China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances few or no details were available.
In Xinjiang there were reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the internment camps. There were multiple reports from Uyghur family members who discovered their relatives had died while in internment camps or within weeks of their release. For example, in October the government formally confirmed to the United Nations the death of Abdulghafur Hapiz, a Uyghur man detained in a Xinjiang internment camp since 2017. The government claimed Hapiz died in 2018 of “severe pneumonia and tuberculosis.” His daughter said she last heard from Hapiz in 2016; sources reported he disappeared no later than 2017 and was held without charges in an internment camp.
Authorities executed some defendants in criminal proceedings following convictions that lacked due process and adequate channels for appeal. Official figures on executions were classified as a state secret. According to the U.S.-based Dui Hua Foundation, the number of executions stabilized after years of decline following the reform of the capital punishment system initiated in 2007. Dui Hua reported that an increase in the number of executions for bosses of criminal gangs and individuals convicted of “terrorism” in Xinjiang likely offset the drop in the number of other executions.
There were multiple reports authorities disappeared individuals and held them at undisclosed locations for extended periods.
The government conducted mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. China Human Rights Defenders alleged these detentions amounted to enforced disappearance, since families were often not provided information about the length or location of the detention.
The exact whereabouts of Ekpar Asat, also known as Aikebaier Aisaiti, a Uyghur journalist and entrepreneur, remained unknown. He was reportedly detained in Xinjiang in 2016 after participating in a program in the United States and subsequently sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
Authorities in Wuhan disappeared four citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, Zhang Zhan, and Fang Bin, who had interviewed health-care professionals and citizens and later publicized their accounts on social media in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown in Wuhan. While Li Zehua was released in April, Fang Bin’s and Chen Qiushi’s whereabouts were unknown at year’s end. Zhang Zhan was indicted on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and authorities tried and convicted her on December 28, sentencing her to four years’ imprisonment. She was the first known person to be tried and convicted for her coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been disappeared on multiple occasions, has been missing since 2017.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such harassment.
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. The law excludes evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. There were credible reports that authorities routinely ignored prohibitions against torture, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
In December 2019 human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for participating in a meeting in Xiamen, Fujian Province, to organize civil society activities and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Ding’s wife posted on Twitter that Ding was tortured in a detention center in Beijing, including being subjected to sleep deprivation tactics such as shining a spotlight on him 24 hours per day. As of December 2020, Ding remained in pretrial detention at Linshu Detention Center in Shandong Province.
Following her June 6 arrest, Zhang Wuzhou was tortured in the Qingxin District Detention Center in Qingyuan (Guangdong Province), according to her lawyer’s July 22 account reported by Radio Free Asia. Zhang said that detention center authorities handcuffed her, made her wear heavy foot shackles, and placed her in a cell where other inmates beat her. The Qingyuan Public Security Bureau detained Zhang on charges of “provoking quarrels and stirring up troubles” two days after she held banners at Guangzhou Baiyun Mountains to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
In August an attorney for detained human rights activist and lawyer Yu Wensheng reported that Yu had been held incommunicado for 18 months before and after his conviction in June of “inciting subversion of state power” for which he received a four-year sentence. Yu reported he was repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray and was forced to sit in a metal chair for an extended period of time.
On October 22, human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, known for his successful representation of HIV/AIDS discrimination cases, was put into “residential surveillance in a designated location” in Baoji City, Shanxi Province, after posting a video to YouTube detailing torture he suffered during a January detention. As of December, Chang was still under these restrictions and denied access to his family and lawyer.
Members of the minority Uyghur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated that authorities subjected individuals in custody to electric shock, waterboarding, beatings, rape, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, stress positions, forced administration of unknown medication, and cold cells (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
There was no direct evidence of an involuntary or prisoner-based organ transplant system; however, activists and some organizations continued to accuse the government of forcibly harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, including religious and spiritual adherents such as Falun Gong practitioners and Muslim detainees in Xinjiang. An NGO research report noted that public security and other authorities in Xinjiang have collected biometric data–including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types–of all Xinjiang residents between 12 and 65 years of age, which the report said could indicate evidence of illicit organ trafficking. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported that they were subjected to coerced comprehensive health screenings including blood and DNA testing upon entering the internment camps. There were also reports from former detainees that authorities forced Uyghur detainees to undergo medical examinations of thoracic and abdominal organs. The government continues to claim that it had ended the long-standing practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for use in transplants in 2015.
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system as a legal tool for the government and CCP to investigate corruption, featured custodial treatment such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports (see section 4).
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice, which manages the prison system.
Conditions in penal institutions for both political prisoners and criminal offenders were generally harsh and often life threatening or degrading.
Physical Conditions: Authorities regularly held prisoners and detainees in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Food often was inadequate and of poor quality, and many detainees relied on supplemental food, medicines, and warm clothing provided by relatives when allowed to receive them. Prisoners often reported sleeping on the floor because there were no beds or bedding. In many cases provisions for sanitation, ventilation, heating, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate.
The lack of adequate, timely medical care for prisoners remained a serious problem, despite official assurances prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment. Prison authorities at times withheld medical treatment from political prisoners. Multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and news agencies reported detainees at “re-education” centers or long-term extrajudicial detention centers became seriously ill or died.
Political prisoners were sometimes held with the general prison population and reported being beaten by other prisoners at the instigation of guards. Some reported being held in the same cells as death row inmates. In some cases authorities did not allow dissidents to receive supplemental food, medicine, and warm clothing from relatives.
Conditions in administrative detention facilities were similar to those in prisons. Deaths from beatings occurred in administrative detention facilities. Detainees reported beatings, sexual assaults, lack of proper food, and limited or no access to medical care.
In Xinjiang authorities expanded existing internment camps for Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims. In some cases authorities used repurposed schools, factories, and prisons to hold detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, these camps focused on “military-style discipline and pervasive political indoctrination of the detainees.” Detainees reported pervasive physical abuse and torture in the camps and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
In August, Qelbinur Sedik, a former teacher at a women’s internment camp, reported approximately 10,000 women had their heads shaved and were forced to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, injected with unknown substances without their permission, and required to take contraceptive pills issued by a birth-control unit. She reported women were raped and sexually abused on a daily basis by camp guards and said there was a torture room in the camp basement.
In October the government charged Yang Hengjun, an Australian author and blogger who encouraged democratic reform in China, with espionage. He was detained in January 2019 then formally arrested in August 2019. In a September message to his family, Yang said he had been interrogated more than 300 times, at all hours of day and night, for four to five hours at a time.
Administration: The law states letters from a prisoner to higher authorities of the prison or to the judicial organs shall be free from examination; it was unclear to what extent the law was implemented. While authorities occasionally investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions, their results were not documented in a publicly accessible manner. Authorities denied many prisoners and detainees reasonable access to visitors and correspondence with family members. Some family members did not know the whereabouts of their relatives in custody. Authorities also prevented many prisoners and detainees from engaging in religious practices or gaining access to religious materials.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities considered information about prisons and various other types of administrative and extralegal detention facilities to be a state secret, and the government did not permit independent monitoring.
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders and adherents, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest.
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
The National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI; see section 4) official detention system, known as liuzhi, faced allegations of detainee abuse and torture. Liuzhi detainees are held incommunicado and have no recourse to appeal their detention. While detainee abuse is proscribed by the law, the mechanism for detainees to report abuse is unclear.
Although liuzhi operates outside the judicial system, confessions given while in liuzhi were used as evidence in judicial proceedings. According to 2019 press reports and an August 2019 NGO report, liuzhi detainees were subjected to extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days.
There were no statistics available for the number of individuals in the liuzhi detention system nationwide. Several provinces, however, publicized these numbers, including Hubei with 1,095 and Zhejiang with 931 detained, both in 2019. One provincial official head of the liuzhi detention system stated suspects averaged 42.5 days in detention before being transferred into the criminal justice system.
On January 8, Guangzhou police detained Kwok Chun-fung, a Hong Kong student enrolled at the Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, on charges of “soliciting prostitution.” The university issued a statement on January 15 stating that Kwok was under suspicion of soliciting prostitution after being caught in a hotel room with a woman and outlined charges on two additional related offenses that allegedly occurred between November and December 2019. Kwok was cofounder of FindCMed, which provided medical help to injured protesters during Hong Kong’s antigovernment protests. A Hong Kong Baptist University instructor and Kwok’s associates said that the CCP habitually used “soliciting prostitution” as a charge to target opponents since police could detain a suspect administratively without court review. Local media and Kwok’s associates implied his detention was the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government’s retaliation against him for his role in the protests.
In September following her diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, authorities allowed Pu Wenqing, mother of Sichuan-based human rights activist Huang Qi, detained since 2016, to speak to her son in a 30-minute video call, the first contact with her son allowed to her after four years of trying. Pu remained under house arrest with no charges filed as of December. She had been disappeared in 2018 after plainclothes security personnel detained her at a Beijing train station. She had petitioned central authorities earlier in 2018 to release her detained son for health reasons and poor treatment within his detention center.
In a related case, Beijing authorities arbitrarily detained Zhang Baocheng, who had assisted and escorted the elderly Pu Wenqing around Beijing in 2018 as she sought to petition central authorities over her son’s detention. In December 2019 Beijing police charged Zhang, a former member of the defunct New Citizens Movement that campaigned for democracy and government transparency, with “picking quarrels, promoting terrorism, extremism, and inciting terrorism.” A Beijing court convicted him of “picking quarrels” and sentenced him in November to three and one-half years in prison, using his posts on Twitter as evidence against him.
In September, Hursan Hassan, an acclaimed Uyghur filmmaker, was sentenced to 15 years on the charge of “separatism.” Hassan had been held since 2018 arbitrarily without any contact with his family.
Following local resistance to a policy announced on August 26 mandating Mandarin be used for some school courses in Inner Mongolia in place of the Mongolian language, several prominent dissidents were either detained or held incommunicado. Ethnic Mongolian writer Hada, who had already served a 15-year jail term for “espionage” and “separatism” and was under house arrest, was incommunicado as of December. His wife and child’s whereabouts were also unknown. Ethnic Mongolian musician Ashidaa, who participated in protests against the new language policy, was also detained, and family members and lawyers were not permitted to visit him.
Criminal detention beyond 37 days requires approval of a formal arrest by the procuratorate, but in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest. After formally arresting a suspect, public security authorities are authorized to detain a suspect for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated.
After the completion of an investigation, the procuratorate may detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities may detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings. Public security officials sometimes detained persons beyond the period allowed by law, and pretrial detention periods of a year or longer were common.
The law stipulates detainees be allowed to meet with defense counsel before criminal charges are filed. The criminal procedure law requires a court to provide a lawyer to a defendant who has not already retained one; is blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill; is a minor; or faces a life sentence or the death penalty. This law applies whether or not the defendant is indigent. Courts may also provide lawyers to other criminal defendants who cannot afford them, although courts often did not do so. Lawyers reported significant difficulties meeting their clients in detention centers, especially in cases considered politically sensitive.
Criminal defendants are entitled to apply for bail (also translated as “a guarantor pending trial”) while awaiting trial, but the system did not operate effectively, and authorities released few suspects on bail.
The law requires notification of family members within 24 hours of detention, but authorities often held individuals without providing such notification for significantly longer periods, especially in politically sensitive cases. In some cases notification did not occur. Under a sweeping exception, officials are not required to provide notification if doing so would “hinder the investigation” of a case. The criminal procedure law limits this exception to cases involving state security or terrorism, but public security officials have broad discretion to interpret these provisions.
Under certain circumstances the law allows for residential surveillance in the detainee’s home, rather than detention in a formal facility. With the approval of the next-higher-level authorities, officials also may place a suspect under “residential surveillance at a designated location” for up to six months when they suspect crimes of endangering state security, terrorism, or serious bribery and believe surveillance at the suspect’s home would impede the investigation. Authorities may also prevent defense lawyers from meeting with suspects in these categories of cases. Human rights organizations and detainees reported the practice of residential surveillance at a designated location left detainees at a high risk for torture, since being neither at home nor in a monitored detention facility reduced opportunities for oversight of detainee treatment and mechanisms for appeal.
Authorities used administrative detention to intimidate political and religious advocates and to prevent public demonstrations. Forms of administrative detention included compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment (for drug users), “custody and training” (for minor criminal offenders), and “legal education” centers for political activists and religious adherents, particularly Falun Gong practitioners. The maximum stay in compulsory drug rehabilitation centers is two years, including commonly a six-month stay in a detoxification center. The government maintained similar rehabilitation centers for those charged with prostitution and with soliciting prostitution.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained or arrested persons on allegations of revealing state secrets, subversion, and other crimes as a means to suppress political dissent and public advocacy. These charges, as well as what constitutes a state secret, remained ill defined, and any piece of information could be retroactively designated a state secret. Authorities also used the vaguely worded charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” broadly against many civil rights advocates. It is unclear what this term means. Authorities also detained citizens and foreigners under broad and ambiguous state secret laws for, among other actions, disclosing information on criminal trials, commercial activity, and government activity. A counterespionage law grants authorities the power to require individuals and organizations to cease any activities deemed a threat to national security. Failure to comply could result in seizure of property and assets.
There were multiple reports authorities arrested or detained lawyers, religious leaders or adherents, petitioners, and other rights advocates for lengthy periods, only to have the charges later dismissed for lack of evidence. Authorities subjected many of these citizens to extralegal house arrest, denial of travel rights, or administrative detention in different types of extralegal detention facilities, including “black jails.” In some cases public security officials put pressure on schools not to allow the children of prominent political detainees to enroll. Conditions faced by those under house arrest varied but sometimes included isolation in their homes under guard by security agents. Security officials were frequently stationed inside the homes. Authorities placed many citizens under house arrest during sensitive times, such as during the visits of senior foreign government officials, annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and sensitive anniversaries in Tibetan areas and Xinjiang. Security agents took some of those not placed under house arrest to remote areas on so-called forced vacations.
