots constituted a relatively small proportion of the population in the government-controlled areas and experienced discrimination.

Christ Mayuba, a British soccer player on a local professional team, reported to police that he was the victim of a verbal racist attack by spectators during a match in February. Although Mayuba’s teammates stopped play as a show of support when a spectator called him a “slave,” the referee ejected Mayuba and eventually gave the opposing team the win by forfeit. At first police stated that a preliminary investigation did not appear to confirm Mayuba’s claims. The ombudsman conducted an investigation into the incident and concluded in March that Mayuba suffered verbal racial abuse. Following the ombudsman’s report, the police launched an investigation and submitted its findings to the attorney general for the criminal prosecution of those involved.

NGOs reported police racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities in the enforcement of movement restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. KISA reported that police illegally entered the homes of migrants without a warrant and fined them for violating the rule prohibiting home gatherings of more than 10 persons in spite of the fact that they were residents of the house. It reported that police targeted migrants in the streets to issue fines and in some cases intimidated and physically mistreated them. For example KISA reported in May that police fined three migrants playing soccer in the street outside their home for violating COVID-related movement restrictions. All three were living in a single-room apartment in the old city of Nicosia. The NGO reported the police had shown tolerance in similar cases involving local citizens. Caritas received reports from migrant workers that police fined them on the bus because their facemask was not covering their nose, as stipulated by the relevant decree, but did not fine nonmigrants, including the bus driver, wearing the mask in the same manner.

There were incidents of violence against Turkish Cypriots traveling to the government-controlled areas as well as some incidents of verbal abuse or discrimination against non-Greek Cypriots. In July 2019 Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci reported to the UN Secretary General’s special representative in Cyprus that a Turkish Cypriot tourist bus driver was harassed by Greek Cypriots at Larnaca airport and called for a proper investigation. President Anastasiades instructed police to open an investigation into the complaint, which continued at year’s end.

The Ministry of Education applied a code of conduct against racism in schools that provided schools and teachers with a detailed plan on handling, preventing, and reporting racist incidents.

A May 2018 European Commission report prepared as part of the Roma Civil Monitor pilot project stated that Cypriot Roma continued to face discrimination in housing, employment, and education. The report asserted government actions to promote the inclusion of Roma were insufficient.

The ombudsman continued to receive complaints that the government delayed approval of citizenship for children of Turkish Cypriots married to Turkish citizens residing in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots (see section 6, Birth Registration). The ombudsman reported that the government did not make progress towards implementing her past recommendations to ensure such applications were processed within a reasonable time and applicants are promptly informed in writing when their application does not meet stated criteria. The government reported granting citizenship to 50 such children in 2019.

A member of the Armenian community reported difficulties in registering with the Cyprus Scientific and Technical Chamber, the body responsible for the accreditation of engineers, allegedly due to his ethnicity. The ombudsman continued to investigate the case at year’s end.

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

Antidiscrimination laws exist and prohibit direct or indirect discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Antidiscrimination laws cover employment and the following activities in the public and private domain: social protection, social insurance, social benefits, health care, education, participation in unions and professional organizations, and access to goods and services.

Despite legal protections, LGBTI individuals faced significant societal discrimination, particularly in rural areas. As a result many LGBTI persons were not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, nor did they report homophobic violence or discrimination.

On September 7, authorities deported a Brazilian man who had entered a civil partnership with a Cypriot national while both were in prison. The NGO Accept LGBTI Cyprus (ACCEPT) and members of the House of Representatives Human Rights Committee publicly called on the minister of interior to cancel the deportation. The Brazilian was arrested immediately after his release from prison and detained at the Paphos police station for several weeks, exceeding the maximum of 48 hours that detainees can legally be held at police stations. The ombudsman concluded that the prolonged detention violated his rights and called for his immediate transfer to the Mennoyia Detention Center for irregular migrants. The ombudsman’s investigation did not examine the reasons for his deportation. ACCEPT protested his deportation in a press release September 9, asserting that authorities had followed irregular proceedings in breach of due process and violated the victim’s rights.

ACCEPT reported police routinely declined to investigate violence against LGBTI individuals as possible hate crimes. According to ACCEPT, police inaction discouraged LGBTI individuals from reporting complaints. The NGO reported two known attacks during the year against LGBTI individuals. On March 7, two young transgender individuals were attacked by a gang of seven hooded persons while leaving a party in Nicosia. The victims were hospitalized but did not report the attack to the medical personnel, or the police, and instead said that they fell down the stairs.

There were reports of employment discrimination against LGBTI applicants (see section 7.d.).

ACCEPT reported that transgender persons undergoing hormone replacement therapy experienced discrimination in access to health care following the introduction of the new national universal health insurance system in June 2019. The NGO reported that the same category of LGBTI individuals faced increased difficulties accessing hormone treatment due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

The law criminalizes incitement to hatred or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

In 2018 the president of the HIV-Positive Persons Support Center stated that HIV-positive persons faced prejudice in employment both in the private and public sector as well as from society and their own families, largely due to lack of public awareness. Activists complained that raising public awareness of this problem was not a government priority and reported that even medical staff at hospitals were prejudiced and reluctant to examine HIV-positive individuals.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, strike, and bargain collectively with employers. Both antiunion discrimination and dismissal for union activity are illegal.

The law requires labor unions to register with the registrar of labor unions within 30 days of their establishment. Persons convicted for fraud-related and immoral offenses are not allowed to serve as union officials. Unions’ accounts and member registers can be inspected at any time by the registrar. An agreement among the government, labor unions, and employers’ organizations established the procedure for dispute resolution for essential services personnel.

The government generally enforced applicable laws, and resources and investigations were adequate in the formal sector. Administrative procedures were efficient and immediate, but judicial procedures were subject to delays due to a case backlog. Penalties for violations, which occurred primarily in the informal sector, were not commensurate with those for other similar civil rights violations. Violations rarely occurred in the formal sector.

The government generally protected the right of unions to conduct their activities without interference, and employers generally respected the right of workers to form and join independent unions and to bargain collectively. Although collective agreements are not legally binding, they are governed by a voluntary agreement between the government and employer organizations. Unions, employers, and employees effectively observed the terms of collective bargaining agreements. Workers covered by such agreements were employed predominantly in the larger sectors of the economy, including construction, tourism, health care, and manufacturing.

Private-sector employers were able to discourage union activity in isolated cases because of sporadic enforcement of labor regulations prohibiting antiunion discrimination and the implicit threat of arbitrary dismissal for union activities.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The penalties were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and forced labor occurred. Inspections of the agricultural and domestic service sectors remained inadequate, and resources at the Department of Labor Inspections within the Ministry of Labor were insufficient.

Forced labor occurred primarily in agriculture and in domestic work. Foreign migrant workers, children, and asylum seekers were particularly vulnerable, according to NGOs. Employers reportedly forced foreign workers, primarily from Eastern Europe and East and South Asia, to work up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for very low wages and in unsuitable living conditions. From January to September 2019, police identified six victims of labor trafficking. Some employers reportedly retained a portion of agriculture workers’ salaries as payment for accommodations, in violation of the law. In one example police arrested a 68-year-old retired police officer in July after videos posted on social media recorded by his foreign domestic worker indicated that he physically assaulted and terrorized her. Police charged him with trafficking in persons, labor exploitation, and other serious offenses. He was initially released on bail and then rearrested two weeks later after police found new evidence against him. The domestic worker was identified as a victim of trafficking and was transferred to the government shelter. A trial began September 28.

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 employment of children, defined as persons younger than 15, except in specified circumstances, such as combined work-training programs for children who are at least 14, or employment in cultural, artistic, sports, or advertising activities, subject to rules limiting work hours. The law prohibits night work and street trading by children. The law permits the employment of adolescents, defined as persons ages 15 through 17, subject to rules limiting hours of employment and provided it is not harmful or dangerous. The law prohibits employment of adolescents between midnight and 4 a.m. The minimum age for employment in industrial work is 16. The government effectively enforced the law, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance inspectors were responsible for enforcing child labor laws and did so effectively. The Social Welfare Services Department of the ministry and the commissioner for the rights of the child could also investigate suspected cases of exploitation of children at work.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits direct or indirect discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, national origin or citizenship, sex, religion, political opinion, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation. The government did not effectively enforce these laws or regulations and penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for other civil rights laws. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and HIV-positive status.

Despite a strong legal framework, the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance’s enforcement of the law governing employment and labor matters with respect to women was ineffective. The law requires equal pay for equal work. Women experienced discrimination in such areas as hiring, career advancement, employment conditions, and pay. European Institute for Gender Equality data indicated the average pay gap between men and women was 13.7 percent in 2017. NGOs reported the relatively small overall gender pay gap masked significant vertical and occupational gender segregation. The ombudsman reported receiving complaints related to gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Discrimination against Romani migrant workers occurred. Turkish Cypriots faced social and employment discrimination (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although there is no national minimum wage, there are minimum wages for groups deemed vulnerable to exploitation. The minimum wages for shop assistants, clerks, assistant baby and child minders, health-care workers, security guards, cleaners of business premises, and nursery assistants were above the poverty line. The Ministry of Interior established a minimum wage for foreign domestic workers that was well below the poverty line.

Collective bargaining agreements covered workers in almost all other occupations, including unskilled labor. The wages set in these agreements were significantly higher than the poverty level.

Foreign workers were able to claim pensions, and some bilateral agreements allowed workers to claim credit in their home countries. The Migration Service was responsible for enforcing the minimum wage for foreign workers but did not effectively do so.

The legal maximum workweek is 48 hours, including overtime. The law does not require premium pay for overtime or mandatory rest periods. The law stipulates that foreign and local workers receive equal treatment. The Department of Labor Relations within the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance is responsible for enforcing these laws. The penalty for violating the law was commensurate with those for similar crimes, but laws for wages and hours were not adequately enforced. Labor unions reported enforcement problems in sectors not covered by collective agreements, such as small businesses and foreign domestic workers. They also reported that certain employers, mainly in construction and agriculture, exploited undocumented foreign workers by paying them very low wages.

The law protects foreign domestic workers who file a complaint with the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance from deportation until their cases have been adjudicated. The Department of Labor Relations reported that from January to December 10, it received 421 complaints from migrant workers against their employers. Of those, 406 were examined by year’s end.

The ombudsman continued to receive complaints from foreign domestic workers concerning the conditions of their employment and authorities’ handling of their requests to change employers. The ombudsman issued a report in November 2019 evaluating the government’s policies on foreign domestic workers. The report noted in particular domestic workers’ high dependence on their employers, combined with the lack of consequences for employers that violate the terms of the employment contract or physically abuse the employee, prevented domestic workers from filing complaints. Domestic workers also feared deportation. A domestic worker’s residence permit can be cancelled at the employer’s request in the event the employer files a complaint with the police about theft regardless of whether the alleged crime was investigated or proved. Some domestic workers complained their employers or employment agencies withheld their passports. The ombudsman’s report also noted that the lack of action by authorities to stop the practice encourages employers and employment agencies to continue to illegally hold domestic workers’ passports. NGOs reported many foreign domestic workers remained reluctant to report contract violations by their employers for fear of losing their jobs and, consequently, their work and residency permits. NGOs reported Department of Labor and police skepticism of complaints about sexual harassment and violence discouraged domestic workers from submitting complaints.

Occupational safety and health standards were appropriate for the main industries and the responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with safety and health experts. The Department of Labor Inspection in the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance is responsible for enforcing health and safety laws. Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but authorities did not effectively protect employees in these situations. Authorities enforced health and safety laws satisfactorily in the formal sector but not in the informal sector, which included approximately 8.5 percent of workers. The penalties for failing to comply with work safety and health laws were commensurate with those of other similar crimes.

The Ministry of Labor employed an insufficient number of inspectors to effectively enforce labor laws in the agricultural sector and in the informal economy, where the majority of employees were migrant workers and undocumented workers. Inspectors had the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions in most industries but were not allowed to inspect the working conditions of domestic workers in private households without a court warrant. Four major industrial accidents occurred during the year that caused death or serious injury of workers.

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Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Georgia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trial Procedures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Prisoners and Detainees

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

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

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

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

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Property Restitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation of citizens, but de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces limited this freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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

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

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

De facto authorities and Russian forces in the Russian-occupied territories also restricted the movement of the local population across the administrative boundary lines. Although they showed some flexibility for travel for medical care, pension services, religious services, and education, in several instances during the year, de facto authorities hindered access to medical care in Tbilisi-administered territory for residents in the occupied territories. On July 7, media outlets reported the death of Akhalgori resident Gela Gariev at the Tskhinvali hospital after several failed attempts to cross the South Ossetia administrative boundary line to receive medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. By year’s end 16 persons reportedly died in occupied South Ossetia due to inability to cross into Tbilisi-administered territory to receive higher quality medical care. The last person was Onise Gatenashvili, who died on November 14 during ICRC-administered medical evacuation to Tbilisi-administered territory. The reason of death was determined to be delayed treatment.

In September 2019 de facto South Ossetian authorities closed all but one checkpoint along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line, claiming it was necessary for “national security.” The GID cochairs and other international actors expressed concern that prolonged crossing closures would undermine livelihoods; prevent local residents from getting the pensions, food, and medicine they needed; and potentially cause a new wave of displacement. As of year’s end, all crossing points remained closed.

Since 2017, when de facto authorities closed two of the four remaining Abkhazia administrative boundary line crossing points, crossings stayed open only at the Enguri Bridge and Saberio-Pakhulani. On March 14, asserting preventive measures were needed to avoid the spread of COVID-19, de facto authorities closed the Enguri and Saberio-Pakhulani crossing points as well. According to reliable sources, the closures particularly affected ethnic Georgian Gali residents, who became practically unable to collect their pensions and allowances or to receive scheduled (nonemergency) medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. The Gali clinics were also said to be largely ignored by de facto Abkhaz authorities in terms of receiving international humanitarian medical assistance.

As of December, however, de facto Abkhaz authorities briefly opened the Enguri crossing point seven times during the year to allow the return of residents who received medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. Also, starting in mid-October, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated Georgian-Abkhaz cooperation to establish a “humanitarian corridor” at the Enguri crossing point, which enabled ethnic Georgian residents of Abkhazia to access life-saving medicines and pensions from the government.

Regarding travel documents, residents of Abkhazia who had Georgian citizenship could not use their Georgian passports to cross the Abkhazia administrative boundary line to or from Tbilisi-administered territory. Since 2018 de facto authorities prohibited older Soviet-era passports, used by thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia for crossing, threatening the livelihood of many residents. De facto authorities claimed residents without valid crossing documents were allowed to apply for residence permits (reserved for “foreign” residents) that would enable them to cross but would strip them of voting, property, and other rights. During the year only holders of new Abkhaz “passports,” permanent residence permits, and temporary identification documents known as Form No. 9 were allowed to cross. Form No. 9 identification was given to any resident who applied for a residence permit and was valid until that person received the permit or for six months maximum. There were still some residents of Abkhazia without valid documentation.

Georgian passport holders not resident in Abkhazia could cross a checkpoint if they possessed invitation letters cleared by the de facto state security services allowing them to enter Abkhazia. The latter did not consistently provide permission to cross and limited movement to specific areas. Crossing permits issued by de facto South Ossetian authorities were the only document that allowed movement across the South Ossetia administrative boundary line to or from Tbilisi-administered territory.

De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox Church clergy from entering the occupied territory.

Villagers who approached the administrative boundary lines or crossings risked detention by members of the Russian Federal Border Service (referred to hereinafter as “Russian guards”). Russian guards along the Abkhazia administrative boundary line typically enforced the boundary-crossing rules imposed by de facto authorities through detentions and fines. Along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line, Russian guards frequently transferred individuals to de facto authorities. The State Security Service of Georgia reported detentions by de facto authorities typically lasted two to three days until the detainee paid “fines” set by the de facto “court,” although some sentences for “violations of the state border” carried considerably longer terms.

As of December 31, the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) was aware of eight individuals detained along the administrative boundary line with Abkhazia and 56 detained along the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia. There were credible reports based on local sources that on several occasions de facto security actors or Russian guards crossed into Tbilisi-administered territory to detain an individual. Most often, the arrested individuals were accused of violating the “state border.” According to EUMM, many detainees were obliged to sign documents in Russian that they did not understand.

De facto authorities continued to expand and reinforce fencing and other physical barriers along the administrative boundary line between Tbilisi-administered territory and South Ossetia. This expansion of the Russian “borderization” policy further restricted movement, creating physical barriers and obstructing access to agricultural land, water supplies, and cemeteries.

In an illustrative example of the effects of the Russian “borderization” policy, as a result of barbed wire installed by Russian guards in 2012, the house of 80-year-old Data Vanishvili was on the occupied South Ossetian side, while his plot of land, which he had been tilling all his life, remained on Tbilisi-administered territory. Since then Datishvili has been unable to go to Tbilisi-administered territory to collect his Georgian pension or go in the direction of Tskhinvali to buy foodstuffs and other essential goods, since he refused to relinquish his Georgian passport. On April 17, the de facto regime detained Datishvili’s grandson, Malkhaz Kurtaev, and his wife, Tatia Adikashvili, who were staying with him, reportedly after a short trip to Tbilisi-administered territory. De facto authorities released both shortly afterwards.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to UNHCR, as of December there were approximately 290,000 IDPs from the 1992-93 and 2008 conflicts. UNHCR estimated 240,000 persons were IDPs, with the remaining 50,000 in “IDP-like” situations in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. This number included individuals who returned to Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as those displaced in the 2008 conflict, who subsequently were relocated or obtained housing or cash compensation. Governmental responsibilities for IDPs are divided among the Ministries of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs; the State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality; and the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure. As of year’s end, a long-planned IDP social allowance reform to change the assistance from status-based to needs-based had not been implemented.

Most persons displaced in 2008 received formal IDP status in accordance with national legislation, although some individuals who were not displaced by the 2008 conflict and lived close to the administrative boundary line were officially described as being in an “IDP-like situation.” The government provided monthly allowances to persons recognized as IDPs, promoted their socioeconomic integration, and sought to create conditions for their return in safety and dignity.

Despite their 1994 agreement with Georgia, Russia, and UNHCR that called for the safe, secure, and voluntary return of IDPs who fled during the 1992-93 war, de facto Abkhaz authorities continued to prevent the return of those displaced by the war. Between 45,000 and 60,000 IDPs had returned since that time to the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli regions of eastern Abkhazia, but de facto Abkhaz authorities refused to allow the return of IDPs to other regions. De facto authorities prevented IDPs living elsewhere in the country from reclaiming homes in Abkhazia based on a “law” that expropriated all “abandoned property” from the 1992-93 war. IDPs who returned and managed to obtain Abkhaz “passports” were allowed to buy and sell property.

Ethnic Georgians living in Russian-occupied Abkhazia lacked fundamental rights and confronted onerous registration requirements that threatened their continued status. De facto authorities continued to pressure ethnic Georgians to acquire a “foreign residency permit” that allows the holder to cross the administrative boundary line and remain in Abkhazia for a period of five years. An applicant must, however, accept the status of an alien (i.e., a Georgian living as a foreigner in Abkhazia), may not purchase property, may not transfer residency rights of property to children born in de facto controlled territory, may not vote, and must accept a lack of other basic rights. In 2019 de facto Abkhaz authorities required additional permits and threatened to discontinue administrative boundary line crossing with a Form No. 9 administrative pass. During the year, before the pandemic closures, Form No. 9 was reportedly allowed sporadically for crossing after new de facto president Aslan Bzhania came to power.

Since 2015 UNHCR reported a widening documentation gap in Russian-occupied Abkhazia, noting fewer residents of Gali district held valid documents due to the expiration and nonrenewal of documentation by de facto authorities there. The solution offered by de facto authorities, i.e., to issue permanent residence permits, did not provide the full scope of rights and was not welcomed by the majority of Gali district residents who did not wish to declare themselves foreigners living in their ancestral land.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Refoulement: In 2019 UNHCR learned of a few cases of asylum seekers who were denied access to the territory (and consequently the asylum procedure) at the border and whose return may have amounted to indirect refoulement. During 2019, but also in 2020, the penalization for irregular entry for individuals accepted into the asylum procedures remained a problem.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs, however, alleged executive and judicial authorities made politically motivated decisions in response to asylum requests by some Turkish citizens and a number of Azerbaijani citizens, although they reported the situation had improved since 2018. UNHCR reported concerns regarding applications from citizens of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen being rejected automatically on national security grounds, without a thorough examination on a case-by-case basis of the threat posed by the individual applicants. Rejected asylum seekers from those countries were rarely deported, nor were they detained, which brought into question whether they posed a security threat.

The law distinguishes among three types of protection: refugee status (as per the 1951 Refugee Convention), protected humanitarian status (complementary protection), and temporary protection. In July 2018 the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Refugees, and Accommodation was dismantled and its asylum portfolio transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In 2019 the number of asylum seekers increased. By December 2019 the overall recognition rate increased to 16 percent, compared with 14.5 percent in 2018. The overall recognition rate, however, dropped to 3 percent in the first half of the year.

