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Afghanistan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but the government sometimes restricted these rights to varying degrees.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: While the law provides for freedom of speech, which was widely exercised, there were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Freedom of speech was also considerably more constrained at the provincial level, where local power brokers, such as former mujahedin-era military leaders, exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists.

Press and Media Freedoms: While media reported independently throughout the year, often openly criticizing the government, full press freedoms were lacking. At times authorities used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power arrested, threatened, or harassed journalists because of their coverage. Freedom of speech and an independent media were even more constrained at the provincial level, where many media outlets had links to specific personalities or political parties, to include former mujahedin military leaders who owned many of the broadcasting stations and print media and influenced their content.

Print media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, and newspapers. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. There were concerns, however, that media independence and safety remained at high risk in light of increased attacks. Due to high levels of illiteracy, television and radio were the preferred information source for most citizens. Radio remained more widespread due to its relative accessibility, with approximately 75 percent radio penetration, compared with approximately 50 percent for television.

The Ministry of Information and Culture has authority to regulate the press and media. In 2015 the ministry dissolved the Media Violations Investigation Commission, whose evaluations of complaints against journalists were criticized as biased and not based on the law. Human Rights Watch reported the ministry routinely ignored officials who threatened, intimidated, or even physically attacked members of the press. While the ministry has legal responsibility for regulating media, the council of religious scholars (the Ulema Council) had considerable influence over media affairs.

In January the information ministry created the Independent Mass Media Commission. The commission is responsible for reregistering all media outlets in the country. Media activists condemned the new reregistration process, citing the high fees to undergo the process would hurt media outlets, particularly the smaller radio and television stations in the provinces. As of September media advocates had been able to delay the implementation of the new reregistration regulation.

In February, after the president issued a decree to implement current media laws and strengthen freedom of expression, the executive created a committee to investigate cases of violence against journalists. The committee met multiple times in the first half of the year and identified 432 cases eligible for investigation. The committee sent the cases to the appropriate government institutions associated with the violations for investigation, including the Ministry of Interior and NDS forces. As of September none of the government institutions had started an investigation or provided a response to the committee.

In May parliament members criticized the lack of full implementation of the 2014 Access to Information law. The Commission on Monitoring Access to Information stated a lack of budget and lack of government support resulted in weak implementation of the law.

Violence and Harassment: Government used threats, violence, and intimidation to silence opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out about impunity, war crimes, government officials, and powerful local figures. The AJSC reported that 50 percent of 101 incidents of attacks against journalists, including 13 cases of killings, 30 cases of beatings, 35 cases of intimidation, 17 cases of abuse, and six cases of injury, were attributed to government officials. In an October 30 press conference, Nai, an NGO supporting media freedom, reported that violence against media workers had increased to approximately 370 cases, in comparison with 95 cases in 2015. According to Nai, nearly 300 journalists left their jobs during the year due to threats. For example, according to reports, on June 5, police beat a reporter from Kawoon Ghag Radio while he reporting on an event where donations were distributed to poor families.

On August 29, while the president visited Bamyan Province to inaugurate the refurbished provincial airport, progovernment forces, including the president’s protective detail, allegedly harassed and beat protesters and journalists. Some journalists reported government security forces used violence against them and removed film or digital photographs from their equipment. Human Rights Watch received reports of NDS forces detaining journalists and activists for 24 hours. The Presidential Palace first rejected claims of journalists being beaten or detained during the August Bamyan visit, but later the president ordered an investigation.

On August 28, the leading independent daily newspaper, Hasht-e-Subh, intentionally left an entire page empty of content in all Herat city editions to highlight censorship of a news feature detailing corruption and smuggling allegations against Herat provincial council chief Kamran Alizai. The newspaper’s editor in chief, Parwiz Kawa, publicly stated the blank page demonstrated what he termed was a “preventive and protective” protest against an unnamed “powerful official.” He said editors were responding to threats against their regional offices by Alizai, who also maintained an illegal private militia. On the following day, Hasht-e-Subh published an article claiming the AGO assured editors that Alizai was under investigation, had been suspended from his duties, and had been banned from leaving the country. In the meantime the president’s deputy spokesperson, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, told Hasht-e-Subh, “Anyone who challenges independent media would be harshly confronted by the government.”

Prevailing security conditions created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not specific targets. Media organizations and journalists operating in remote areas were more vulnerable to violence and intimidation because of the increased level of insecurity and pronounced fear from insurgents, warlords, and organized criminals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.

On August 24, the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists. The new initiative entails the creation of a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee to be run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. The joint committee, to be chaired by the second vice president, was expected to register new cases, call for support from judicial bodies to prosecute perpetrators, and publicly share statistics on cases. Activists welcomed the government’s initiative.

An independent organization focused on the safety of journalists continued to operate a safe house for journalists facing threats. It reported law enforcement officials generally cooperated in assisting journalists who faced credible threats, although limited investigative capacity meant many cases remained unresolved. The Afghan Independent Bar Association established a media law committee to provide legal support, expertise, and services to media organizations.

Women constituted approximately 20 percent of media workers, compared with 30 percent in 2015. Some women oversaw radio stations across the country, and some radio stations emphasized almost exclusively female concerns. Nevertheless, female reporters found it difficult to practice their profession. Poor security, lack of training, and unsafe working conditions limited the participation of women in the media. The AJSC released a special report in March on the situation of female journalists, noting that sexual harassment continued to be wide spread in the media industry. If not subjected to sexual harassment and abuse at work, female journalists often faced pressure by their families to leave the media profession or at least not to show their faces on television.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly sought to restrict reporting on topics deemed contrary to the government’s messaging.

Some media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Fearing retribution by government officials, media outlets sometimes preferred to quote from foreign media reports on sensitive topics and in some cases fed stories to foreign journalists.

Nai conducted a survey in Kabul and five different provinces that revealed 94 percent of local social media users practiced self-censorship, fearing security threats and intimidation,

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

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

Nongovernmental Impact: Journalists continued to face threats from the Taliban and other insurgents. Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. In February, two Afghan Adib radio workers in Pol-e Khomri in Baghlan Province were brutally attacked, leaving one in a coma. Taliban forces reportedly were behind the attack, although no group claimed responsibility.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported local and foreign reporters continued to be at risk of kidnapping.

The Taliban continued to threaten journalists associated with two privately owned Afghan television outlets, ToloNews TV, and 1TV. The Taliban’s military commission designated both outlets as “military objectives” due to their perceived disrespectful coverage and claims that they broadcast propaganda, ridiculed religion, and injected the minds of youth with immorality. The Taliban for the first time openly threatened ToloNews in 2015, after the news channel reported allegations of executions, rape, kidnappings, and other abuses by the Taliban when Kunduz fell to the antigovernment group. On January 20, a Taliban suicide bomber in Kabul targeted and struck a minibus carrying Kaboora production staff, an affiliate of ToloNews, killing seven. On June 8, unknown gunmen launched a grenade attack on Enikas Radio in Jalalabad, just three days after an American journalist and a translator embedded in a local security forces convoy were killed by an ambush in Helmand Province on June 5.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media (for example, Twitter) to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high prices, inadequate local content, and illiteracy.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no reports that the government imposed restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events during the year.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year. In May a mass demonstration took place in Kabul over the government’s decision on routing of an electricity line from Turkmenistan to Kabul. Although government forces placed shipping containers to provide security and limited the areas in which the demonstration took place, protesters were allowed to march on the streets of Kabul. On July 23, protesters gathered again to protest the same electricity line but were attacked by insurgents with a bomb that killed 80 and injured an additional 250 protesters. After Da’esh claimed responsibility, the Ministry of Interior banned street protests for 10 days.

In September, Tajik supporters assembled to rebury the remains of a former king on a hill important to the Uzbek community in Kabul, leading to a standoff. After an agreement was reached, the reburial took place, although some criticized the government for not handling the issue properly.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The right to freedom of association is provided in the constitution, and the government generally respected it. The 2009 law on political parties obliges them to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. By law a political party must have 10,000 registered members to register with the ministry.

In 2012 the Council of Ministers approved a regulation requiring political parties to open offices in at least 20 provinces within one year of registration. The regulation provides for removal of parties failing to do so from the Justice Ministry’s official list. In 2015 the ministry conducted a nationwide review of provincial political party offices. It found 10 political parties not in compliance with the regulation and deregistered all 10 of them. There were a total of 57 political parties registered with the ministry.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, which the government generally respected, although it sometimes limited citizens’ movement for security reasons.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. Government ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

In-country Movement: Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces or insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers.