In February a Ningbo court sentenced Swedish citizen bookseller and Hong Kong resident Gui Minhai to 10 years’ imprisonment for “providing intelligence overseas;” the court said Gui pled guilty. Gui went missing from Thailand in 2015, was released by Chinese authorities in 2017, and was detained again in 2018 while traveling on a train to Beijing, initially for charges related to “illegal business operations.” The Ningbo court said that Gui’s PRC citizenship had been reinstated in 2018 after he allegedly applied to regain PRC nationality.
In May, Nanning authorities tried Qin Yongpei behind closed doors, not allowing his lawyer to attend; as of December there was no update on the trial’s outcome. Qin was detained in October 2019 then formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” He remained in Nanning No. 1 Detention Center. His lawyer, who was not allowed to see Qin until shortly before the trial, said Qin had suffered poor conditions in detention–no bed, insufficient food, sleep deprivation, and extreme indoor heat and humidity in the summers. Authorities continued to block Qin’s wife from communicating or visiting him in prison while local police intimidated their daughters. Qin had worked on several human rights cases, including those of “709” lawyers (the nationwide government crackdown on human rights lawyers and other rights advocates that began on July 9, 2015) and Falun Gong practitioners, assisted many indigent and vulnerable persons, and publicized misconduct by high-level government and CCP officials. He was disbarred in 2018 after having practiced law since the mid-1990s. After being disbarred, Qin founded the China Lawyers’ Club to employ disbarred lawyers.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention could last longer than one year. Defendants in “sensitive cases” reported being subjected to prolonged pretrial detention. From 2015 to 2018, authorities held many of the “709” detainees and their defense attorneys in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to their families or their lawyers. Statistics were not published or made publicly available, but lengthy pretrial detentions were especially common in cases of political prisoners.
At year’s end Beijing-based lawyer Li Yuhan, who defended human rights lawyers during the “709” crackdown, remained in detention at the Shenyang Detention Center; she has been held since 2017 and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Due to her poor health, Li’s attorney submitted multiple requests to Shenyang authorities to release her on medical parole, but each time her request was denied without reason or hearing. Following a January 8 meeting, Li’s lawyer said she was suffering from various medical conditions and applied for bail, but the court rejected her application. Since their January 8 meeting, authorities blocked the lawyer’s access to Li citing COVID-19 concerns. Li’s trial was postponed repeatedly.
On August 14, the Shenyang Tiexi District Court sentenced human rights advocate Lin Mingjie to a total of five years and six months in prison and a 20,000 renminbi (almost $3,000); an appeal was pending at year’s end. Lin had been detained in 2016 for assembling a group of demonstrators in front of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing to protest Shenyang Public Security Bureau Director Xu Wenyou’s abuse of power. In 2018 Lin was sentenced to two years and six months in prison, including time served, and was reportedly released in April 2019, although his attorney had neither heard from him nor knew his whereabouts. In September 2019 police reportedly detained Lin again for “picking quarrels and provoking disturbance.” Police also detained Lin Mingjie’s brother, Lin Minghua, for “provoking disturbance” in 2016. The Tiexi District Court sentenced Lin Minghua to three years in prison. The authorities did not disclose the details of the case, including the types of “disturbance” of which the two brothers were accused.
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions, since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives in an attempt to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In July the United Kingdom broadcasting regulator found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. China Global Television Network faced potential statutory sanctions in the United Kingdom. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
“Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review; remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court require trials to be open to the public, with the exception of cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or on the application of a party to the proceedings, commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations state foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, with the exception of those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of some lawyers who took on sensitive cases, such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In August the Hunan provincial justice department revoked the license for human rights lawyer Xie Yang for his 2017 conviction for “inciting subversion of state power.” Xie said the revocation did not follow proper administrative processes and the complaint against was without proper merits. Xie was a “709” detainee and restarted his law practice soon after his release from prison in 2017.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment and physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also state detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients and limited time to review evidence, and defendants and lawyers were not allowed to communicate with one another during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
In May labor activists Wu Guijun, Zhang Zhiru, He Yuancheng, Jian Hui, and Song Jiahui were released after being sentenced to suspended jail terms of two to four years in a closed-door trial. They were detained in January 2019 on the charge of “disrupting social order;” according to media Zhang and Wu were prevented from hiring lawyers.
In September, three public interest lawyers–Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three”–were tried without notice to family or their lawyers on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The lawyers worked for Changsha Funeng, an organization that litigated cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws. The details of the trial and its outcome remained unknown as year’s end.
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. Thousands of persons were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons imprisoned for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained either in prison or under other forms of detention after release at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uyghur scholars Ilham Tohti and Rahile Dawut; activists Wang Bingzhang, Chen Jianfang, and Huang Qi; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastors Zhang Shaojie and Wang Yi; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Xia Lin, Gao Zhisheng, Xu Zhiyong, and Yu Wensheng; blogger Wu Gan; and Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent about the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
There were credible reports the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. There also were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes, the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having them take adverse action against specific individuals.
Reports continued throughout the year regarding PRC pressure on Xinjiang-based relatives of persons located outside China who spoke publicly about the detentions and abusive policies underway inside Xinjiang. In Kazakhstan media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained Aqiqat Qaliolla and Zhenis Zarqyn for their protests in front of the PRC embassy regarding lost family members in Xinjiang “re-education” camps.
PRC state media also released videos of Xinjiang-based ethnic and religious minorities to discredit their overseas relatives’ accounts to foreign media. The persons in the videos urged their foreign-based family members to stop “spreading rumors” about Xinjiang. The overseas relatives said they had lost communication with their Xinjiang relatives until the videos were released.
In July, the PRC state publication China Daily, which targets foreign audiences, challenged the account of a foreign citizen, Ferkat Jawdat, who was called by his mother in May 2019 after having lost contact with her because she was in an internment camp and urged to stop his activism and media interviews; the article said Ferkat’s mother was “living a normal life in Xinjiang and has regular contact with him.” In July, China Daily also contradicted the 2019 account of another Uyghur individual, Zumrat Dawut, regarding her elderly father’s death, saying he was not detained and interrogated but died in a hospital beside her older brothers and other family members. Relatives of Dawut joined in a video in November 2019 urging her to stop “spreading rumors.” Overseas-based relatives said the PRC government coerced their family members to produce such videos.
In July a Chinese activist living in Australia on a temporary work visa told SBS World News that the government tracked and harassed her and her family in an attempt to silence her. The activist, who goes by Zoo or Dong Wuyuan, ran a Twitter account that made fun of Xi Jinping and previously had organized rallies in memory of Li Wenliang, the doctor who died after being one of the first to warn the world about COVID-19. She reported her parents were taken to a police station in China on a weekly basis to discuss her online activities. A video showed a police officer in the presence of Zoo’s father telling her, “Although you are [in Australia], you are still governed by the law of China, do you understand?”
In September an Inner Mongolian living in Australia on a temporary visa reported receiving a threatening call from Chinese officials stating that he would be removed from Australia if he spoke openly about changes to language policy in China.
Even those not vocal about Xinjiang faced PRC pressure to provide personal information to PRC officials or return to Xinjiang. Yunus Tohti was a student in Egypt when PRC police contacted him through social media, asked when he would return to Xinjiang, and ordered him to provide personal details such as a copy of his passport. Yunus then fled from Egypt to Turkey and later arrived in the Netherlands. Police in Xinjiang called Yunus’ older brother in Turkey, told him they were standing next to his parents, and said he should return to Xinjiang, which he understood to be threat against his parents’ safety. Yunus Tohti subsequently lost contact with his family in Xinjiang and worried that they may have been detained.
Courts deciding civil matters faced the same limitations on judicial independence as criminal courts. The law provides administrative and judicial remedies for plaintiffs whose rights or interests government agencies or officials have infringed. The law also allows compensation for wrongful detention, mental trauma, or physical injuries inflicted by detention center or prison officials.
Although historically citizens seldom applied for state compensation because of the high cost of bringing lawsuits, low credibility of courts, and citizens’ general lack of awareness of the law, there were instances of courts overturning wrongful convictions. Official media reported that in October, Jin Zhehong was awarded 4.96 million renminbi ($739,000) in compensation for 23 years spent behind bars following an overturned conviction for intentional homicide. The Jilin High People’s Court in an appeal hearing ruled the evidence was insufficient to prove the initial conviction. Jin had originally applied for more than 22 million renminbi (three million dollars) in total compensation after he was freed.
The law provides for the right of an individual to petition the government for resolution of grievances. Most petitions address grievances regarding land, housing, entitlements, the environment, or corruption, and most petitioners sought to present their complaints at local “letters and visits” offices. The government reported approximately six million petitions were submitted every year; however, persons petitioning the government continued to face restrictions on their rights to assemble and raise grievances.
While the central government prohibits blocking or restricting “normal petitioning” and unlawfully detaining petitioners, official retaliation against petitioners continued. Regulations encourage handling all litigation-related petitions at the local level through local or provincial courts, reinforcing a system of incentives for local officials to prevent petitioners from raising complaints to higher levels. Local officials sent security personnel to Beijing to force petitioners to return to their home provinces to prevent them from filing complaints against local officials with the central government. Such detentions often went unrecorded and often resulted in brief periods of incarceration in extralegal “black jails.”
In September relatives of Guo Hongwei, a resident of Jilin City, visited him in prison and reported that Hongwei was physically abused, poorly fed, and suffering unfair mistreatment by prison authorities. He was first arrested and jailed in 2004 for engaging in an “economic dispute” with the Jilin Electronic Hospital. After his release, Hongwei complained to authorities regarding the “unjust treatment” he suffered from the courts and others involved in his case, and he petitioned officials to expunge his prison records and allow him to return to his previous employment. His father said Hongwei appealed his case for years after being released, but authorities ignored his request and at times violently beat Hongwei in their attempt to stop him from appealing, leaving him physically disabled and unable to walk. Despite severe harassment by Jilin security authorities, Hongwei continued to press his case with help from his mother. In 2015 Siping city police reportedly arrested Hongwei and his mother Yunling for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “blackmailing the government.” Hongwei was sentenced to 13 years and Yunling to six years and four months in prison. After Yunling and Hongwei were imprisoned, Hongwei’s sister and Yunling’s daughter–Guo Hongying–began to appeal their cases to the authorities. After being detained in 2018, in April 2019 Hongying was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and 18 months for “hindering public affairs.” Yunling was released at the end of 2019; Hongwei and Hongying remained in prison.
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. On May 28, the government passed a new civil code scheduled to enter into force on January 1, 2021, that introduces articles on the right to privacy and personal information protection. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, and other digital communications intended to remain private. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents in the country.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a website focusing on human rights in China, Lin Xiaohua began appealing the case for the bribery conviction of his older brother Lin Xiaonan, the former mayor of Fu’an City, Fujian Province. In June, Xiaohua tried to send petition letters and case files to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the National Commission of Supervision-CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission, but the post office opened all the letters then refused to deliver them. In July the Xiamen Culture and Tourism Administration confiscated the letters and files, stating they were “illegal publications.”
According to Freedom House, rapid advances in surveillance technology–including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps–coupled with growing police access to user data helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. A Carnegie Endowment report in 2019 noted the country was a major worldwide supplier of artificial-intelligence surveillance technology, such as facial recognition systems, smart city/safe city platforms, and smart policing technology.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. December media reports said Chinese technology companies developed artificial intelligence, surveillance, and other technological capabilities to help police identify ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs. The media sources cited public-facing websites, company documents, and programming language from firms such as Huawei, Megvii, and Hikvision related to their development of a “Uyghur alarm” that could alert police automatically. Huawei denied its products were designed to identify ethnic groups. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to create a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui, to help with solving criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system was programmed to understand Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uyghurs applying for passports.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, combined with a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, as well as a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
Government authorities also could interfere in families’ living arrangements when a family member was involved in perceived sensitive political activities. In August, Lu Lina, wife of dissident and rights activist Liu Sifang, used Liu’s Twitter account to document how her landlord in Chancheng District, Foshan city, Guangdong Province, under an order from local police, asked her to move out of the apartment. Approximately 10 days prior, her child had been expelled from school. Liu Sifang joined the “Xiamen meeting” at the end of 2019 with other citizen activists and organizers. In January police arrested many of the individuals who attended that meeting. Liu was abroad at year’s end.
The government at various levels and jurisdictions continued to implement two distinct types of social credit systems. The first, the corporate social credit system, is intended to track and prevent corporate malfeasance. The second, the personal social credit system, is implemented differently depending on geographic location. Although often generically referred to as the country’s “social credit system,” these two systems collect vast amounts of data from companies and individuals in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce corruption. As such, the social credit system often collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics.
Although the government’s goal is to create a unified government social credit system, there continued to be dozens of disparate social credit systems, operated distinctly at the local, provincial, and the national government levels, as well as separate “private” social credit systems operated by several technology companies. For example, there were reports in which individuals were not allowed to ride public transportation for periods of time because they allegedly had not paid for train tickets.
Industry and business experts commented that in its present state, the social credit system was not used to target companies or individuals for their political or religious beliefs, noting the country already possessed other tools outside of the social credit system to target companies and individuals. The collection of vast amounts of personal data combined with the prospect of a future universal and unified social credit system, however, could allow authorities to control further the population’s behaviors.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them about their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including on WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government continued to use the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also continued to require Uyghur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uyghurs’ homes and monitored families’ observance of religion for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in “re-education camps.”
The government restricted the right to have children (see section 6, Women).
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no credible reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits such practices, but there were several reports police physically abused or degraded detainees. In March, Amnesty International reported interviews with multiple alleged victims of police brutality. Police denied these allegations. Protests associated with the lead-up to the implementation of the National Security Law featured multiple clashes between police and protesters, some of which involved physical violence.
In the week of May 25, police arrested approximately 400 protesters, including some 100 minors. During their arrest and detention, officials made no effort to address health concerns created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a September case demonstrating the more aggressive tactics adopted by police, police were recorded tackling a 12-year-old girl, who fled after police stopped her for questioning.
There were reports of prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.
Physical Conditions: According to activists, detained protesters were held at the Castle Peak Immigration Center under unacceptable hygienic conditions and subjected to verbal and mental abuse. In response to a 2019 police brutality allegation and after the September 2019 closure of the San Uk Ling Holding Center, in May the Hong Kong Police Force border commissioner convened a task force to investigate the accusations made by protesters.