The overall protection situation became more complicated for persons in need of asylum or refugee status. Gaps remained between asylum seekers’ access to the country’s territory and the fairness and efficiency of the refugee status determination procedures, the provision of assistance by national authorities, including free legal aid at the administrative stage of the asylum procedure, the need to adjust the reception capacities to the needs of asylum seekers, and effectively engaging the judiciary in the substantive review of asylum decisions.

UNHCR raised concerns regarding the trend since the end of 2019 of the government not issuing or not extending identification cards for newly registered asylum seekers or asylum seekers already in process and not extending residence documents for recognized refugees and humanitarian status holders, for reasons not provided to them, as required by law. The lack of identification hindered the access of asylum seekers to all the rights provided by law, leaving them vulnerable to deportation or refoulement.

Employment: Persons under international protection have legal access to the labor market. Foreigners, including persons under international protection, may register in the Worknet state program for vocational training and skills development. The program, however, is available only in the Georgian language.

Access to Basic Services: The government provided limited assistance to persons with protected status. The government supported an integration center to provide structured integration programs for such persons and a reception center that had adequate services for asylum seekers and capacity for approximately 150 persons.

The law enables refugees to receive a temporary residence permit during the entirety of their asylum procedure as well as documentation necessary to open a bank account and register a business or property. Refugees receive a renewable temporary residence permit for three years, while protected humanitarian status holders receive a permit for one year, renewable upon a positive assessment of the need for continued protection. Access to education remained a problem due to the language barrier, notwithstanding the government’s provision of Georgian language classes.

Durable Solutions: The government offered a path to naturalization for refugees residing on its territory that includes required language and history tests. Authorities purportedly denied naturalization to some applicants based on national security concerns.

Temporary Protection: The law on the legal status of aliens and stateless persons provides avenues for temporary stay permits for those individuals who were rejected for international protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin due to the reasons stated in the law. The Ministry of Internal Affairs may grant temporary stay permits to individuals who meet the criteria for refugee status or humanitarian protection but who were rejected on national security grounds.

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. In December 2018 a new constitution went into effect that eliminates direct election of the president and establishes a fully proportional electoral system for the 2024 parliamentary elections, among other provisions. Parliament adopted a series of constitutional amendments and electoral reforms aimed at strengthening electoral processes and transitioning to a more proportional electoral system for the October 31 parliamentary elections. The measures included a prohibition on teachers campaigning during work hours, third-party financing regulations, and a mandatory gender quota aimed at increasing women’s participation in parliament.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The country held parliamentary elections on October 31 and second-round runoff elections in 17 of 30 electoral districts on November 21. The OSCE deployed a limited number of observers for the October 31 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its November 1 preliminary statement, the OSCE mission assessed the October 31 elections were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected, but stated “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state” reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process. The mission particularly highlighted concerns about ruling party dominance in election commissions. It also reported continuing shortcomings in the complaints and appeals process, noting that during the pre-election period, of more than 300 complaints, the majority were rejected, “many without due consideration, undermining the right to effective legal remedy.”

Credible domestic civil society organizations deployed approximately 3,000 election observers across the country. They alleged misuse of administrative resources by the ruling party, voter intimidation, vote buying, violations of ballot secrecy, obstruction of journalists and domestic election observers, and inaccurate and altered vote tabulation at the precinct and district level. Domestic organizations submitted hundreds of electoral complaints and were highly critical of the Central Election Commission’s management of the elections. On November 4, a total of 26 domestic NGOs issued a statement describing the conduct of the October 31 elections as the worst held under Georgian Dream. In addition, opposition parties alleged the number of missing ballots in certain precincts indicated there was widespread “carousel voting.” Leading domestic nonpartisan election monitors reported the majority of their postelection complaints were rejected by the election administration and courts, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and the outcome of the election.

As a result of the alleged violations leading up to and on election day, opposition parties boycotted the runoff elections on November 21 and refused to take their seats in parliament. On December 11, the new parliament was sworn in, but only the ruling Georgian Dream members of parliament took their seats (Georgian Dream won 90 of 150 seats). The OSCE did not observe the November 21 runoff elections, and most domestic observer groups significantly scaled back their observation efforts or did not observe because of the boycott. Despite the boycott, domestic election monitoring organizations raised concerns regarding electoral violations on election day.

Throughout November and December, foreign embassies facilitated a series of negotiations between the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition parties, at the request of the parties. Negotiations continued at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Reports of political violence continued. For example, in its November 2 election report, the international NGO National Democratic Institute stated that parties, civil society organizations, and media outlets reported “multiple incidents of violence and intimidation during the campaign period.” Altercations between supporters of competing political parties in September, including violent street fights in Marneuli and Bolnisi, left several persons injured. On November 16, the office of a UNM candidate was reportedly firebombed with Molotov cocktails. On December 24, TI Georgia reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs had commenced investigations into all election-related violence and arrested several individuals. Citing the Ministry of Internal Affairs, TI Georgia noted that, as of October 20, police had opened investigations into 59 cases of election-related violence, of which six were terminated. In nine of the remaining 53 cases, prosecutions were underway. TI observed, however, that the Internal Affairs Ministry had not released updated statistics on investigations underway since October 20.

Following a 2018 assault by the then mayor of Marneuli, Temur Abazov, on a citizen whom he forced to apologize to “41” (the Georgian Dream party’s ballot number) and whose face he allegedly smeared with his own urine, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened an investigation into those involved, including the mayor, UNM member of parliament Azer Suleymanov, and a Georgian Dream member of the Marneuli city council, Ramin Allahverdiyev. The mayor was charged with degrading and inhuman treatment and faced five to 10 years in prison if convicted. The Rustavi City Court acquitted Abazov on February 12. The Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the case to the Tbilisi Appellate Court; at year’s end the case was pending.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides for a gender quota for candidates for seats in parliament. The law aims to increase the number of women in the electoral process by 2024 and requires that every third candidate on a party list be a woman by 2028.

De facto authorities in Abkhazia stripped ethnic Georgians of their Abkhaz “citizenship” in 2014, preventing them from participating in de facto elections. Ethnic Georgians willing to apply for Abkhaz “passports” generally did not receive them in time to participate in de facto elections due to extensive delays. Ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia were also required to accept a South Ossetian “passport” and “citizenship” to participate in political life. International actors, including the OSCE Group of Friends of Georgia, did not recognize the legitimacy of de facto “elections.”

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for officials convicted of corruption. While the government implemented the law effectively against low-level corruption, NGOs continued to cite weak checks and balances and a lack of independence of law enforcement agencies among the factors contributing to allegations of high-level corruption. NGOs assessed there were no effective mechanisms for preventing corruption in state-owned enterprises and independent regulatory bodies. While noting that petty bribery was extremely rare, TI Georgia stated the country failed to pursue a “result-oriented anticorruption policy that would make it possible to investigate cases of corruption, especially those at high levels of government.” In June, TI Georgia, in its National Integrity System Assessment for Georgia, noted enforcement of the law was inadequate with respect to preventing conflicts of interest and corruption in the public sector. The country also lacked an independent anticorruption agency to combat high-level corruption.

The Anticorruption Coordination Council included government officials, legal professionals, business representatives, civil society, and international organizations. In October 2019 the minister of justice announced the government had approved its 2019-21 anticorruption strategy.

TI Georgia in its October report, Corruption and Anti-Corruption Policy in Georgia: 2016-2020, noted the government annually approves national action plans to combat corruption. It reported some shortcomings, however, including ineffective investigations of cases of alleged high-level corruption. Although the law restricts gifts to public officials to a maximum of 5 percent of their annual salary, a loophole allowing unlimited gifts to public officials from their family members continued to be a source of concern for anticorruption watchdogs.

Corruption: In a high-profile case, the head of the Omega Group, a large conglomerate including independent Iberia TV, alleged in 2018 that current and former high-level officials had demanded bribes and engaged in violent racketeering, to include the physical abuse of a former minister. During the year there were no developments in the case. In a separate case involving Iberia TV, on March 5, the Tbilisi City Court convicted former prosecutor general Zurab Adeishvili and former deputy prosecutor general Giorgi Latsabidze of exceeding official powers in 2004-07 by illegally seizing the broadcasting license of Iberia TV so the television station could be controlled by the Saakashvili government. The Tbilisi City Court sentenced Adeishvili to two years’ imprisonment. The length of sentence was reduced by 25 percent under the amnesty law; as a result, he was sentenced to imprisonment for 18 months. Latsabidze was fined 40,000 lari ($12,000). In the same ruling, the court restricted Adeishvili and Latsabidze from holding any position in public sector.

As of August, 13 sitting or former public servants had been charged with corruption since January.

In 2018 authorities questioned the former ministers of infrastructure and economy in connection with a high-profile corruption case. Some observers considered the investigations politically motivated. The investigations continued at year’s end but lacked transparency, and authorities did not update the public on their progress.

As of year’s end, the Anticorruption Agency of the State Security Service of Georgia had detained nine public servants at the local and central levels for taking bribes, including the mayor of Borjomi, Levan Lipartia, and the chair of the city council, Giorgi Gogichaishvli. NGOs continued to call for an independent anticorruption agency outside the authority of the State Security Service, alleging its officials were abusing its functions.

The trial of TBC Bank cofounders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, which began in December 2019, continued during the year. The case stemmed from bank transactions in 2008 when TBC Bank issued a $16.7 million loan to Avtandil Tsereteli’s companies Samgori Trade and Samgori M. Within seconds of receiving the loan, the companies transferred the same amount to Khazaradze and Japaridze. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, TBC Bank released Tsereteli’s companies from financial liabilities in 2012 despite their failure to repay the loans. In a March 2019 interview with Imedi TV, Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili accused Khazaradze of directing an assault against the government. July 2019 charges by the Prosecutor General’s Office came just weeks after Khazaradze’s announcement of his intent to establish a civil movement. Khazaradze established the movement “Lelo” and in December launched the movement as a political party. Tsereteli’s son was the owner of TV Pirveli, an independent media outlet that accused the government of attempting to interfere with its operations (see section 2.a.). In August 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Avtandil Tsereteli with providing support to Khazaradze and Japaridze in the alleged money-laundering scheme. A group of 20 NGOs, including TI Georgia, the Open Society Fund Georgia, the Atlantic Council of Georgia, and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, considered the charges against all three men to be politically motivated, given the amount of time that had transpired. In April the public defender’s annual report for 2019 stated there was no evidence in the case files for the July 2019 charge of money laundering in 2008. On May 14, TI Georgia released an assessment by an international expert that there was no proof that Mamuka Khazaradze, Badri Japaridze, or Avtandil Tsereteli committed a money-laundering offense, either individually or as coconspirators.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual declarations of their income and property for tax inspection; these were posted online. Declarations were not subject to verification, and TI Georgia estimated six members of parliament had undeclared assets in 2019. The Civil Service Bureau received annual financial declarations from public officials and published them in mid-January.

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

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: While there was little official information on the human rights situation in the Russian-occupied regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia due to limited access, allegations of abuse persisted. De facto authorities in the occupied territories continued to deny unimpeded access to the United Nations and other international bodies.

Government Human Rights Bodies: NGOs viewed the Public Defender’s Office, which has a mandate to monitor human rights and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination, as the most objective of the government’s human rights bodies. The constitution limits the public defender to one six-year term in office.

The Public Defender’s Office lacks authority to initiate prosecutions or other legal actions, but it may recommend action, and the government must respond. While the office generally operated without government interference and was considered effective, the office reported government offices at times responded partially or not at all to inquiries and recommendations, despite a requirement to respond to information requests within 10 days and initiate follow-up action within 20 days.

The Public Defender’s Office retains the right to make nonbinding recommendations to law enforcement agencies to investigate individual human rights cases. The office must submit an annual report on the human rights situation for the calendar year but may also make periodic reports. The office may not report allegations of torture unless the victim gives clear consent or a monitor from the office witnessed the torture.

By law the Prosecutor General’s Office is responsible for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The human rights unit of the office monitors government prosecutions overall and supervises compliance with national and international human rights obligations and standards. The unit reviews statistical and analytical activities related to the Prosecutor General’s Office or the justice system at large, and it is responsible for examining and responding to recommendations of national and international institutions involving human rights.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is required to investigate high-profile cases and other criminal offenses. The office may take control of any investigation if it determines that doing so is in the best interest of justice (e.g., in cases of conflict of interest and police abuse cases). In certain politically sensitive cases investigated by the office–including the case of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and instances of political violence–impunity remained a problem. During the year local NGOs expressed alarm regarding what they considered politically motivated investigations and prosecutions (see section 1.e.).

In the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Human Rights Department is in charge of ensuring prompt response and quality of investigations of domestic violence, hate crime, violence against women, human trafficking, crimes committed by or toward minors, and crimes based on discrimination. The ministry’s General Inspection Department investigates cases of human rights abuses by police officers. The human rights unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office has a mandate to monitor and investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination. The Prosecutor General’s Office continued training prosecutors on proper standards for prosecuting cases of alleged mistreatment by public officials.

The effectiveness of government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse by law enforcement officials and security forces was limited, and domestic and international concern regarding impunity remained high. As of November the Investigative Department of the State Inspector’s Service had commenced 256 criminal investigations; four of 256 cases investigated by the State Inspector’s Service were prosecuted, and convictions were obtained in three cases.

The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which was designed to cover Abkhazia and South Ossetia and includes security actors from the government, Russia, and de facto authorities of the Russian-occupied regions, considered human rights abuses reported in the occupied territories and along the administrative boundary line. Due to a dispute regarding agenda items, however, IPRM meetings in Gali (Abkhazia) had been suspended since 2018. Regular IPRM meetings in Ergneti (South Ossetia) had also been suspended, although IPRM meetings took place in Ergneti on July 30 and September 24. In August 2019 South Ossetian participants walked out of an IPRM meeting in Ergneti. De facto authorities in the occupied territories did not grant representatives of the Public Defender’s Office access. The government fully supported and participated actively in IPRM meetings.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, but criminal law does not specifically address spousal rape. A convicted first-time offender may be imprisoned for up to eight years. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

At the end of 2019, the head of the Sapari women’s organization, Baia Pataraia, alleged the enforcement of the law on sexual crimes was problematic. Investigative authorities lacked training on effective procedures on case handling and evidence collection. Victims were often told to focus on physical violence as proof of sexual violence. GYLA reported sexual violence was prevalent and underreported. In only a small number of reported cases were perpetrators convicted. Prosecutors applied overly burdensome evidence requirements for bringing charges against perpetrators of sexual violence, while overwhelmingly strict requirements for convictions of sexual violence crimes were applied by judges.

During the year a study by the Public Defender’s Office into cases of sexual violence revealed a number of serious legislative shortcomings in regulation of crimes involving sexual violence, as well as in investigation, criminal prosecution, and court hearing of such crimes, falling short of the standards of Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and international human rights. The analysis of the cases showed that in the cases of rape and other sexual violence, the court did not consider the absence of a victim’s consent an integral part of the definition of crime. Furthermore, the legislation does not consider a broad spectrum of circumstances that may affect the victim’s will and provides for a disproportionately lenient punishment for a crime committed in certain conditions.

The law criminalizes domestic violence. In cases that do not result in injury, penalties for conviction of domestic violence include 80 to 150 hours of community service or imprisonment for up to one year. Domestic and gender-based violence remained a significant problem that the government took several steps to combat. The Ministry of Internal Affairs had a risk assessment tool that enables a police officer to decide whether to issue a restraining order based on a questionnaire available in the restraining order protocol, the data assessment, and risk analysis. In addition, if there is a high risk of recurrence of violence, a system of electronic surveillance allows the Ministry of Internal Affairs permanently to monitor abusers 24 hours a day. The high rate of domestic violence showed reporting of incidents increased in the country and that police were responding. Shortcomings, however, remained. In one example, in October 2019 an employee of the Tbilisi City Council accused councilmember Ilia Jishkariani of sexual assault and beating. The Prosecutor’s Office charged Jishkariani with sexual and other violence; however, the trial at Tbilisi City Court had not begun as of year’s end.

The Public Defender’s Office highlighted a shortage of measures to prevent violence against women and to empower survivors of domestic violence. The office analyzed gender-based killings (femicides) and concluded they demonstrated an absence of mechanisms to prevent violence against women in the country.

As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened 90 investigations into allegations of rape and the Prosecutor General’s Office prosecuted 44 individuals on rape charges, compared with 29 in 2019.

During the year and in 2019, parliament approved amendments to the Law on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that eliminated shortcomings in the law concerning the detection of domestic violence in minors by crisis and shelter staff. The law also promotes a prevention-oriented approach to correct abusers’ behavior and reduce recidivism. Overall, the Public Defender’s Office and women’s rights NGOs welcomed the new legislation but emphasized the need for the government to improve coordination between government agencies working on the issue.

NGOs and the government expanded the services provided to survivors of domestic violence in recent years. GYLA reported that considering the increase of domestic violence cases by one-third worldwide during the pandemic, the official statistics on domestic violence and violence against women did not change significantly, which indicated a possible underreporting of domestic violence incidents by victims.

Domestic violence laws mandate the provision of temporary protective measures, including shelter and restraining orders that prohibit an abuser from coming within 330 feet of the survivor and from using common property, such as a residence or vehicle, for six months.

Local NGOs and the government jointly operated a 24-hour hotline and shelters for abused women and their minor children, although space in the shelters was limited and only four of the country’s 10 regions had facilities.

In 2019 UN Women conducted a population-level survey and a study on gender-based violence, according to which women’s biggest risk in Abkhazia was violence from intimate partners, with 15 percent of respondents having experienced physical abuse, 30 percent emotional abuse, and 8 percent sexual violence in their lifetime, while 5 percent experienced physical abuse, 14 percent emotional abuse and 7 percent sexual violence in the last 12 months. This risk was more pronounced in rural areas, where 22 percent experienced physical violence, 32 percent emotional violence, and 15 percent sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence by nonpartners was also a problem, with 15 percent of the women surveyed reporting at least one form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime by a nonpartner.

Authorities worked to combat domestic and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. In cooperation with the NGO Women’s Information Center, short text messages were sent to the population on April 14-15 in Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian, explaining the mechanisms and forms of reporting domestic violence to police. The short text message had a built-in link that allowed the user to download an emergency services application and, if necessary, use the silent alarm button to send a message. After sending the text message, up to 5,000 users downloaded the application. The government also produced a video with information on legal instruments and services available in the country against domestic violence and gender-based violence that was shown on both public and commercial television channels.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Kidnapping women for marriage occurred in remote areas and ethnic minority communities but was rare. The Public Defender’s Office reported some cases of kidnapping for forced marriage and early marriage in its 2019 report. The practice of early marriage and engagement remained a significant challenge. Similar to previous years, the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and establishments of secondary education concerning early marriage and engagement was problematic. There was no effective referral mechanism to identify and prevent incidents of early marriage and engagement. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that in the first half of the year, the Human Rights Protection and Investigation Quality Monitoring Department held a number of meetings and participated in various activities to eliminate child marriage crimes and raise public awareness about the problem as well as provide timely reporting to police.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal under the code of administrative offenses but is not criminalized; it remained a problem in the workplace. Under the law sexual harassment is considered a form of discrimination and is defined as an unwanted physical, verbal, or nonverbal action of a sexual nature that aims to or results in the degradation of a person or creation of a hostile environment for that person. Based on amendments to laws on sexual harassment in 2019, the public defender analyzes the case and provides recommendations on the case to authorized persons at the institution where the violation took place. During the year the Public Defender’s Officer examined eight allegations of sexual harassment and identified violations in five instances. For example, in June the public defender found evidence of sexual harassment committed by a doctor against a woman in quarantine. Under May 2019 amendments to the code of administrative offenses, sexual harassment victims may file complaints with police. If found guilty, a person can be fined 300 lari ($90); repeated violations result in a fine of 500 lari ($150) or correctional work for up to one month. Repeated violations in the case of a minor, a pregnant woman, a person unable to resist due to physical or mental helplessness, a person with a disability, or in the presence of a minor with prior knowledge leads to a fine of 800 to 1,000 lari ($240 to $300), correctional labor for up to one month, or administrative detention for up to 10 days.

The public defender considered especially problematic a selective approach applied by the state to instances of violence against women and domestic violence involving influential persons as abusers. In such cases, the approach of the state changed and response was delayed, leaving the impression that preference was given not to victims’ rights but to abusers’ interests. Victims often had to go public to prompt action by relevant authorities.

Reproductive Rights: The law does not regulate the number, spacing, or timing of children for single people or couples. The country regulated the use of surrogacy services, and only heterosexual couples have a right to surrogacy services. In August the Ministry of Justice amended the decree regulating civil acts, restricting the right to surrogacy to heterosexual couples who have been married or living together for more than one year. Women and LGBTI rights organizations considered this a violation of the rights of single women and LGBTI persons who wanted to have a child. The law requires gender confirmation surgery for legal gender-identity change and does not provide transgender individuals who do not wish to undergo confirmation surgery the legal ability to change their gender identity.

The UNFPA reported that women from minority communities, women from rural areas, and poor women faced barriers in accessing information related to their reproductive health.