The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country was the lack of security. In many areas insurgent violence, banditry, land mines, and IEDs made travel extremely dangerous, especially at night.

Armed insurgents operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods. The Taliban imposed nightly curfews on the local populace in regions where it exercised authority, mostly in the southeast.

Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without male consent or a male chaperone.

Emigration and Repatriation: Refugee returns to the country rose in the last half of the year. As of mid-November UNHCR had assisted the return of more than 370,000 registered refugees (99 percent of whom returned from Pakistan), greatly surpassing the 58,460 returns in 2015. According to UNHCR surveys of returnees at arrival centers, many returnees claimed they left Pakistan due to increased rates of harassment and extortion and because they no longer believed they could stay in their homes safely or find jobs. Other reasons they cited included maintaining family unity with undocumented Afghans following their deportation, enhanced border controls, and uncertainty about legal status. Former refugees constituted more than 20 percent of the total country population, yet the government lacked the capacity to integrate large numbers of new arrivals due to continuing insecurity, limited employment opportunities, poor development, and budgetary constraints.

Undocumented Afghan refugees also returned in large numbers. The International Organization for Migration reported that about 230,000 had returned from Pakistan as of mid-November and projected that approximately 300,000 undocumented Afghans would return by the end of 2016. Approximately 391,000 undocumented Afghans returned from Iran during the same period; most of these returns resulted from deportation by Iranian authorities.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

Internal population movements increased, mainly triggered by increasing armed conflict. The United Nations estimated there were 1.2 million IDPs in the country. According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 486,000 new IDPs fled their homes from January to November. Most IDPs left insecure rural areas and small towns seeking relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. All 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.

Limited humanitarian access caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs and led to estimates of the total number of IDPs that were significantly larger than official figures. IDPs continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal and physical security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived in constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP camps reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: Laws do not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees from other countries. Nonetheless, the government worked closely with the international community to protect and respond to the needs of Pakistani refugees, including an estimated 100,000 refugees who remained in UNHCR camps in Khost and Paktika Provinces after being displaced in 2014 following Pakistani military operations against insurgents across the border.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. While government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, there were cases in which government officials intimidated human rights groups. Human rights activists continued to express concern that war criminals and human rights abusers remained in positions of power within the government.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitutionally mandated AIHRC continued to address human rights problems, but it received minimal government funding and relied almost exclusively on international donor funds.

Three Wolesi Jirga committees deal with human rights: the Gender, Civil Society, and Human Rights Committee; the Counternarcotics, Intoxicating Items, and Ethical Abuse Committee; and the Judicial, Administrative Reform, and Anticorruption Committee. In the Meshrano Jirga, the Committee for Gender and Civil Society addresses human rights concerns.

Albania

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, although there were some efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption stories. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained the independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship.

Online media saw a dramatic growth during the year, which added to the diversity of views. According to 2015 estimates, approximately 15 percent of the country’s 1,500 reporters worked in online media outlets.

In its annual Media Sustainability Index, the International Research and Exchanges Board indicated that the economic crisis continued to erode the independence of the media. At least one major newspaper closed for financial reasons. Funding for organizations that pushed for a more independent press remained limited, and the press was vulnerable to misuse under constant political and economic pressure.

The majority of citizens received their news from television and radio. The independence of the Audiovisual Media Authority, the regulator of the broadcast media market, remained questionable. The role of the authority remained limited, even after its board was fully staffed in mid-year.

In May the Constitutional Court decided in favor of a petition by the Albanian Electronic Media Association to abrogate a law that prevented an individual shareholder from owning more than a 40 percent share in a national broadcast media outlet. Some observers viewed the decision as paving the way to the potential monopolization of the already small number of national digital broadcast licenses. The EU, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE had previously criticized a 2015 attempt by the Assembly to annul the same article.

While private television stations generally operated free of direct government influence, most owners used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. Business owners also freely used media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties.

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

On May 9, the Union of Albanian Journalists denounced the severe beating of sports journalist Eduard Ilnica, allegedly for reporting on the violent behavior of a coach during a soccer match. Authorities arrested the coach and released him on bail. There were reports that Ilnica decided not to press charges after reaching a private agreement with the defendant, but the prosecutor’s office took the case to court; a trial was pending.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment and as a response to pressure from publishers and editors seeking to advance their political and economic interests. A 2015 survey by the Balkan Investigative Regional Network Albania found that large commercial companies and important advertisers were key sources of pressure. Lack of economic security reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. Albanian journalist unions continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at most media outlets. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income.

On August 20, the Union of Albanian Journalists condemned the so-called arbitrary dismissal of Alida Tota, news director at A1 TV, allegedly for reporting the August death of a 17-year-old boy working in the Sharra landfill near Tirana. A letter from the station owner to Tota published in the media stated that she was employed for an indefinite trial period and would be terminated from her position. Tota claimed she was dismissed because the Sharra story held the municipality of Tirana responsible for the conditions of child labor in the landfill.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines, which could be as much as three million leks ($24,000), were excessive and, combined with the entry of a conviction into the defendant’s criminal record, undermined freedom of expression.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to June data from Internet World Stats, 1.82 million persons, or approximately 60 percent of the population, used the internet. Approximately 35 percent of users accessed the internet through mobile telephones.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning migrants, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Police allowed UNHCR to monitor the processing, detention, and deportation of some migrants.

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

There were credible reports from NGOs and migrants and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process obligations for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the system. Through October some 740 migrants and asylum seekers–mostly Afghans and Syrians–entered the country. Authorities returned most to Greece, some immediately, others after weeks of detention in inadequate facilities. UNHCR was critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures, particularly in view of the increased presence of children among migrants. Through October authorities responded by transferring 18 migrants from the Karrec closed migrant detention facility to the Babrru open asylum center, where living conditions were much more family friendly. Authorities also housed more than a dozen migrants awaiting return to Greece in hotels in lieu of the Karrec center.

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

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

Employment: The law permits refugees access to work. The limited issuance of refugee identification cards and work permits, however, meant few refugees actually worked.

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

Durable Solutions: In September the government completed the process of receiving Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq refugees from Iraq and continued to facilitate their local integration throughout the year.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided subsidiary and temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of October, the government was providing subsidiary protection to three persons and temporary protection to 24.

STATELESS PERSONS

The number of stateless persons in the country was unclear. At the end of 2014, the most recent year for which statistics were available, UNHCR reported 7,443 stateless persons, most of whom were Romani or Egyptian children. According to UNHCR, 3,234 cases of statelessness have been resolved since 2011, but how many of these were part of the original 7,443 was unknown. Meanwhile, the risk of statelessness existed for unregistered children born abroad to returning migrant families and continued for Romani and Egyptian children. The law affords the opportunity to obtain nationality.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman is the main independent institution for promoting and enforcing human rights. The ombudsman is authorized by law to monitor and report on prisons and detention centers. The office may initiate an investigation in some cases where a victim is unable to come forward to do so. Although the ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, he acted as a monitor for human rights violations. The Office of the Ombudsman was underfunded and understaffed. The ombudsman reported to the Assembly annually. Although the Assembly distributed copies of some of the ombudsman’s annual and special reports or posted them online, it rarely discussed the reports in plenary or committee sessions. The Assembly consulted the ombudsman’s office on draft legislation related to human rights, but often this was only at the last minute or at the request of the ombudsman.

The Assembly has a committee on legal issues, public administration, and human rights.

Algeria

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and independent media outlets criticized government officials and policies, but the government restricted these rights. The government’s techniques included harassment of some critics; arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws; informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists; and control of a significant proportion of the country’s advertising money and printing capabilities. Some media figures alleged the government used its control over most printing houses and large amounts of public sector advertising preferentially, and that the lack of clear regulations over these practices permitted it to exert undue influence on press outlets.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Individuals were limited in their ability to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. Authorities arrested and detained citizens for doing so, and citizens practiced self-restraint in expressing public criticism. The law criminalizing speech about the conduct of the security forces during the internal conflict of the 1990s remained in force, although there were no cases of arrest or prosecution under the law during the year. The law provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for tracts, bulletins, or flyers that “may harm the national interest” or up to one year for defaming or insulting the president, parliament, army, or state institutions. Government officials monitored political meetings. Authorities used laws against slander of public officials to restrict public discussion.