Administration: The government investigated allegations of problematic conditions and documented the results in a publicly accessible manner. There was an external Office of the Ombudsman. Activists and legislators, however, urged the government to establish an independent prisoner complaint and monitoring mechanism for prisons and detention centers.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted legislators and justices of the peace to conduct prison visits. Justices of the peace may make suggestions and comments on matters, such as physical conditions, overcrowding, staff improvement, training and recreational programs and activities, and other matters affecting the welfare of inmates.
The Independent Police Complaints Council is the police watchdog, responsible for investigating alleged corruption or abuses. In a November 19 ruling, a court of first instance (trial court) declared the complaints council incapable of effective investigation, as it lacked necessary investigative powers and was insufficient to fulfill the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government’s obligations under the Basic Law to provide an independent mechanism to investigate complaints against police. The SAR government was appealing the ruling.
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. Several claims of arbitrary arrest were made in connection with the protests and alleged National Security Law (NSL) violations.
At the time of its passage, the Hong Kong SAR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claimed the NSL was not retroactive.
On July 1, within hours of the NSL’s passage, police detained individuals based on their attire, searched their belongings, and arrested them for violating the NSL if the items in their possession were deemed to be against the PRC or the local government.
On August 10, police arrested 16 more individuals, including Agnes Chow, one of the cofounders of the former opposition party Demosisto, although Chow and the other two cofounders, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, disbanded Demosisto the day before the NSL became effective. Chow refrained from political activity after the law was passed. She and human rights activist concluded that her arrest meant that the national security forces were retroactively applying the NSL.
During a protest on October 1, Chinese National Day, police reportedly indiscriminately rounded up persons in a popular shopping district, despite having no evidence that those individuals participated in the protest.
The Hong Kong Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s security bureau. The People’s Liberation Army is responsible for foreign defense. The immigration department of the security bureau controls passage of persons into and out of the SAR as well as the documentation of local residents. All Hong Kong security services, in theory, ultimately report to the chief executive, but following the implementation of the NSL imposed by Beijing, the SAR established an Office of Safeguarding National Security, a National Security Committee, and a National Security branch of the Hong Kong police. Because these organs ultimately report to the Chinese central government and mainland security personnel are present in some or all of these bodies, the ability of SAR civilian authorities to maintain effective control over the security force was no longer clear.
Multiple sources reported suspected members of the Chinese central government security services in the SAR monitoring political activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics who criticized the Chinese central government’s policies.
Although the Independent Police Complaints Council is supposed to be an independent investigatory body responsible for addressing accusations of police corruption or abuses, activists expressed concern that the chief executive appointed all council members and noted that its lack of power to conduct independent investigations limited its oversight capacity. There was wide public support for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into alleged police abuses in handling the protests. In May the council released its report on the police response to the 2019 protests and claimed that while there was room for improvement, and acknowledging some specific flaws in police operations, such as excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas, there were no systematic abuses and the police force acted in accordance with the law. The report did not address any specific cases of alleged abuse; the council chose to address police actions “thematically” by looking at major incidents during the period of protest.
Police generally apprehended suspects openly when they observed suspects committing a crime or with warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police must promptly charge arrested suspects. The government respected this right and generally brought arrested persons before a judicial officer within 48 hours. Detainees were generally informed promptly of charges against them. There was a functioning bail system that allowed persons not charged to put up bail to be released from detention pending the filing of charges. Activists argued that the bail system left the arrested in purgatory–not officially charged but with a monthly check-in requirement and no defined period under the law within which the government is required to file charges. During routine check-ins, activists and protesters have been rearrested, often having new charges brought against them.
For example, in August 2019, Joshua Wong was arrested, charged with organizing an illegal assembly, and released on bail. Following his release, during a routine bail check-in held in September, Wong was rearrested and charged for a nearly one-year-old violation of the 2019 antimask emergency regulation. Wong was convicted of the initial charge of organizing an illegal assembly and sentenced to 13.5 months’ imprisonment on December 2.
Democracy activists were increasingly denied bail. In December during a routine bail check-in, media owner and democracy activist Jimmy Lai was arrested on fraud charges related to the use of office space and denied bail. Legal scholars noted bail denial is unusual in civil suits; Lai was subsequently charged on December 11 under the NSL. The NSL sets a higher standard for bail than do other laws, and in one case, activists alleged that this higher standard violated the presumption of innocence. The court, however, found that the defendant in that case would have been denied bail even under the pre-existing standards of Hong Kong law.
Authorities allowed detainees access to a lawyer of their choice, although the Hong Kong Bar Association reported that lawyers experienced obstruction at police stations and delays in seeing clients arrested during protests. Suspects were not detained incommunicado or held under house arrest. Interviews of suspects are required to be videotaped.
Although the law generally provides for an independent judiciary, there were indications that this independence was being challenged. As it did for the police force, the Department of Justice set up a separate office that deals with NSL prosecutions. There were media reports that this office also managed certain prosecutions against opposition activists not charged under the NSL. Activists voiced concern that those charged under the NSL may be denied a fair and public trial, as the NSL allows extradition to the mainland for trial. Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces in Hong Kong put pressure on the judiciary to accept more “guidance” from the government and called for extradition to the mainland in at least one high-profile case; they also criticized sentences deemed too lenient. Arrests made by police and the prosecutions pursued by the Justice Department appeared to be increasingly politically motivated in nature.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary largely enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and the right to a trial without undue delay.
Defendants are presumed innocent, except in official corruption cases: Under the law a sitting or former government official who maintains a standard of living above that commensurate with an official income or who controls monies or property disproportionate to an official income is considered guilty of an offense unless the official can satisfactorily explain the discrepancy. The courts upheld this ordinance. Trials are by jury except at the magistrate and district court level. An attorney is provided at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The government conducted court proceedings in either Cantonese or English, the SAR’s two official languages. The government provided interpretation service to those not conversant in Cantonese or English during all criminal court proceedings. Defendants could confront and question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses to testify on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, the right to be present at their trial, and the right of appeal.
The SAR’s courts are charged with interpreting those provisions of the Basic Law that address matters within the limits of the SAR’s autonomy. SAR courts also interpret provisions of the Basic Law that relate to central government responsibilities or the relationship between the central authorities and the SAR. The Court of Final Appeal may seek an interpretation of relevant provisions from the PRC central government’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC). SAR courts must by law follow the standing committee’s interpretations in cases involving central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected. The standing committee has issued five interpretations of the Basic Law since 1997. The most recent, issued in 2016, requires lawmakers “to accurately, completely, and solemnly” swear an oath to uphold the Basic Law and recognize the Hong Kong SAR as a part of China before taking office. This ruling was the basis, in 2017, for disqualifying six opposition figures from taking their Legislative Council seats.
Under the NSL the chief executive provides a list of judges eligible to hear NSL cases. The NPC Standing Committee determines how the NSL is interpreted, not a SAR-based judiciary or elected body. The standing committee has the power in certain cases to extradite the accused to the mainland and hold trials behind closed doors. As of November, no cases have come to trial to validate or negate apprehensions about the NSL trial mechanisms.
Activists claimed the SAR increasingly used legal tools, such as denial of bail and pursuing minor charges, to detain prodemocracy figures. In one such case, the courts denied Jimmy Lai bail for fraud charges, which is a civil offense. While in custody, security forces charged Lai with “foreign collusion” under the NSL, a provision that is not well defined.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
The NSL is not restricted to the SAR or its residents, but instead claims jurisdiction over any individual, regardless of location, deemed to be engaged in one of the four criminal activities under the NSL: secession, subversion, terrorist activities, or collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. In August the national security forces purportedly issued arrest warrants for six individuals, all residing abroad, and one of whom had foreign citizenship and had resided outside the SAR and mainland China for more than 20 years. Although reported in state-controlled media, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of the warrants.
There is an independent and impartial judiciary for civil matters and access to a court to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations by SAR agencies or persons, with the possible exception of employees of the National Security division, as well as Central Government Liaison Office, depending on interpretations of the law.
The law prohibits such actions, but there were reports the SAR government failed to respect these prohibitions, including credible reports that Chinese central government security services and the Beijing-mandated Office for Safeguarding National Security monitored prodemocracy and human rights activists and journalists in the SAR. In October the national security police force arrested Tony Chung near a foreign diplomatic office and charged him with violating the NSL. Media reports claimed Chung intended to request asylum but was arrested before making his request. In a June statement to the South China Morning Post, SAR security chief John Lee stated that PRC security services would operate in Hong Kong “as needed.” There were also reports central government security services detained, questioned, and intimidated Hong Kong-based activists visiting the mainland. Hong Kong authorities also reportedly froze bank accounts for former lawmakers, civil society groups, and other political targets. Media reports indicated that thousands of persons, primarily police officers, protesters, and protest movement leaders, had their personal information publicly revealed online.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
The government and its agents reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, most commonly by execution after arrest and trial without due process, or for crimes that did not meet the international threshold of “most serious crimes.” Media and human rights groups also documented suspicious deaths while in custody or following beatings of protesters by security forces throughout the year.
As documented by international human rights observers, revolutionary courts continued to issue the vast majority of death sentences and failed to grant defendants due process. The courts denied defendants legal representation and in most cases solely considered as evidence confessions extracted through torture. Judges may also impose the death penalty on appeal, which deterred appeals in criminal cases. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Activists in Iran, the government did not disclose accurate numbers of those executed and kept secret as many as 60 percent of executions. As of October 12, NGOs Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), Human Rights News Activists (HRANA), and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center reported there were close to 200 executions during the year, while the government officially announced only 36 executions in that time period. The government often did not release further information, such as names of those executed, execution dates, or crimes for which they were executed.
On December 12, according to widespread media reporting, authorities executed opposition journalist and activist Ruhollah Zam after sentencing him to death in June on five charges including “corruption on earth.” On December 8, the judiciary announced that the Supreme Court upheld a revolutionary court of Tehran’s death sentence. Zam was editor of a website and a popular channel on the social media platform Telegram called Amad News, which he managed from France, where he lived since 2011 under political asylum. Zam’s Telegram account had more than one million followers, and he used it to post information on Iranian officials and share logistics regarding protests in the country in 2017 and 2018. According to media reports, as part of an Iranian-led intelligence operation, Zam was lured to a business meeting in Iraq in 2019 and captured there by Iranian security agents. Zam appeared on state-affiliated news outlets soon after his detention and purportedly “confessed” to his alleged crimes, before an investigation or the judicial process had commenced. In February, Zam’s initial trial was held without the presence of a defense lawyer.
On September 12, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and widespread media reports, authorities executed professional wrestler Navid Afkari convicted of murdering a sanitation worker, who was also a law enforcement officer, during antigovernment protests in 2018 in Shiraz. Authorities arrested Afkari and his brother Vahid one month after the protests and charged them with taking part in illegal demonstrations, insulting the supreme leader, robbery, and “enmity against God.” In early September the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence imposed upon conviction by a criminal court in Shiraz against Navid and a 25-year prison sentence for Vahid convicted of assisting in the alleged murder, while simultaneously dismissing the brothers’ allegations that security officials obtained their confessions under torture and used as “evidence” against them a forced confession broadcast on state television Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Five UN special rapporteurs condemned the execution as “summary” and concluded that it appeared to have been used by the government “as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest.” According to HRANA, on December 17, authorities arrested Afkari’s father and a different brother as they sought to clear a site in Fars Province to install a gravestone memorializing Navid Afkari’s death.
In March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces home to Ahwazi Arabs, staged protests regarding fears of contracting COVID-19. Prison authorities and security forces responded with live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 prisoners and injuring hundreds of others, according to Amnesty International (see sections 1.b., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
UN human rights experts stated they were disturbed to hear authorities reacted to these prison riots by using “torture and ill-treatment that results in extrajudicial killings, or [through] executions.” In April, NGOs alleged authorities hastily executed political prisoner Mostafa Salimi, following his extradition from Iraq after escaping from prison during riots. Security forces initially arrested Salimi in 2003 and charged him with “enmity against God” for being a member of a Kurdish opposition party and allegedly engaging in armed conflict. On March 27, Salimi escaped during a riot that reportedly broke out due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Saqqez Prison. He crossed the border into the Iraqi Kurdistan Region before being extradited back to Iran without an opportunity to apply for asylum.
The Islamic penal code allows for the execution of juvenile offenders starting at age nine for girls and age 13 for boys, the legal age of maturity. The government continued to execute individuals sentenced for crimes committed before the age 18. In April, UN human rights experts expressed concern for the up to 90 individuals on death row for alleged offenses committed when they were younger than age 18.
According to widespread media, the United Nations, and NGO reports, in April authorities carried out two executions for conviction of crimes committed by juveniles. Majid Esmailzadeh, arrested in 2012 as a minor for allegedly committing murder, convicted, and executed in a prison in Ardabil Province. A few days later, authorities in Saqqez Prison executed by hanging Shayan Saeedpour for conviction of committing murder in 2015 when he was age 17. Saeedpour escaped from Saqqez Prison during COVID-19 related riots in March; he was rearrested a few days later.
On April 22, the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the death of Danial Zeinoalebedini, who died early April in prison from abuse while facing execution for a crime committed in 2017 when he was age 17. Security officials allegedly beat Zeinoalebedini to death in Miandoab Prison in West Azerbaijan Province after they transferred him from Mahabad Prison with other prisoners who had rioted because of COVID-19 concerns.
According to Amnesty International, authorities executed four persons in 2019 who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes–Amin Sedaghat, Mehdi Sohrabifar, Amir Ali Shadabi, and Touraj Aziz (Azizdeh) Ghassemi.
According to human rights organizations and media reports, the government continued to carry out some executions by torture, including hanging by cranes. Prisoners are lifted from the ground by their necks and die slowly by asphyxiation. In addition adultery remains punishable by death by stoning, although provincial authorities were reportedly ordered not to provide public information regarding stoning sentences since 2001, according to the NGO Justice for Iran.