There were no legal, social, or cultural barriers to access contraception, and contraceptives were available in pharmacies or by prescription, with a prescription exemption for emergency contraceptives. The UNFPA reported, however, that financial barriers limited access to customized contraceptive options for many women.

According to the Public Defender’s Office, limited access to information about contraceptives remained a challenge for girls and women of childbearing age. The office stated human sexuality education was not fully integrated into school curriculums. Programs in schools failed to provide information to teenagers about safe sexual relations. The lack of comprehensive education prevented girls from defending themselves from early marriage and early pregnancy. According to a UNFPA 2020 report, during 2019 there were 29 births per 1,000 girls 15 to 19 years of age.

The Public Defender’s Office stated in 2019 that poor funding and lack of information limited the use of contraceptives and resulted in unplanned pregnancies for women of childbearing age. Women in rural areas, especially remote mountain villages, lacked regular access to family planning services and clinics. Women often had to travel to larger towns for these services, causing additional financial burden.

There were no barriers to receiving skilled personal medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth. During the year, however, the use of maternal health

services decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both due to fear of infection and movement restrictions.

The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of post-partum care needed for the prevention of maternal mortality and for maintaining women’s mental and physical well-being. Maternal health services were somewhat limited for women who spoke languages other than Georgian.

The Agency for Social Care, under the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health and Social Affairs, provided medical, psychological, legal, and other kinds of help to survivors of sexual violence. The agency operated two shelters for survivors and their minor children.

The UNFPA reported that the state funded services for victims of sexual violence based on a 2018 decree. The decree stipulates the state budget will fund certain services, including, but not limited to, emergency contraceptives and postexposure prophylaxis. Regulations, however, require victims of sexual assault–who may hesitate to come forward–to notify police to receive these services, which can be a barrier for victims and health specialists. Victims of trafficking in persons and domestic violence do not need to cooperate with police to receive services.

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

Discrimination: Civil society organizations continued to report discrimination against women in the workplace. The Public Defender’s Office monitored gender equality complaints, in particular those involving domestic violence and workplace harassment, and stated that gender equality remained a problem, despite a number of steps taken in the past few years to enhance legislative and institutional mechanisms. The office considered the small number of government projects, programs, and initiatives designed to empower women to be inadequate to achieve gender equality.

In August the Ministry of Justice passed amendments to the decree regulating the procedure for approving the registration of civil acts. As of September 1, only couples who are officially married for at least one year or can prove they have lived together for at least one year have the right to hire a surrogate and have a child. Women’s rights organizations considered this a violation of the rights of single women who are not officially married and want to have a child. The Ministry of Justice’s stated goal was to decrease trafficking risks, but the decision affected single women and men who cannot have children and planned to use surrogacy services. The legislation gives the right to become a parent with surrogacy help only to couples.

Children

Birth Registration: By law citizenship derives from parents at birth or from birth within the country’s territory; children born to stateless parents in the country are citizens. According to UNICEF, 99 percent of children were registered before reaching the age of five.

While IDP returnees were in principle able to register their children’s births with de facto authorities, they reportedly preferred to have their births registered with Georgian authorities.

Education: Children of noncitizens often lacked documentation to enroll in school. The level of school attendance was low for children belonging to disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as street children and children with disabilities or in foster care.

According to a multiple indicator cluster survey conducted in 2018 by the national statistics office GEOstat and the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health with UNICEF support, total enrollment of preschool children between the ages three and five was 81.8 percent. Enrollment rates were lower for children of ethnic minorities (the rate for Azeri children was 28.8 percent, while the rate for Armenian children was 68.8 percent) as well as children from socially vulnerable groups (poor or large families, single parent families, IDPs, families with persons with disabilities) (63.6 percent) and rural communities (70.2 percent). In 2019 the Public Defender’s Office reported that in spite of efforts by municipalities, availability of preschool care and education remained problems. Kindergarten infrastructure, classroom overcrowding, and sanitary compliance with official standards were particularly problematic.

The school dropout rate remained high. Identifying the reasons for the high rate and adopting effective measures to reduce dropouts remained significant problems. The public defender emphasized the problem in several reports, highlighting the impact of early marriage, child poverty, and child labor on the ability of children to access education. In 2019, more than 14,000 minors dropped out of school, compared with 10,433 in 2018. In 2019 the public defender reported schools had no uniform mechanism to process statistical data of school dropouts or to indicate the grounds for dropping out.

According to a UNICEF study released in 2018, the majority of street children did not have access to either education or medical services beyond emergency care.

Child Abuse: Conviction of various forms of child abuse, including trafficking, forced labor, or forced begging, is punishable by a spectrum of prison terms and fines. Conviction of domestic violence against minors is punishable by imprisonment for one to three years, and conviction for trafficking minors is punishable by eight to 20 years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstance. The Public Defender’s Office reported general education institutions and preschools lack qualified professionals who could detect and respond to signs of violence against children in a timely manner.

Authorities referred children who suffered abuse to the relevant community and government services in coordination with stakeholders, including police, schools, and social service agencies. In 2019 there were 3,881 alleged cases of violence against children reported to the government’s Social Service Agency, 87 of which involved allegations of domestic violence. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in 2019 courts issued 740 restraining orders in domestic violence cases involving victims who were minors.

On September 1, the Code on the Rights of Children, adopted in 2019, entered into force. The code is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its protocols and recognizes child-specific needs and rights, including the right to dignity, life, survival, and development, and prohibits discrimination.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is 18. Conviction of forced marriage of an individual younger than 18 is punishable by two to four years’ imprisonment. During the year the Public Defender’s Office reported the practice of early marriage and engagement remained problematic. The lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, social services, and establishments of secondary education concerning early marriage and engagement also remained a problem. Due to COVID-19, home-based learning made it more difficult for social workers to detect cases and intervene promptly. The Public Defender’s Office noted that the social service agency did not have guidelines for case management and their response to child marriages was often superficial and fragmented. The Ministry of Internal Affairs launched an information campaign against the practice. The ministry’s Human Rights Protection and Investigation Quality Monitoring Department participated in various activities to eliminate child marriage crimes and raise public awareness about the issue, as well as provide timely reporting to police. Reports of child marriages continued throughout the year. A 2019 report by the public defender indicated child marriages occurred more frequently among certain ethnic and religious groups. Further, immediate and adequate response to unlawful imprisonment and forced marriage remained a problem, often due to preconceptions and stereotyped attitudes about ethnic minorities. Inadequate response to such incidents encouraged this type of crime, according to the public defender, because it emboldened potential offenders who believed they would not be held responsible for their crimes. According to the report, male elders (aqsaqals) decided the fate of girls in cases of early marriage in the Kvemo Kartli region . The response of the state entities in such cases was belated and unproductive, according to the report, potentially because authorities may have been reluctant to enter into conflict with influential locals.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction for commercial sexual exploitation of children or possession of child pornography is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Authorities enforced the law. Street children and children living in orphanages were reportedly particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The law considers sexual intercourse with a juvenile as rape, provided the perpetrator is proven to be aware of the victim’s age. The penalty for conviction for rape is up to nine years’ imprisonment; the government generally enforced the law. Conviction of other sexual crimes carried increased levels of punishment if the victim was a juvenile.

In 2019 the public defender described children living and working in the street as a vulnerable social group that faced a high risk of domestic and sexual violence. They lacked protections from labor and sexual exploitation and had limited access to health care and education. The government’s detection, outreach, and actions to protect and assist street children were limited, and access to services for them and their families remained inadequate.

Due to their homelessness and lack of sanitation, street children had a higher risk of COVID-19 infection. The Public Defender’s Office reported, based on information received from the A-TIPFUND, that a quarantine area where children were placed was opened in Tbilisi. Mobile groups working under the state subprogram, if necessary, placed street children in this quarantine area as well.

Displaced Children: The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of information regarding street children and noted the inadequacy of resources devoted to them. It was unclear how many children were geographically displaced, and a significant portion belonged to families that migrate seasonally to Georgia from Azerbaijan. In 2019 the office reported that stereotypical public attitudes toward children living or working in the street and their families posed a problem. The population of street children was diverse, consisting of ethnic Georgians, members of two Romani language groups, Kurds from Azerbaijan, children of Armenian refugees, and children of IDPs from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Law enforcement officers and labor inspectors began to take enforcement action, but more work was needed to protect children from being trafficked or being exploited through illicit work and forced labor.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued replacing large-scale orphanages with alternative arrangements. The government provided grants for higher education for institutionalized and foster-care children, including full coverage of tuition and a stipend, and provided emergency assistance to foster families.

The government continued to transfer children, including those with disabilities, who are institutionalized in large-scale orphanages to family and family-type services (small group homes for specialized care). The government increased the pool of foster parents and specialized foster parents available to receive children from orphanages and avoid an inflow of new cases to orphanages.

The Public Defender’s Office reported protection of minors in state care remained a problem. The protection of children in state care from violence, care for their mental health, protection of right to education, preparation for independent life, improvement of care-taking personnel, and allocation of sufficient human and financial resources posed a challenge. Teachers in small family-type homes as well as foster parents lacked the knowledge and skills to handle children with behavioral problems or children victims of violence. This resulted in children being moved between different types of care, creating additional stress and worsening their situation. Minors with disabilities presented a particular challenge for protection, preparation for independent living, and the right to education because programs were not oriented for individual need. The trend of placement of children with behavioral problems or mental health problems together was also problematic, which further aggravated their situation.

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

Anti-Semitism

Observers estimated the Jewish community to be no more than 6,000 persons.

As of December an appeals court decision was pending in the 2018 killing in Tbilisi of human rights activist Vitali Safarov, who had Jewish and Yezidi roots. Human rights NGOs alleged the two men responsible for the killing were members of a neo-Nazi group, and a key witness at the trial testified that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish. In 2018 the Prosecutor General’s Office added the charge of “premeditated murder due to racial, religious, national, or ethnic intolerance due to his nationality and profession.” In June 2019 the Tbilisi City Court convicted the two men of killing Safarov but dismissed qualifying the killing as a hate crime. In November 2019 the prosecutor appealed the court’s decision not to classify the killing as a hate crime.

On December 20, Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli of the Georgian Orthodox Church delivered a sermon that included a number of traditional anti-Semitic tropes, including references to Jews as “the crucifiers of the Christ” and “the persecutors of Christians.” Metropolitan Gamrekeli went on to say, “This is not defined by ethnicity–this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” The sermon was criticized as anti-Semitic by prominent religious freedom NGOs and civil activists. In response to this criticism, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the metropolitan’s statement, saying his words were misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable. Church officials subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

While the constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, and right to a fair trial, and the provision of other government or private-sector services, the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. The Public Defender’s Office reported persons with disabilities continued to encounter barriers to participating fully in public life. Many families with children with disabilities considered themselves stigmatized and kept their children from public view. The office reported that violence, especially sexual violence, was a significant problem for persons with disabilities. Discrimination in employment was also a problem.

The country operated several orphanages for children with disabilities, although the number of residents decreased with the increased use of alternatives, such as specialized foster parents and family-type services.

The government continued operations of state-run institutions for adults with disabilities. Despite some improvements in these institutions, they lacked infrastructure, trained staff, psychosocial services, and opportunities for patients to have contact with the outside world and families. The Public Defender’s Office’s May report, Situation of Womens Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Psychiatric and Public Care Institutions, found shortcomings in meeting the reproductive health needs of women with disabilities at state institutions. The report revealed frequent cases of violence among patients subjected to prolonged hospitalization and at boarding houses for persons with disabilities. Efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to cases were insufficient.

On July 14, parliament adopted the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The law establishes principles to guide the government’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and clarifies the government’s roles and responsibilities to ensure persons with disabilities fully and effectively participate in society. The new law mandates all agencies employ the principles of universal design, reasonable accommodation, and independent living; recognizes Georgian sign language as an official state language; authorizes special plaintiff organizations to represent persons with disabilities in court; requires municipalities to provide services to support independent living for persons with disabilities; and mandates that relevant state agencies ensure all new and old buildings and services will be accessible for persons with disabilities within 15 years. The new law requires the education system to elevate the status of special education teachers and introduce social workers at schools to work on the inclusion of children with disabilities.

In 2019 only 98 of the 10,099 persons with disabilities registered on the public employment portal (Worknet) were employed, compared with 99 of the 6,073 in 2018. Provisions of the law that disqualify a person with disabilities working in the public sector from receiving state disability assistance was seen as a disincentive to such work, although in January the government passed legislation that would maintain social benefits for one year in cases a person with disabilities finds public-sector employment. The Public Defender’s Office reported persons with disabilities employed in the public sector, unlike those in the private sector, cannot receive social benefits (with the exception of those with severe disabilities or visual impairments).

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported some instances of discrimination against minority communities. As of November 30, the office had received 12 claims of discrimination based on nationality or ethnic origin. When the government declared the Bolnisi-Marneuli region a quarantine zone, for example, one public official encouraged discrimination against ethnic Azeris on their personal Facebook pages. The Public Defender’s Office received several other complaints alleging racial discrimination by law-enforcement bodies. In one case, a police officer purportedly commented on the skin color of an individual while on duty. Several claims came from prisons. In one case, the claimant alleged poor treatment by the prison administration because he was ethnically Armenian.

In 2019 two of the 15 cases of alleged discrimination received by the Public Defender’s Office involved commercial banks refusing to provide services to individuals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. As of November 30, the courts had not determined whether any had suffered discrimination. According to the office, authorities had not taken steps to address discrimination in the provision of commercial financial services. NGOs noted that victims of such discrimination rarely registered claims due to a lack of knowledge about their rights and criticized authorities for not raising greater awareness in minority communities.

During the year the Prosecutor General’s Office charged six individuals with committing a crime on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity.

Media outlets reported numerous cases of hate speech targeting minority groups during the year.

On May 24, during a weekly Sunday service, the bishop of Marneuli and Hujabi Eparchy, Giorgi Jamdeliani, criticized the mayor of Marneuli, Zaur Durgali, for renovating the statue of Nariman Narimanov, an ethnic Azerbaijani Bolshevik writer and revolutionary born in Georgia and active in Baku and Moscow, and threatened to dismantle the statue. Far-right nationalist radical groups, such as Georgian March, publicly endorsed the bishop’s statements and began an aggressive social media campaign. Although the bishop later commented that his criticism was prompted by Narimanov’s personality rather than his ethnicity, many local residents perceived his statements as xenophobic.

On May 30, the State Security Service of Georgia initiated an investigation of the events surrounding the Narimanov statue controversy under the law on racial discrimination. Civil society organizations noted the aims of the investigation were not made clear to the public. On July 16, Bishop Giorgi Jamdeliani, Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center head Dimitri Lordkipanidze, and other nationalist leaders affiliated with Georgian March held a protest rally in Marneuli with the same demands. Press reports suggested the protest was followed by a spontaneous counterrally by young Azerbaijani residents. Police were present to ensure security.

In addition to political, civic, economic, and cultural obstacles, weak Georgian-language skills remained the main impediment to integration for members of the country’s ethnic minorities. Some minorities asserted the law requiring “adequate command of the official language” to work as a civil servant excluded them from participating in government. The Public Defender’s Office reported that involving ethnic minorities in national decision-making processes remained a problem due to the small number of representatives of ethnic minorities in the central government.

The government continued its “1+4” program for ethnic minorities to study the Georgian language for one year prior to their university studies. Under a quota system, the government assigned 12 percent of all bachelor or higher certificate-level placements to students with ethnic minority backgrounds. Of these reserved slots, ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities each received 40 percent (5 percent of the total), while Ossetian and Abkhaz communities received 10 percent each (1 percent of the total).

The law permits the repatriation of Muslim Meskhetians deported in 1944. The government, however, closed its review of repatriation applications in 2017.

De facto Abkhaz authorities enacted policies that threatened the legal status of ethnic minorities, including Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Roma, and Syrians, living in the Gali district of Abkhazia. They closed village schools and did not provide ethnic Georgians opportunities for education in their native language. De facto authorities dismissed ethnic Georgian teachers in Abkhazia deemed to have insufficient knowledge of Russian. The language of instruction for students in first through fourth grades in Lower Gali was Russian. Russian was the only instructional language in the Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire zones, and the de facto authorities prohibited Georgian-language instruction there.

The Public Defender’s Office noted that in the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli districts, ethnic Georgian students and teachers had poor command of Russian, and therefore Russian-only instruction had significantly affected the quality of their education. Local communities had to either pay for teachers, arrange for teachers to cross from Tbilisi-administered territory to teach, or send their children across the administrative boundary line for Georgian-language lessons. According to the EUMM, some Gali students faced difficulties in crossing the administrative boundary line to take university entrance examinations. In autumn 2019 the EUMM noted a small increase in the number of schoolchildren crossing the administrative boundary line, and there were more reports of barriers to studying in their mother tongue. During the year, as de facto authorities fully closed the line, purportedly because of the pandemic, prospective students residing in the occupied territories were unable to take the national examinations for university enrollment. The government subsequently decided to enroll all of the applicants without the exams.

De facto South Ossetian authorities also required ethnic Georgians of all ages to study in Russian.

The government continued to report discrimination against ethnic Georgians in the Russian-occupied territories. The Public Defender’s Office noted the case of Tamar Mearakishvili, an activist in South Ossetia who alleged persecution by the de facto authorities because of her Georgian ethnicity. In July 2019 de facto authorities in Akhalgori cleared Mearakishvili of all charges and lifted all restrictions imposed on her, including the restriction on leaving South Ossetia. The de facto “prosecutor” appealed the decision in September 2019; in October 2019 the court dismissed all charges. The “prosecutor” appealed the decision; on January 17, the de facto “supreme court” partly satisfied the “prosecutor’s” appeal, returning one case to the trial court. At the same time, on February 25, the “prosecutor” filed the same charges against Mearakishvili in the other case in which the “supreme court” had acquitted Mearakishvili. In September, Mearakishvili reported she had been without electricity since September 16, in what she characterized as an act of retribution by Akhalgori “prosecutor” Alan Kulumbegov. Prior to the cut-off of her electricity, she reportedly complained to the de facto “prosecutor general’s office” that Kulumbegov repeatedly sought to blackmail her.

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

The law makes acting on the basis of prejudice because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating factor for all crimes. According to NGOs, however, the government rarely enforced the law. The Human Rights Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs trained officers on hate crimes.

The Public Defender’s Office reported LGBTI individuals continued to experience systemic violence, oppression, abuse, intolerance, and discrimination. LGBTI rights organizations reported several instances of violence against LGBTI individuals during the year. Authorities opened investigations into several of the cases. The office reported that violence against LGBTI individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem and that the government was unable to respond to this challenge.

LGBTI organizations, NGOs, and the Public Defender’s Office reported the government’s ineffective antidiscrimination policy reduced the LGBTI community’s trust in state institutions, and they pointed to homophobic statements by politicians and public officials as furthering hatred and intolerance against the LGBTI community.

Starting in May and continuing through the summer, there were numerous vandalism attacks and anti-LGBTI demonstrations at the Tbilisi Pride office. On May 26, a flag was stolen from the office of Tbilisi Pride. As of year’s end, an investigation was underway. On June 7, black paint and eggs were thrown at the Tbilisi Pride’s office and at the flag displayed on the office’s balcony. The Tbilisi City Court found four persons in violation of the administrative law; three were verbally warned, and one received a fine of 500 lari ($150). On July 21-22, painted eggs were thrown at the flag displayed on the office’s balcony and into the building’s entrance. The investigation continued at year’s end. On August 3, painted eggs were again thrown at the pride flag on the office’s balcony. The case was pending at year’s end. During an October meeting with the Public Defender’s Office, LGBTI organizations expressed frustration that only the attackers were investigated and none of the organizers behind the attacks had been investigated or charged. LGBTI organizations claimed that persons who were charged were only pawns organized and paid by Levan Vasadze and other prominent anti-LGBTI figures.

As of December the Public Defender’s Office had received six complaints of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. One of the complaints was from a transgender woman in prison who claimed she was unable to receive the medication required for her hormonal treatment. In another case, the claimant alleged being threatened due to the claimant’s sexual orientation but police did not respond appropriately. In the third case, the claimant alleged being physically attacked and injured on the head by a man not known to the victim. An NGO lawyer told the Ministry of Internal Affairs that, due to the low trust among LGBTI individuals in local law enforcement organizations, the victim appealed to the Public Defender’s Office to monitor the investigation process.

In June 2019 the Ministry of Internal Affairs charged one person for making death threats on the basis of sexual orientation after he threatened an individual who made public statements against homophobia on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. As of year’s end, the case remained on trial at Batumi City Court.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS were major barriers to HIV/AIDS prevention and service utilization. NGOs reported that social stigma caused individuals to avoid testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS. Some health-care providers, particularly dentists, refused to provide services to HIV-positive persons. Individuals often concealed their HIV/AIDS status from employers due to fear of losing their jobs.