On August 3, the government published a law passed by parliament that broadens laws on defamation to cover the conduct of retired military officers. The law specifies that retired officers who engage in a “dereliction of duty that harms the honor and respect due to state institutions constitutes an outrage and defamation” and can result in legal action under applicable laws. The law further prohibits speech that damages “the authority and the public image of the military institution.”

In March a court in Tlemcen issued human rights activist Zoulikha Belarbi a DZD 100,000 ($916) fine for posting a photograph on Facebook that was deemed insulting to President Bouteflika. The offending post showed a retouched image of the president and other political figures that made them look like characters from a Turkish television show, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Press and Media Freedoms: The National Agency for Publishing and Advertising (ANEP) controls public advertising for print media. According to the NGO Reporters without Borders, private advertising existed but frequently came from businesses with close links to the ruling political party. In September 2015 ANEP stated it represented only half of the total advertising market, while nongovernmental sources assessed the majority of daily newspapers depended on ANEP-authorized advertising to finance their operations. Minister of Communication Hamid Grine stated in February that ANEP’s budget had been cut by 50 percent. The government’s lack of transparency over its use of state-funded advertising permitted it to exert undue influence over print media.

Activists and journalists criticized the government for criminally prosecuting two KBC TV journalists, Mehdi Benaissa and Ryad Hartouf, for allegedly making false statements in their applications for filming permits and their alleged unauthorized use of a television studio. The studio had previously belonged to Al-Atlas TV, which authorities shut down in 2014. In addition to the arrests of Benaissa and Hartouf, authorities shut down two of KBC’s political satire programs, which were filmed in the studio in question. Benaissa and Hartouf’s suspended sentences were announced on July 18, shortly after a court on July 13 canceled the sale of KBC’s parent company, El Khabar Group, to a subsidiary of a company owned by businessman Issad Rebrab, who has been critical of the government. The Ministry of Communication, which had sued to cancel the transaction, said the ruling was based on the law’s prohibition on one person owning multiple news outlets.

In October 2015 Algiers police raided the headquarters of El-Watan El-Djazairya, a private, foreign-based television station broadcasting in the country, and closed down the station upon orders of the Algiers mayor. Minister of Communication Grine accused the television station of “harming a state symbol” during an interview it transmitted on October 3, 2015, with the former emir of the Islamic Salvation Army, Madani Mezrag. During the interview Mezrag indirectly threatened President Bouteflika after the president affirmed the government would not let Mezrag form a political party due to his connection to terrorist activities. In September, Djaafar Chelli, the former owner of El Watan El-Djazairya, received a DZD 10 million ($91,575) fine for broadcasting the interview with Mezrag.

Many civil society organizations, government opponents, and political parties, including legal Islamist parties, had access to independent print and broadcast media and used them to express their views. Opposition parties also disseminated information via the internet and published communiques but stated they did not have access to the national television and radio. Journalists from independent print and broadcast media expressed frustration over the near impossibility of receiving information from public officials. With the exception of several daily newspapers, the majority of print media outlets relied on the government for physical printing materials and operations.

In January a court reclassified a charge against journalist and LADDH board member Hassan Bouras, resulting in his release from El Bayadh prison after three months in custody. Prosecutors had charged Bouras in October 2015 with insulting a government body and inciting armed conflict against the state. As of November charges against Bouras had not been dropped, according to his lawyer. Separately, in November an El Bayadh court indicted Bouras for producing a video alleging that certain police officials and judges were involved in corruption. The court on November 28 convicted Bouras of complicity in offending a judicial officer, law enforcement officers, and a public body and of unlawfully practicing a profession regulated by law, sentencing him to one year in prison plus fines. Bouras’s appeal remained pending at year’s end.

Organizations wishing to initiate regular publications must obtain authorization from the government. The law requires the director of the publication to hold Algerian citizenship. The law additionally prohibits local periodicals from receiving direct or indirect material support from foreign sources. The CNCPPDH noted in its 2014 annual report that lack of a law controlling advertising was the largest hurdle to improving transparency of the distribution of public advertising (see also section 5). In May CNCPPDH president Farouk Ksentini said that depriving certain newspapers of public advertising revenue was “contrary to democracy and a violation of the constitution.”

In September the Ministry of Communication stated there were 332 accredited written publications, which included 149 daily newspapers, 47 weekly and 75 monthly magazines, and other specialized publications. Of the daily printed publications, the ministry stated six were state-operated.

The ministry’s Media Directorate is responsible for issuing and renewing accreditations to foreign media outlets operating in the country. Although this accreditation is required to operate legally, the vast majority of foreign media were not accredited. While the government tolerated their operations in the past, Minister Grine stated in April the number of private satellite channels that would receive frequencies would be limited to 13. He said in September that foreign-based unaccredited television outlets would be shut down. As of year’s end, however, the government had not shut down any such outlets. On June 20, the government instated the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority (ARAV), a nine-member body that regulates television and radio. In August ARAV published regulations that require the shareholders and managers of any radio or television channel to be Algerian citizens and prohibits them from broadcasting content that offends “values anchored in Algerian society.”

The ministry also issues and renews accreditation of foreign correspondents reporting in the country. According to the ministry, 13 accredited foreign press agencies reported during the year. In addition to five private domestic television channels, 12 foreign broadcasting channels and two foreign radio stations operated throughout the year.

The law mandates that online news outlets must inform the government of their activities but does not require them to request authorization to operate.

Violence and Harassment: News sources critical of the government reported instances of government harassment and intimidation due to their reporting. Government officials arrested and temporarily detained journalists.

On June 27, police arrested Mohamed Tamalt, a freelance journalist and blogger based in the United Kingdom. He was charged with insulting President Bouteflika on Facebook and sentenced to two years in prison and a DZD 200,000 ($1,832) fine. On December 11, Tamalt died following a prolonged hunger strike protesting his arrest and continued imprisonment.

On June 21, police officers encircled the new headquarters of the El Watan daily newspaper and ordered its staff to vacate the building. Local officials said the building did not conform to the construction permits granted by the government. As of September El Watan had not been permitted to take occupancy of the building.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some major news outlets faced direct and indirect retaliation for criticism of the government.

Some observers viewed the July conviction of two KBC TV journalists and the cancelation of the sale of KBC’s parent company, El Khabar Group, as motivated by the political views expressed in KBC’s programming and by the owner of the company that attempted to purchase El Khabar Group.

On May 3, Minister Grine called on private companies to cease advertising in three unnamed newspapers, widely assumed to be the El KhabarEl Watan, and Liberte newspapers, viewed as critical of the government. In an interview published online that day, the director general of El Khabar said Minister Grine’s opposition to El Khabar was based on the fact that it “does not follow the editorial line that he wishes.”

In a May 23 speech calling for unaccredited foreign satellite channels to be shut down, Prime Minister Sellal criticized channels that “use misleading advertising, violate private life, strike a blow to the dignity of persons, spread disinformation, and worse still, attack the cohesion of Algerian society through calls for hatred, regionalism, and chaos.”

Libel/Slander Laws: NGOs and observers criticized the law on defamation as vaguely drafted and the definitions therein as failing to comport with internationally recognized norms. The law defines defamation as “any allegation or imputation of a fact offending the honor or consideration of a person, or of the body to which the fact is imputed.” The law does not require that the fact alleged or imputed be false or that the statement be made with malicious intent to damage another individual’s reputation. Defamation is not a crime but carries a fine ranging from DZD 100,000 to DZD 500,000 ($916 to $4,579). The Ministry of Justice did not provide information on the percentage of defamation claims that originated from private citizens, as opposed to government officials.

The law criminalizes statements denigrating Islam or insulting the Prophet Mohammed or “messengers of God.” On June 14, the National Gendarmerie published a press release saying it had “dismantled an international criminal network of blasphemers and anti-Muslim proselytizers on the internet.” News reports appeared to reference the case when they reported the arrests of Rachid Fodil and one or two other men in M’Sila Province, but the status of charges against them was unclear as of September. On July 31, police in Setif arrested Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, for posting statements on his Facebook page questioning the morals of the Prophet Mohammed. A court tried and convicted Bouhafs the same day and sentenced him on August 7 to five years in prison, plus a DZD 100,000 ($916) fine. On September 6, his sentence was reduced to three years in prison.