Although the majority of executions during the year were reportedly for murder, the law also provides for the death penalty in cases of conviction for “attempts against the security of the state,” “outrage against high-ranking officials,” moharebeh (which has a variety of broad interpretations, including “waging war against God”), fisad fil-arz (corruption on earth, including apostasy or heresy, see section 1.e., Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals located Outside the Country), rape, adultery, recidivist alcohol use, consensual same-sex sexual conduct, and “insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.” Capital punishment applies to the possession, sale, or transport of more than approximately 110 pounds of natural drugs, such as opium, or approximately 4.4 to 6.6 pounds of manufactured narcotics, such as heroin or cocaine. It also applies to some drug offenses involving smaller quantities of narcotics, if the crime is carried out using weapons, employing minors, or involving someone in a leadership role in a trafficking ring or who has previously been convicted of drug crimes and given a prison sentence of more than 15 years.
Prosecutors frequently used “waging war against God” as a capital offense against political dissidents and journalists, accusing them of “struggling against the precepts of Islam” and against the state that upholds those precepts. Authorities expanded the scope of this charge to include “working to undermine the Islamic establishment” and “cooperating with foreign agents or entities.”
The judiciary is required to review and validate death sentences.
In late November the Supreme Court reaffirmed the death sentence of dual national scientist Ahmadreza Djalali, leading observers to believe his execution was imminent. A court initially sentenced Djalali to death in 2017 on espionage charges. According UN experts, Djalali’s trial was “marred by numerous reports of due process and fair trial violations, including incommunicado detention, denial of access to a lawyer, and forced confession.”
On July 19, the Associated Press reported the Supreme Court announced it would suspend the execution of three young men who participated in 2019 protests and review their case. A revolutionary court sentenced Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi to death on charges of “participation in armed conflict,” “illegal exit from the country,” “attending protests,” and “sabotage.” NGOs reported the court denied their lawyers access to them during the investigation phase and that security officials tortured them. Moradi said authorities coerced him into giving a “confession” and broadcast it on state television, using it as evidence to convict them.
In a July report, the UN special rapporteur (UNSR) on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman expressed “deep concern” regarding the “lack of independent, transparent and prompt investigations into the events of November 2019.” Estimates from Amnesty International and Reuters found security forces killed between 300 and 1,500 persons across the country in response to demonstrations against a fuel price hike. Authorities reportedly used firearms, water cannons, tear gas, and snipers against the largely peaceful protesters. The United Nations noted that seven months following the protests, authorities had still not announced official death and injury figures.
There continued to be reports the government directly supported the Assad regime in Syria, primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters, which contributed to prolonging the civil war and the deaths of thousands of Syrian civilians during the year (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria). According to IranWire, in June pro-Iranian militias reinforced Syrian regime forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in southwestern Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights attributed 89 percent of civilian deaths in Syria since the beginning of the conflict to government forces and Iranian-sponsored militias. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups in an effort to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The government directly supported certain pro-Iran militias operating inside Iraq, including terrorist organization Kata’ib Hizballah, which reportedly was complicit in summary executions, forced disappearances, and other human rights abuses of civilians in Iraq (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Iraq).
In May the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq reported that none of the “unidentified armed actors” responsible for 99 cases of abductions and disappearances of protesters and activists during protests across Iraq in October and November 2019 had been detained or tried. Activists blamed Iran-backed militia groups operating in Iraq for many of these deaths and abductions. Reuters reported that Kata’ib Hizballah member Abu Zainab al-Lami directed sniper shootings of peaceful Iraqi demonstrators during the 2019 protests.
Since 2015 the government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and proliferated weapons that exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. Houthi rebels used Iranian funding and weapons to launch attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure both within Yemen and in Saudi Arabia (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
There were reports of politically motivated abductions during the year attributed to government officials. Plainclothes officials seized lawyers, journalists and activists without warning, and government officials refused to acknowledge custody or provide information on them. In most cases the government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such acts.
In May, Amnesty International reported on the disappearance of four death row prisoners–Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Naser Khafajian, members of the Ahwaz Arab minority, and Hedayat Abdollahpour, a member of the Kurdish minority. Family members feared the government executed them in secret. On March 31, Silawi, Khasraji, and Khafajian were transferred to an undisclosed location from Sheiban Prison in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province (see sections 1.a., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). On May 9, Hedayat Abdollahpour was transferred from the central prison in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province, to an unknown location.
In late June the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities were holding human rights lawyer Payam Derafshan incommunicado at an undisclosed location since his arrest without a warrant at his office in Tehran on June 8. Derafshan’s lawyer told CHRI the court had opened a case against him on an unspecified charge and refused to allow him to select his own counsel. In May, Derafshan received a suspended sentence for charges of “insulting the supreme leader,” but his lawyer said the second arrest was not connected to that case. On July 8, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to two and a half years, later reduced to two years, for “propaganda against the state,” “spreading falsehoods,” and “unauthorized disclosure.” As of August he was reportedly in poor health.
Although the constitution prohibits all forms of torture “for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information,” use of physical and mental torture to coerce confessions remained prevalent, especially during pretrial detention. There were credible reports that security forces and prison personnel tortured and abused detainees and prisoners throughout the year.
Commonly reported methods of torture and abuse in prisons included threats of execution or rape, forced tests of virginity and “sodomy,” sleep deprivation, electroshock, including the shocking of genitals, burnings, the use of pressure positions, and severe and repeated beatings.
Human rights organizations frequently cited some prison facilities, including Evin Prison in Tehran, Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj, Greater Tehran Penitentiary, Qarchak Prison, Adel Abad Prison, and Orumiyeh Prison for their use of cruel and prolonged torture of political opponents, particularly Wards 209 and Two of Evin Prison, reportedly controlled by the IRGC.
In March and April, the suppression of riots by security officials in at least eight prisons led to the deaths of approximately 35 prisoners and left hundreds of others injured (see sections 1.a. and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
According to a May report by Amnesty International, Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was severely beaten in 2019. Sepanta was already critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for his spinal cord disorder (syringomyelia). In July 2019 CHRI reported that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” inside Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he trembled and had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta is serving a 14-year sentence since 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
According to a September 2 report by Amnesty International, police, intelligence agents, and prison officials used “widespread torture and other ill-treatment against men, women, and children” in detention following protests in November 2019. Methods of torture included severe beatings, forcible extraction of finger and toenails, electric shocks, mock executions, and sexual violence.
One anonymous protester interviewed by Amnesty stated that IRGC intelligence officials arrested him and several of his friends at a protest in November 2019. The security officers put him in the trunk of a car and took him to a detention center in Tehran, where they repeatedly kicked and punched him, suspended him from the ceiling, and administered electroshocks to his testicles. They subjected him twice to mock executions during which they informed him he had been sentenced to death by a court, placed a noose around his neck, and pushed a stool out from under his feet, only to have him fall to the ground instead of hang in the air. He was later convicted of a national security offense and sentenced to prison.
Authorities also allegedly maintained unofficial secret prisons and detention centers, outside the national prison system, where abuse reportedly occurred.
In early October according to media reports, videos posted on social media and apparently filmed in Tehran showed police beating detainees in pickup trucks in the middle of the street and forcing them to apologize for the “mistakes” they committed. On October 15, the judiciary announced a ban on the use of forced confessions, torture, and solitary confinement, and stressed the presumption of innocence and right to a lawyer. The judiciary chief called the public beatings a “violation of civil rights,” and stated measures would be taken to hold the violators responsible, according to online news website Bourse and Bazaar. There was no information on results of any investigation into the incident, and many of the purportedly banned activities continued to be reported after the order.
Judicially sanctioned corporal punishments continued. These included flogging, blinding, stoning, and amputation, which the government defends as “punishment,” not torture. Conviction of at least 148 crimes are punishable by flogging, while 20 may carry the penalty of amputation. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, from January 1 to September 24, authorities sentenced at least 237 individuals to amputation and carried out these sentences in at least 129 cases.
According to media and NGO reports, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s sentence ordering the amputation of all fingers on the right hand of four men convicted of theft, Hadi Rostami, Mehdi Sharafiyan, Mehdi Shahivand, and Kasra Karami. As of November 6, the men were held in Orumiyeh Prison in West Azerbaijan Province. There was no information available on whether the sentence was carried out.
According to the NGO Article 18, on October 14, authorities flogged Christian convert Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi 80 times. A court had sentenced him to the flogging in 2016 for drinking wine as part of Holy Communion.
Authorities flogged four political prisoners in prisons across the country in the month of June, according to a report from Iran News Wire. On June 8, authorities flogged Azeri rights activists Ali Azizi and Eliar Hosseinzadeh for “disturbing public order,” by taking part in the November 2019 protests in the city of Orumiyeh. Prison officials at Greater Tehran Penitentiary flogged protester Mohamad Bagher Souri on the same day. Authorities flogged Tehran bus driver and labor activist Rasoul Taleb Moghadam 74 times for taking part in a peaceful Labor Day gathering outside parliament in 2019.
Extrajudicial punishments by authorities involving degrading public humiliation of alleged offenders were also frequently reported throughout the year. Authorities regularly forced alleged offenders to make videotaped confessions that the government later televised. According to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, on August 22, IRGC-affiliated Fars News posted a “documentary” on twin sisters Maryam and Matin Amiri, who had participated in “White Wednesday” demonstrations against mandatory veiling. The segment included a “confession” in which the women called themselves “naive, dumb, and passive” and “of weak personality,” for protesting hijab laws. Days after the segment aired, expatriate women’s rights activist and founder of the movement Masih Alinejad reported via Twitter a court sentenced the twins to 15 years in prison and that they were being held in solitary confinement.
Impunity remained a widespread problem within all security forces. Human rights groups frequently accused regular and paramilitary security forces, such as the Basij, of committing numerous human rights abuses, including torture, forced disappearances, and acts of violence against protesters and bystanders at public demonstrations. The government generally viewed protesters, critical journalists, and human rights activists as engaged in efforts to “undermine the 1979 revolution” and consequently did not seek to punish security force abuses against those persons, even when the abuses violated domestic law. According to Tehran prosecutor general Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, the attorney general is responsible for investigating and punishing security force abuses, but if any investigations took place, the process was not transparent, and there were few reports of government actions to discipline abusers.
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. Prisoner hunger strikes in protest of their treatment were frequent.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding, long a problem in prisons with many prisoners forced to sleep on floors, in hallways, or in prison yards, became particularly acute following mass arrests during the November 2019 protests, according to comments by local government officials referenced in a July report by UNSR Rehman.
Overall conditions worsened significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by Amnesty International, which cited letters written by senior prison authorities, prisons had serious shortages of disinfectant products and protective equipment needed to address the spread of virus. The letters reportedly acknowledged many prisons held individuals with underlying health conditions, which increased their risk of complications if infected with COVID-19. Authorities announced that between late February and late May, they had temporarily released around 128,000 prisoners on furlough and pardoned another 10,000 in response to the outbreak. On July 15, as COVID-19 cases spiked again, the judiciary spokesperson announced the government had issued guidelines to facilitate a second round of furloughs. Prisoners of conscience were mostly excluded from these measures, including human rights defenders, foreign and dual nationals, environmentalists, individuals detained due to their religious beliefs, and persons arbitrarily detained in connection with the November 2019 protests.
There were reported deaths in custody and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, which authorities sometimes failed to control. In April, Amnesty International reported at least 35 prisoners were killed and others injured in at least eight prisons across the country when security officials used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress riots because of COVID-19 safety fears. As of December 8, the government had not investigated these events.
According to IranWire and human rights NGOs, guards beat both political and nonpolitical prisoners during raids on wards, performed nude body searches in front of other prisoners, and threatened prisoners’ families. In some instances, according to HRANA, guards singled out political prisoners for harsher treatment.
Prison authorities often refused to provide medical treatment for pre-existing conditions, injuries that prisoners suffered at the hands of prison authorities, or illnesses due to the poor sanitary conditions in prison. Human rights organizations reported that authorities used denial of medical care as a form of punishment for prisoners and as an intimidation tool against prisoners who filed complaints or challenged authorities. Medical services for female prisoners were reported as grossly inadequate.
An October 6 OHCHR statement expressed serious concern regarding a consistent pattern of the government denying medical treatment to detainees, including political prisoners, which was heightened during the year due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout prisons. The statement called for the unconditional release of human rights defenders, lawyers, political prisoners, peaceful protesters and all other individuals deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or otherwise exercising their rights.
The United Nations and NGOs have consistently reported other unsafe and unsanitary detention conditions in prisons, including contaminated food and water, frequent water and food shortages, rodent and insect infestations, shortages of bedding, intolerable heat, and poor ventilation.
There were no updates on the status of Gonabadi Sufi dervish women unjustly detained in Shahr-e Rey Prison on national security-related charges since 2018. The women were routinely denied urgently needed medical care and kept in unsanitary, inhuman conditions.
Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. According to a June 2019 report from IranWire, there was a noticeable increase from the previous two years of the practice of holding political prisoners in wards with allegedly violent and dangerous criminals, with the goal of “breaking” the political prisoners’ wills. A July report by UNSR Rehman noted that prisoners ordinarily held in wards controlled by the IRGC or Ministry of Intelligence were moved to public wards after the sharp increase in detainees following the November 2019 protests. Also, according to HRANA, juvenile detainees were held with adult prisoners in some prisons, including Saghez Central Prison in Kurdistan Province. Male juvenile detainees were held in separate rehabilitation centers in most urban areas, but female juvenile detainees and male juvenile detainees in rural areas were held alongside adults in segregated detention facilities, according to NGO reports.
IranWire reported multiple prisons across the country held older children who lived with their incarcerated mothers without access to medical care or educational and recreational facilities. Following the November 2019 protests, child detainees were reportedly held in the same cells as adults at a facility in Ahvaz due to overcrowding, according to UNSR Rehman.
There were numerous reports of prisoner suicides throughout the year in response to prison conditions or mistreatment. According to a September 27 IranWire report, Mohammad Ghaderi attempted suicide in May to escape continuous torture by IRGC intelligence agents. In June prisoners Farzin Nouri and Hadi Rostrami reportedly attempted suicide at Orumiyeh by consuming poison. In September, 20 prisoners attempted suicide within two weeks in Orumiyeh Central Prison in West Azerbaijan Province due to the horrific conditions in that prison. According to his wife, in May journalist and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, imprisoned since 2019 for signing an open letter with 13 others calling for the resignation of the supreme leader, attempted suicide in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad. Authorities had prevented Nourizad from receiving a temporary furlough, being transferred to a prison closer to his home, and receiving regular telephone calls.