As of December the Public Defender’s Office had received one claim involving discrimination against HIV/AIDS-positive persons. The claimant alleged that a representative of the Patriarchy of the Georgian Orthodox Church encouraged discrimination by providing incorrect information on the spread of HIV/AIDS on television.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law generally provides for the right of most workers, including government employees, to form and join independent unions, to legally strike, and to bargain collectively. According to the law, if a trade union or a group of employees initiates negotiations for the conclusion of a collective agreement, employers shall negotiate in good faith. The parties should provide each other with information relevant to the issues being discussed during negotiations.

Although the law provides for the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, employers did not always negotiate in good faith. Employers’ obligations to participate in mediation are not clearly defined by law or practice. This was illustrated by a collective bargaining process that deadlocked at the Adjara Public Broadcaster. On March 2, an alternative trade union established within the company notified the broadcaster that it was commencing a collective labor dispute for the purposes of safeguarding the editorial independence and labor rights of the employees. Among other procedural problems, the ineffectiveness of mediation was due to the fact that the employer effectively refused to participate in the process.

While strikes are not limited in length, the law limits lockouts to 90 days. A court may determine the legality of a strike, and violators of strike rules may face up to two years in prison. Although the law prohibits employers from discriminating against union members or union-organizing activities in general terms, it does not explicitly require reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity.

Certain categories of workers involved in “human life and health,” as defined by the government, were not allowed to strike. The International Labor Organization noted the government’s list of such services included some it did not believe constituted essential businesses and services, such as municipal cleaning departments; natural gas transportation and distribution facilities; and oil and gas production, preparation, refining and processing facilities.

The government did not effectively enforce laws that protect freedom of association and prohibit antiunion discrimination. Penalties were not commensurate with those under other laws involving the denial of other civil rights. Remedies to address arbitrary dismissal and legal disputes regarding labor rights were subject to lengthy delays. Employees who believe they were wrongfully terminated must file a complaint in a local court within one month of their termination.

Labor organizations reported employers’ obligations to participate in mediation were unclear, and some refused to participate. On March 2, an alternative trade union of workers at Adjara Public Broadcaster formally sought mediation to safeguard their editorial independence and other issues. The employer effectively refused to participate in the process, preventing the employees from addressing their concerns by these means.

In September parliament adopted amendments to the labor code to protect labor and employee rights and a new law on labor inspection that defines basic principles, authority, and power of inspection and the rights and obligations of the Labor Inspection Service.

Workers generally exercised their right to strike in accordance with the law but at times faced management retribution. In November, Georgian House Ltd (Delisia) fired approximately 20 employees and docked the pay of others following their participation in a strike demanding unpaid wages. Some employers interfered with unions. The Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) reported the influence of employer-sponsored “yellow” unions in the Georgian Post and Georgian Railways impeded the ability of independent unions to operate. GTUC also reported widespread instances of harassment in both the public and private sectors based on union affiliation, notably in the railway and postal services.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government’s enforcement of the laws was not always effective. Forced labor is a criminal offense with penalties commensurate with those for other serious crimes. The low number of investigations into forced or compulsory labor, however, offset the effect of strong penalties.

The Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported it found no cases of forced or compulsory labor during the year, although GTUC claimed this was because the Labor Inspectorate lacked enough inspectors to cover the country effectively. The law permits the ministry’s inspection department to make unannounced visits to businesses suspected of employing forced labor or human trafficking. The Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and International Organization for Migration provided training on forced labor and human trafficking for inspectors.

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 minimum legal age for employment is generally 16, although in exceptional cases, children may work with parental consent at 14. Children younger than 18 may not engage in unhealthy, underground, or hazardous work; children who are 16 to 18 are also subject to reduced workhours and prohibited from working at night. The law permits employment agreements with persons younger than 14 in sports, the arts, and cultural and advertising activities.

The law prohibits children from engaging in harmful activities, such as employment in hazardous work, and forms of exploitation of children, including forced child labor and commercial sexual exploitation. The Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs reported that it found one case of child labor law violations during the year, and two other cases were referred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The government effectively enforced the law, but some child labor persisted undetected. Experts reported minors were employed in the service, construction, agriculture, and tourism sectors. The penalties for violations of child labor laws were commensurate with those for other serious crimes.

According to the National Child Labor Study for 2016, the latest year for which data were available, the majority of working children (an estimated 83 percent) were employed in agriculture, mainly helping self-employed family members in a family enterprise or farm. In older age groups, children became increasingly involved in other industries. In most cases, authorities did not consider this work as abusive or categorize it as child labor. In some ethnic minority areas, family farm obligations interfered with school attendance and school participation by ethnic minority children was especially low. Some families in rural Kvemo Kartli (an ethnic Azeri region) and Kakheti (where there was also a significant ethnic Azeri population) worked in distant pastures for six to nine months a year, so their children seldom attended school. Estimates of the number of children affected were not available.

Street begging remained the most visible form of child labor, especially in Tbilisi. In 2018 UNICEF reported that children of street families and unaccompanied children moved following the agricultural and tourist seasons, including to tourist sites along the Black Sea during the summer. Such children were vulnerable to violence and did not have access to either education or medical services beyond emergency care.

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

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor code prohibits discrimination in employment due to race; skin color; language, ethnicity, or social status; nationality, origin, or position; place of residence; age; sex, sexual orientation, or marital status; disability; religious, public, political or other affiliation, including affiliation with trade unions; political or other opinions; or other reasons. It does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status or social origin. The law further stipulates that discrimination be considered “direct or indirect oppression of a person that aims to or causes the creation of a frightening, hostile, disgraceful, dishonorable, and insulting environment.”

The law requires that the principle of equal treatment should apply to labor and precontractual relations. In May 2019 parliament amended the law to define sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and strengthen regulations against it. By law a person may report sexual harassment in a public space to police for investigation. Cases of sexual harassment in the workplace are submitted to the public defender for investigation.

In July parliament passed a law on supporting employment that prohibits all forms of discrimination in the process of supporting employment, unless unequal treatment serves to equalize the employment opportunities of jobseekers and is a proportionate and necessary means of achieving that goal.

The government only sometimes effectively enforced these laws, due to the lack of a fully functioning labor inspectorate. Penalties, when enforced, were not commensurate with those provided by similar laws related to civil rights.

Discrimination in the workplace was widespread. GTUC reported cases of discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, and union affiliation. Companies and public workplaces frequently reorganized staff to dismiss employees who had reached the qualifying age to receive a pension. At job interviews women often were asked specific questions on marital status, family planning, and household responsibilities. Women were frequently paid less than men for the same work and were less likely to receive promotion opportunities. In addition, vacancy announcements often included age requirements as preconditions to apply for a particular position, despite laws that prohibit discriminatory wording in job announcements. Through August, seven cases were referred to the public defender.

While the law provides for equality in the labor market, NGOs and the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs agreed that discrimination against women in the workplace existed and was underreported. Although some observers noted continuing improvement in women’s access to the labor market, women were overrepresented in low-paying, low-skilled positions, regardless of their professional and academic qualifications, and salaries for women lagged behind those for men.

There was some evidence of discrimination in employment based on disability. There were also reports of informal discrimination against members of Romani, Azeri, and Kurdish populations in the labor market.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage for both state- and private-sector employees was below the official subsistence income level. Employers did not apply the official minimum wage, however, since the lowest-paid jobs in the private sector were typically significantly higher than the minimum wage.

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek and a weekly 24-hour rest period unless otherwise determined by a labor contract. Overtime is defined as work by an adult employee in excess of the regular 40-hour workweek, based on an agreement between the parties. An executive order establishes essential services in which overtime pay may not be approved until employees work more than 48 hours a week. Pregnant women or women who have recently given birth may not be required to work overtime without their consent. Minors between ages 16 and 18 may not work in excess of 36 hours per week. Minors who are 14 or 15 may not work in excess of 24 hours per week. Overtime is only required to “be reimbursed at an increased rate of the normal hourly wage…defined by agreement between the parties.” The law does not explicitly prohibit excessive overtime. Inspectors did not have the ability to inspect workplaces or levy fines or other penalties on employers for overtime or wage violations. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes, although they were set to increase under legislation scheduled to go into force on January 1, 2021.

Under the law the Labor Inspectorate has a mandate to inspect for occupational safety and health in all sectors of the economy and may make unannounced inspections and initiate penalties. The government effectively enforced the law, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar crimes, but the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance fully. During the year the inspectorate was responsible for reviewing and enforcing compliance with COVID-19 safety regulations, and most of its inspections were to enforce those regulations.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected employment and labor relations. According to GTUC, pandemic restrictions had a significant economic impact on the tourism, retail, and transport sectors and also affected the construction, real estate, leisure, and entertainment sectors.

Employer abuses of workers’ rights persisted, and it was difficult for workers to remove themselves from hazardous situations without jeopardizing their employment. Workers hired on fixed-term contracts frequently feared that calling employers’ attention to situations that endangered their health or safety would be cause for the employers not to renew their contracts. The Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center reported that, considering the difficulty of finding a new job as well as a lack of adequate social protection mechanisms in the country, workers were reluctant to be vocal about improper and even hazardous working conditions due to fear they would lose their jobs. This situation was particularly acute in some industrial towns where the local population was dependent on a single business operation. The COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the situation, putting employees in precarious positions due to their social insecurity and inability to demand adequate working conditions.

Conditions for migrant workers were generally unregulated. While the government did not keep specific statistics on migrant laborers in the country, the Public Services Development Agency may issue up to 5,000 residence permits annually to migrant workers.

More than 35 percent of nonagricultural workers worked in the informal sector. Labor laws do not cover workers performing work outside of “organized labor conditions,” as most informal employment arrangements do not include employment contracts and thus many informal workers were not protected by the law. NGOs reported informal-sector workers were vulnerable to exploitation. These workers also tended to be the most affected by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Human Rights Watch reported that, according to the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, 22 workers died and 110 were injured in work-related accidents through September. The mining and construction sectors remained especially dangerous, with reports of injuries, sleep deprivation, and unregulated work hours.

Hungary

Executive Summary

Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in 2018, the Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with the organization’s commitments” and noted, “The widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.

The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts; it is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. The state of emergency was renewed in September for another six months. On April 29, the government amended a decree passed under the coronavirus state of emergency law that allows the minister of interior to involve police and the military to participate in the protection of medical resources and permits the military during the state of emergency to take part in street patrols and in monitoring compliance with security measures. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal penalties for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” or libel (although court decisions limited the impact of the latter); exposure of asylum seekers to risk of refoulement; allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations; and threats of violence by extremists targeting Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not widespread.

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

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

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There are no special bodies to investigate security force abuses. Authorities investigated and prosecuted alleged killings by members of the security forces in the same manner as alleged killings by civilians.

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were reports that inhuman and degrading treatment and abuse sometimes occurred. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted that the investigation of cases of mistreatment was often inefficient, the success rate of holding officials accountable for alleged mistreatment through indictments and prosecutions was low, and in some cases law enforcement officials (such as police officers and penitentiary staff) who were sentenced to suspended imprisonment for committing criminal offenses involving the mistreatment of detainees were permitted to continue working.

On March 17, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) published a report on its 2018 visit to ascertain the situation of persons in police custody, juvenile prisoners, adult male prisoners serving life sentences or very long terms, and persons placed in social institutions. According to the report, there were some accounts of authorities resorting to unnecessary or excessive force when apprehending suspects and physical mistreatment of detainees shortly after arrival at police stations. There were also several accounts of racist verbal abuse. The report also noted some instances of interprisoner violence in juvenile prisons. Impunity among members of security forces was not a significant problem.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Official statistics and NGOs reported overcrowding and poor physical conditions in the prison system. There were occasional reports of physical violence by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities holding pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together.

Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a problem. In December 2019 the Hungarian Prison Service reported that its facilities were occupied at 110 percent of capacity, a 3 percent decline from 2018. In response to a freedom of information request by the human rights NGO Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the National Prison Administration reported on June 18 that the prison occupancy rate was 112 percent.

On June 8, parliament adopted legislation that extended until December 31 the deadline for the state to pay compensation to inmates for inhuman or degrading prison conditions. After a court judgment, the general deadline for paying compensation was also extended from 60 days to 90 days. On December 16, parliament approved a bill submitted by the justice minister that restricted government compensation payments to those imprisoned in inhuman conditions.

NGOs continued to report poor physical and sanitary conditions in certain penitentiaries, including the presence of bedbugs and other insects, insufficient toilet facilities, and toilets not separated from living spaces. NGOs also noted frequent shortages of both natural and artificial lighting in cells, a lack of adequate heating, and a continued shortage of psychological care.

In August inmates at the detention center for foreigners in Nyirbator, and subsequently in Gyor, held a hunger strike. The detainees–who were awaiting deportation on noncriminal grounds and included some foreign citizens whose children hold Hungarian citizenship–reported the jail was overcrowded, with some alleging that authorities had not informed them of the reason for their detention.

Administration: NGOs reported that authorities occasionally failed to investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. There was no separate ombudsperson for prisons, but detainees could submit complaints to the ombudsperson or to the prosecutor’s office responsible for supervising the lawfulness of detention. The ombudsperson handled prison complaints and conducted ex officio inquiries but had no authority to act on behalf of prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed the CPT and the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture to conduct periodic and ad hoc visits to prisons and detention centers for both the country’s citizens and foreign nationals. As of November the national preventive mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) undertook 19 visits (seven to prisons, two to correctional facilities, seven to police facilities, and three to social institutions).

There has been no independent NGO monitoring of police detention centers and prisons since 2017, when authorities terminated monitoring agreements with NGOs. The government introduced COVID-19 measures in prisons, which included an almost full ban on in-person visits from family members in detention facilities and suspension of temporary leave for inmates, which made the facilities more closed and less transparent for the public, according to NGOs. In May the Hungarian Helsinki Committee called on the government to consider the early release of elderly and sick inmates due to the pandemic. Restrictions on inmates’ right to family life due to the pandemic stayed in place.

The office of the commissioner for fundamental rights (ombudsperson) continued to operate prison-monitoring services prescribed by OPCAT. The Independent Police Complaints Board was terminated in February, and complaints of police misconduct and mistreatment were handled by the ombudsperson’s office.

Improvements: On July 13, Minister of Justice Judit Varga announced new places for 2,750 inmates in the newly inaugurated wings of 10 prisons made from steel shipping containers located across the country.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police are obligated to take into “short-term arrest” individuals apprehended while committing a crime or subject to an arrest warrant. Police may take individuals suspected of a crime or a petty offense into short-term arrest if they are unable or unwilling to identify themselves or are unaccompanied minors suspected of having run away. Short-term arrests generally last up to eight hours but may last up to 12 hours in exceptional cases. Police may hold persons under “detention for the purposes of public safety” for 24 hours. Persons who abscond from probation may be detained for up to 72 hours. Police, a prosecutor, or a judge may order detention of suspects for 72 hours if there is a well founded suspicion of an offense punishable by imprisonment. A pretrial detention motion must be filed with a court prior to the lapse of the 72-hour period. A defendant may appeal a pretrial detention order.

Police must inform suspects of the charges against them at the beginning of their first interrogation, which must occur within 24 hours of detention. Authorities generally respected this right.

There is a functioning bail system. Representation by defense counsel is mandatory in the investigative phase if suspects face a charge punishable by more than five years’ imprisonment; their personal liberty is already restricted; they are deaf, blind, unable to speak, or have a mental disability; they are unfamiliar with the Hungarian language or the language of the procedure; they are unable to defend themselves in person for any reason; they are juveniles; or they are indigent and request appointment of a defense counsel. The court, prosecution, or the investigating authority (police) may also order a defense counsel in certain cases. Since 2018 local bar chambers, rather than the authorities, assign legal counsel to defendants who lack legal representation.

Police must inform suspects of their right to counsel before questioning them. The law requires that police or the prosecutor suspend interrogation and wait for up to two hours for an attorney to arrive if the suspect invokes this right. Some attorneys reported the right to an effective defense was violated in several cases. For example, in some instances detainees and their defense counsels were required to meet where government security cameras could monitor them. If bar chamber-appointed attorneys refuse the case or do not respond within one hour of appointment, authorities assign the defense counsel. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee found that appointed attorneys frequently neglected their work, with only 16 percent attending their clients’ first court hearings, in contrast with 63 percent of retained attorneys. According to statistics cited in the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s report on the practice of assigning defense attorneys, authorities assigned at least a third of defendants’ attorneys. The law permits short-term detainees to notify relatives or others of their detention within eight hours unless the notification would jeopardize the investigation. Investigative authorities must notify relatives of a detainee’s short-term detention and its location within eight hours.

Pretrial Detention: An investigatory judge may order pretrial detention where there is a risk a detainee may flee, commit a new offense, or hinder an investigation. Cases involving pretrial detention take priority over other expedited hearings. A detainee may appeal pretrial detention.

When the criminal offense is punishable by life in prison, the law does not limit the duration of pretrial detention. The presence of defense counsel at hearings related to pretrial detention is not mandatory.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. Some experts and legal scholars expressed concern over what they considered systemic threats to the country’s judicial independence.

Amnesty International asserted in an April report on the Hungarian judiciary that increasing political control undermined judicial independence. Amnesty International noted, as others have previously, that the politically appointed president of the National Office for the Judiciary (OBH) wields greater power and authority than the 14-member panel of peer-elected judges (OBT) that is charged with oversight of the OBH. Amnesty International characterized the imbalance of power between the two bodies as a threat to judicial independence because the OBH’s influence on the appointment of court leaders throughout the system enabled it to exert “tight control” over the lower courts, further hindering judicial independence. Judges interviewed for the report said “loyalty” was the main requirement for career advancement and administrative advantages in the judiciary.

In late 2019 the long-standing public dispute between then OBH president Tunde Hando and the OBT, which Amnesty International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee characterized as a “constitutional crisis,” ended with Hando’s departure from the OBH for an appointment as a Constitutional Court judge. Alleging numerous procedural and legal violations as well as abuse of power, the OBT had unsuccessfully asked parliament to remove Hando from office in May 2019. Hando’s nominated successor, Judge Gyorgy Barna Senyei, received the OBT’s unanimous support in December 2019. The OBH and OBT have not feuded publicly since Senyei took office in December 2019. While observers viewed the absence of public conflict between the OBT and OBH since Hando’s departure as an improvement, Amnesty International asserted that the “systemic problems caused by the ineffective supervisory powers of the OBT and other weaknesses in the institutions of judicial self-governance will not be solved simply by a change of OBH president.”

In February the European Commission stated that “developments of checks and balances in the Hungarian courts system continued to raise concerns.” In September the European Commission stated in its first Rule of Law Report that the OBT faces challenges in counterbalancing the powers of the president of the OBH, but the appointment of a new president “may open the way for reinforced cooperation” between the two bodies. The report raised concerns over a decision of the Curia, the country’s supreme court, that declared a request for preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice to be unlawful.

In January several senior government officials, including Prime Minister Orban and Minister of Justice Varga, criticized court rulings that awarded compensation to Romani families in a school segregation case and to prisoners for poor prison conditions. On January 17, Orban alleged that groups of lawyers profited, earning millions of forints from the state, through lawsuits over poor prison conditions by abusing the law. On February 28, Orban stated that a network of NGOs and lawyers that he claimed was linked to a prominent Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist was responsible for this “prison business” (see sections 1, 5, and 6 for information on the Romani segregation and prisoner compensation cases). In a January 21 statement, Hungarian Bar Association chairman Janos Banati responded that the prime minister’s statements “undermine the rule of law in Hungary” and expressed his concerns over government attacks against independent courts and defense attorneys.

In December 2019 parliament adopted legislation (the Omnibus Bill) on judicial system reforms that granted state authorities the right to appeal legal decisions to the Constitutional Court if they allege a lower court decision violates their rights. Appealing to the Constitutional Court would enable the government to bypass the traditional route of appeal through the Curia, where appeals by the government would have previously ended. Domestic legal experts said they believed these reforms would allow the government to overturn unfavorable rulings via the Constitutional Court, in which all of the judges have been appointed by Fidesz-led governments and which has consistently ruled in favor of the government in politically sensitive cases over the previous five years. While the Curia was considered to be largely apolitical and staffed by professional judges, many Constitutional Court judges were viewed as more politically aligned legal scholars with limited prior judicial experience. A judge interviewed for the Amnesty International’s report in April asserted that the mere possibility that a judge’s decision could be appealed to the Constitutional Court might be sufficient for the judge to rule in the government’s favor. Another provision of the law requires judges to provide “additional judicial reasoning” if they depart from a previously published nonbinding Curia legal argument.

The European Commission’s September Rule of Law Report noted that the Omnibus Bill allows members of the Constitutional Court, who are elected by parliament, to be appointed as a judge to the Curia without undergoing the formal application and evaluation procedure (in which the peer-elected OBT approves the appointment). The report also noted that the Omnibus Bill lowered the eligibility criteria for the Curia president, allowing time served at the Constitutional Court or at an international court to be taken into account when calculating the “experience as a judge,” even though such an applicant may never have served as a judge in a courtroom. Following the change in the eligibility criteria, on October 5, President Janos Ader nominated Constitutional Court justice Andras Zsolt Varga–who has never served as a presiding judge–for the post of president of the Curia. On October 9, the OBT opposed Varga’s nomination, citing his lack of courtroom experience. On October 19, despite the OBT’s and opposition parties’ objections, parliament elected Varga as the new Curia president. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee stated that Varga’s election represented the “next stage in the government’s series of attacks against the judiciary,” as he was expected to be “a potential transmission belt of the executive within the judiciary.”