Mohamed Chergui, a journalist for the El-Djoumhouria newspaper, was sentenced to three years in prison and a DZD 200,000 ($1,832) fine in February 2015 for a column he wrote in 2014 that was deemed offensive to the Prophet Mohammed and Islam. In April an appeals court in Oran overturned his conviction and ordered his release.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government impeded access to the internet and monitored certain e-mail and social media sites. On June 18, state-run media reported the government planned to block access to social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, on June 19-23 during nationwide high school exams. The decision was in response to previous leaks of exam results, which were posted on social media earlier in the month. On June 19-20, internet users reported that access to not only social media, but nearly all websites, was blocked. While internet service returned on June 20, access to social media was not fully restored until June 24.

In January police arrested an activist for the unemployed, Belkacem Khencha, and in May he was sentenced to six months in prison for posting a video on Facebook criticizing the judicial system’s handling of arrests of fellow activists.

In a July statement, the human rights organization Collective of Families of the Disappeared said the government had blocked Radio of the Voiceless, the online radio station it launched in June, making it inaccessible to the public.

Internet users regularly exercised their right to free expression and association online, including through online forums, social media, and e-mail. Activists reported that some postings on social media could result in arrest and questioning; observers widely understood that the intelligence services closely monitored the activities of political and human rights activists on social media sites, including Facebook.

The law on cybercrime establishes procedures for using electronic data in prosecutions and outlines the responsibilities of service providers to cooperate with authorities. Under the law the government may conduct electronic surveillance operations to prevent offenses amounting to terrorist or subversive acts and infractions against state security, pursuant to written authorization from a competent judicial authority.

By law internet service providers face criminal penalties for the material and websites they host, especially if subject matters are “incompatible with morality or public opinion.” The Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Post, Information Technology, and Communication have oversight responsibilities. The law provides sentences of six months to five years in prison and fines between DZD 50,000 and DZD 500,000 ($458 and $4,579) for users who do not comply with the law, including the obligation to cooperate with law enforcement authorities against cybercrime.

In September the government estimated there were 18,583,427 internet users in the country in 2015. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 38.2 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Academic seminars and colloquia occurred with limited governmental interference. The Ministry of Culture reviewed the content of films before they could be shown, as well as books before publication or importation. The Ministry of Religious Affairs did the same for religious publications.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, the government severely restricted the exercise of these rights.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides for the right of assembly, but the government continued to curtail this right. A ban on demonstrations in Algiers remained in effect. Authorities utilized the ban to prohibit assembly within the city limits. Nationwide, the government required citizens and organizations to obtain permits from the government-appointed local governor before holding public meetings or demonstrations. The government restricted licenses to political parties, NGOs, and other groups to hold indoor rallies or delayed permission until the eve of the event, thereby impeding publicity and outreach efforts by organizers. Nonetheless, in many cases authorities allowed unauthorized protests to proceed while negotiations continued regarding the protesters’ demands or when government attempts to disperse protests potentially risked igniting violence.

On March 21, media outlets reported that police shoved and kicked protesters gathered in front of the Central Post Office in Algiers to demand permanent positions for teachers working on fixed-term contracts. Two women sought hospital treatment for injuries, according to HRW. On April 4, police stopped hundreds of protesting teachers in Boudouaou, preventing them from completing the final leg of a 140-mile march from Bejaia to Algiers. Protesters remained camped in Boudouaou until April 18, at which point police grabbed and shoved some protesters and loaded them onto buses.

Hotels in Algiers and other major cities continued their historic practice of refusing to sign rental contracts for meeting spaces with political parties, NGOs, and civil associations without a copy of a written authorization from the Ministry of Interior for the proposed gathering.

Throughout the year police dispersed unauthorized gatherings or prevented marching groups of protesters from demonstrating. Police typically dispersed protesters shortly after a protest began and arrested and detained organizers for a few hours. HRW, AI, and other NGOs criticized the government’s use of the law to restrict peaceful assembly.

In July police reportedly arrested more than 100 communal guards arriving in Algiers en route to a planned demonstration outside of parliament. In June authorities arrested several Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK) activists who were preparing to hold an unauthorized meeting in Larbaa Nath Irathen to mark the 15th anniversary of a Berber-led protest in Algiers. Clashes ensued when area residents gathered in the town center to demand the activists’ release, resulting in injuries to police and some demonstrators, according to press reports. In February MAK president Bouaziz Ait Chebib stated to the El Watan newspaper that approximately 100 MAK activists had been briefly arrested in Tizi Ouzou to prevent their attendance at the MAK’s national assembly.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for the right of association, but the government severely restricted this right.

The law’s extensive requirements and uneven enforcement served as major impediments to the development of civil society. The law grants the government wide-ranging oversight of and influence in the day-to-day activities of civil society organizations. It requires national-level civil organizations to apply to the Ministry of Interior for permission to operate. Once registered, organizations must inform the government of their activities, funding sources, and personnel, including notification of personnel changes. The law imposes an additional requirement that associations obtain government preapproval before accepting foreign funds. If organizations fail to provide required information to the government or attempt to operate with or accept foreign funds without authorization, they are subject to fines between DZD 2,000 and DZD 5,000 ($18 and $46) and up to six months’ imprisonment. The law prohibits formation of a political party with a religious platform, but observers stated they knew some political parties were Islamist.

According to the law, associations that apply for accreditation as required by law are entitled to receive a response regarding their application within two months for national organizations, 45 days for interregional-level associations, 40 days for province-level associations, and 30 days for communal organizations. While the Ministry of Interior oversees the accreditation process for most associations, the president of a local assembly approves applications for communal associations.

The Ministry of Interior may deny a license to or dissolve any group regarded as a threat to the government’s authority or to public order, and on several occasions failed to grant in an expeditious fashion official recognition to NGOs, associations, religious groups, and political parties. According to the Ministry of Interior, organizations receive a deposit slip after submitting their application for accreditation, and after the time periods listed above, this slip is legally sufficient for them to begin operating, to open a bank account, and to rent office or event space. The law does not explicitly include this provision, however. If the application is approved, the Ministry of Interior issues a final accreditation document.

Many organizations reported that they never received a deposit slip and that even with the deposit slip it was difficult to conduct necessary administrative tasks without the formal accreditation. Other organizations reported that they never received any written response to their application request. The ministry maintained that organizations refused accreditation or that did not receive a response within the specified time periods were able to submit an appeal to the State Council, the administrative court responsible for cases involving the government.

During the year the Youth Action Movement, a civil society youth organization, was again unsuccessful in renewing its license despite submitting all documentation required by the Ministry of Interior. The ministry also did not renew the accreditations of the NGOs SOS Disparu (Missing) and LADDH, which submitted their renewal applications in 2013. According to members of the National Association for the Fight Against Corruption, the Ministry of Interior refused to approve the organization’s request for accreditation, stating that the application did comply with the law on associations but did not provide any further information. The organization first submitted its application for accreditation in 2012.

The government issued licenses and subsidies to domestic associations, especially youth, medical, and neighborhood associations. According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 108,940 local and 1,293 national associations registered. A 2015 study conducted by several prominent domestic civil society organizations found, however, that nearly two-thirds of the approximately 93,000 associations registered with the government when the law on associations went into force in 2012 were either inactive or no longer operating. Unlicensed NGOs did not receive government assistance, and citizens at times hesitated to associate with these organizations.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government restricted the exercise of this right.

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

In-country Movement: The government maintained restrictions for security reasons on travel into the southern locales of El-Oued and Illizi, near hydrocarbon industry installations and the Libyan border, respectively. Citing the threat of terrorism, the government also prevented overland tourist travel between the southern cities of Tamanrasset, Djanet, and Illizi. Newspapers reported that the government restricted foreign tourists from traveling through trails in Tassili and Hoggar, as well as certain areas in and around Tamanrasset, due to security concerns. Civil society organizations reported that the authorities prevented sub-Saharan migrants in the areas around Tamanrasset from traveling north toward coastal population centers.