Administration: According to reports from human rights NGOs, prison authorities regularly denied prisoners access to an attorney of their choice, visitors, telephone calls, and other correspondence privileges. Prisoners practicing a religion other than Shia Islam reported experiencing discrimination.
Authorities did not initiate credible investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions or suspicious deaths in custody. Prisoners were able to submit complaints to judicial authorities but often faced censorship or retribution in the form of slander, beatings, torture, and denial of medical care and medication or furlough requests, as well as charges of additional crimes.
On October 23, HRW highlighted the cases of environmentalist Niloufar Bayani and student activist Parisa Rafiee, both of whom authorities charged with “publishing false information,” and “propaganda against the state,” for reporting abuse in detention.
Families of executed prisoners did not always receive notification of their scheduled executions, or if they did, it was often on very short notice. Authorities frequently denied families the ability to perform funeral rites or an impartial autopsy.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent monitoring of prison conditions. Prisoners and their families often wrote letters to authorities and, in some cases, to UN bodies to highlight and protest their treatment (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, the practices occurred frequently during the year. President Rouhani’s 2016 Citizen’s Rights Charter enumerates various freedoms, including “security of their person, property, dignity, employment, legal and judicial process, social security, and the like.” The government did not implement these provisions. Detainees may appeal their sentences in court but are not entitled to compensation for detention.
The constitution and law require a warrant or subpoena for an arrest and state that arrested persons should be informed of the charges against them within 24 hours. Authorities, however, held some detainees, at times incommunicado, for prolonged periods without charge or trial and frequently denied them contact with family or timely access to legal representation.
The law obligates the government to provide indigent defendants with attorneys for certain types of crimes. The courts set prohibitively high bail, even for lesser crimes, and in many cases courts did not set bail. Authorities often compelled detainees and their families to submit property deeds to post bail, effectively silencing them due to fear of losing their families’ property.
The government continued to use house arrest without due process to restrict movement and communication. At year’s end former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, remained under house arrest imposed in 2011 without formal charges. Security forces continued to restrict their access to visitors and information. In November it was reported that Mousavi and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. Concerns persisted regarding Karroubi’s deteriorating health, reportedly exacerbated by his treatment by authorities.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities commonly used arbitrary arrests to impede alleged antiregime activities, including by conducting mass arrests of persons in the vicinity of antigovernment demonstrations. According to Amnesty International, these arrests sometimes included children and bystanders at protests and were conducted in an often violent manner, involving beating detainees. Plainclothes officers arrived unannounced at homes or offices; arrested persons; conducted raids; and confiscated private documents, passports, computers, electronic media, and other personal items without warrants or assurances of due process.
Individuals often remained in detention facilities for long periods without charges or trials, and authorities sometimes prevented them from informing others of their whereabouts for several days. Authorities often denied detainees’ access to legal counsel during this period.
According to a September report by Amnesty International, at least 7,000 persons were arrested in relation to the November 2019 protests, and at least 500 were subjected to criminal investigations on vague and unsubstantiated charges as of August, although Amnesty estimated the number to be “far higher.”
International media and human rights organizations documented frequent detentions of dual nationals–individuals who are citizens of both Iran and another country–for arbitrary and prolonged detention on politically motivated charges. UNSR Rehman continued to highlight cases of dual and foreign nationals who authorities had arrested arbitrarily and subjected to mistreatment, denial of appropriate medical treatment, or both. The UNSR noted most dual and foreign nationals did not benefit from temporary furloughs granted by authorities to many other prisoners. The UNSR previously concluded the government subjected dual and foreign nationals to “sham trials which have failed to meet basic fair trial standards and convicted them of offenses on the basis of fabricated evidence or, in some cases, no evidence at all, and has attempted to use them as diplomatic leverage.” Dual nationals, like other citizens, faced a variety of due process violations, including lack of prompt access to a lawyer of their choosing and brief trials during which they were not allowed to defend themselves.
Authorities continued to detain dual nationals Emad Sharghi and Siamak Namazi in Evin Prison on “espionage” charges following lower court trials with numerous procedural irregularities, according to international media and NGO reports. Sharghi was initially detained in April 2018 and released on bail in December of that year. In December 2019 officials informed Sharghi he had been cleared of all charges, but he was re-arrested in December 2020 after having been convicted and sentenced in absentia. Authorities initially detained Namazi in 2015 along with his father, Baquer, who was granted medical furlough in 2018 but was not allowed to leave the country.
On February 23, the Bahai International Community stated that a Houthi court in Yemen was prosecuting a group of Bahai under “directives from Iranian authorities.” The Bahai prisoners were deported in July without a review of their citizenship status. Bahais continued to face arbitrary detention and harassment in Yemen throughout the year because of their religious affiliation (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was often arbitrarily lengthy, particularly in cases involving alleged violations of “national security” law. Authorities sometimes held persons incommunicado for lengthy periods before permitting them to contact family members. Instances of unjust and arbitrary pretrial detention were commonplace and well documented throughout the year involving numerous protesters and prisoners of conscience who were not granted furloughs despite the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prison. According to HRW, a judge may prolong detention at his discretion, and pretrial detentions often lasted for months. Often authorities held pretrial detainees in custody with the general prison population.
The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The court system, however, was subjected to political influence, and judges were appointed “in accordance with religious criteria.”
The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary. The head of the judiciary, members of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general were clerics. International observers continued to criticize the lack of independence of the country’s judicial system and judges and maintained that trials disregarded international standards of fairness.
According to the constitution and law, a defendant has the right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent until convicted, to have access to a lawyer of his or her choice, and to appeal convictions in most cases that involve major penalties. These rights were not upheld.
Panels of judges adjudicate trials in civil and criminal courts. Human rights activists reported trials in which authorities appeared to have determined the verdicts in advance, and defendants did not have the opportunity to confront their accusers or meet with lawyers. For journalists and defendants charged with crimes against national security, the law restricts the choice of attorneys to a government-approved list.
When postrevolutionary statutes do not address a situation, the government advised judges to give precedence to their knowledge and interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Under this method judges may find a person guilty based on their own “divine knowledge.”
The constitution does not provide for the establishment or the mandate of the revolutionary courts. The courts were created pursuant to the former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s edict immediately following the 1979 revolution, with a sharia judge appointed as the head of the courts. They were intended as a temporary emergency measure to try high-level officials of the deposed monarchy and purge threats to the regime. The courts, however, became institutionalized and continue to operate in parallel to the criminal justice system. Human rights groups and international observers often identified the revolutionary courts, which are generally responsible for hearing the cases of political prisoners, as routinely employing grossly unfair trials without due process, handing down predetermined verdicts, and rubberstamping executions for political purposes. These unfair practices reportedly occur during all stages of criminal proceedings in revolutionary courts, including the initial prosecution and pretrial investigation, first instance trial, and review by higher courts.
The IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence reportedly determine many aspects of revolutionary court cases. Most of the important political cases are referred to a small number of branches of the revolutionary courts, whose judges often have negligible legal training and are not independent.
During the year human rights groups and international media noted the absence of procedural safeguards in criminal trials, and courts admitted as evidence confessions made under duress or torture. UNSR Rehman expressed concerns regarding allegations of confessions extracted by torture and a lack of due process or a fair trial, including in cases of persons arrested for participating in the November 2019 protests. In a July report, the UNSR cited unofficial reports documenting 75 court verdicts against protesters by April. For example, UNSR Rehman cited the case of Aref Zarei, whom a judge reportedly told not to bother hiring a lawyer because it would not help.
The Special Clerical Court is headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, overseen by the supreme leader, and charged with investigating alleged offenses committed by clerics and issuing rulings based on an independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. As with the revolutionary courts, the constitution does not provide for the Special Clerical Court, which operates outside the judiciary’s purview. Clerical courts have been used to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.
Official statistics regarding the number of citizens imprisoned for their political beliefs were not available. According to United for Iran, as of October 18, an estimated 500 prisoners of conscience were held in the country, including those jailed for their religious beliefs.
The government often charged political dissidents with vague crimes, such as “antirevolutionary behavior,” “corruption on earth,” “siding with global arrogance,” “waging war against God,” and “crimes against Islam.” Prosecutors imposed strict penalties on government critics for minor violations.
The political crimes law defines a political crime as an insult against the government, as well as “the publication of lies.” Political crimes are those acts “committed with the intent of reforming the domestic or foreign policies of Iran,” while those with the intent to damage “the foundations of the regime” are considered national security crimes. The court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office retain responsibility for determining the nature of the crime.
The political crimes law grants the accused certain rights during arrest and imprisonment. Political criminals should be held in detention facilities separate from ordinary criminals. Political criminals should also be exempt from wearing prison uniforms, not subject to rules governing repeat offenses, not subject to extradition, and exempt from solitary confinement unless judicial officials deem it necessary. Political criminals also have the right to see and correspond with immediate family regularly and to access books, newspapers, radio, and television.
Many of the law’s provisions have not been implemented, and the government continued to arrest and charge students, journalists, lawyers, political activists, women’s activists, artists, and members of religious minorities with “national security” crimes that do not fall under the political crimes law. Political prisoners were also at greater risk of torture and abuse in detention. They were often mixed with the general prison population, and former prisoners reported that authorities often threatened political prisoners with transfer to criminal wards, where attacks by fellow prisoners were more likely. Human rights activists and international media reported cases of political prisoners confined with accused and convicted violent criminals, being moved to public wards in cases of overcrowding, and having temporary furloughs inequitably applied during the COVID-19 pandemic (see section 1.c., Physical Conditions). The government often placed political prisoners in prisons far from their families, denied them correspondence rights, and held them in solitary confinement for long periods.
The government reportedly held some detainees in prison for years on unfounded charges of sympathizing with real or alleged terrorist groups.
The government issued travel bans on some former political prisoners, barred them from working in their occupations for years after incarceration, and imposed internal exile on some. During the year authorities occasionally gave political prisoners suspended sentences and released them on bail with the understanding that renewed political activity would result in their return to prison. The government did not permit international humanitarian organizations or UN representatives access to political prisoners.
According to CHRI, on September 26, Iran Writers Association members Reza Khandan Mahabahi, Baktash Abtin, and Keyvan Bajan began serving prison sentences for “assembly and collusion against national security,” related to publishing documents objecting to censorship and organizing memorial ceremonies for association members killed by state agents in the 1990s.
Also according to CHRI, authorities arbitrarily extended a five-year prison sentence by two years against activist Atena Daemi, shortly before she was due to be released in July after serving the full term on “national security” charges and for insulting the supreme leader. The additional two-year sentence reportedly stemmed from Daemi singing a song in prison honoring executed prisoners.
On October 7, judicial authorities ordered the release of human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi. Mohammadi was arrested in 2015 and sentenced by a revolutionary court to 16 years in prison for “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and establishing the illegal Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty organization. During her time in prison, authorities repeatedly denied her telephone contact with her family, as well as appropriate medical treatment related to a major operation she underwent in May 2019.
Lawyers who defended political prisoners were often arrested, detained, and subjected to excessive sentences and punishments for engaging in regular professional activities. The government continued to imprison lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group.
In June, CHRI reported that at least five human rights attorneys–Soheila Hejab, Payam Derafshan, Mohammad Nafari, Amirsalar Davoudi, and Nasrin Sotoudeh–were in prison for their human rights work. Hejab and Derafshan (see section 1.b.) were detained during the year. In late May security officials incarcerated Hejab on earlier charges of supporting dissident groups, after she had been temporarily freed in March. In November the Kurdish Human Rights Network reported authorities charged Hejab with additional crimes related to a letter she wrote from prison marking the first anniversary of the November 2019 protests.
On November 7, the judiciary reported it had temporarily released Nasrin Sotoudeh, amid reports her health was rapidly deteriorating. On December 2, she was returned to Qarchak Prison despite continuing health challenges. In March 2019 a revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing hijab. Sotoudeh was previously arrested in 2010 and pardoned in 2013.
According to HRW, on February 18, a judiciary spokesperson announced a revolutionary court upheld prison sentences against eight environmentalists sentenced to between six to 10 years for conviction of various “national security” crimes. Authorities arrested the environmentalists, including United States-British-Iranian triple national Morad Tahbaz, in 2018 and convicted them following an unfair trial, in which the judge handed down the sentences in secret, did not allow access to defense lawyers, and ignored the defendants’ claims of abuse in detention.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
There were credible reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisals against specific individuals located outside the country.
In August, Reuters reported Ministry of Intelligence officials detained Jamshid Sharmahd, a member of a promonarchist group “Tondar” (Thunder) or “Kingdom Assembly of Iran” based outside the country, which it accused of responsibility for a deadly 2008 bombing at a religious center in Shiraz and of plotting other attacks. A man who identified himself as Sharmahd appeared on Iranian television blindfolded and “admitted” to providing explosives to attackers in Shiraz. The ministry did not disclose how or where they detained Sharmahd. His son told Radio Free Europe that Sharmahd was likely captured in Dubai and taken to Iran.
In November al-Arabiya reported the former leader of the separatist group for Iran’s ethnic Arab in minority in Khuzestan Province, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), Habib Asyud also known as Habib Chaab, who also holds Swedish citizenship, was arrested in Turkey and later resurfaced in Iran under unclear circumstances. Neither Turkey nor Sweden officially commented on Asyud’s case. The Iranian government holds ASMLA responsible for a terror attack in 2018 on a military parade that killed 25 individuals including civilians.
In October 2019 France-based Iranian activist Ruhollah Zam was abducted from Iraq. Iranian intelligence later took credit for the operation. Zam was executed in December (see Section 1.a.).
Citizens had limited ability to sue the government and were not able to file lawsuits through the courts against the government for civil or human rights violations.
The constitution allows the government to confiscate property acquired illicitly or in a manner not in conformity with Islamic law. The government appeared to target ethnic and religious minorities in invoking this provision.
The constitution states that “reputation, life, property, [and] dwelling[s]” are protected from trespass, except as “provided by law.” The government routinely infringed on this right. Security forces monitored the social activities of citizens, entered homes, offices, and places of worship, monitored telephone conversations and internet communications, and opened mail without court authorization. The government also routinely intimidated activists and government critics by detaining their family members as a form of reprisal.