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.

Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Suspects have the right to be informed promptly of the nature of charges against them and of the applicable legal regulations, with free interpretation as necessary. Trial proceedings are public, although a judge may minimize public attendance and may order closed hearings under certain conditions. Trials generally occurred without undue delay. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial.

The law stipulates that the investigating authority shall schedule the interrogation to enable defendants to exercise their right to a defense. A summons for a court hearing must be delivered at least five days prior to the hearing. Defendants have the right to free interpretation from the moment charged. Defendants may challenge or question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law states that no one may be compelled to provide self-incriminating testimony or produce self-incriminating evidence. Defendants have the right of appeal.

Courts may not impose prison sentences on juveniles who were between the ages of 12 and 14 when they committed an offense but may order their placement in a juvenile correctional institute.

Some observers and legal experts asserted that the country’s system for assigning defense attorneys and the low compensation provided to those attorneys could hinder criminal defendants’ access to adequate legal representation, and consequently, a fair trial (see section 1.d.).

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

By law individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. Individuals or organizations that have exhausted domestic legal remedies regarding violations of the European Convention on Human Rights allegedly committed by the state may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for redress.

Property Restitution

The government has laws and mechanisms in place, but there was little progress on the resolution of remaining Holocaust-era claims.

Communal property restitution in the country was completed in the 1990s based on a law that allowed religious organizations to claim previously owned properties that were confiscated after January 1946. Work on private property restitution process took place in the 1990s and was completed by 2001. Holocaust survivors from the country receive pension supplements. The 1947 Paris Peace Treaty regulates the restitution of heirless Jewish properties in the country. In 2007 the government pledged and subsequently distributed $21 million to assist Holocaust survivors in the country and survivors of Hungarian origin living abroad as an advance payment on an expected, subsequent agreement that would provide more comprehensive compensation for heirless property. The Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment, a domestic restitution foundation composed of local Hungarian Jews, government officials, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), distributed one-third of the funds to survivors living in the country, while two-thirds were transferred to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to fund social welfare services for survivors in need living outside the country.

In April 2019 the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property. As of December the government had not yet agreed to WJRO’s requests for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations.

For additional information regarding Holocaust-era property restitution and related issues, please see the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

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

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

There is no requirement for the Counterterrorism Center (known by its Hungarian acronym TEK), or in certain cases the national intelligence services, to obtain prior judicial authorization for surveillance in national security cases that involve terrorism. In such cases the justice minister may permit covert intelligence action for 90 days, with a possibility of extension. Such intelligence collection may involve secret house searches, surveillance with recording devices, opening of letters and parcels, and checking and recording electronic or computerized communications without the consent of the persons under investigation. A decision to approve a covert intelligence action is not subject to appeal.

The country’s criminal procedure code establishes a regime for covert policing and intelligence gathering. The law gives prosecutors unrestricted access to information obtained through covert investigations.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and media were active and expressed a wide range of views. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech.”

On March 30, as part of the government’s legislative package declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19, parliament permanently amended the criminal code to increase the penalty for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” (“scaremongering”) that could obstruct or prevent successful protection under a special legal order to imprisonment of up to five years (see section 3 for more on the state of emergency). Government officials asserted that the legislation sought to discourage the spread of harmful “fake news” that could hinder attempts to keep the pandemic under control. Domestic and international observers spoke out against the legislation and raised concerns about its potential effects on media freedom. On March 27, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns that the amendments could negatively affect the work of journalists and have a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. On March 26, Reporters without Borders (RSF) stated that the law granted the government a tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship. On April 21, RSF also noted that before the legislation was submitted, “progovernment media organizations” had called for the arrest of journalists critical of the government.

On June 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2018 government decree classifying the nonprofit Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA)–which experts estimated controls between 80 and 90 percent of all commercial Hungarian media outlets and is managed by Fidesz party allies–as being of “national strategic importance” was constitutional. The Competition Authority and the Media Council cannot scrutinize transactions categorized as of national strategic significance. Government-linked media mounted mostly ad hominem attacks against the owner of the country’s largest independent media group. A law granting members of parliament the right to enter the offices of public buildings was repealed in 2019, and they now require prior notification or permission; experts viewed this as a response to opposition members of parliament having attempted to enter government and state-run media facilities as a form of protest. The European Commission reported that KESMA represented an “increased risk to media pluralism.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government set up an Operative Board to manage and communicate government action. Operative Board members answered press questions submitted in writing and in advance at daily press briefings. Independent and government-critical media repeatedly complained that their questions were rarely answered.

Freedom of Speech: Criminal law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The law prohibits the public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech; however, NGOs representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that police officers continued to resist classifying incidents as hate speech and were unfamiliar with police hate crime protocols (see section 6). The media law also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.

On May 12, police went to the home of a man from Borsod County with a search warrant based on suspicion of COVID-19 “scaremongering” because of his April 28 social media post. The man had questioned the government’s decision to lift curfew restrictions the day after a peak of the pandemic and appealed to “our dear dictator, our dear leader.” Police published photos and videos of the arrest, which was widely reported. Police released him that afternoon after questioning and told him he would not be charged since no crime had been committed.

On May 13, police also carried out a home raid and detained Janos Csoka-Szucs, a member of the opposition Momentum party in the town of Gyula, for a comment he made in a closed Facebook group on April 20. Csoka-Szucs had shared a post from an independent member of parliament about a protest against the government’s decision to discharge patients from hospitals to make room for potential COVID-19 cases. Police claimed his post “jeopardized the effectiveness of the defense in an emergency.” He was released after four hours of questioning, but police seized his computer and mobile phone. NGOs and opposition parties claimed the arrest was an attempt to suppress free speech and intimidate opponents of the government.

A law approved in 2018 imposed a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5). According to press reports, no entity had paid any tax in 2019 under the law, and no known tax office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.

On September 21, the independent news outlet Telex reported that, in a June 2 letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy state secretary for development of European affairs, Jozsef Magyar, asked the country’s EU-based embassies to report the professional visits of Hungarian journalists to those countries. According to the report, the letter asked the embassies to report when the visit(s) took place, which Hungarian outlets took part, and the organizations or local press outlets with which they met. In response to Telexs query as to the purpose of gathering such information, the ministry stated: “To fulfill its mandate, [the ministry] is doing everything against foreign interference in Hungarian domestic affairs. Experience has shown that Soros organizations tend to be behind such attacks.”

On September 29, the Prosecutor General’s Office indicted the president of the Momentum party, Andras Fekete-Gyor, and another member of the party on the charge of assaulting law enforcement personnel during the 2018 protests against the government’s changes to the labor code, which critics dubbed the “slave law” (see section 7). Fekete-Gyor declared he was innocent of the charges, which he described as politically motivated, and opposition Democratic Coalition party released a statement of support, arguing that the government was attempting to use the justice system to stifle freedom of expression.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices. Some new independent media outlets were founded, one of them by reporters from a formerly independent outlet. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) relaunched its Hungarian service on September 8.

In February the beverage company Hell Energy Drink brought a lawsuit against the monthly magazine Forbes Hungary after it published a list of the richest Hungarians. Forbes was forced to recall the issue from newsstands because the privately owned family beverage company argued that the magazine had breached their privacy under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In October the company also obtained a court order barring the publication of parts of an article in the weekly Magyar Narancs, which noted that companies connected to the family had received large amounts in state and EU grants and subsidized loans in previous years, citing again GDPR regulations.

On March 31, government-aligned media mogul Miklos Vaszily purchased 50 percent of Indamedia, the advertising sales company that generated virtually all revenues for the independent news site Index, at the time the country’s most visited online news outlet. With ad revenues decreasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a newly appointed adviser proposed a reorganization plan that would have stripped part of the editorial board’s control. In June, Indexs editor in chief, Szabolcs Dull, publicly opposed the proposal, warning that the outlet was under increasing political pressure. In response, Laszlo Bodolai, chairman of the board of Indexs parent foundation, fired Dull on July 22. Bodolai asserted that Dull’s actions had endangered Indexs economic viability while denying that the outlet’s independence was at risk. Index journalists publicly called Dull’s dismissal “unacceptable” and an open attempt at pressure, which would lead to “the end of independent reporting.” On July 24, more than 70 journalists–the majority of Indexs staff–resigned in protest. On November 23, Indamedia announced it had purchased all of Index’s shares. As of November the website was still operating under the same name but with different staff and with far fewer investigative stories.

Some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. According to Freedom House, “while private, opposition-aligned media outlets exist, national, regional, and local media are increasingly dominated by progovernment outlets, which are frequently used to smear political opponents and highlight false accusations. Government advertising and sponsorships favored progovernment outlets, leaving independent and critical outlets in a financially precarious position.” The European Commission stated that advertising directed at progovernment outlets permitted the government to exert indirect control over media.

The government and government-linked entities often excluded independent and opposition media from their events and press conferences.

The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consists exclusively of persons named by the governing parties. Some experts criticized the NMHH’s frequency awarding practices for allegedly penalizing radio stations that are critical of the government. In December 2019 the NMHH declined to extend the frequency license of a prominent Budapest community radio station, citing previous minor violations of the media law for which the station had already been fined. The station continued to operate online throughout the year. The Capital City Court of Law ruled in July that a September 2019 Media Council resolution that exonerated a public television station from accusations of unlawful bias violated the media law. The court ordered the Media Council to conduct new proceedings into the case. In September the NMHH announced it would not renew the frequency license for Klubradio, set to expire in February 2021, due to minor national content violations. Klubradio had previously broadcast news critical of the government.

The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government. Because MTI’s news services are free, its news products are broadcast widely by national and local outlets. Opposition politicians complained that they were rarely able to appear on state-run broadcasts or were given significantly less time to articulate their positions.

A November independent press report described a concerted effort by state-run media to promote the political agenda of Fidesz ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. The report included audio recordings from officials at state media conglomerate MTVA from March and April 2019, in which MTVA chief editor Balazs Bende and news director Zsolt Nemeth were heard directing MTVA employees to promote the government agenda in advance of the elections. Bende made repeated threats that employees were to get on board with the directive or “get out.” According to the independent press report, the Media Council stated it had “received a complaint which was being investigated.”

The speaker of parliament, Laszlo Kover, continued to ban parliamentary access for various individuals–primarily journalists–for alleged violations of parliamentary rules. On May 26, the ECHR ruled that the bans Kover imposed on journalists working for independent and government-critical media in the spring of 2016 unlawfully restricted the work of media and violated the rights of the reporters. Kover issued a statement declaring that the ruling did not mandate his office to change the existing rules governing press work.

Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists as “Soros agents” or “Soros mercenaries” and independent media as the “Soros media,” or in one instance as the “Soros blog.” In 2018 an investigative reporter for an independent news website was admonished in a summary procedure before a district court in Budapest for alleged abuse of personally identifiable information by using publicly available information in an article on a Hungarian person who criticized Sweden’s migration policy. The reporter demanded a full trial. In September 2019 another court notified the reporter of its nonbinding resolution exonerating him, since the person in question was a public figure who must tolerate in-depth scrutiny in the public interest. The prosecutors appealed the court ruling, and the Capital City Appeal Court remanded the case to the original court for a new trial in February. The case remained pending as of November.

In November 2019 an extreme right-wing website published an anti-Semitic drawing of a journalist from an independent outlet, which was then shared by a mainstream progovernment outlet. A few days later, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli posters appeared in downtown Budapest with the photographs of two reporters who at that time worked for the country’s most widely read news site. The posters suggested the two journalists were foreign agents. The Action and Protection Foundation and the mayor of the district where the posters appeared filed police reports, citing hate speech, against unknown perpetrators. In March the chief of the Budapest police told a press outlet that no proceedings had been launched as there was no indication of a public crime, and no private prosecution had been initiated.

On multiple occasions, government-aligned outlets criticized nongovernment-aligned, independent, and international journalists by name for their reporting. The outlets, many of which belong to the Fidesz-affiliated media conglomerate KESMA (see above), accused these journalists, among other accusations, of being “Soros agents” and, on at least one occasion, reported comments calling for a journalist to be prosecuted under the “scaremongering” provision of the COVID-19 state of emergency law. Some publications included details about the journalists’ backgrounds, where they reside, and photographs of them. Some journalists and commentators were specifically named on multiple occasions, including by a government representative in a press briefing.

For example, an April 16 article in a KESMA-held media outlet published the names of two international journalists, claiming that the “sole purpose of their article was to denigrate the Hungarian government” and included pictures of the journalists. On April 9, the host of a KESMA-held news channel identified by name one of the journalists who resides in Budapest as a native of another country. In an April 16 press conference, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, singled out one of the international reporters for criticism over his reporting. An April 6 article in the KESMA-held Magyar Nemzet quoted a constitutional lawyer who said an article the journalist published on COVID-19 in Hungary qualified as the “spread of horror” and therefore a crime under the scaremongering provision of the emergency law. The lawyer also suggested that a Hungarian news portal that reported on the article should be liable under the law, and both comments were later reported on a KESMA-held news channel. Journalists targeted in this manner by media and government officials reported receiving threats to their safety from individuals.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.

The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by public media. Public television station M1 and its news website, hirado.hu, launched a segment monitoring “fake news” related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The independent media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor noted in a June 16 analysis that the featured reports were “a mix of items published on actual fake news sites and of articles published by independent and government-critical media that obviously do not seem like fake news at all; in fact, the series even included as alleged fake news statements by opposition politicians.”

The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The Council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($666,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.

As of August 24, the Media Council had issued 86 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, of which 57 imposed fines totaling some 23.14 million forints ($77,800) on 46 media service providers.

Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.

Public officials and other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. Opposition politicians and government-critical private individuals sued government-allied media outlets in several high-profile cases. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters.

Internet Freedom

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

In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to store and cooperate in the implementation of court rulings and tax authority resolutions to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

In 2017 an amendment to the higher education law required universities from non-EU countries to have a physical presence in their country of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the country of accreditation, and ensure that the university’s name in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. The U.S.-accredited Central European University (CEU) established a presence at Bard College in New York in 2018, and the government and the State of New York negotiated an intergovernmental agreement. The government argued, however, that CEU had not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the law and declined to sign the draft agreement to bring CEU into compliance with the law. In 2018 CEU announced it would move its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna and did so in 2019. In July 2019 CEU was accredited as an Austrian private university under the name of Central European University, and in November 2019 it officially opened its campus in Vienna. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the matter in 2017. The Constitutional Court suspended the case until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) makes its decision.

The ECJ ruled on October 6 that the amendment violated EU law and contradicted the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights relating to academic freedom. The ECJ also found the law violated the international General Agreement on Trade in Services and World Trade Organization regulations. The ruling stated that the condition of an international treaty between Hungary and the third country constituted a “means of arbitrary discrimination because of the decisive nature of the political will of the Hungarian authorities.” The CEU rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the ruling as a legal and moral vindication but underscored that CEU’s move to Vienna was final, adding that the ruling “lifts the whole burden of Lex CEU off our backs and restores our freedom.”

In 2019 parliament passed a law that gave the government control, through a newly established organization, over the funding of 15 research institutes previously funded and managed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The law received domestic and international criticism as infringing upon the principles of academic freedom and the self-governance of scientific institutions. In July the research institutes received a one-day deadline to submit their “research plan descriptions,” which renewed concerns over the evaluation process of research funding.

Under legislation passed by parliament on May 19, the government assigned private foundations the right to operate six public universities starting August 1. Following the model introduced at Corvinus University in 2019, the Veterinary University, the University of Miskolc, the Moholy-Nagy University of Arts, Neumann Janos University, the University of Sopron, and Szechenyi Istvan University began operating under new structures financed by foundations and in some cases with government officials as members of the board.

On July 3, parliament adopted a law that transferred the ownership of the University of Theater and Film Arts to a foundation as of September 1. The government disregarded the university’s proposal on the composition of the foundation board, instead appointing National Theater director Attila Vidnyanszky as the head of the foundation. The university senate asserted that Vidnyanszky “consistently and deliberately sought to destroy the reputation of the university for years, while the other members of the board have no significant experience in higher education.” Several instructors announced their resignations following the announcement. The university’s students, staff, artists and the public held several demonstrations against the law, and students barricaded themselves inside university buildings, demanding university autonomy. Students ended the blockade due to the government announcement of a ban on assemblies on November 10 as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In an exceptional procedure on March 24 during the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament passed an amendment to the act on culture that removed state-funded Budapest theaters from the control of the municipal government and placed them under central government control. The central government also gained the right to appoint theater leadership. Referring to an allegation of sexual harassment at a Budapest theater at the end of 2019, the government argued that if it provided all funds for the operation of the theaters then it should also be entitled to make personnel and financial decisions, adding that it could no longer support the operation of theaters that did not allow inspection into their affairs. The cabinet introduced the amendment without any professional consultations. In April the central government and the municipality of Budapest concluded an agreement on the operation of Budapest theaters. Under the agreement the municipality of Budapest will finance four theaters without government funding, with the right to decide on the appointment of their directors.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution includes a provision on the protection of privacy, which stipulates that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes, potentially restricting protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and protests in other public spaces that have apartments nearby. The law also permits the government to regulate public demonstrations, including holding organizers liable for damages caused by their events, and to ban protests in advance. Under the law authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm the dignity of the nation or other national, ethnic, or religious communities. The law also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.

The criminal code provides that harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties is a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government introduced restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings and events. In May police fined drivers who participated in a protest against the government’s decision to release patients from hospitals due to COVID-19 by honking their car horns. Police considered the May 28 protest of far-right groups against “Gypsy crime” as falling outside the scope of the law on assembly (see also section 6 on ethnic minorities). During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government put a blanket ban on assemblies in public spaces and imposed fines for violations of up to 500,000 forints ($1,670) for participants of banned protests.

On May 26, the ECHR ruled that police interfered with a private individual’s right to peaceful assembly by unjustifiably dismissing his notification of intent to hold a demonstration in front of the president’s residence in 2013. Police argued that TEK had closed the area in question, rendering it no longer a public space available for demonstrations for the requested period. Subsequent court scrutiny removed the legal basis of the ban but only at a time when the reason for the demonstration had already become obsolete. The ECHR ordered the state to pay the private individual 2,600 euros ($3,100) as compensation for nonpecuniary damage.

Freedom of Association

On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law (see section 5).

A 2011 law on religion deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had previously held incorporated church status; most were required to reapply for registration. The government had not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the law in 2012, but it approved many applications for a lesser status of religious organizations. In 2019 an amendment to the law entered into force creating four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate-level status, it only restores some of the rights those religious groups could exercise before 2011.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with and provided the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to refugees and asylum seekers, with the exception of those held in detention under the aliens policing procedure.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates and UNHCR criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, including its pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia.

Domestic human rights NGOs reported that their attorneys had difficulties in maintaining contact with foreigners kept in aliens-policing or asylum-detention facilities.

Refoulement: The CPT report published in March noted there were no legal remedies offering effective protection against forced removal or refoulement, including chain refoulement. Human rights advocates reported that 11,101 pushbacks to Serbia took place in 2019, according to official police statistics.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for asylum seekers outside the country to apply for it, but UNHCR stated on June 29 that the new law (see below) “further undermines the effective access to territory and asylum for those fleeing wars and persecution which had been already seriously constrained before.” UNHCR called on the government to bring its asylum system into conformity with international refugee and human rights law.

Following the ECJ’s May 14 ruling that classified the government’s holding of asylum seekers in two transit zones on the Hungary-Serbia border as unlawful detention, the government announced on May 21 the closure of the transit zones and introduced a new asylum system in a government decree as of May 27. Based on the new legislation, asylum seekers arriving at Hungary’s border were subsequently turned away and directed to submit a statement of intent to request asylum at the Hungarian embassies in Belgrade or Kyiv. The asylum authority had 60 days to examine the statement of intent and make a proposal to the embassy whether to issue the asylum seeker a special single-entry travel permit to enter Hungary. In case the permit is issued, the asylum seeker travels on their own to Hungary within 30 days and, upon arrival, immediately avail themselves to the border guards who present them to the asylum authority within 24 hours. Those not granted the special one-time entry permit at one of the embassies cannot request asylum in Hungary. The decree was later included as part of the bill ending the state of emergency that entered into force on June 18. On June 29, UNHCR expressed concern that the law exposes asylum seekers to the risk of refoulement. All third-country nationals found anywhere in the country without already having a right to stay (e.g., a valid visa or residence permit) are “escorted” to the other side of the border fence. As of November the asylum authority had not approved any submitted statements of intent.

On October 30, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure due to the new asylum rules, which it considers to be unlawful as they preclude persons who are in the country’s territory, including at the border, from applying for international protection.

On December 17, the ECJ ruled that restricting access to the international protection procedure, detaining asylum applicants for that protection procedure in transit zones, and moving third-country nationals who were illegally present to the Hungary-Serbia border area without observing the safeguards in a return procedure were in breach of EU law.