Foreign Travel: The law does not permit those under age 18 to travel abroad without a guardian’s permission. Married women under 18 may not travel abroad without permission from their husbands, but married women over 18 may do so. The government did not permit young men eligible for the draft, who had not completed their military service, to leave the country without special authorization, although the government granted such authorization to students and persons with special family circumstances. The Ministry of Interior affirmed that in 2014 the government ended its requirement for background checks on passport applicants.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

The government provided protection to an estimated 90,000 to 165,000 Sahrawi refugees who departed Western Sahara after Morocco took control of the territory in the 1970s. UNHCR, the World Food Program (WFP), the Algerian Red Crescent, the Sahrawi Red Crescent, and other organizations also assisted Sahrawi refugees. Neither the government nor the refugee leadership allowed UNHCR to conduct registration or complete a census of the Sahrawi refugees. In the absence of formal registration, UNHCR and the WFP based humanitarian assistance on a planning figure of 90,000 refugees with an additional 35,000 supplementary food rations.

Access to Asylum: While the law provides generally for asylum or refugee status, the government has not established a formal system through which refugees can request asylum. There were no reports that the government granted refugee status and asylum to new refugee applicants during the year. According to UNHCR, the government did not accept UNHCR-determined refugee status for individuals. UNHCR offices in Algiers reported an estimated 200 to 300 asylum requests per month, mostly from Syrian, Palestinian, and sub-Saharan African individuals coming from Mali, Guinea, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Those determined by UNHCR to have valid refugee claims were primarily from the DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Iraq, and the Central African Republic. There was no evidence of any pattern of discrimination toward asylum applicants, but the lack of a formal asylum system made this difficult to assess.

As of September 2015 the Ministry of National Solidarity, Family, and the Status of Women reported that since the start of the conflict in Syria, it accepted more than 24,000 Syrian refugees. Other organizations estimated the number to be closer to 43,000 Syrians. Starting in January 2015 the government instituted visa requirements for Syrians entering the country. Since 2012 UNHCR registered more than 6,000 Syrians, but only approximately 5,000 remained registered with UNHCR as of September. The Algerian Red Crescent, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Solidarity, maintained “welcome facilities” that provided food and shelter for those Syrians without means to support themselves. The facilities were located at a summer camp in the seaside area of Algiers known as Sidi Fredj. The government did not grant UNHCR access to these reception centers but reported that by 2016 most Syrians no longer used the centers.

Since the outbreak of violence in northern Mali in 2012, international observers reported an influx of individuals into Algeria across the Malian border inconsistent with traditional migratory movements.

The Ministry of Interior estimated in August that there were 21,073 illegal migrants residing in the country, while other sources assessed there were 30,000 in Tamanrasset alone and as many as 100,000 in the country. As of July the Algerian Red Crescent had closed all four of the refugee camps it had been managing, including its camp housing 600 migrants, mostly from Mali, near the southern city of Bordj Badj Mokhtar.

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In early December, however, the government gathered an estimated 1,400 sub-Saharan migrants in communities outside of Algiers and removed nearly 1,000 of them to Niger. The president of the Algerian Red Crescent said all returns were voluntary, adding that some migrants were permitted to remain in Tamanrasset. The removals followed a period of several years in which the government had largely refrained from deporting sub-Saharan migrants due to security concerns and the instability in northern Mali.

The government, led by the Algerian Red Crescent, repatriated a total of more than 17,000 Nigerien migrants to their country at the request of the government of Niger since 2014, in several repatriation operations. Various international humanitarian organizations and observers criticized the operations, citing unacceptable conditions of transport, primarily on the Niger side of the border, and what they described as a lack of coordination between the Algerian Red Crescent and the government and Red Cross of Niger. Observers also questioned whether all of the migrants were voluntarily repatriated. In August the government arranged the repatriation of approximately 500 Malians per a request from the Malian consulate in Tamanrasset.

Employment: UNHCR provided registered refugees with modest food assistance and lodging support. Because the government does not formally allow refugee employment, many worked in the informal market and were at risk of labor exploitation due to their lack of legal status in the country. Other migrants, asylum seekers, and Malians and Syrians who had a “special status” with the government, relied largely on remittances from family, the support of local family and acquaintances, and assistance from the Algerian Red Crescent and international aid organizations.

Access to Basic Services: Sahrawi refugees lived predominantly in five camps near the city of Tindouf, administered by the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Harma and Rio de Oro (Polisario). The Polisario (through the Sahrawi Red Crescent Society), UNHCR, WFP, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and partner NGOs largely provided basic services including food aid, primary health care, and primary and secondary education, while the government invested heavily in developing the camps’ infrastructure and also provided free secondary and university educations, as well as advanced hospital care, to Sahrawi refugees. The remote location of the camps and lack of government presence resulted in a lack of access by police and courts. Other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants had access to free public hospitals, but independent NGOs reported instances of migrants turned away.

In August 2015 the Ministry of Education instructed all school administrators to allow migrant and refugee children to enroll in primary school through high school and require only that they present their passport and documentation showing their level of schooling from their home country. International organizations reported the children had trouble in their attempts to integrate into the educational system but that migrants’ access to education was improving, particularly in the north of the country. These organizations reported that migrant parents were often reluctant to enroll their children in Algerian schools.

Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees from foreign countries for resettlement. The Sahrawi refugees had not sought local integration or naturalization during their 40-year stay in the refugee camps near Tindouf, and their ruling party, the Polisario, continued to call for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara.

Temporary Protection: The law does not address formal temporary protection, but authorities provided informal, temporary protection to groups such as Syrians and Malians.

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

A variety of domestic human rights groups operated with varying degrees of government restriction and cooperation. The law requires all civil associations to apply for operating permission, and at year’s end several major civil associations remained unrecognized but tolerated.

AI maintained an office and actively reported on human rights issues, but it did not receive official authorization to operate from the Ministry of Interior.

Although the government did not renew the accreditation of LADDH, the organization had members countrywide, received independent funding, and was the most active independent human rights group. The smaller Algerian League for Human Rights, a separate but licensed organization based in Constantine, had members throughout the country monitoring individual cases.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government extended an invitation to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 2014 and again in September 2015, but as of September no visit occurred. The country joined the UN Human Rights Council in 2014 but continued to deny requests for visits from the UN special rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions (pending since 1998) and on human rights and counterterrorism (pending since 2006) and the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention (pending since 2009).

Government Human Rights Bodies: The CNCPPDH plays a consultative and advisory role to the government. It issues an annual report on the status of human rights in the country. Published in July, the 2015 report highlighted government advances in social and legal rights with increased protections for women and children, the introduction of mediation in nonfelony criminal cases, and limits on the use of pretrial detention. The commission identified its principal concerns as public corruption, shortfalls in the recent law on violence against women, heavy bureaucracy, and impediments limiting citizens’ access to justice.

Andorra

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

Actions to Expand Press Freedom: In February the Barcelona hate crimes prosecutor gave the first-ever training on hate crimes and discrimination to Andorran judges, prosecutors, and attorneys. In July the Andorran prosecutor’s office delivered a similar training to justice staff members.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 38 percent of the population had a fixed broadband subscription to the internet, and 97 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The country has cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other international refugee relief organizations.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees, preferring to deal with them on an ad hoc basis. There is a lack of domestic legislation on asylum seekers and refugees, and in particular on measures to protect unaccompanied and refugee children. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Justice, and Interior, no requests were received during the year.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman’s main function is to defend and oversee the fulfillment and application of the rights and liberties included in the constitution and to ensure the public sector adheres to constitutional principles. The ombudsman is independent from other institutions and provides its functions free of charge to interested persons. The ombudsman enjoyed the government’s cooperation and operated without government interference. The ombudsman had adequate resources, published an annual report to parliament with recommendations, and was considered effective.

Angola

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press; however, state dominance of most media outlets and self-censorship by journalists limited the practical application of these rights. Most private media organizations were located in the capital.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Individuals reported practicing self-censorship but generally were able to criticize government policies without fear of direct reprisal. Social media was widely used in the larger cities and provided an open forum for discussion. There are no laws restricting the use or content of social media.

Press and Media Freedoms: Private radio and print media criticized the government openly and harshly. Authorities occasionally threatened journalists and publishers with harassment and arrest for covering sensitive stories. Journalists routinely complained of lack of transparency and communication from government press offices and other government officials. This often led to one-sided reporting, with opposition and civil society figures frequently voicing their opinions in privately owned media outlets while government officials kept silent even on noncontroversial issues. During the year, the government created a senior-level department to coordinate government communication with the media and established the practice of weekly briefings during which journalists could question a government minister. The briefings were broadcast on television and radio.