On July 13, authorities arrested Manouchehr Bakhtiari for a second time related to activism on behalf of his son, Pouya, killed by security forces in the city of Karaj during the November 2019 demonstrations. The government previously detained 10 other members of Pouya Bakhtiari’s family, including his 11-year-old nephew and two of his elderly grandparents, to prevent them from holding a traditional memorial service for Bakhtiari 40 days after his death. According to media reports, in December Manouchehr Bakhtiari was released on bail.
According to international human rights organizations, the Ministry of Intelligence arrested and intimidated BBC employees’ family members, including elderly family members, based in Iran. The government also froze and seized assets of family members, demoted relatives employed by state-affiliated organizations, and confiscated passports. The government also compelled family members of journalists from other media outlets abroad to defame their relatives on state television.
On July 16, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Alireza Alinejad, brother of expatriate activist Masih Alinejad, to eight years in prison for “national security” crimes, and for insulting the supreme leader and “propaganda against the regime.”
On August 17, security officials detained and questioned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh’s daughter, Mehraveh, on unspecified charges, according to CHRI. She was later released on bail.
There are currently no comprehensive data-protection laws in place in the country, therefore there are no legal safeguards for users to protect their data from misuse. The online sphere is heavily monitored by the state despite Article 37 of the nonbinding Citizens’ Rights Charter, which states that online privacy should be respected.
The operation of domestic messaging apps is based inside the country, leaving content shared on these apps more susceptible to government control and surveillance. Lack of data protection and privacy laws also mean there are no legal instruments providing protections against the misuse of apps data by authorities.
In January, Certfa Lab reported a series of phishing attacks from an Iranian hacker group known as Charming Kitten, which was allegedly affiliated with Iran’s intelligence services. According to the report, the phishing attacks targeted journalists as well as political and human rights activists.
In March, Google removed a COVID-19 app known as AC19 from the Google Play store. No official reason was provided concerning the app’s removal, although Iranian users raised concerns regarding the app’s security, in light of its collection of geolocation data, and a lack of transparency from the government as to why the data were being collected and how it was being used.
In March, Comparitech reported that data from 42 million Iranian Telegram accounts were leaked online. Telegram released a statement alleging the data came from the two unofficial Telegram apps Hotgram and Telegram Talaei, which became popular after the platform’s ban in the country. There were reports the two client apps have ties to the government and Iranian hacker group Charming Kitten.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports the government or its agents committed, or attempted to commit, arbitrary or unlawful killings. Impunity was a significant problem in investigating whether security force killings were justifiable (see section 1.e.).
Opposition activist and anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny was poisoned on August 20 with a form of Novichok, a nerve agent that was also used in the 2018 attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom. After campaigning in Siberia for independent candidates for local elections, Navalny became severely ill and fell into a coma. The Federal Security Service (FSB) was tracking and surveilling Navalny during his stay in Tomsk. On August 21, officials at the Omsk hospital where Navalny was initially treated claimed they found no traces of poison in his system. Navalny was transferred to a hospital in Germany on August 22; on September 2, the German government announced that traces of a nerve agent from the “Novichok” group had been found in samples taken from Navalny. At Germany’s request the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conducted a technical assistance visit, which confirmed that Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent belonging to the “Novichok” group.
Credible reports indicated that officers from Russia’s FSB used a nerve agent to poison Navalny. The G7 industrialized democracies bloc and NATO countries condemned Navalny’s confirmed poisoning and called on Russia to bring the perpetrators to justice. At the November 30 OPCW Conference of States Parties, 58 countries issued a statement urging Russia to disclose “in a swift and transparent manner the circumstances of this chemical weapons attack.” Russian authorities stated there are no grounds to open a criminal investigation into the poisoning, despite Navalny’s requests that they do so.
Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets published reports indicating that from December 2018 to January 2019, local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya renewed a campaign of violence against individuals perceived to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. According to the NGO Russian LGBT Network, local Chechen authorities illegally detained and tortured at least 40 individuals, including two who reportedly died in custody from torture. According to human rights organizations, as of September authorities failed to investigate the allegations or reports of extrajudicial killings and mass torture of LGBTI persons in Chechnya and continued to deny there were any LGBTI persons in Chechnya.
There were multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates (see section 1.c.), in some cases resulting in death or suicide. According to media reports, on April 10, prisoners in Penal Colony Number 15 (IK-15) in Angarsk rioted after a prison employee beat one of the inmates, leading him to make a video about his ordeal and slash his veins in a failed suicide attempt. Afterwards, 17 other inmates slashed their veins as well, then set fire to parts of the penal colony. The Federal Penitentiary Service sent in approximately 300 special force officers, who beat the inmates, doused them with water, and set dogs on them. Human rights activists reported that two inmates were killed during the clashes and called for an investigation. On April 14, Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko told media that the riot in IK-15 had been organized from the outside by individuals who had paid “so-called human rights activists” to “stir things up in the media.” Officials confirmed that they found the body of an inmate who had been strangled and hanged. According to media reports, the inmate who made the video that set off the riots later retracted his statement that he had been beaten by a prison employee.
Although Deputy Defense Minister Andrey Kartapolov announced on August 26 that hazing and “barracks hooliganism” in the armed forces had been completely eradicated, physical abuse and hazing, which in some cases resulted in death or suicide, continued to be a problem. For example, on June 21, Russian media reported that Aleksandr Tatarenko, a soldier in a Primorsky region military unit, deserted his post, leaving a suicide note indicating hazing as the reason. After two months, Tatarenko was found living under a bridge while hiding from his unit. Tatarenko’s parents filed a complaint on hazing with the Military Prosecutor’s Office.
In February government spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed calls for an international investigation into the 2015 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, telling journalists that such an investigation would not be permitted on the territory of the Russian Federation. Human rights activists and the Nemtsov family continued to believe that authorities were intentionally ignoring the question of who ordered and organized the killing and noted that these persons were still at large.
There were reports that the government or its proxies committed, or attempted to commit, extrajudicial killings of its opponents in other countries. For example, on January 30, blogger Imran Aliyev was found dead in a hotel room in Lille, France, having been stabbed 135 times. Aliyev, who had settled in Belgium after leaving Chechnya, often published YouTube videos critical of Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen government. French prosecutors stated that the Russian-born man suspected of killing Aliyev returned to Russia immediately after the stabbing.
On July 4, a man identified by Austrian authorities only as a Russian citizen shot and killed Mamikhan Umarov, an asylum seeker from Russia, in a parking lot outside of Vienna. Umarov was also an outspoken critic of Kadyrov and had posted a YouTube video taunting Kadyrov to “come and stop [him]” shortly before his death. In his interviews and social media posts, Umarov claimed to be a mercenary who had fought on the side of Chechen separatists in the 1990s and sought asylum in 2005 because he feared reprisal in Chechnya. Austrian authorities had designated him a “person at risk” because of his background. Kadyrov responded to allegations of his involvement in this and other extrajudicial killings of Russian citizens in Europe by accusing Western intelligence of killing Chechen dissidents to make him look bad.
The country played a significant military role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where human rights organizations attributed thousands of civilian deaths and other abuses to Russian-led forces. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also committed widespread abuses (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Since 2015 the country’s forces have conducted military operations, including airstrikes, in the conflict in Syria. According to human rights organizations, the country’s forces took actions, such as bombing urban areas, that intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria).
The news website Caucasian Knot reported that violent confrontations with security forces resulted in at least 14 deaths in the North Caucasus during the first half of the year. Dagestan was the most affected region, with seven deaths in the first half of the year, followed by Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia, where three persons were killed in each region.
There were reports of disappearances perpetrated by or on behalf of government authorities. Enforced disappearances for both political and financial reasons continued in the North Caucasus. According to the August report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there were 867 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country.
There were reports that police committed enforced disappearances and abductions during the year. For example, on September 10, the Civic Assistance Committee reported that a North Korean citizen who was seeking asylum in Vladivostok was taken to the Artyom City Police Department by individuals in civilian clothes, where he subsequently disappeared. The North Korean citizen first approached a Migration and Law network lawyer for assistance with an asylum request on August 27, stating that he fled the Far Eastern Federal University campus on Russky Island. An officer at the Frunzenskiy District Police Department told the lawyer that the North Korean consulate took the asylum seeker from the police department. The asylum seeker’s lawyer suspected that he was forcibly returned to his country of origin.
Security forces were allegedly complicit in the kidnapping and disappearance of individuals from Central Asia, whose forcible return was apparently sought by their governments (see section 2.f.).
There were continued reports of abductions and torture in the North Caucasus, including of political activists and others critical of Chechnya head Kadyrov. On October 28, 1ADAT, a social media channel that is highly critical of Kadyrov, reported that Chechen security forces abducted more than 1,500 persons between April and October. For example, on September 6, Salman Tepsurkayev, a 19-year-old Chechen activist and a 1ADAT moderator, was kidnapped, reportedly by persons with connections to Chechen authorities. On September 7, a video recording of Tepsurkayev circulated on social media in which he appeared naked with signs of torture as he said, “I am punishing myself” and sat on a glass bottle. The office of the Chechen human rights ombudsman commented it was aware of the video of Tepsurkayev but had not looked into the matter because there had been no request from the victim or the relatives. As of December 1, Tepsurkayev’s whereabouts were unknown.
On October 20, the human rights group Memorial reported that five men were abducted from the village of Chechen-Aul on August 28, and two more were abducted on August 30. Memorial stated that all seven men were taken to the city of Argun, where they were visited by the Chechen interior minister Ruslan Alkhanov and Chechen deputy prime minister Abuzaid Vismuradov before being transferred to a secret prison, where they were interrogated and tortured. Four of the men were later released (two on September 18 and two on October 7), while three reportedly remained in government detention facilities as of December. Memorial reported that 13 men were abducted on November 5 from the Chechen city of Gudermes and taken to a secret prison, where Memorial believed they remained as of December.
There were reports Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in enforced disappearances (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, numerous credible reports indicated law enforcement officers engaged in torture, abuse, and violence to coerce confessions from suspects, and authorities only occasionally held officials accountable for such actions.
In December 2019, for the first time, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation published data on the use of torture in prisons and pretrial detention centers. The data showed that between 2015 and 2018, for every 44 reports of violence perpetrated by Federal Penitentiary Service employees, only one criminal case was initiated.
There were reports of deaths as a result of torture (see section 1.a.).
Physical abuse of suspects by police officers was reportedly systemic and usually occurred within the first few days of arrest in pretrial detention facilities. Reports from human rights groups and former police officers indicated that police most often used electric shocks, suffocation, and stretching or applying pressure to joints and ligaments because those methods were considered less likely to leave visible marks. The problem was especially acute in the North Caucasus. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, prisoners in the North Caucasus complained of mistreatment, unreasonable punishment, religious and ethnic harassment, and inadequate provision of medical care.
There were reports that police beat or otherwise abused persons, in some cases resulting in their death. For example, media reported that members of Russia’s National Guard forcibly dispersed a peaceful political rally in Khabarovsk City on October 12. Several participants reported being beaten by police during the rally’s dispersal, at least one with a police baton; one victim suffered a broken nose. Two detained minors said they were “put on their knees in a corner, mocked, had their arms twisted, and were hit in the eye.”
There were reports that law enforcement officers used torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies. For example, on May 11, Russian media reported Vladimir Vorontsov, the creator of the Police Ombudsman project, was hospitalized after being kept in an isolation ward in a prison. According to his lawyer, authorities detained Vorontsov on May 7, denied his request for medical assistance, and interrogated him into the evening, after which he was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to sleep. On May 8, Vorontsov was charged with extorting money from a police officer. Vorontsov alleged the charges against him were revenge for his social activism, which involved reporting on officials’ labor rights violations of law enforcement officers.
In several cities police reportedly subjected members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group banned under antiextremism laws, to physical abuse and torture following their arrest. For example, on February 10, officers from the Russian National Guard handcuffed Chita resident Vadim Kutsenko and took him to a local forest, where they beat his face and neck, suffocated him, and used a Taser to force him to admit to being a practicing member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When Kutsenko reported the incident to authorities, he was ignored and sent to a temporary detention center along with three other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to media reports, Kutsenko sought medical treatment upon his release, which confirmed the physical trauma.
There were multiple reports of the FSB using torture against young “anarchists and antifascist activists” who were allegedly involved in several “terrorism” and “extremism” cases. For example, on February 10, a court in Penza found seven alleged anarchists and antifascist activists supposedly tied to a group known as “Set” (“Network”) guilty of terrorism and sentenced them to between six and 18 years in prison. Authorities claimed they were plotting to overthrow the government, but human rights activists asserted that the FSB falsified evidence and fabricated the existence of the organization known as “Set/Network.” Several of the sentenced men claimed that the FSB forced them to sign admissions of guilt under torture; one of them claimed he had marks on his body from electric shocks and asked for medical experts to document them but was denied the request. Memorial considered all seven men sentenced to be political prisoners.
In the North Caucasus region, there were widespread reports that security forces abused and tortured both alleged militants and civilians in detention facilities. On January 20, Aminat Lorsanova became the second individual to file a complaint with federal authorities asking for an investigation into abuses against the LGBTI community in Chechnya. In 2018 she was forcibly detained at one psychiatric clinic for 25 days and at another for four months. She was beaten with sticks and injected with tranquilizer to “cure” her of her bisexual identity. Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s minister of national policy, foreign relations, press, and information, publicly denied Lorsanova’s claims and accused the LGBTI community of deceiving “a sick Chechen girl.”
There were reports of rape and sexual abuse by government agents. For example, media reported on Mukhtar Aliyev’s account of his five years in IK-7 prison in Omsk region from 2015 until his release during the year, where he was subjected to torture, including sexual assault. Aliyev told media that prison officials would beat him, tie him to the bars for a prolonged length of time causing his legs and arms to swell up, and force other inmates to assault him sexually while recording their actions. Aliyev said that the officials threatened to leak the recording to other inmates and officials if he did not behave.