On June 21, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee reported that between 2017 and the closure of the transit zones in May, thousands of adults and children were detained unlawfully for extensive periods of time, up to almost two years. Authorities deprived 34 individuals of food in 24 cases for one to eight days. In each case the Hungarian Helsinki Committee had to request interim measures from the ECHR to stop the deprivation of food.

On March 1, Prime Minister Orban’s domestic security adviser Gyorgy Bakondi announced the indefinite suspension of the admission of new asylum seekers due to COVID-19. On March 8, the government extended the “crisis situation due to mass migration”–first introduced in 2015 and renewed since every six months–until September 7 due to COVID-19 and the security risk posed by the situation at the border between Turkey and Greece. On September 1, the government extended the “crisis situation” for a further six months. On August 6, Surgeon General Cecilia Muller stated that uncontrolled migration posed an “extreme danger” to the country because most “illegal migrants” came from countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases and may be infected with other diseases no longer common in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government maintained lists of “safe countries of origin” and “safe third countries.” Both lists included Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. UNHCR repeatedly objected to the government’s designation of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures. In 2018 parliament modified the constitution to state that persons arriving in the country “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.” Parliament also amended the asylum law and restricted the right to asylum to only those persons who arrived in Hungary directly from a place where their life or freedom were at risk.

On March 19, the ECJ ruled that national legislation, which stipulated that an asylum application by an asylum seeker arriving in an EU member state through a safe transit country was inadmissible, breached EU law. The court ruled that EU member states were obliged to assess the asylum seekers’ “connection” to the transit country when determining the admissibility of their application; merely transiting through the country was not sufficient to provide the basis of such connection. The case concerned a Syrian Kurd’s asylum application that the immigration authority deemed inadmissible because the applicant had transited Serbia, which the government considers a safe transit country.

Freedom of Movement: Following the closure of the transit zones, the new asylum provisions prescribe the automatic “placement of the applicant in a closed facility” for four weeks following the registration of their asylum request, without any available remedy to challenge the placement. After four weeks the applicant can either be placed in an open facility or in detention, with a legal remedy available against that detention decision. The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers under an aliens policing procedure for a maximum of 12 months, or for six months under asylum detention in certain cases of pending asylum applications. Immigration detention generally took place in immigration detention centers.

In May authorities expelled 15 Iranian students who had allegedly broken COVID-19 quarantine restrictions while being examined at a Budapest hospital. The expulsions came after national political leaders claimed that foreigners, particularly Iranians, were spreading the disease. On July 15, media reported that the decisions were under review.

Access to Basic Services: The National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing (asylum authority) has 60 days to make a proposal to the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade or Kyiv on whether to grant an asylum seeker a one-time entry permit. During this time the asylum seeker is not entitled to accommodation or any support services and does not enjoy any protection.

Human rights advocates reported that, from the closure of transit zones at the end of May until the end of August, no formal education was provided in either the Vamosszabadi or Balassagyarmat refugee reception centers on the Hungary-Slovakia border, where the government moved nearly all of the asylum seekers previously kept in the transit zones. In Balassagyarmat social workers were present in adequate numbers, but psychosocial assistance was not available on a regular basis on site, while a psychologist was contacted on demand. A similar situation was reported in Vamosszabadi.

The law limits benefits and assistance to persons given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than citizens. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers, refugees, or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.

In 2019 the European Commission referred Hungary to the ECJ, stating the legislation that criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country curtailed the asylum seekers’ right to communicate with and be assisted by national, international, and nongovernmental organizations. The case remained pending as of November.

Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but according to civil society organizations, the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee criticized the procedural framework for naturalization, noting decisions were not explained to applicants and no appeal of rejections were allowed. There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states.

Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protection status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used in practice. Under the law all forms of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, tolerated stay, stateless status, etc.) are temporary by nature, with periodic review of the entitlement to protection.

In 2019 the ECJ ruled that judges may grant international protection status to asylum seekers if an administrative body has overruled their decision without establishing new elements in the case. A 2015 regulation had stripped the courts of the right to overrule immigration authorities on asylum applications.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: National elections were held in 2018 under a single-round national system to elect 199 members of parliament. The elections resulted in the ruling parties gaining a third consecutive two-thirds supermajority in parliament, receiving 49 percent of party-list votes while winning 91 of the country’s 106 single-member districts, decided by a first-past-the-post system.

Nationwide municipal elections were held in October 2019 under a single-round national system to elect local council representatives, mayors, and ethnic minority self-government members. With 48.6 percent turnout, the elections resulted in governing Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) candidates retaining the majority of mayoral positions in smaller towns and villages, and the opposition capturing the mayoral seats of Budapest, 14 of the capital’s 23 districts, and 11 of the country’s 23 county seats. Observers suggested the relative success of the opposition resulted from the nomination of a single opposition candidate running against Fidesz-KDNP in most key races. Domestic observers noted the lack of changes to the electoral and media environment and referenced the findings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission deployed to the country in 2018 (see below).

A mission representing the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observed the 2018 national elections. In its final report on the elections, the mission characterized the election as “at odds with OSCE commitments” and concluded that a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling-party resources” undermined contestants’ ability “to compete on an equal basis.”

The ODIHR election observation mission report highlighted that despite the “large number of contestants, most did not actively campaign, ostensibly registering to benefit from public campaign-finance entitlements or to dilute the vote in tightly contested races.” The report called attention to the lack of a “periodic review of constituency boundaries in a transparent, impartial, and inclusive manner by an independent body.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, stipulations of the COVID-19 state of emergency law enacted by parliament included a ban on holding by-elections during the crisis. Upon termination of the state of emergency, the National Election Office announced that 20 local by-elections had been postponed during the period of the pandemic; all 20 were subsequently scheduled on later dates.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The ODIHR report on the 2018 elections noted several problems with media influence that “undermined the level playing field for campaigning and raised questions with regard to the abuse of administrative resources and the blurring of the line between state governing and party campaigning, which is at odds with OSCE commitments.” The report also noted campaign finance laws limited the transparency and accountability of political parties.

Citizens living abroad but having permanent residency in the country were required to appear in person at embassies or consulates to vote, while citizens without Hungarian residency could vote by mail, but only for party lists. ODIHR election observers noted that the practice of applying different procedures to register and vote depending on whether or not a person had a permanent address in the country “challenged the principle of equal suffrage.”

On December 15, parliament modified the electoral law, stipulating that any party wishing to put forward a national party list must nominate candidates in at least 71 (up from the previous 27) of the 106 individual parliamentary constituencies.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the government introduced a state of emergency by government decree on March 11. Under the state of emergency, the government is entitled to issue emergency government decrees which, in line with the constitution, expire after 15 days. On March 30, parliament passed a bill to extend the scope of the emergency decrees indefinitely, authorizing the government to govern by emergency decrees without parliamentary approval.

The bill generated domestic and international criticism for its expansion of the government’s powers without a specified end date and for permanently changing the criminal code in a manner that observers claimed could restrict the free press (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Expression). On March 27, the OHCHR stated that the “bill appears to give the government practically unlimited powers to rule by decree and bypass parliamentary scrutiny with no clear cut-off date.” The OHCHR stressed that “under international human rights law, emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary.” On March 30, ODIHR director Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir expressed concerns about the bill and added, “emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight.” On March 30, the European Commission stated that it was not preventing anyone from doing their job, but would vigilantly ensure that European norms are respected in all policy areas while combating COVID-19. On June 16, parliament passed a bill compelling the government to lift the state of emergency, effective June 17.

Observers noted that many of the decrees and legislation enacted during the state of emergency, including imposing prison time for “scaremongering” under a special legal order and measures critics said were unrelated to the pandemic, remained on the books after the state of emergency was lifted. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Amnesty International Hungary called the termination of the state of emergency an “optical illusion,” asserting that an omnibus bill passed concurrently contained provisions that allow the government to once again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.

Under the state of emergency in April, the government issued a decree that classified the area of the city of God, which is led by opposition parties and home to a Samsung factory, as “strategically important” and a “priority economic zone,” thus transferring jurisdiction of that zone, including tax collection, from the municipality to the Fidesz-led county government. In May parliament passed a similar bill that allowed the government to declare any site hosting investment projects worth more than approximately five billion forints ($16 million) as a “special economic zone.” Critics noted that this provision was unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic and seemed designed to target municipalities controlled by opposition parties, stripping them of tax revenue.

Following the increase of COVID-19 cases during the fall, the government reintroduced a state of emergency on November 4. On November 10, parliament passed a bill to extend the government’s state of emergency powers for an additional 90 days. Also on November 10, the government introduced approximately 30 bills to parliament, including constitutional amendments and other legislative actions on far-ranging issues such as LGBTI rights (see section 6), fiscal transparency (see section 4), judicial independence, and electoral law. On November 20, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, called on parliament to postpone a vote on the measures, scheduled for December, because they could have “serious adverse effects on human rights in the country” if enacted, and because the state of emergency restricts “opportunities for meaningful democratic discussion and public scrutiny.” Parliament passed the bills on December 15.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process. Representation of women in public life, however, was very low. The ODIHR report on the 2018 elections noted, “Women are underrepresented in political life and there are no legal requirements to promote gender equality in elections.” Following the elections, women constituted 12.5 percent of members of parliament. As of November the 15-member cabinet included three women, and 13 percent of subcabinet-level government state secretaries were women, a figure that has remained relatively constant across Fidesz-KDNP administrations since 2010. The UN Human Rights Committee’s Sixth Periodic Report expressed concern that women were underrepresented in decision-making positions in the public sector, particularly in government ministries and parliament.

The electoral system provides 13 recognized national minorities the possibility of registering for a separate minority voting process in parliamentary elections, by which they vote on the minority candidate list instead of the party list. While all 13 national minorities registered candidate lists in the 2018 elections, only one–the German minority–obtained enough votes to win a minority seat in parliament. National minorities that did not win a seat were represented in parliament by nonvoting spokespersons whose competence was limited to discussing minority issues. Regarding the 2018 election campaign, the ODIHR stated it was informed of several instances where pressure was put on Romani voters not to register as minority voters and instead to vote for national lists. Due to privacy laws regarding ethnic data, no official statistics were available on the number of members of a minority who were in parliament or the cabinet.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, few such cases were lodged or prosecuted during the year. The European Commission and NGOs contended that the government did not implement or apply these laws effectively and that officials and those with close government connections often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Anticorruption NGOs alleged government corruption and favoritism in the distribution of EU funds. The Corruption Research Center Budapest identified several cases of bid rigging and other corruption risk indicators in public tenders with EU funding. The research center concluded that companies with close links to the government faced significantly less competition and were able to obtain higher prices when bidding for EU-funded projects.

In its September 30 Rule of Law Report, the European Commission found deficiencies in the country’s anticorruption policies and that the government did not sufficiently address nepotism and favoritism, noting specifically that, “when serious allegations arise, there is a systematic lack of determined action to investigate and prosecute corruption cases involving high-level officials or their immediate circle.” The report also noted, “tight interconnections between politics and certain national businesses are conducive to corruption.”

On December 15, parliament modified the constitution by introducing a new definition of public funds that limited them to “income, expenditures, and claims of the state.” Another amendment declared that the creation and operation of so-called asset management foundations–such as the ones that granted the government ownership of several universities, including the University of Theater and Film Arts (see section 2, Academic Freedom)–were governed by cardinal law requiring a two-thirds majority to change. Transparency watchdogs and opposition parties criticized both amendments, warning that under the new definition of public funds the government would not be compelled to release data on the operation of state-owned enterprises and public funds in response to freedom of information requests, shielding the government from public scrutiny.

In February the European Commission’s European Semester Report on the country stated that corruption remained an important concern. Although the commission noted minimal improvement during the previous year, it stated that further steps were necessary to strengthen transparency and competition in public procurement. The report also called for the Prosecutor General’s Office to pursue corruption cases more effectively and determined that “systemic action by Hungarian authorities to prosecute high-level corruption was lacking.” “The weakening of checks and balances, weak accountability and obstacles to access to public information hinder the fight against corruption,” the report concluded.

Corruption: In its 2019 annual report released on September 10, the European antifraud office OLAF found 43 cases of potential fraud in the country associated with EU development funds received between 2015 and 2019. OLAF recommended that the government repay 3.93 percent of the funds it received during the 2015-19 period. Observers noted that OLAF’s limited resources allowed it to review only a fraction of the tens thousands of EU cases in which EU funds were disbursed to member states.

On January 14, a criminal case against ruling Fidesz party member of parliament Gyorgy Simonka was launched in the Budapest Court of Justice. In August 2019 prosecutors charged Simonka and 32 associates of running a criminal organization that fraudulently obtained 1.4 billion forints ($4.6 million) in EU and state funds through a complex web of companies. Simonka was also accused of both paying and accepting bribes, reportedly paying 20 million forints ($67,000) in bribes to stop Tax Office investigations at his companies. According to the charges, two companies linked to him undertook overpriced EU and state-funded projects with Simonka’s help and transferred kickbacks in cash and other forms through intermediaries to the politician. Prosecutors were reportedly seeking an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence for Simonka and the confiscation of his assets in the value of 850 million forints ($2.8 million).

Financial Disclosure: The law requires members of parliament, senior government officials, the president of the Supreme Court and his deputies, and the prosecutor general to publish asset declarations on a regular basis. NGOs claimed that public officials circumvented the required disclosures by placing assets in the names of spouses, who are not required to file asset declarations. The vast majority of public-sector employees, including law enforcement and army officers, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and public servants, were also obliged to submit asset declarations, which are not publicly accessible. NGOs noted there were no criminal or administrative sanctions for submitting inaccurate asset declarations and asserted there was no effective method to detect violators. The European Commission’s Rule of Law Report noted a lack of transparency in political party financing, asset disclosure, and lobbying.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups operated with some government restrictions affecting their funding. Government officials were generally uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.

On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law. The ECJ declared that the legislation unduly restricted free movement of capital and interfered with fundamental rights, including protection of personal data and freedom of association, respect for private life, as well as citizens’ right to participate in public life. Reacting to the ECJ ruling, an umbrella organization for the affected NGOs, the Civilization Coalition, wrote, “The decision is particularly important for all of Hungarian society, because the government has for years been trying to undermine NGOs working for the common good.” Justice Minister Judit Varga stated the government was committed to ensuring the transparency of NGOs. Despite the ruling, in September a government-established public foundation rejected an EU grant application from a human rights NGO over alleged noncompliance with the law. The law had not been repealed as of November.

At the beginning of the year, several government officials and progovernment media alleged that NGOs and their attorneys were profiting from “prison business” when, representing inmates, they sued the state for compensation due to poor prison conditions (also see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions). Speaking about the Gyongyospata school segregation lawsuit (see section 6, Members of Minority Groups) and referring to human rights groups as “Soros organizations,” the officials also claimed such NGOs should not be able in future to “use Roma families as a tool to launch fundraising campaigns, disturb social peace, and reward those who do not go to school.”

On December 21, Norway’s Foreign Ministry announced the signing of an agreement with Hungary on the disbursement framework for 214.6 million euros ($262 million) in grants from the Norwegian government to support NGOs, climate protection projects, renewable energy, and other development projects. The government initially insisted on determining which NGOs would receive money designated for civil society but reached a compromise whereby a company acceptable to both parties would be chosen to determine the allocation of grant funds to NGOs. Norway stressed that the company’s independence from governmental influence remained a precondition to the agreement. Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein suspended payment to Hungary in 2014 after the government insisted on playing a bigger role in disbursing funds to NGOs in the country, and the government’s audit office raided the offices of one of the NGOs responsible for managing the grants, in what civil society organizations described as a politically motivated investigation that did not result in any charges.

In October, NGOs reported that authorities had closed the investigation into the October 2019 attack on the Aurora NGO center, during which approximately 50 members from the neo-Nazi Legio Hungaria group vandalized the center and burned the pride flag that was hanging outside, without filing any charges (see section 6).

On November 17, the Budapest Capital Regional Court ruled that police had failed in their duty when they did not take immediate action against a group of far-right extremists who had forced their way into an LGBTI event at the Aurora Center in September 2019, chanting homophobic slurs and physically harassing the event participants for three hours, forcing organizers to cancel it (see section 6).

In November 2019 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released statements regarding a media report that the state media conglomerate MTVA banned its staff from covering human rights organizations’ reports, which they described as an attempt to undermine media freedom and further restrict NGOs’ work in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution and law establish a unified system for the office of the commissioner for fundamental rights (ombudsperson). The ombudperson has two deputies, one responsible for the rights of national minorities and one for the interests of “future generations” (environmental protection). The ombudsperson is nominated by the president and elected by a two-thirds majority of parliament. The ombudsperson is solely accountable to parliament and has the authority to initiate proceedings to defend the rights of citizens from abuse by authorities and entities providing public services. The constitution provides that the ombudsperson may request that the Constitutional Court review laws. The ombudsperson is also responsible for collecting electronically submitted reports of public benefit, e.g., whistleblower reports on public corruption, and operates the national preventive mechanism against torture. Ombudsperson recommendations are not binding. During the international re-accreditation process of the ombudsperson’s office as a “national human rights institution,” the October 2019 report by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) noted that the office “did not demonstrate adequate efforts in all human rights issues, nor has it spoken out in a manner that promoted and protected all human rights.” During the year GANHRI decided to defer the review of the ombudsperson’s office for one year. On December 1, parliament voted to transfer the mandate and tasks of the Equal Treatment Authority to the ombudsperson as of January 1, 2021 (see section 6).

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men or women, including spousal rape, is illegal. Although there is no crime defined as rape, the equivalent crimes are sexual coercion and sexual violence. These crimes include the exploitation of a person who is unable to express his or her will. Penalties for sexual coercion and sexual violence range from one year in prison to 15 years in aggravated cases.

The criminal code includes “violence within partnership” (domestic violence) as a separate category of offense. Regulations extend prison sentences for assault (“light bodily harm”) to three years, while grievous bodily harm, violation of personal freedom, or coercion may be punishable by one to five years in prison, if committed against domestic persons.

By law police called to a scene of domestic violence may issue an emergency restraining order valid for three days in lieu of immediately filing charges, while courts may issue up to 60-day “preventive restraining orders” in civil cases, without the option to extend.

Women’s rights NGOs continued to criticize the law for not placing sufficient emphasis on the accountability of perpetrators and the tendency of authorities to blame the victims. In November 2019 local media reported on a woman who shared photos on Facebook about how she had been physically assaulted on several occasions by her partner, a former member of the defense forces. While an investigation was underway in the case, her partner sued the woman for defamation and breach of his privacy rights. Women’s rights groups held a solidarity protest during the court hearing in Miskolc on September 28.

The Ministry of Human Capacities continued to operate a 24-hour toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence and trafficking in persons. The ministry also sponsored crisis centers and secure shelters for victims of domestic violence operated by civil society organizations and church institutions. The crisis centers provided immediate accommodation and care for individuals and families for up to 90 days. The secure shelters addressed the needs of severely abused women whose lives were in danger, who were allowed a maximum stay of six months at the shelters. One type of service was the “crisis ambulance,” which provided mobile walk-in consultations, but not accommodation, for survivors of domestic violence.

NGOs criticized the lack of training on gender-based violence for professionals and emphasized the need for broader awareness-raising efforts among the public to encourage victims to seek assistance and report violence without stigmatization.

Sexual Harassment: By law harassment of a sexual nature constitutes a violation of the equal treatment principle but is not a crime.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health, and most had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. During the year the state took over fertility clinics and began providing state-subsidized assisted reproductive services (artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization), primarily tailored to support heterosexual married couples who experienced difficulty conceiving naturally. LGBTI NGOs characterized access to assisted reproductive technologies as discriminatory against same-sex couples.

Contraceptives were available but were not covered by the state health-care system, which limited access of marginalized groups living in poverty, including Romani women. Sterilization for family-planning (nonmedical) reasons is limited to persons who are older than age 40 or already have three biological children.

The government operated state-funded shelters and a hotline for victims of crime, including sexual violence against women, but these did not provide specialized assistance and sexual and reproductive health services for survivors.

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

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. According to the Economists 2018 glass ceiling index, women constituted 14.5 percent of company board membership, based on 2017 data. Women’s rights organizations asserted that Romani women could suffer multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and class, and experienced barriers to equal access in education, health care, housing, employment, and justice.

Children

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship from a parent who is a citizen. Births were registered immediately. NGOs asserted the law provides only partial safeguards against statelessness at birth because all children of foreign parents born in the country are registered on birth certificates as being of unknown nationality. In addition the NGOs claimed that children born to stateless parents or to noncitizen parents who cannot pass on their nationality to their children were in some cases born and remained stateless.

Education: Although the law provides for free and compulsory education between the ages of three and 16 and prohibits school segregation, NGOs reported the segregation of Romani children in schools and their frequent misdiagnosis as mentally disabled. The European Commission opened an infringement procedure in 2016 due to concerns about the disproportionate overrepresentation of Romani children in special schools with intellectual disabilities as well as a considerable degree of segregated education in mainstream schools.