Official news outlets, including Angolan Public Television, Radio Nacional, and the Jornal de Angolanewspaper, favored the ruling party and gave only limited coverage to opposition political parties. Opposition parties received only limited coverage of their legislative participation in the National Assembly. During the year, however, official news outlets made a noticeable effort to include opposition party members and other commentators in nationally televised debates on issues such as politics, the rule of law, and the economy.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities arrested, harassed, and intimidated journalists. For example, on August 30, security forces stopped a team of journalists from the newspaper Novo Jornal driving within the Zango demolition site (section 1.e.), according to an article published in the newspaper September 2. Security force members allegedly searched the journalists’ vehicle and confiscated their belongings. They then allegedly transported the journalists in a military vehicle and threatened to beat and try them in court. One journalist allegedly was beaten. The security force members released the journalists after six hours and returned their belongings, with the exception of a video camera and 20,000 kwanza ($118).

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists practiced self-censorship. Security force members at times did not allow journalists to digitally record police violence against civilians. For example, on May 24, journalist and foreign news service stringer Coque Mukuta was beaten and detained by local police outside of Luanda, after witnessing an altercation between street vendors (zungeiras), police, and Criminal Investigation Service agents and trying to interview one of the street vendors involved in the incident. Mukuta alleged that police forced him into a police vehicle, beat him, confiscated his possessions, and detained him for 12 hours. Mukuta filed a formal complaint against the policeman who beat him.

The minister of social communication, spokesperson of the presidency, and the national director of information maintained significant decision-making authority over the media. It was commonly understood these individuals actively vetted news stories in the state-controlled print, television, and radio media and exercised considerable authority over some privately owned outlets. State-controlled media and private media outlets owned by those close to the government rarely published or broadcast stories critical of the ruling party, government officials, or government policies.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a crime punishable by imprisonment or a fine, and unlike in most cases in which defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty (see section 1.e.), defendants in defamation cases have the burden of proving their innocence by providing evidence of the validity of the allegedly damaging material.

Several journalists in print media, radio, and political blogs faced libel and defamation lawsuits. Journalists complained the government used libel laws to limit their ability to report on corruption and nepotistic practices. According to the PGR, some journalists abused their positions and published inaccurate stories about government officials without verifying the facts or providing the accused the right of reply. In May 2015, a judge found journalist and human rights activist Rafael Marques guilty of criminal libel and gave him a six-month suspended sentence, which could be reinstated at any point up to two years from the date of sentencing if Marques committed another crime.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal oversight. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2015 approximately 12 percent of residents had access to the internet. In 2014 the government started the program Angola On-line, a free Wi-Fi service.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution and law provide for the right of assembly, but the government regularly restricted this right.

The law requires written notification to the local administrator and police three days before public assemblies are to be held. For public assemblies during a workday, the law requires the events to start after 7 p.m. The law, however, does not require government permission for such events. The government at times prohibited events based on perceived or claimed security considerations. Police and administrators did not interfere with progovernment gatherings. Nonpartisan groups intending to criticize the government or government leaders, however, often met a heavy police presence and government excuses preventing them from holding the event. Usually authorities claimed the timing or venue requested was problematic or that the proper authorities had not received notification.

According to press reports and NGO sources, on July 23, police detained 35 members of the protest movement “Revolutionary Movement” or “Revus” in Benguela as they traveled to a demonstration to protest the rising price of food in the province. The governor of Benguela denied the request to organize the protest, but the organizers decided to proceed, and police set up checkpoints on main roads to intercept and detain protesters. Police released the protesters the same day.

The government at times arbitrarily restricted the activities of associations it considered subversive by refusing to grant permits for organized activities. Opposition parties generally were permitted to organize and hold meetings; nevertheless, opposition officials continued to report obstructions to the free exercise of their parties’ right to meet.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide for the right of association, but the government did not always respect this right (see also section 7.a.). Extensive delays in the NGO registration process continued to be a problem. NGOs that had not yet received registration were nevertheless allowed to operate.

The government published a new NGO regulation in March 2015 that civil society criticized as potentially restrictive and intrusive. For example, the new regulation requires NGOs to obtain approval from the government before the implementation of any project, imposes local authorities as the supervisors of NGO projects within their municipalities, and requires frequent financial reports of NGO activities to the government. The government stated this regulation is part of its strategy to combat money-laundering and terrorist financing.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government at times restricted these rights.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government sometimes cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, visited the country at the invitation of the government from May 3-10. Crepeau’s report, issued subsequent to his visit, criticized the government for its lack of adequate protections for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants and cited government failure to implement key elements of the 2015 Asylum Law, which had the effect of impeding refugee and asylum seekers’ access to basic services and documents such as birth certificates for children of foreign-born parents. Several NGOs that work with refugee populations also cited security force harassment of the refugee and asylum seeker community. In diamond-rich Lunda Norte Province, NGOs and the media reported several acts of violence and degrading treatment, including rape and sexual abuse of Congolese migrants. In response to the allegations of sexual violence, President dos Santos created a commission that included UN representatives to improve the situation around the borders. The commission performed regular verification missions to assess progress at the border crossing points.

In-country Movement: Police maintained roadside checkpoints throughout the country. Reports by local NGOs suggested some police officers extorted money from civilians at checkpoints and during regular traffic stops. Reports from the diamond mining provinces of Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul indicated some government agents restricted the movements of local communities.

In 2013 the Angolan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) governments agreed on a special laissez-passer program for their nationals that allows for increased legal movement of persons and products between Lunda Norte and the DRC province then known as Katanga.

Emigration and Repatriation: In 2012 UNHCR and regional governments agreed to a cessation of prima facie refugee status for Angolans on the grounds that asylum and protection for most Angolans was no longer required. On September 30, the Ministry of Assistance and Social Integration stated the government would no longer acknowledge refugee status for citizens living outside of the country, citing the completion of its voluntary repatriation program, which allowed 525,871 citizens to return between 2003 and 2015. During the year Angolan former refugees returned spontaneously from Zambia and the DRC.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

The government did not provide adequate protection to refugees and asylum seekers.

Access to Asylum: The Asylum Law provides specific procedures for the submission of an asylum application and guidance on the determination of asylum and refugee cases. UNHCR and several NGOs reported that the law did not function in practice during the year and asylum seekers and refugees did not have a mechanism to apply for or resolve their status. The law changed the role of the Committee for the Recognition of the Right to Asylum (COREDA), the former implementing mechanism to identify, verify, and legalize asylum seekers, to that of an advisory board; however, by September the government had not put into practice an alternative mechanism to adjudicate asylum and refugee cases in COREDA’s place. The law also established the creation of reception centers for refugees and asylum seekers where they are supposed to receive assistance until the government makes a decision on their cases. There were three reception centers.

Employment: Formal restrictions on a refugee’s ability to seek employment existed. Regulation 273/13 restricted refugees from obtaining the mandatory business license, “Alvara commercial,” required to own and operate a business. Refugees often faced difficulty obtaining employment due inability to obtain legal documents required to work in the formal sector. These difficulties were compounded by a general lack of acceptance of the refugee card and lack of knowledge about the rights it was intended to safeguard.

Access to Basic Services: Persons with recognized refugee status could at times obtain public services; however, UNHCR, NGOs, and refugees reported that refugees were unable to obtain legal documents following passage of the Asylum Law and at times faced difficulty accessing public services such as health care and education. Corruption by officials compounded these difficulties.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated throughout the country. Some of those investigating government corruption and human rights abuses alleged government interference in their activities. Civil society organizations faced difficulties in contacting detainees, and prison authorities undermined civil society work in the prisons.

The Law of Associations requires NGOs to specify their mandate and areas of activity. The government used this provision to prevent or discourage established NGOs from engaging in certain activities, especially those that the government deemed politically sensitive. In March 2015 a presidential decree meant to regulate NGO operations formalized many of the unenforced requirements of the Law of Associations and restructured the government agency in charge of implementing the law. NGOs cited concern regarding new reporting requirements concerning their activities, financial accounts, and foreign and domestic employees. They also expressed concern about the burden of proving to the government that their activities have a tangible “public benefit.” NGOs doing work on political rights and human rights defenders argued the new regulation, and particularly the “public benefit” clause, is specifically meant to limit their work. The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights stated the new regulation was necessary to comply with international financial transparency and anti-money-laundering standards, and that the regulation was not meant to restrict NGO activities.