There were reports of authorities detaining defendants for psychiatric evaluations to exert pressure on them or sending defendants for psychiatric treatment as punishment. Prosecutors and certified medical professionals may request suspects be placed in psychiatric clinics on an involuntary basis. For example, on May 12, approximately two dozen riot police stormed the home of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Siberian shaman who announced in 2019 that he and his supporters planned to walk from Yakutsk to Moscow to “expel” Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. Police detained Gabyshev and forcibly hospitalized him for psychiatric treatment. On May 29, Gabyshev filed a claim refusing further hospitalization, after which the clinic’s medical commission deemed him a danger to himself and others and filed a lawsuit to extend his detention there. The clinic released Gabyshev on July 22.
Reports of nonlethal physical abuse and hazing continued in the armed forces. Activists reported such hazing was often tied to extortion schemes. On January 22, the online media outlet 29.ru published an interview with the mother of conscript Ilya Botygin, who claimed that he was a victim of repeated hazing in his Nizhny Novgorod-based unit. The mother said that her son’s superiors locked him up for several days at a time, fed him irregularly, and beat him. When she visited him in January, she took him to the emergency room for a medical examination, but his unit did not accept the paperwork documenting his injuries on the grounds it could be forged. She and Botygin filed a case with the Nizhny Novgorod military prosecutor’s office but told media they had not received any updates about an investigation.
There were reports that Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Russian occupation authorities in Crimea engaged in torture (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. According to a July 25 investigation published by independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta, tens of thousands of cases of beatings and torture by the military, police, and other security forces could have gone unpunished in the previous 10 years. The report assessed the Investigative Committee’s lack of independence from police as a key factor hampering accountability, because the organization failed to initiate investigations into a high number of incidents.
Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a serious problem. While the law mandates the separation of women and men, juveniles and adults, and pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners in separate quarters, anecdotal evidence indicated not all prison facilities followed these rules. On March 31, Amnesty International urged authorities to take urgent measures to address the potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19 if it spreads among prisoners and detainees. The organization stated that prisons’ overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation led to a high risk of infection among prisoners and detainees.
Physical and sexual abuse by prison guards was systemic. For example, Russian media reported that on February 13, the prison warden of IK-5 in Mordovia, Valeriy Trofimov, took prisoner Ibragim Bakaniyev into his office and beat and humiliated him for six hours. Bakaniyev was accused of taking part in a riot that broke out earlier that night. Bakaniyev reported that the torture only ended when he used a hidden blade to cut his hand and threatened to commit suicide. Bakaniyev was sent to a punishment cell for the next three months.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was also a problem. For example, the Committee against Torture in Krasnodar reported that authorities opened a criminal investigation into the July 7 death of Dmitriy Kraskovskiy, a detainee in Pretrial Detention Facility Number 1 in Krasnodar. Authorities suspected he was beaten to death by inmates. The preliminary report indicated multiple bruises and head wounds on Kraskovskiy. The perpetrators allegedly tried to hang the corpse to hide the cause of death.
There were reports prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates. For example, on July 22, Russian media and the Civic Assistance Committee reported that a group of inmates tortured and sexually assaulted Makharbi Tosuyev, a prisoner at IK-7, who was confined to the psychiatric department of IK-3. According to Tosuyev, a group of inmates tied him to his bed while he was confined in the psychiatric department of IK-3 as a result of a self-inflicted injury, and tortured and sexually assaulted him with a plastic stick. Tosuyev accused the head of the operational department of IK-3, Edgar Hayrapetyan, of organizing the attack.
Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor. Opportunities for movement and exercise in pretrial detention were minimal. Potable water was sometimes rationed, and food quality was poor; many inmates relied on food provided by family or NGOs. Access to quality medical care remained a problem. For example, according to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, Viktor Malkov, died three months after being released from an eight-month-long detention, partly because his chronic health problems were exacerbated by the denial of medical care in the detention center. Malkov, who was detained on the grounds of extremism due to his religious beliefs, had stated that prison officials did not allow him to seek proper treatment or medications for his heart disease and kidney problems.
NGOs reported approximately 50 percent of prisoners with HIV did not receive adequate treatment. Only prisoners with a CD4 white-blood cell level below a certain amount were provided treatment. NGOs reported that interruptions in the supplies of some antiretroviral drugs were sometimes a problem.
There were reports political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units. For example, on May 21, a court ordered the forced psychiatric treatment of Kamchatka opposition activist Vladimir Shumanin during a criminal prosecution for libel stemming from a 2018 article in which he accused a law enforcement officer of engaging in criminal behavior. In the Far East region, Shumanin was known for running a personal YouTube channel in which he sharply criticized regional and federal authorities.
Administration: Convicted inmates and individuals in pretrial detention have visitation rights, but authorities may deny visitation depending on circumstances. By law prisoners with harsher sentences are allowed fewer visitation rights. The judge in a prisoner’s case may deny the prisoner visitation. Authorities may also prohibit relatives deemed a security risk from visiting prisoners. Some pretrial detainees believed authorities sometimes denied visitation and telephone access to pressure them into providing confessions.
While prisoners may file complaints with public oversight commissions or with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, they often did not do so due to fear of reprisal. Prison reform activists reported that only prisoners who believed they had no other option risked the consequences of filing a complaint. Complaints that reached the oversight commissions often focused on minor personal requests.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities permitted representatives of public oversight commissions to visit prisons regularly to monitor conditions. According to the Public Chamber, there were public oversight commissions in almost all regions. Human rights activists expressed concern that some members of the commissions were individuals close to authorities and included persons with law enforcement backgrounds.
By law members of oversight commissions have the right to videotape and photograph inmates in detention facilities and prisons with their written approval. Commission members may also collect air samples, conduct other environmental inspections, conduct safety evaluations, and access prison psychiatric facilities. The law permits human rights activists not listed in public oversight commissions to visit detentions centers and prisons. The NGO Interregional Center for Women’s Support, working with detained migrants, noted that only after a specific detainee submits a request and contacts the NGO may the organization obtain permission to visit a certain detention center.
Authorities allowed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture to visit the country’s prisons and release some reports on conditions but continued to withhold permission for it to release all recent reports.
There were reports of authorities prosecuting journalists for reporting torture. For example, in September, three penal colonies in Kemerovo Oblast (IK-5, IK-22, and IK-37) filed a lawsuit for reputational protection against a number of former prisoners and civic activists, including journalist Andrey Novashov, who in June published an article on the news website Sibir.Realii exposing inmates’ allegations of torture in the three colonies.
While the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, authorities engaged in these practices with impunity. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but successful challenges were rare.
By law authorities may arrest and hold a suspect for up to 48 hours without court approval, provided there is evidence of a crime or a witness; otherwise, an arrest warrant is required. The law requires judicial approval of arrest warrants, searches, seizures, and detentions. Officials generally honored this requirement, although bribery or political pressure sometimes subverted the process of obtaining judicial warrants. After an arrest, police typically took detainees to the nearest police station, where they informed them of their rights. Police must prepare a protocol stating the grounds for the arrest, and both the detainee and police officer must sign it within three hours of detention. Police must interrogate detainees within the first 24 hours of detention. Prior to interrogation, a detainee has the right to meet with an attorney for two hours. No later than 12 hours after detention, police must notify the prosecutor. They must also give the detainee an opportunity to notify his or her relatives by telephone unless a prosecutor issues a warrant to keep the detention secret. Police are required to release a detainee after 48 hours, subject to bail conditions, unless a court decides, at a hearing, to prolong custody in response to a motion filed by police not less than eight hours before the 48-hour detention period expires. The defendant and his or her attorney must be present at the court hearing, either in person or through a video link.
Except in the North Caucasus, authorities generally respected the legal limitations on detention. There were reports of occasional noncompliance with the 48-hour limit for holding a detainee. At times authorities failed to issue an official detention protocol within the required three hours after detention and held suspects longer than the legal detention limits.
By law police must complete their investigation and transfer a case to a prosecutor for arraignment within two months of a suspect’s arrest, although an investigative authority may extend a criminal investigation for up to 12 months. Extensions beyond 12 months need the approval of the head federal investigative authority in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, or the Investigative Committee and the approval of the court. According to some defense lawyers, the two-month time limit often was exceeded, especially in cases with a high degree of public interest.
Problems existed related to detainees’ ability to obtain adequate defense counsel. The law provides defendants the right to choose their own lawyers, but investigators sometimes did not respect this provision, instead designating lawyers friendly to the prosecution. These “pocket” defense attorneys agreed to the interrogation of their clients in their presence while making no effort to defend their clients’ legal rights. In many cases especially in more remote regions, defense counsel was not available for indigent defendants. Judges usually did not suppress confessions taken without a lawyer present. Judges at times freed suspects held in excess of detention limits, although they usually granted prosecutors’ motions to extend detention periods.
There were reports that security services sometimes held detainees in incommunicado detention before officially registering the detention. This practice usually coincided with allegations of the use of torture to coerce confessions before detainees were permitted access to a lawyer. The problem was especially acute in the Republic of Chechnya, where such incommunicado detention could reportedly last for weeks in some cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were many reports of arbitrary arrest or detention, often in connection with demonstrations and single-person pickets, such as those that preceded and succeeded the July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments (see section 2.b.). The independent human rights media project OVD-Info reported that during the first six months of the year, police detained 388 single-person picketers in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, although single-person pickets are legal and do not require a permit. After Novaya Gazeta journalist and municipal deputy Ilya Azar was arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest on May 26 for holding a single-person picket in Moscow, law enforcement authorities detained an estimated 130 individuals who took part in protests supporting him in three cities. Many of them were fined for violating the laws on staging public demonstrations.
There were reports that Russian-led forces and Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine engaged in arbitrary detention (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Ukraine).
Pretrial Detention: Observers noted lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, but data on its extent were not available. By law pretrial detention may not normally exceed two months, but the court has the power to extend it to six months, as well as to 12 or 18 months if the crime of which the defendant is accused is especially serious. For example, Yuliy Boyarshinov, described by Memorial as an antifascist and left-wing activist, was in pretrial detention from 2018 until the resumption of his trial in February; he was convicted and sentenced to 5.5 years in prison in June. He was accused of illegally storing explosives and participating in a terrorist organization because of his purported association with the “Network,” an alleged antifascist and anarchist group that relatives of the accused claim does not really exist. Memorial considered Boyarshinov to be a political prisoner.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law a detainee may challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. In view of problems with judicial independence (see section 1.e.), however, judges typically agreed with the investigator and dismissed defendants’ complaints.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but judges remained subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases, as well as to corruption. The outcomes of some trials appeared predetermined. Acquittal rates remained extremely low. In 2019 courts acquitted 0.36 percent of all defendants.
There were reports of pressure on defense attorneys representing clients who were being subjected to politically motivated prosecution and other forms of reprisal. According to a June 2019 report from the Agora International Human Rights Group, it has become common practice for judges to remove defense attorneys from court hearings without a legitimate basis in retaliation for their providing clients with an effective defense. The report also documented a trend of law enforcement authorities’ using physical force to interfere with the work of defense attorneys, including the use of violence to prevent them from being present during searches and interrogations.
On August 7, the bar association of the Leningrad region opened disciplinary proceedings against Yevgeniy Smirnov, a lawyer from Team 29, an informal association of lawyers and journalists dedicated to protecting civil liberties. Smirnov was one of the lawyers representing journalist Ivan Safronov in a high-profile treason case. His colleagues believed that the disciplinary proceedings were retaliation for his work.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but executive interference with the judiciary and judicial corruption undermined this right.
The defendant has a legal presumption of innocence and the right to a fair, timely, and public trial, but these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of charges and to be present at the trial. The law provides for the appointment of an attorney free of charge if a defendant cannot afford one, although the high cost of legal service meant that lower-income defendants often lacked competent representation. A Yekaterinburg-based legal and human rights NGO indicated many defense attorneys do not vigorously defend their clients and that there were few qualified defense attorneys in remote areas of the country. Defense attorneys may visit their clients in detention, although defense lawyers claimed authorities electronically monitored their conversations and did not always provide them access to their clients. Prior to trial, defendants receive a copy of their indictment, which describes the charges against them in detail. They also may review their file following the completion of the criminal investigation.
Non-Russian defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, although the quality of interpretation is typically poor. During trial the defense is not required to present evidence and is given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and call defense witnesses, although judges may deny the defense this opportunity. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right of appeal.
The law provides for trial by jury in criminal cases if the defendant is charged with murder, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and certain other serious crimes. Nonetheless, trials by jury remained rare, and the vast majority of verdicts and sentences are rendered by judges. The acquittal rate in trials by jury is much higher (23 percent in 2019) than in trials before a judge (0.36 percent in 2019), although acquittals by jury are sometimes overturned by judges in appellate courts.
The law allows prosecutors to appeal acquittals, which they did in most cases. Prosecutors may also appeal what they regard as lenient sentences. In April 2018, a court in Petrozavodsk acquitted renowned historian of the gulag and human rights activist Yuriy Dmitriyev of child pornography charges, a case many observers believed to be politically motivated and in retaliation for his efforts to expose Stalin-era crimes. In June 2018 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia granted the prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal and sent the case for retrial. In the same month, Dmitriyev was again arrested. On July 22, the Petrozavodsk City Court found him guilty of sexual abuse of a minor and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison. On September 29, the Supreme Court of Karelia overturned the decision and extended his sentence to 13 years in maximum-security prison. Memorial considered Dmitriyev to be a political prisoner.
Authorities particularly infringed on the right to a fair trial in Chechnya, where observers noted that the judicial system served as a means of conducting reprisals against those who exposed wrongdoing by Chechnya head Kadyrov.
In some cases judicial authorities imposed sentences disproportionate to the crimes charged. For example, on August 18, political commentator Fyodor Krasheninnikov was sentenced to seven days in jail for publishing comments criticizing the Constitutional Court. The Sverdlovsk Oblast human rights ombudswoman responded that Krasheninnikov should only have been fined. Krasheninnikov filed a complaint with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), asserting that his arrest violated his rights of speech, fair trial, and personal freedom.
There were credible reports of political prisoners in the country and that authorities detained and prosecuted individuals for political reasons. Charges usually applied in politically motivated cases included “terrorism,” “extremism,” “separatism,” and “espionage.” Political prisoners were reportedly placed in particularly harsh conditions of confinement and subjected to other punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units.