On February 13, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its observations regarding the country’s adherence to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child between 2014 and 2019. The report expressed concerns about continuing segregation of Romani children in schools and the increased gap in attainment between Romani and non-Romani children in different levels of education. The findings also noted that while there were more than 200 amendments of general legislation affecting children’s rights, the government did not assess the impact of these amendments before and after their adoption.

On March 13, the government announced that all schools would stay closed as an effort against the spread of COVID-19, with all students required to continue education through digital platforms. This posed a problem for disadvantaged children, particularly in the Romani community. Throughout March several Romani NGOs drew attention to the fact that Romani children often lived together with adults in small, overcrowded spaces that were unsuitable for distance learning and often lacked internet connections and electronic devices. They added that many Romani parents were undereducated and unable to help their children with their studies at home or to give them hot meals, which schools typically provided. More than 120 civil organizations across the country set up an action group to deliver food and other donations to families living in deep poverty.

On May 12, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier lower-level court ruling that ordered 99 million forints ($330,000) in damages be paid to 60 Romani students who were unlawfully segregated by and received inferior education from a local primary school in Gyongyospata for 14 years (see section 6, Ethnic Minority Groups). In response to the ruling, parliament in June amended the public education law to ban courts from awarding financial compensation as damages to those who received segregated education.

A 2019 report prepared by Romani and pro-Roma NGOs stated that one-half of Romani students dropped out of the education system. Only 24 percent of Romani students finished high school, compared with 75 percent of non-Romani students. Only 5 percent of Romani students entered university, compared with 35 percent of non-Romani students. The report noted that segregating Romani children in schools and lowering the mandatory school age to 16 contributed to high dropout rates.

In September the Ministry of Human Capacities cut state subsidies to public schools run by the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and Igazgyongy Foundation as well as the Dr. Ambedkar School, attended mostly by Romani children.

Child Abuse: Efforts to combat child abuse included a “child protection signaling system” to detect and prevent the endangerment of children; law enforcement and judicial measures; restraining orders; shelters for mothers and their children; and removal of children from homes deemed unsafe. The law provides that failure of a parent to “cooperate” with the doctors, district nurses, teachers, or family supporters in the signaling system automatically constitutes gross endangerment, even without any other signs of negligence or endangerment.

In December 2019 a man from the city of Gyor who was just released from prison for attacking his wife with a hammer in 2016, beat his 13-year-old stepdaughter and 10-year-old son to death, then hanged himself. The case received widespread media attention.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. The Social and Guardianship Office may authorize marriages of persons between the ages of 16 and 18. The guardianship authorities consider whether a girl is pregnant in making their determination. Limited data exists regarding the prevalence of child marriage in the country, including in the Romani community.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits child pornography. The statute of limitations does not apply to sexual crimes against children. The government generally enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 12, provided the older partner is 18 or younger. Persons older than 18 who engage in sexual relations with a minor between the ages of 12 and 14 may be punished by one to five years’ imprisonment. By law statutory rape is a felony punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment if the victim is younger than 12.

NGOs criticized the practice of punishing children who were victims of sexual exploitation as misdemeanor offenders. On March 10, parliament passed amendments to laws regarding “action against exploitation of victims of human trafficking.” The new provisions entered into force on July 1 and prohibit the punishment of minors exploited in prostitution. Procuring minors for prostitution and exploitation of child prostitution is now a crime punishable by imprisonment between two to eight years.

In July the country’s former ambassador to Peru received a one-year suspended prison sentence and was ordered to pay a 540,000 forint ($1,800) fine for the possession of pornographic photos of children. The sentence prompted public and legal debates that punishments involving child pornography should be more stringent.

Institutionalized Children: The February report of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern over the high number of children living in institutional settings, including 300 children under three years of age. According to UNICEF Hungary, approximately 23,000 children were living in state care institutions. Pro-Roma NGOs noted that institutionalized children living in state care were especially vulnerable to human trafficking for prostitution and criticized the lack of special assistance for child victims of trafficking. In a 2018 report, the ombudsperson stated that one-third of children were placed in child protection care because of their families’ poor financial circumstances.

In August former residents and staff of the children’s home in Kalocsa told local media about the physical and verbal abuse that took place inside the institution for decades. The ombudsperson’s report from 2016 had concluded that supervisors regularly abused children.

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

Anti-Semitism

According to the 2011 census, 10,965 persons identified their religion as Judaism. According to estimates from the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish population numbered between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. A 2018 study published in Szombat, a leading Hungarian Jewish news outlet, found that 82 percent of Hungarian Jews had a direct family member or ancestor who lost their life in the Holocaust. Jewish organizations considered the Holocaust to represent a defining element in the identity of Hungarian Jews, and they regarded it as vital to preserve the memory of what occurred during the Holocaust.

The Action and Protection Foundation, a Jewish group monitoring anti-Semitism, registered 35 anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2019. These were 27 cases of hate speech, six of vandalism, one threat, and one case of assault.

A prominent Jewish leader said that while Jews are not physically threatened in the country, the government engages in what often appears as anti-Semitic rhetoric that hurts many Jewish persons.

In an opinion piece published in the progovernment online outlet Origo on November 28, ministerial culture commissioner Szilard Demeter called a Jewish Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist the “liberal Fuhrer” and wrote that Europe was his “gas chamber” with “poisonous gas” flowing from the capsule of a “multicultural open society.” Referring to the row over the EU’s new rule of law mechanism, Demeter described Poles and Hungarians as “the new Jews” targeted by “liber-aryans.” The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) condemned Demeter’s comments as a “textbook example of Holocaust relativization” and “incompatible with the government-proclaimed zero tolerance against all forms of anti-Semitism”; the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation called Demeter’s comments “tasteless” and “unforgivable.” As of December government officials continued to defend Demeter’s continued tenure as a ministerial commissioner, arguing he had retracted the piece and apologized.

On March 5, graves at a Jewish cemetery in Kiskufelegyhaza were vandalized. Repair costs were estimated at between 300,000 and 2.5 million forints ($1,000 to $8,000).

On January 6, state-run Kossuth Radio station announced the appointment of Beatrix Siklosi as its new director. On January 27, in light of Siklosi’s history of making and spreading anti-Semitic and racist statements, 21 Jewish organizations published a joint open letter to the CEO of the public media organization MTVA, Daniel Papp, asking him to terminate Siklosi’s appointment. Papp rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism against Siklosi as unfounded.

On August 20, the government awarded the Hungarian Order of Merit to historian Erno Raffay, who has been criticized for disseminating anti-Semitic views. The European Commission coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, condemned Raffay in a social media post on August 25 for openly spreading “anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy myths.”

On January 31, the government adopted a new national curriculum that was introduced on September 1 in elementary and secondary public schools. Jewish groups expressed concern that the mandatory reading material included works by writers widely viewed as anti-Semitic and removed works by Imre Kertesz, Nobel laureate for literature and Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

On February 8, approximately 500 to 600 members of radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups from Hungary and other European countries gathered for a “Day of Honor” in Budapest, commemorating the attempted breakout of German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. Dressed in black and carrying flags of their respective far-right movements, they laid wreaths to honor “hero” Nazis and their collaborators. While police initially banned the event, a subsequent court ruling overturned the ban. Separated by a line of police, some 300 to 500 counterdemonstrators, including Romani groups, chanted and drummed during the event. No major conflicts were reported. The commemoration was followed by a march to the outskirts of Budapest following the route of the attempted siege-breakers, in which some participants wore historical uniforms and insignia. No senior government officials publicly condemned the event.

The opening of the House of Fates, a planned new Holocaust museum concept and education center in Budapest, remained pending due to controversy around the museum’s proposed concept. Leading Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars criticized the museum’s proposed concept as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the World War II-era Hungarian state and its leader, Miklos Horthy, in the Holocaust, given that Horthy allied Hungary with Nazi Germany and deported more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews in summer 1944 to Nazi death camps.

On March 1, approximately 1,000 demonstrators took part in a march organized by the far-right party Mi Hazank and the Betyarsereg and 64 Counties extremist groups honoring the centennial of Horthy’s coming to power.

Jewish leaders criticized Laszlo Biro, a Jobbik party member and the opposition parties’ unsuccessful joint candidate in the October 11 by-election in Borsod County, for anti-Semitic and racist statements.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and the law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, communicational, and psychosocial disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, or the provision of other state services.

There were no data available on the percentage of government buildings accessible to persons with disabilities.

The government reviewed its 2019-36 deinstitutionalization strategy to reduce the number of persons with disabilities living in institutions with capacities greater than 50 persons. On April 28, it published its action plan, valid until 2022, to implement the 2015-25 national program on disability issues. International and domestic NGOs called on the government to avoid sustaining institutional culture by building mini-institutions because risks for persons in these settings remain as serious as for those in larger institutions. In a report released April 16 on its visit to the country in 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stated that maintaining and expanding a national system of social care institutions “perpetuated segregation and isolation from society.” The report also stated that children with disabilities requiring high levels of support were overrepresented in segregated education. It also observed the prevalence of poor conditions in these institutions, overmedication, and violations of sexual and reproductive rights.

The constitution provides that a court may deprive persons with disabilities who are under guardianship of the right to vote in its adjudication of the individual’s limited mental capacity. NGOs noted that depriving persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities of their legal rights violated international conventions on the rights of persons with disabilities. Disability rights experts noted that persons with disabilities living in institutions were often placed under guardianship and noted the relative lack of government support for personal assistance in independent living situations.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Roma were the country’s largest ethnic minority. According to the 2011 census, approximately 315,000 persons (3 percent of the population) identified themselves as Roma. A University of Debrecen study published in 2018, however, estimated there were 876,000 Roma in the country, or approximately 9 percent of the country’s population. The study claimed the 2011 census underestimated the size of the Romani community, since Romani respondents often preferred not to disclose their minority status. To avoid biased responses, the researchers gathered data from municipal governments and from Romani self-government bodies instead of asking respondents to self-report their ethnicity.

Human rights NGOs continued to report that Roma suffered social and economic exclusion and discrimination in almost all fields of life. According to an October 12 report prepared for the Council of Europe by the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Roma faced discrimination in education, employment, and access to housing and health care.

On May 28, the Mi Hazank party, joined by a few hundred supporters, held a demonstration against what they called “Gypsy crime” in front of the building of the National Roma Self-Government in Budapest. The demonstration was in response to a double homicide in downtown Budapest in which a teenager stabbed two young men. Unconfirmed press reports in some conservative and right-wing media alleged that the suspect was of Romani ethnicity. A Mi Hazank politician claimed, “The majority of perpetrators [of criminal acts] belonged to the Romani minority.” Police prohibited the gathering citing COVID-19 restrictions, but the party maintained that the demonstration was an “act of mourning” outside the scope of the law. Under heavy police presence, some protesters lit smoke bombs, chanted, “Yes, Gypsy crime exists,” and marched to the site of the scene of the killing joined by individuals from far-right paramilitary organizations. In a May 28 statement, the National Roma Self-Government stated that hostile incitement against Roma was increasing and criticized those who hold them collectively responsible for criminal acts instead of acknowledging individual responsibility. On June 1, Romani civil rights activists reported that the Roma Holocaust memorial in Budapest was defaced with the text “Eradicating Gypsies = eradicating crime.”

In a high-profile May 12 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier lower-level court ruling that ordered 99 million forints (approximately $330,000) in damages be paid to 60 Romani students who were unlawfully segregated by and received inferior education from a local primary school in Gyongyospata for 14 years. The educational authority and local government had asked the court to allow for educational instead of financial compensation, or to lower the compensation amount, but the court rejected both requests. On May 15, Prime Minister Orban called the ruling “unfair” and added: “It serves the law, but it does not deliver justice. From downtown Budapest, where the court is, justice for Gyongyospata is invisible. But we will find it.” The Fidesz member of parliament from Gyongyospata, Laszlo Horvath, called the ruling a “bad decision which disrupts social peace as it unilaterally and overwhelmingly punishes a whole town for the real or assumed grievances of a minority.”

On August 26, the Curia announced its ruling in favor of Romani mothers who were discriminated against in the maternity ward of a hospital in the city of Miskolc. The court agreed with the request by the plaintiff, the European Roma Rights Center, that the hospital immediately terminate the practice of requiring pregnant women’s family members to pay for a hygienic garment in order to accompany them in the hospital room. The plaintiff noted that Romani women were more likely to give birth alone and exposed to the risk of racist abuse and harassment by medical practitioners.

Segregation of Romani children in schools and their frequent misdiagnosis as mentally disabled remained a problem (see section 6, Children). Observers claimed the public education system continued to provide inadequate instruction for members of minorities in their own languages as required by law and that Romani language schoolbooks and qualified teachers were in short supply.

The law establishes cultural autonomy for nationalities (replacing the term “minorities”) and recognizes the right to foster and enrich historic traditions, language, culture, and educational rights as well as to establish and operate institutions and maintain international contacts.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, the law prohibits certain forms of hate speech and prescribes increased punishment for violence against members of the LGBTI community. Victims of discrimination had a wide choice of remedies, including a procedure by a designated government agency (the Equal Treatment Authority), enforcement of personality rights via civil court procedure, and sectoral remedies in media law. Only the civil procedure allows for the awarding of pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages. The Constitutional Court also offers possibilities to challenge allegedly discriminatory legislation. NGOs reported that the Equal Treatment Authority and courts enforced these antidiscrimination laws. On December 1, parliament voted to abolish the Equal Treatment Authority, viewed by LGBTI groups as one of the few remaining public bodies that delivered decisions against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to place it under the ombudsperson’s office as of 2021.

On December 15, parliament adopted a government-submitted amendment introducing additional gender-specific language into the constitution, declaring that “the basis for family relations is [heterosexual] marriage,” and “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.” It also declared that the country “protects children’s right to an identity based on their gender at birth” and that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from [Hungary’s] constitutional identity and Christian culture.” Parliament also adopted government-submitted legal provisions on adoption allowing only married couples consisting of a woman and a man to adopt children, unless the minister for family affairs grants special permission.

On May 19, parliament adopted an omnibus bill that included provisions replacing the term “gender” with “gender at birth” in the civil registry and prohibited gender change on all official documents, such as identification cards, passports, and driving licenses. LGBTI organizations expressed public concern that as a result transgender persons could face harsh workplace and health-care discrimination or could be accused of fraud when presenting personal identity documents. Before the adoption of the amendment, a group of 63 members of the European Parliament sent an open letter to Justice Minister Judit Varga and the chief of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, asking them to withdraw the proposal.

In October, Prime Minister Orban stated that a book that depicted fairy tales with minority, Romani, LGBTI, and characters with disabilities was an “act of provocation.” The leader of the Mi Hazank party tore up a copy of the book in public, and a conservative campaign group collected signatures calling for a boycott. The Hungarian Publishers and Bookseller’s Association condemned the actions, comparing them to censorship under Communism or Nazi book burning.

On August 14, during the Budapest Pride Festival, members of the “Aryan Greens”–a supporters’ group of the Ferencvaros soccer club that includes far-right extremists–tore down the pride flag flying from the Budapest 9th district city hall building and shared photos on Facebook of demonstrators stepping on the flag and burning it. Police identified and detained one suspect on suspicion of harassment. NGOs noted that authorities did not classify the act as a hate crime. Subsequently the vice president of Mi Hazank, Elod Novak, tore down pride flags from two Budapest district city hall buildings. Party president Laszlo Toroczkai stated they would continue to take action against “violent, deviant homosexual propaganda, supported by international background forces,” which he said had reached a point where the symbol of “this satanic group” appeared on the facade of local council buildings. On August 17, a small group of far-right extremists attempted to disrupt a pride festival event but backed off after police asked for their identification. A group of approximately 20 persons dressed in black shirts with the text “Hungarian resistance” appeared at another pride event on August 18, where they damaged the restrooms of Loffice Budapest, which hosted the event.

On November 17, the Budapest Capital Regional Court ruled that police had failed in their duty when they did not take immediate action against a group of far-right extremists who had disrupted an LGBTI event at Aurora Center in September 2019. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which represented the plaintiffs, welcomed the court decision for finding that the intruders’ threatening actions and verbal violence were sufficient grounds for police intervention and for providing “clear guidance” to the authorities on what actions they must take if there is an attack on the LGBTI community.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

According to the 2011 census, 5,579 persons identified their religion as Islam. Government officials regularly made statements in defense of a “Christian Europe.” In an essay published on the occasion of the start of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Orban wrote in the daily Magyar Nemzet on September 21 that, while Central European countries were choosing a migration-free future, the majority population in large Western European cities and 20 percent of the European population would be Muslim by 2050. On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stated that the government had built or refurbished approximately 3,000 churches in the Carpathian Basin since 2010 and pledged that “none of those churches will be turned into mosques or shopping malls.”

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The labor code provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions without previous authorization and conduct their activities without interference, although unions alleged requirements for trade union registration were excessive. The labor code prohibits any worker conduct that may jeopardize the employer’s reputation or legitimate economic and organizational interests and explicitly provides for the possibility of restricting the workers’ personal rights in this regard, including their right to express an opinion during or outside of working hours. Violations of this law could result in a fine to compensate for damages in case the employer turns to court, although this labor code provision was rarely implemented and there were no reported instances during the year. With the exception of law enforcement and military personnel, prison guards, border guards, health-care workers, and firefighters, workers have the right to strike. In other spheres of the public sector, including education or government services, minimum service must be maintained. The law permits military and police unions to seek resolution of grievances in court. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Workers performing activities that authorities determine to be essential to the public interest, such as schools, public transport, telecommunications, water, and power, may not strike unless an agreement has been reached on provision of “sufficient services” during a strike. Courts determine the definition of sufficient services. National trade unions opposed the law on the basis that the courts lacked the expertise to rule on minimum service levels and generally refused to rule on such cases, essentially inhibiting the right to strike.

The government effectively enforced laws providing for freedom of association and collective bargaining. Penalties for violations were generally commensurate with those for other violations. In the public sector, administrative and judicial procedures to determine adequate services were sometimes subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Authorities and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Trade unions alleged that national prosecutors restricted trade union activities and in some cases reported antiunion dismissals and union busting by employers. There were also reports of unilateral termination of collective agreements, which employers in some cases attributed to financial difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Unions reported the government continued to attempt to influence their independent operation.

While the law provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, court proceedings on unfair dismissal cases sometimes took more than a year to complete, and authorities did not always enforce court decisions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

While the law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, observers asserted the government failed to enforce it effectively and forced labor occurred. Penalties for forced labor were comparable to penalties for other serious crimes.

Groups vulnerable to forced labor included those in extreme poverty, undereducated young adults, Roma, and homeless men and women. Hungarian men and women were subjected to forced labor domestically and abroad, and labor trafficking of Hungarian men in Western Europe occurred in agriculture, construction, and factories. The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of seasonal workers, including Hungarians, as numerous hostels and workplaces became hot spots of infections and were subsequently closed. The government implemented temporary travel restrictions, quarantine, or testing for those entering the country to control the pandemic, while also increasing law enforcement efforts and sustaining its prevention efforts.

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 constitution generally prohibits child labor. The law prohibits children younger than 16 from working, except that children who are 15 or 16 may work under certain circumstances as temporary workers during school vacations or may be employed to perform in cultural, artistic, sports, or advertising activities with parental consent. Children may not work night shifts or overtime or perform hard physical labor. The government performed spot-checks and effectively enforced applicable laws; penalties were commensurate with those of other serious crimes.

Through the end of 2018, the employment authority reported 10 cases, involving 17 children, of labor by children younger than 15. The employment authority also reported eight cases involving 11 children between the ages of 15 and 16 who were employed without the consent of their parents or legal representatives during the school year, as well as 16 cases involving 18 children between the ages of 16 and 18 who were employed without the consent of their parents or legal representatives. The employment authority noted child labor cases increased as a result of tighter legislation, which requires presentation of parental permission during an inspection.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity, infection with HIV or other communicable diseases, or social status. The labor code provides for the principles of equal treatment. The government failed to enforce these regulations effectively. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights.

Observers asserted that discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to Roma, women, and persons with disabilities. According to NGOs there was economic discrimination against women in the workplace, particularly against job seekers older than 50 and those who were pregnant or had returned from maternity leave. A government decree requires companies with more than 25 employees to reserve 5 percent of their work positions for persons with physical or mental disabilities. While the decree provides fines for noncompliance, many employers generally paid the fines rather than employ persons with disabilities. The National Tax and Customs Authority issued “rehabilitation cards” to persons with disabilities, which granted tax benefits for employers employing such individuals.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In 2018 the net national minimum monthly wage for full-time employment of unskilled workers and the special minimum monthly wage for skilled workers exceeded the poverty level.