Even before the new regulation, the government allowed local NGOs to carry out human rights-related work, but many NGOs reported they were forced to limit the scope of their work because they faced problems registering, were subject to subtle forms of intimidation, and risked more serious forms of harassment and closure.

Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that the government arrested and harassed NGO workers.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The state-funded Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Writing of Human Rights Reports includes only representatives from various government ministries. Leading civil society members decided not to participate on the commission because they did not believe it was independent or effective.

The 10th Commission on Human Rights of the National Assembly is charged with investigating citizen complaints of alleged human rights violations and makes recommendations to the National Assembly.

An independent Office of the Ombudsman existed to mediate between an aggrieved public, including prisoners, and an offending public office or institution. The office had no decision-making or adjudicative powers but it helped citizens obtain access to justice and advised government entities on citizen rights. The office also published reports and educated the public about human rights and the role of the ombudsman.

Antigua and Barbuda

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government respected these rights on a somewhat limited basis.

In February an opposition spokesperson claimed on the radio that he possessed evidence of corruption in the government-operated Citizenship by Investment Program. The police detained him to compel him to provide evidence for his public claims. When the spokesperson refused to provide evidence, the police charged him with public mischief and making a false claim. The magistrate’s court dismissed the case in September.

Press and Media Freedoms: Privately owned print media, including daily and weekly newspapers, were active and offered a range of opinions. There were claims, however, that the government did not allow fair access to opposition and independent media.

Libel/Slander Laws: As of June no libel cases had been filed, unlike in previous years, when politicians in both parties often filed libel cases against individual members of the other party.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

According to 2014 International Telecommunication Union data, the most recent available, 64 percent of the population had access to the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The country does not have any laws or legal procedures governing asylum or refugee status. The government handles asylum requests on an ad hoc basis.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: There is an ombudsman position, an independent authority appointed by parliament, to handle complaints regarding police and other government offices and officials; however, no ombudsman was appointed after the term of the previous ombudsman expired in 2014. The Office of the Ombudsman was unable to take complaints and could only offer advice or refer citizens to other offices.

Argentina

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. Independent newspapers, radio and television outlets, and internet sites were numerous and active, expressing a wide variety of views.

Press and Media Freedoms: On August 24, the government issued a resolution limiting the use of advertising funds for political purposes and established criteria in line with inter-American standards. Thereafter, some newspapers, magazines, and websites that benefited from the distribution of public advertising money during the former administration–which multiple observers asserted was unbalanced and discriminatory in favor of media sources that supported government policies–either shut down or faced serious economic problems.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of physical attacks, threats, and harassment against journalists in relation to their reporting, most of which covered cases of official corruption.

On April 11, unknown assailants attacked a journalist from television Channel TN who was covering former president Cristina Kirchner’s departure from Santa Cruz. The following day assailants attacked Radio Mitre reporters while they reported Kirchner’s appearance in court in Buenos Aires.

On September 4, an anonymous individual threatened well-known journalist Luis Majul via text message while he was interviewing a protected witness in a legal case involving former administration officials.

Two armed assailants who broke into the home of radio journalist Sergio Hurgado in December 2015 remained in pretrial detention while their criminal prosecution continued. Hurtado regularly reported on drug use and trafficking in San Antonio Areco, Buenos Aires Province. The assailants, known to local residents for selling drugs, issued Hurtado a warning: “Stop talking about drugs on the radio. We had orders to kill you.” Both assailants raped Hurtado’s wife, with the journalist’s children sleeping nearby, before stealing money and property.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 20, Roberto Navarro of television station C5N alleged that his program Politica Economica was cancelled for one day for “political reasons.” Navarro said that he planned to broadcast a special report portraying a business partner of President Mauricio Macri in a negative light.

Actions to Expand Press Freedom: On April 6, Congress eliminated the former Audiovisual Communications Enforcement Authority and another media oversight agency and created a single National Communications Authority. President Macri introduced the changes to the Audiovisual Communications Services Act by way of an executive decree in December 2015.

On September 29, the government established a protocol to protect journalists in cases where their activities entail risks, allowing journalists to request protective measures from the Ministry of Security. Measures include confidentiality of the subject matter, nature, scope, and details of the research as well as the protection of personal data of the journalists or third parties related to the investigation.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the internet, including the use of e-mail and social networks. The World Bank reported that 69 percent of citizens used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Decisions on asylum petitions may take up to two years to adjudicate.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government has a human rights secretariat within the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Its main objective is to coordinate within the ministry and collaborate with other ministries and the judiciary to promote policies, plans, and programs for the protection of human rights. During the year it published leaflets and books on a range of human rights topics.

The prosecutor general’s Office of Crimes against Humanity investigated and documented human rights violations that occurred under the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Armenia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, but the government’s respect for these rights was uneven. Print, online, and broadcast media generally expressed views sympathetic to their owners or advertisers, a mix of government officials and oligarchs. There were several instances of violence toward journalists in connection with their coverage of peaceful protests.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: While most individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately and discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, members of media often exercised self-censorship to avoid official harassment.

On August 7, the independent media portal Medialab.am organized an open-air exhibit of its political cartoons following refusals from various hall owners in Yerevan to rent it exhibition space. On the night of the show, Medialab director Marianna Grigoryan’s car was burglarized, and all posters and T-shirts with the cartoons intended to be displayed during the weeklong show were stolen. On September 30, police suspended the investigation after failing to identify the perpetrators.

Press and Media Freedoms: Print and broadcast media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups owned most newspapers, and newspapers, with limited circulation, tended to reflect the political leanings of proprietors and financial backers, who in turn were often close to the government. Broadcast media, particularly national television, remained the primary source of news and information for the majority of the population. Politicians in the ruling party and politically connected executives owned most stations, and the stations presented one-sided views of events. Regional television channels provided some alternative viewpoints, often through externally produced content. On politically sensitive topics, however, media overwhelmingly provided only government-supported views and analysis.

The few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international funding. During the year one such outlet, Armenia Now, regarded by media experts and the public as providing professional and unbiased content, closed after donations from an American-Armenian philanthropist ended. According to media experts, even a permanent readership was insufficient to save an outlet from financial collapse in an environment where financial patronage often controlled content.

In December 2015, the National Assembly changed the law regulating the issuance of channels on the digital broadcast network. Media watchdogs criticized the amendments, asserting they sought to consolidate progovernment outlets’ control over the media market.

The government did not generally control the content of online media, which together with social networks, served as an important alternative source of information. Unlike broadcast media, online media and social networks tended to provide diverse political opinions. The livestreaming of important political events gained in importance among the online media outlets, especially during public protests. Nevertheless, online media also showed signs of the influence by politically connected owners and advertisers. There were credible reports that both online and broadcast media outlets were in the hands of a few government-affiliated individuals. Traditional and online media ownership remained nontransparent.

Violence and Harassment: Police targeted journalists covering public protests and subjected them to violence. As of August 9, authorities charged four police officers with violence against journalists. Investigations continued at year’s end.

On July 29, police and armed civilians acting in coordination with them used stun grenades, wooden clubs, and metal bars against journalists and damaged or seized their equipment while dispersing a rally of persons sympathetic with the demands of the Sasna Tsrer group. As a result, 24 reporters and operators suffered injuries. Before the rally’s dispersal, police instructed the journalists to move away from the main crowd for safety. According to numerous accounts, after journalists complied, police fired the first stun grenades toward them.

The Prosecutor General’s Office and SIS initiated criminal investigations into the violence. Police also announced that they were seeking to identify the civilians who beat the journalists. While police searched for those involved, reporters and social media users posted photos of three such “civilians”, identifying one as Arshak Hakobyan, the head of security for national Chief of Police Vladimir Gasparyan, and two others as Gasparyan’s personal bodyguards. According to official information eight civilians were charged in connection with this case, four of whom–Seyran Karapetyan, Vladmir Mkhitaryan, Davit Sargsyan, and Karen Grigoryan–were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison and fined 200,000 drams ($420). Authorities forwarded the cases against three others, Gor Khachatryan, Garegin Hovsepyan, and Tigran Aharanoyan, to the courts, while the case against Sargis Sahakyan remained under investigation. As of November 25, no law enforcement officers had been charged and the investigation continued at year’s end (see sections 1.c., 1.d., and 2.b.).