As of December Memorial’s list of political prisoners contained 358 names, including 295 individuals who were allegedly wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom. Nevertheless, Memorial estimated that the actual number of political prisoners in the country could be two to three times greater than the number on its list. Memorial’s list included journalists jailed for their writing, such as Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev (see section 2.a.); human rights activists jailed for their work, such as Yuriy Dmitriyev; many Ukrainians (including Crimean Tatars) imprisoned for their vocal opposition to the country’s occupation of Crimea; Anastasiya Shevchenko, the first individual charged under the “undesirable foreign organizations” law; students and activists jailed for participating in the Moscow protests in July and August 2019; and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious believers. Memorial noted the average length of sentences for the cases on their list continued to increase, from 5.3 years for political prisoners and 6.6 years for religious prisoners in 2016 to 6.8 and 9.1 years, respectively, in 2018. In some cases sentences were significantly longer, such as the case of Aleksey Pichugin, a former security official of the Russian oil company Yukos, imprisoned since 2003 with a life sentence for conviction of alleged involvement in murder and murder attempts; human rights organizations asserted that his detention was politically motivated to obtain false evidence against Yukos executives.
Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country
There were credible reports that the country attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. Authorities used their access to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to target political enemies abroad. For example, the religious freedom rights organization Forum 18 reported that the country issued Interpol red notices in January to secure the extradition of at least two individuals facing “extremism” charges for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Ashurali Magomedeminov, who studied the work of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, left Russia in 2016; the Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against him in 2017 after accusing him of sharing “extremist literature.”
There were credible reports that, for politically motivated purposes, the government attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country aimed at having it take adverse action against specific individuals. For example, on February 21, Belarusian police detained Nikolay Makhalichev, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the request of the Russian authorities. Makhalichev said that Belarusian police told him that Russian authorities had put him on an interstate wanted list after they opened a criminal case against him for “extremism” for his religious affiliation. Russian prosecutors brought forth a request for extradition, but on April 7, the Belarusian courts determined that he would not be extradited.
Although the law provides mechanisms for individuals to file lawsuits against authorities for human rights violations, these mechanisms often did not work well. For example, the law provides that a defendant who has been acquitted after a trial has the right to compensation from the government. While this legal mechanism exists in principle, it was practically very cumbersome to use. Persons who believed their human rights were violated typically sought redress in the ECHR after domestic courts ruled against them. Amendments to the constitution approved in a nationwide vote on July 1, and signed into law on December 8, enshrined the primacy of Russian law over international law, stating that decisions by interstate bodies interpreted in a manner contrary to the constitution are not enforceable in the country. Many experts interpreted this to mean that courts have greater power to ignore rulings from international human rights bodies, including the ECHR; the courts had already set a precedent by declaring such bodies’ decisions “nonexecutable.”
The country has endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Restitution but declined to endorse the 2010 Guidelines and Best Practices. There is no legislation or special mechanism in the country that addresses the restitution of or compensation for private property; the same is true for heirless property. The government has laws in place providing for the restitution of cultural property, but according to the laws’ provisions, claims may only be made by states and not individuals.
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, at https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or when authorized by a judicial decision. The law also prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While the law previously prohibited government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant, those legal protections were significantly weakened by laws passed since 2016 granting authorities sweeping powers and requiring telecommunications providers to store all electronic and telecommunication data (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). Politicians from minority parties, NGOs, human rights activists, and journalists alleged that authorities routinely employed surveillance and other measures to spy on and intimidate citizens.
Law enforcement agencies required telecommunications providers to grant the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB continuous remote access to client databases, including telephone and electronic communications, enabling them to track private communications and monitor internet activity without the provider’s knowledge. The law permits authorities with a warrant to monitor telephone calls in real time, but this safeguard was largely pro forma. The Ministry of Information and Communication requires telecommunications service providers to allow the FSB to tap telephones and monitor the internet. The Ministry of Information and Communication maintained that authorities would not access information without a court order, although the FSB is not required to show it upon request.
In January a Novaya Gazeta investigation revealed that personnel of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s antiextremism division had installed a secret video camera in 2018 in the bedroom of Anastasiya Shevchenko, an Open Russia activist facing criminal charges for participating in an “undesirable” organization. The camera recorded her for five months without her knowledge.
The law requires explicit consent for governmental and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology. Laws on public security and crime prevention, however, provide for exceptions to this consent requirement. Human rights activists claimed the law lacks appropriate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these data, especially without any judicial or public oversight over surveillance methods and technologies.
As of September almost 200,000 government surveillance cameras have been installed in Moscow and equipped with Russian-developed automated facial recognition software as part of its Safe City program. The system was initially installed in key public places, such as metro stations and apartment entrances, in order to scan crowds against a database of wanted individuals. The first major test of this system occurred in the spring, as the Moscow city government began enforcing mandatory COVID-19 self-isolation requirements using facial recognition. The personal data of residents and international visitors placed under quarantine in Moscow were reportedly uploaded into the system in order to monitor the public for self-isolation violations. The Moscow city government announced that additional cameras would be installed throughout the city, including in one-quarter of the city’s 6,000 metro cars, by the end of the year.
In July, two activists, Alyona Popova and Vladimir Milov, filed a complaint against the country’s facial recognition program with the ECHR. Popova and Milov claimed closed-circuit television cameras were used during a large September 2019 protest in Moscow to conduct mass surveillance of the participants. They claimed that the government’s collection of protesters’ unique biometric data through the use of facial recognition technology violated the right to privacy and freedom of assembly provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights. Popova and Milov also argued the use of the technology at an opposition rally amounted to discrimination based on political views. The pair had previously filed a complaint in a local Moscow court, which was dismissed in March when the court ruled the government’s use of the technology legal.
On May 21, the State Duma adopted a law to create a unified federal register containing information on all the country’s residents, including their names, dates and places of birth, and marital status. According to press reports, intelligence and security services would have access to the database in their investigations. There were reports that authorities threatened to remove children from the custody of parents engaged in political activism or some forms of religious worship, or parents who were LGBTI persons. For example, on October 2, Russian media reported that authorities were threatening to arrest and take away the children of gay men who have fathered their children through surrogacy, accusing them of child trafficking. Several families reportedly left the country due to fear of arrest. As of December no formal arrest related to this threat had been reported.
The law requires relatives of terrorists to pay the cost of damages caused by an attack, which human rights advocates criticized as collective punishment. Chechen Republic authorities reportedly routinely imposed collective punishment on the relatives of alleged terrorists, including by expelling them from the republic.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no public reports or credible allegations the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There were no reports that officials investigated or punished those responsible for unlawful killings in previous years.
Unlike in previous years, there were no public reports or credible allegations of new disappearances carried out by authorities or their agents.
Derung Tsering Dhundrup, a senior Tibetan scholar who was also the deputy secretary of the Sichuan Tibet Studies Society, was reportedly detained in June 2019, and his whereabouts remained unknown as of December. Gen Sonam, a senior manager of the Potala Palace, was reportedly detained in July 2019, and his whereabouts were unknown as of December.
The whereabouts of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the second most prominent figure after the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism’s Gelug school, remained unknown. Neither he nor his parents have been seen since People’s Republic of China (PRC) authorities disappeared them in 1995, when he was six years old. In May shortly after the 25th anniversary of his abduction, a PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson stated the Panchen Lama was a college graduate with a job and that neither he nor his family wished to be disturbed in their “current normal lives.” The spokesperson did not provide any further specifics.
According to credible sources, police and prison authorities employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in dealing with some detainees and prisoners. There were reports that PRC officials severely beat some Tibetans who were incarcerated or otherwise in custody. Lhamo, a Tibetan herder, was reportedly detained by police in June for sending money to India; in August she died in a hospital after being tortured in custody in Nagchu Prefecture, Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
Reports from released prisoners indicated some were permanently disabled or in extremely poor health because of the harsh treatment they endured in prison. Former prisoners also reported being isolated in small cells for months at a time and deprived of sleep, sunlight, and adequate food. In April, Gendun Sherab, a former political prisoner in the TAR’s Nakchu Prefecture died, reportedly due to injuries sustained while in custody. Gendun Sherab was arrested in 2017 for sharing a social media message from the Dalai Lama.
Physical Conditions: Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening due to inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. According to individuals who completed their prison terms in recent years, prisoners rarely received medical care except in cases of serious illness.
Administration: There were many cases in which officials denied visitors access to detained and imprisoned persons.
Independent Monitoring: There was no evidence of independent monitoring or observation of prisons or detention centers.
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. Legal safeguards for detained or imprisoned Tibetans were inadequate in both design and implementation.
Public security agencies are required by law to notify the relatives or employer of a detained person within 24 hours of their detention but often failed to do so when Tibetans and others were detained for political reasons. Public security officers may legally detain persons for up to 37 days without formally arresting or charging them. Further detention requires approval of a formal arrest by the prosecutor’s office; however, in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest.
When a suspect is formally arrested, public security authorities may detain him/her for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated. After the completion of an investigation, the prosecutor may detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities may then detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings.
Pretrial Detention: Security officials frequently violated these legal requirements, and pretrial detention periods of more than a year were common. Individuals detained for political or religious reasons were often held on national security charges, which have looser restrictions on the length of pretrial detention. Many political detainees were therefore held without trial far longer than other types of detainees. Authorities held many prisoners in extrajudicial detention centers without charge and never allowed them to appear in public court.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: This right does not exist in the TAR or other Tibetan areas.
The judiciary was not independent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or government in law or practice. In March for example, officials in Mangkhang County, TAR, announced that the local prosecutor’s office would hire five court clerks. Among the job requirements were loyalty to the CCP leadership and a critical attitude toward the 14th Dalai Lama. The November establishment of “Xi Jinping Thought on the Rule of Law” sought to strengthen this party control over the legal system.
Soon after an August meeting of senior CCP officials about Tibet during which President Xi Jinping stated the people must continue the fight against “splittism,” the Dui Hua Foundation reported that the Kandze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province had convicted nine Tibetans of “inciting splittism” during the year. Little public information was available about their trials.
Criminal suspects in the PRC have the right to hire a lawyer or other defense representation, but many Tibetan defendants, particularly those facing politically motivated charges, did not have access to legal representation while in pretrial detention. In rare cases, defendants were denied access to legal representation entirely, but in many cases lawyers are unwilling to take clients due to political risks or because Tibetan families often do not have the resources to cover legal fees. For example, Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk, arrested in 2016 and convicted in 2018, has been denied access to his lawyer since his conviction. Access was limited prior to his trial, and the government rejected petitions and motions appealing the verdict filed by his lawyer and other supporters, although PRC law allows for such appeals.
While some Tibetan lawyers are licensed in Tibetan areas, observers reported they were often unwilling to defend individuals in front of ethnic Han judges and prosecutors due to fear of reprisals or disbarment. In cases that authorities claimed involved “endangering state security” or “separatism,” trials often were cursory and closed. Local sources noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin, with government interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak Mandarin. Court decisions, proclamations, and other judicial documents, however, generally were not published in Tibetan.
An unknown number of Tibetans were detained, arrested, or sentenced because of their political or religious activities.
Credible outside observers examined publicly available information and, as of late 2019, identified records of 273 Tibetans known or believed to be detained or imprisoned by PRC authorities in violation of international human rights standards. Of the 115 cases for which there was available information on sentencing, punishment ranged from 15 months’ to life imprisonment. This data was believed to cover only a small fraction of the actual number of political prisoners.
In January official media reported that in 2019 the TAR prosecutor’s office approved the arrest and prosecution of 101 individuals allegedly part of “the Dalai Lama clique” for “threatening” China’s “political security.” Details, including the whereabouts of those arrested, were unknown.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live outside Tibet, many as refugees in India and Nepal. There were credible reports that the PRC continued to put heavy pressure on Nepal to implement a border systems management agreement and a mutual legal assistance treaty, as well as to conclude an extradition treaty, that could result in the refoulement of Tibetan refugees to the PRC. Nepal does not appear to have implemented either proposed agreement and has postponed action on the extradition treaty.
In January in its annual work report, the TAR Higher People’s Court noted that in 2019 the first TAR fugitive abroad was repatriated. The fugitive reportedly was charged with official-duty-related crimes. The report stated the repatriation was part of the TAR’s effort to deter corruption and “purify” the political environment; no other details were available.
The Tibetan overseas community is frequently subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. In September media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the phones of officials in the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and of several leaders in the Central Tibetan Administration, the governance organization of the overseas Tibetan community. The PRC government at times compelled Tibetans located in China to pressure their family members seeking asylum overseas to return to China.
Authorities electronically and manually monitored private correspondence and searched, without warrant, private homes and businesses for photographs of the Dalai Lama and other forbidden items. Police routinely examined the cell phones of TAR residents in random stops or as part of other investigations to search for “reactionary music” from India or photographs of the Dalai Lama. Authorities also questioned and detained some individuals who disseminated writings and photographs over the internet or listened to teachings of the Dalai Lama on their mobile phones.
The “grid system,” an informant system also known as the “double-linked household system,” facilitated authorities’ efforts to identify and control persons considered “extremist” or “splittist.” The grid system groups households and other establishments and encourages them to report problems to the government, including financial problems and political transgressions, in other group households. Authorities rewarded individuals with money and other forms of compensation for their reporting. The maximum reward for information leading to the arrests of social media users deemed disloyal to the government increased to 300,000 renminbi ($42,800), according to local media. This amount was six times the average per capita GDP of the TAR.
According to sources in the TAR, Tibetans frequently received telephone calls from security officials ordering them to remove from their cell phones photographs, articles, and information on international contacts the government deemed sensitive. Security officials visited the residences of those who did not comply with such orders. Media reports indicated that in some areas, households were required to have photographs of President Xi Jinping in prominent positions and were subject to inspections and fines for noncompliance. In a July case, international media reported local officials detained and beat a number of Tibetan villagers from Palyul in Sichuan’s Tibetan autonomous prefecture’s Kardze County for possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama found after raids on their residences.
The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with Tibetans in exile.
Individuals in Tibetan areas reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China.
The government also interfered in the ability of persons to find employment. Media reports in June noted that advertisements for 114 positions of different types in Chamdo City, TAR, required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.