The law sets the official workday at eight hours, although it may vary depending on industry. A 48-hour rest period is required during any seven-day period. The regular workweek is 40 hours with premium pay for overtime. On January 1, amendments to the labor code became effective that increased the limit on maximum overtime from 250 to 400 hours per year. The code also provides for 10 paid annual national holidays. Under the new code, overtime is to be calculated based on a three-year time period, i.e., employees have a right to overtime pay only if, over a three-year period, they have worked an average of more than 40 hours per week. Observers noted the provision could allow employers to avoid paying overtime for work in one year by requiring employees to work less than full time during both or one of the two other years if it lowered their average workweek over the entire three-year period to 40 hours or less. The changes to the labor code led to a series of worker demonstrations in late 2018 and early 2019, following which most employers agreed not to take advantage of the overtime calculation provision of the new labor code and to continue paying overtime in the following pay period. The government effectively enforced minimum wage and overtime laws and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar violations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government passed a decree allowing employers and employees not to apply the prescriptions of the labor code in contracts and work schedules. Trade unions claimed this decree was unconstitutional because it enabled employers to force disadvantageous contracts upon employees and undermined their legal protections. As trade unions have no right of appeal to the Constitutional Court, they appealed to opposition parties to request constitutional review.

The government rewrote established occupational safety and health standards to include pandemic protection measures. The government shut down several economic sectors during the pandemic, including tourism, catering, and culture. Workers continued to have the right to remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in such situations.

The government effectively enforced occupational safety and health laws in the formal sector. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other similar offenses. Labor inspectors regularly provide consultations to employers and employees on safety and health standards. Labor laws also apply to foreign workers with work permits. Labor standards were not enforced in the informal economy. The number of inspectors was sufficient to enforce compliance in the formal sector, and inspectors had the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.

The employment authority and the labor inspectorate units of government offices monitored and enforced occupational safety and health standards and labor code regulations. According to the Labor Protection Directorate of the Finance Ministry, 24,055 injuries and 83 fatalities occurred at workplaces in 2019, a slight increase from 2018. Most of the injuries and deaths occurred in the processing, manufacturing, transport and warehousing, agricultural, and retail sectorss

Poland

Executive Summary

Poland is a republic with a multiparty democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of an upper house (Senate) and a powerful lower house (Sejm). The president and the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister share executive power. Incumbent President Duda was re-elected to a second five-year term after a second round of voting July 12. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conducted election observation. It found the presidential election was administered professionally despite legal uncertainty during the electoral process due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rescheduling of the election to a later date. It also noted the public broadcaster “failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage, and rather served as a campaign tool for the incumbent.” The government continued to implement judiciary-related measures that drew strong criticism from the European Commission, some legal experts, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations.

The police force is a national law enforcement body with regional and municipal units overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Border Guard is responsible for border security and combating irregular migration; it reports to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Internal Security Agency has responsibility for investigating and combating organized crime, terrorist threats, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Central Anticorruption Bureau is responsible for combating government, business, and financial corruption and may investigate any matter involving public funds. The prime minister appoints and supervises the heads and deputy heads of both offices, which also report to parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Some members of law enforcement entities committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal defamation penalties; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic minorities.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of security force impunity.

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

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

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

b. Disappearance

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

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices. There were reports of problems, however, with police misconduct and corrections officer abuse of prisoners. The law lacks a clear legal definition of torture, but all actions that could be considered “torture” are prohibited under other provisions of law and prosecuted consistent with the country’s obligations under international treaties and conventions prohibiting torture. The law outlines disciplinary actions for police, including reprimand, demotion in rank, and dismissal. Civil society groups noted cases of police misconduct against persons in custody.

On February 19, the Wroclaw District Court upheld the conviction of four former police officers who were found guilty of abuse of power and physical and psychological violence against a 25-year-old man who died in police custody in Wroclaw in 2016. Video footage showed police beating and using an electroshock device on the man while he was handcuffed in a jail cell. One defendant was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, and the others received two-year sentences. In addition, the court ruled the defendants could not work as police officers for eight and six years, respectively.

On September 9, the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) operating under the office of the commissioner for human rights (ombudsperson) published a report on police action against a group of demonstrators who held a spontaneous gathering on August 7, following the detention of an activist associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex community. The report described the treatment of detainees by police as “degrading” and in some cases “inhuman” (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions were adequate. There were no significant reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns. Nonetheless, insufficient prison medical staff and limited prisoner access to specialized medical treatment continued to be problems.

Physical Conditions: While authorities generally separated juveniles from adults, the law allows shared housing in prisons and detention centers in exceptional cases. Juveniles were at times held together with adult prisoners. Authorities usually sent juveniles between the ages of 17 and 21 accused of serious crimes to pretrial detention.

The law permits authorities to commit prisoners to the National Center for the Prevention of Dissocial Behaviors when they have served their prison sentences and have undergone a custodial therapy program, and continue to have mental disabilities believed to create a high probability they would commit another serious crime against a person.

Administration: Authorities investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions and made their findings publicly accessible. The country’s human rights ombudsperson may join proceedings in civil and administrative courts on behalf of prisoners and detainees, either when they file a complaint or when information obtained otherwise leads to an allegation of inhuman conditions. The ombudsperson administers the NPM, an independent program responsible for monitoring conditions and treatment of detainees in prisons and detention facilities.

Independent Monitoring: The government allows on a regular basis independent monitoring of prison conditions and detention centers by local human rights groups as well as by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. The Helsinki Human Rights Foundation and other local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made occasional visits to prisons. Prison authorities, however, limited access to prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic due to sanitary restrictions.

Improvements: The government continued implementation of a two-billion-zloty ($516 million), four-year (2017-20) prison administration modernization plan to improve the security of detention facilities, prison infrastructure, and working conditions for prison guards.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution and law require authorities to obtain a court warrant based on evidence to make an arrest, and authorities generally complied with the law. The constitution and law allow detention of a person for 48 hours before authorities must file charges and an additional 24 hours for the court to decide whether to order pretrial detention. The law allows authorities to hold terrorism suspects without charges for up to 14 days. The law sets a five-day limit for holding a juvenile in a police establishment for children if the juvenile escaped from a shelter or an educational or correctional facility. It allows police to hold for up to 24 hours in a police establishment a juvenile who is being transferred to a shelter or an educational or correctional facility, in the case of a “justified interruption of convoy.” The law provides that police should immediately notify a detained person of the reasons for his or her detention and of his or her rights. Usually this information is initially delivered orally; later, at the police station, the detainee signs a statement that he or she has been advised of his or her rights and duties. Police give the detained person a copy of the report on his or her detention. Authorities generally respected these rights. Only a court may order pretrial detention.

There is a functioning bail system, and authorities released most detainees on bail. Defendants and detainees have the right to consult an attorney at any time. The government provided free counsel to indigent defendants.

During the last five years, the number of those placed in pretrial detention steadily grew from 4,162 at the end of 2015 to 9,291 as of August 31. In its 2019 report, the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation argued that prosecutors overly relied upon the system of pretrial detention. According to Court Watch Poland’s 2019 report, pretrial detention was often used as the default preventive measure, and judges often deferred to prosecutors’ motions to place detainees in pretrial detention, without considering the use of other preventive measures such as bail, passport seizure, or police supervision. According to the Court Watch report, judges approved 90 percent of prosecutors’ motions for pretrial detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government continued to implement judiciary-related measures that drew strong criticism from the European Commission, some legal experts, NGOs, and international organizations. The government argued reforms were necessary to improve efficiency in the judicial system and accountability.

On April 8, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued interim measures ordering the government to suspend the work of the Supreme Court Disciplinary Chamber with regard to disciplinary cases against judges. The ECJ is evaluating an infringement proceeding launched by the European Commission in April 2019 and referred to the ECJ in October 2019. The commission argued that the country’s disciplinary regime for judges “undermines the judicial independence of…judges and does not ensure the necessary guarantees to protect judges from political control, as required by the Court of Justice of the EU.” The commission stated the disciplinary regime did not provide for the independence and impartiality of the Disciplinary Chamber, which is composed solely of judges selected by the restructured National Council of the Judiciary, which is appointed by the Sejm. The ECJ has yet to make a final ruling. The European Commission and judicial experts complained the government has ignored the ECJ’s interim measures.

On April 29, the European Commission launched a new infringement procedure regarding a law that came into effect on February 14. The law allows judges to be disciplined for impeding the functioning of the legal system or questioning a judge’s professional state or the effectiveness of his or her appointment. It also requires judges to disclose memberships in associations. The commission’s announcement stated the law “undermines the judicial independence of Polish judges and is incompatible with the primacy of EU law.” It also stated the law “prevents Polish courts from directly applying certain provisions of EU law protecting judicial independence and from putting references for preliminary rulings on such questions to the [European] Court of Justice.” On December 3, the commission expanded its April 29 complaint to include the continued functioning of the Disciplinary Chamber in apparent disregard of the ECJ’s interim measures in the prior infringement procedure.

According to Justice Ministry statistics, the average trial lasted 5.4 months in 2018, compared with 5.5 months in 2017 and 4.7 months in 2016. The EU Justice System Scoreboard reported the courts had become less efficient. In 2010 the court of first instance took an average of 49 days to issue a ruling. In 2017 the average increased to 73 days. Some legal experts cited these statistics as evidence that the government’s judicial changes did not lead to greater judicial efficiency.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and the right to prompt and detailed notification of the charges against them throughout the judicial process, with free interpretation for defendants who do not speak Polish. They have the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay and the right to be present at their trial. Trials are usually public, although the courts reserve the right to close a trial in some circumstances, including divorce proceedings, cases involving state secrets, and cases whose content may offend public morality.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, courts suspended regular operations in April and May. After reopening in June, courts considerably limited public access to hearings due to the continuing pandemic. According to a September 25 Court Watch Poland report, some courts continued to ban audiences after reopening, while others limited numbers of external participants. In June, 36 percent of courts surveyed fully banned public access, 44 percent of courts introduced entry passes, and 17 percent limited the number of observers allowed to participate in the hearing. In August, 12 percent of courts surveyed did not allow the public to participate in hearings, 54 percent required entry passes, and 17 percent limited the number of those participating in the hearing. According to Court Watch Poland, the regulations to ban audiences from hearings violated the constitution, which requires judgments to be announced publicly.

Defendants have the right to legal representation, and indigent defendants may consult an attorney provided without cost. The government must provide defendants and their attorneys adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Defendants may confront and question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Prosecutors may grant witnesses anonymity if they express fear of retribution from defendants. The prosecutor general may release to media information concerning any investigation, except if such information is classified, with due consideration to important public interests. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt.

After a court issues a verdict, a defendant has seven days to request a written statement of the judgment; courts must provide a response within 14 days. A defendant has the right to appeal a verdict within 14 days of the response. A two-level appeal process is available in most civil and criminal matters.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations. The government’s implementation of court orders, particularly for payment of damages, remained slow and cumbersome.

After they exhaust remedies available in the domestic courts, persons have the right to appeal court decisions involving alleged government violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court for Human Rights.

The 2015 and 2016 disputes regarding judicial appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal remained unresolved.

Property Restitution

The law provides for restitution of communal property, such as synagogues and cemeteries, seized under Nazi occupation or during the Communist era, but the process proceeded slowly. The property commissions have resolved 7,173 of slightly more than 10,500 communal property claims by religious groups. Heirless property reverts to the state.

The government has put in place legal and administrative procedures for private property restitution, but NGOs and advocacy groups reported it did not make significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens. No comprehensive law addresses the return of, or compensation for, private property, but individuals may seek the return of confiscated private property through administrative proceedings and courts. NGOs and advocacy groups described the process as cumbersome and ineffective.

During the presidential campaign on July 8, President Andrzej Duda addressed the issue of restitution, stating the government would not pay damages for heirless property and declaring he would not accept any law that would privilege any ethnic group over others. He continued, “If someone wants compensation, please turn to those who caused World War II.”

On September 17, parliament adopted further amendments to the Warsaw-specific 2015 law intended to end abusive practices in the trading of former property owners’ claims. Among other things the revised legislation establishes new grounds on which the City of Warsaw must refuse the return of properties, for reasons outside claimants’ control. The president signed the legislation on September 29. NGOs and advocacy groups expressed serious concerns that the 2015 law fell short of providing just compensation to former owners who lost property as a result of the nationalization of properties by the communist-era government, and also properties taken during the Holocaust era. Legal experts expressed concern that the law limited the ability of petitioners to reclaim property unjustly taken from their lawful owners. The World Jewish Restitution Organization asserted that the time limits included in the law were insufficient for potential claimants, particularly Holocaust survivors and their heirs, to meet difficult documentary requirements.

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

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

The law prohibits such actions but allows electronic surveillance with judicial review for crime prevention and investigation. There were no reports that the government failed to respect those prohibitions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits hate speech, including the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature, the public promotion of fascist, communist, or other totalitarian systems, and the intentional offense of religious feelings.

Violence and Harassment: On February 3, the Warsaw regional court sentenced Michal Majewski, a Wprost weekly reporter, to a fine for protection of sources of information. The conviction refers to a 2014 incident, when Internal Security Agency officers tried to seize forcefully a laptop of one of the journalists who revealed a wiretapping scandal involving leading politicians. The Center for Monitoring Freedom of Speech at the Association of Polish Journalists criticized the conviction as a clear violation of freedom of speech. The ruling was subject to appeal.

On November 11, some police officers used violent crowd control measures against several journalists who were covering violent clashes between police and groups of hooligans during the annual Independence March that took place in Warsaw. Police shot one photojournalist in the face with a rubber bullet and used batons and a stun grenade against other journalists. After the incidents the government announced investigations into the police actions. On December 2, police officially apologized for the incidents and announced training for police officers.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits censorship of the press or social communication. Nevertheless, laws regulating broadcasting and media prohibit, under penalty of fines, license revocation, or other authorized sanctions, the promotion of activities endangering health or safety, or the promotion of views contrary to law, morality, or the common good. The law also requires that all broadcasts “respect the religious feelings of the audiences and, in particular, respect the Christian system of values.”

Critics alleged persistent progovernment bias in state television news broadcasts.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation by print and broadcast journalists is a criminal offense and includes publicly insulting or slandering the president, members of parliament, government ministers and other public officials, the Polish nation, foreign heads of state and ambassadors, private entities and persons, as well as insult or destruction of the national emblem, the flag, other state symbols, and monuments. Defamation outside media is punishable by a fine and community service. The courts rarely applied maximum penalties, and persons convicted of defamation generally faced fines or imprisonment of less than one year. The maximum sentence for insulting the president is three years’ imprisonment.

On August 5, police charged three persons with desecrating monuments and offending religious sentiment by placing rainbow flags on several monuments around Warsaw, including an historic religious statue standing in front of a Roman Catholic Church associated with Warsaw’s occupation. If convicted the three may face a fine for insulting the monuments and up to two years in prison for offending religious sentiment.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Association of Polish Journalists reported that journalists convicted of defamation had never received the maximum penalty. According to the Helsinki Foundation, however, the criminal defamation law may have a chilling effect on journalists, especially in local media, since local authorities may use the law against journalists. Media owners, particularly of small local independent newspapers, were aware that potentially large fines could threaten the financial survival of their publications. According to the Helsinki Foundation, there was a considerable increase in the number of convictions under the criminal defamation law over the last several years. The foundation observed that those seeking to protect their reputations were more likely to pursue criminal defamation charges than civil litigation. This may negatively affect the operation of local media outlets, which the foundation stated were often the only source of accountability for local officials. According to Ministry of Justice statistics for 2018, the most recent data available, courts convicted one person of insulting the president and three persons for insulting constitutional organs of the government. In 2018 the courts fined two persons for public defamation through media using the public prosecution procedure, when a private person presses criminal charges against another person. In 2018 there were 116 convictions for criminal defamation through media using the private prosecution procedure.

On September 2, the Supreme Court struck down a Lodz District Court judgment from February 2019 against investigative reporter Wojciech Biedron on charges of public insult of a judge for inaccurately reporting that a court had initiated disciplinary proceedings against the judge. The September 2 decision resulted from a complaint filed with the Supreme Court by the prosecutor general in September 2019. The case was sent back to the district court for a retrial.

Nongovernmental Impact: On July 7, unknown perpetrators vandalized the offices of the magazine Fakty Social Dialogue. The perpetrators wrote “Fakty TVN go away” on the office walls, apparently mistaking the magazine’s offices for those of private television station TVN’s flagship news program Fakty, which had broadcast criticism of the government. The magazine’s equipment and server room were destroyed, and hard drives from laptops and computers were stolen. The editor in chief of the magazine claimed the vandalism was the result of a campaign by the governing party against “opposition media.”

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications or email without appropriate legal authority. The law authorizes the (ABW) to block websites without a prior court order in cases relating to combating, preventing, and prosecuting terrorist crimes; shut down telecommunications networks when there is a terrorist threat; and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals for up to three months without a court order. During the year there were no reports by media or NGO sources that the ABW blocked websites.

The law against defamation applies to the internet as well.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The law permits restrictions on public assemblies in situations of elevated terrorist threats. During the year there were no cases of the prohibition of a public assembly due to an elevated terrorist threat.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 13, the government limited public assemblies to a maximum of 50 persons. From March 31 to May 29, due to a declared “state of epidemic,” the government introduced a total ban on public assemblies. From May 30 to October 16, public assemblies of up to 150 participants were allowed, except for so-called spontaneous gatherings organized without prior notification to local authorities. On October 17, new regulations entered into force that allowed public assemblies of up to 10 participants in regions of the country with the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and 25 participants in the remaining parts of the country. On October 24, public assemblies were limited to five participants nationwide. In a speech to the Senate on November 27, the ombudsperson expressed concerns that police were increasingly using excessive means of direct coercion against demonstrators over the course of the pandemic and urged the Senate to work on a bill “to make the police more oriented towards observing human rights.”

On May 16, police detained more than 380 persons following a protest by entrepreneurs in Warsaw against government policy towards businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Police used tear gas to disperse the protest. The government punished 220 persons for violating social distancing restrictions, and five were charged with more serious crimes, including assaulting police officers.

On October 27, following several days of large public demonstrations against an October 22 Constitutional Court ruling restricting abortion, Law and Justice Party Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski released a video statement claiming protest organizers and protesters themselves were committing a “serious crime” by protesting during a period of heightened COVID-19 infections in the country. He said authorities had an “obligation to oppose such events.”

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

In addition to guarded centers for foreigners, the government operated 10 open centers for asylum seekers with an aggregate capacity of approximately 1,900 persons in the Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lublin areas.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Some incidents of gender-based violence in the centers for asylum seekers occurred, but UNHCR reported that local response teams involving doctors, psychologists, police, and social workers addressed these cases. UNHCR reported no major or persistent problems with abuse in the centers.

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.

On July 23, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the country, stating it violated the European Convention on Human Rights by not accepting a group of asylum seekers from Russia and not allowing them to file applications for international protection. The case originated in 2017 when several Russian asylum seekers of Chechen origin attempted to enter the country via Belarus but were repeatedly returned to Belarus. The Polish Border Guard refused to accept their applications for international protection even though some had documents that proved they were victims of torture and persecution. On July 24, the Warsaw branch of UNHCR appealed to the government to follow international law and allow asylum seekers to apply for international protection in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The EU’s Dublin III Regulation, to which the country is subject, recognizes all EU countries as safe countries of origin and transit. The regulation also authorizes the governments of EU member states to return asylum seekers to the countries where they first entered the EU. The law permits denial of refugee status based on safe country of origin or safe country of transit but includes provisions that allow authorities to consider the protection needs of individuals in exceptional cases.

Freedom of Movement: Authorities placed some asylum seekers in guarded centers for foreigners while they awaited deportation or decisions on their asylum applications. Border guards may place an individual in a guarded center only by court order. The law prohibits the placement of unaccompanied minors younger than 15 in guarded centers. Border guards typically sought to confine foreigners who attempted to cross the border illegally, lacked identity documents, or committed a crime during their stay in the country.

Employment: Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first six months of the asylum procedure. If the asylum procedure lasts longer than six months, they may work until the asylum decision is final.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers faced language and cultural barriers and had limited access to higher education. Children in centers for asylum seekers had free access to public education, in addition to other educational activities organized in the center, but those placed with relatives in guarded centers for foreigners did not.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to some individuals who did not qualify as refugees. Between August 18 and November 12, according to Ministry of Interior and Administration statistics, 1,050 Belarusian citizens entered the country under special procedures, including “humanitarian visas,” refugee status, and special permissions from the Border Guard’s chief commander. In addition, 330 Belarusians entered the country under the Ministry of Development program Poland. Business Harbor, which facilitates business activity for Belarusians who want to relocate their business to Poland.

g. Stateless Persons

The law affords the opportunity for stateless persons to obtain nationality. A 2019 UNHCR report noted, however, that the government’s lack of a formal procedure of identifying stateless persons led to protection gaps and exposed stateless persons to many negative consequences, including detention.

The 2019 UNHCR report noted several problems resulting from stateless status, including the inability to undertake legal employment or to access social welfare and health care. Stateless persons often lack identity documents, which limits their ability to perform many legal actions, such as opening a bank account or entering into a marriage. According to UNHCR, such problems made this group particularly vulnerable to poverty and marginalization.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted an election observation mission and concluded in its preliminary findings that the June 28 first-round presidential election was administered pro