On August 9, more than a year after police beat and detained journalists while dispersing a peaceful June 2015 protest in downtown Yerevan, SIS announced it had charged four police officers, Davit Perikhanyan, Kostan Budaghyan, Tachat Noratunkyan, and Artur Ayvazyan, with obstructing the activities of four reporters in this case. Media NGOs considered the decision inadequate, in view of the fact that two dozen journalists had suffered from police abuse, which, they maintained, high-ranking police officials had ordered. As of November 28, the trial against the four officers and the investigation into the other instances of abuse continued.

Censorship and Content Restrictions: Media outlets, particularly broadcasters, feared reprisals for reports critical of the government. Such reprisals could include lawsuits, the threat of losing a broadcast license, selective tax investigation, or loss of revenue when advertisers learned an outlet was in disfavor with the government. Fear of retribution resulted in media self-censorship. The escalation of the armed conflict with Azerbaijan in April was marked by a higher degree of self-censorship by media outlets as well as social media users, who uncritically presented only government or de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ reports on the conflict.

INTERNET FREEDOM

Individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by e-mail. Some human rights activists and opposition party members claimed, however, that authorities monitored their e-mail and other internet communications (see section 1.f.). On the morning of July 17, the first day of the armed takeover of the Erebuni police compound, access to Facebook was inexplicably unavailable for approximately 45 minutes. This was the only case of possible government disruption of internet access during the year.

The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 58 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were some reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events.

Both the administration and student councils of the most prominent state universities were politicized and affiliated with the RPA. For example, the president of the Board of Trustees of Yerevan State University, Serzh Sargsyan, was president of the country. Government ministers led, or were members of, the boards of trustees of other universities. According to human rights observers, student councils in most universities experienced various forms of pressure to support the interests of the university rather than those of the student body and to keep the student body focused on nonpolitical and less sensitive issues.

During elections as well as the December 2015 referendum, authorities used public educational institutions (schools, universities, and even kindergartens) to support RPA activities to influence the youth. Lack of employment opportunities for teachers and scholars limited their willingness to refuse to engage in such political activity. During the December 2015 constitutional referendum, there were numerous reports of school principals pressing employees to promote the “yes” campaign for constitutional changes pushed by the ruling party. Many school administrators also participated in referendum commissions, creating a potential for election violations. Media reported on one teacher, Karpis Pashoyan, who lost his job for refusing to promote the “yes” campaign and trying to prevent referendum fraud.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of assembly. While many small-scale gatherings occurred without interference during the year, in multiple instances the government used violence and excessive force against demonstrators or detained them arbitrarily and otherwise hampered peaceful gatherings.

From July 17 to July 30 and subsequently, while the Sasna Tsrer group held hostage the Patrol-Guard Service Regiment of the Erebuni Police in Yerevan, persons sympathetic to the group or their political demands held numerous demonstrations. Protesters mainly gathered on Freedom Square or on Khorenatsi Street and staged marches in the streets of Yerevan. Police interfered with the marches, used force, and arbitrarily detained hundreds of individuals participating in the protests, subjecting many to violence, often asserting that the gatherings lacked a permit. In its report on the events between July 17 and August 5, the Helsinki Committee of Armenia stated the rallies “were accompanied by brutal interventions and unprecedented violations committed by police.”

The Brussels-based NGO International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) within the framework of Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), an international coalition of human rights NGOs, conducted a fact-finding mission to the country from July 28 to August 1 and described the demonstrations as largely peaceful. CSP monitors also observed the efforts by demonstration leaders to restrain the public from acts of violence. The CSP looked into two instances in which police used nonlethal weapons against demonstrators on July 20 and July 29, concluding that such weapons were justified on July 20, when the crowd acted aggressively. The CSP concluded that police used excessive force subsequently, after the demonstrators had dispersed. According to the CSP, police use of rocket-projected or hand-held stun grenades on July 29 was disproportionate, excessive, and indiscriminate and employed without advance warning.

According to legal experts, the police practice of arbitrarily detaining peaceful demonstrators constituted a de facto application of “administrative detention” that was outlawed in 2005. According to the legal experts and IPHR, police employed detention primarily as a means of stopping what were largely peaceful protests.

The Helsinki Committee, in a report covering the observation of 126 assemblies between July 2015 and June, noted that police presence at those rallies was disproportionate to the number of participants and that police used blanket restrictions to ban rallies in certain venues, such as in front of the president’s office. The report cited significant police interference in 29 cases, including arrests, violence, and forcible removal of participants from one venue to another. The report also questioned the arbitrary interpretation by police of freedom of assembly laws as well as police methods, such as giving orders or instructions to participants without an accompanying justification or reason and then charging them with resisting a “lawful demand” when they did not comply.

According to official sources, as of November 25, SIS had not charged anyone or identified any suspects in connection with the charges of abuse of official authority related to the alleged abuses by law enforcement officers during the July protests.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. The government did not provide a legal framework to support the financial sustainability of NGOs. The law does not permit such organizations to charge fees for their services, create endowments, or engage directly in profit-generating activities to fund their operations and achieve their statutory goals. As a result NGOs were dependent on grants and donations.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities did not generally release asylum seekers serving sentences for illegal entry into the country after registering their asylum applications. Instead, they required them to remain in pretrial detention pending the outcome of their asylum application or to serve the remainder of their sentences, despite a provision in the criminal code exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that authorities detained two Afghan asylum seekers for illegal border crossing on October 2015. The detention took place despite their application for asylum almost immediately after their apprehension at the border and despite the fact that a final decision on their asylum claims was pending as of November 28. Due to their prolonged detention, both individuals developed severe physical and psychological health problems. On November 15, a trial court convicted both asylum seekers for illegally crossing the border and sentenced them to three years’ imprisonment, the minimum sentence for this offense.

According to UNHCR, while the overall quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious profiles. UNHCR observed that security considerations permeated all aspects of the asylum procedure and implementation of refugee policies. UNHCR noted with concern the increasing influence of NSS on asylum decision making by the State Migration Service and cases of prolonged detention of non-Christian asylum seekers who had entered the country illegally. For example, starting at the end of 2015, authorities applied stricter approaches to asylum seekers from Iraq who were not ethnically Armenian.

According to UNHCR, questions remained as to the circumstances of the departure of one asylum seeker from Bahrain who had been detained in the country in connection with an Interpol Red Notice. Human rights NGOs reported that authorities had forced the asylum seeker to agree to depart for a third country as an alternative to extradition.

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

Foreign Travel: Citizens must obtain exit visas to leave the country on either a temporary or a permanent basis. Citizens could routinely purchase exit visas for temporary travel outside the country within one day of application for approximately 1,000 drams ($2.10) for each year of validity.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

As of May 2015, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 IDPs of the roughly 65,000 households evacuated during 1988-94 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and former refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law takes into account of specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors. The amended law also allows detention centers to receive asylum applications.

The increase in violence along the Line of Contact and Armenia-Azerbaijan international border April 1-5 led to displacement of civilians from villages close to the Line of Contact. Some of the displaced remained in Nagorno-Karabakh, while others entered Armenia to seek refuge. According to UNHCR observers, the overwhelming majority of displaced persons consisted of women, children, and elderly persons, primarily from the villages close to the Line of Contact. UNHCR estimated the total numbers of displaced at approximately 2,300 at the peak of displacement, with approximately 540 remaining in the country as of November 8.

Access to Basic Services: Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of various protection options, namely expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick access to citizenship gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal rights to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Housing allocated to refugees was often in limited supply and in poor condition and remained the biggest concern for them, as well as employment. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. In 2015 authorities opened an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences with Syrian-Armenian refugees who spoke a different dialect created barriers to employment and, initially, education. In addition refugees faced many of the same social and economic hardships that confronted the general population. Refugees who were not ethnic Armenians needed three years of legal residence in the country to be naturalized.

Durable Solutions: Authorities offered ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country the option of expedited naturalization. On July 21, the government adopted a concept document outlining its goals concerning the integration of persons granted asylum and refugee status as well as of long-term migrants. According to UNHCR, while in principle a welcome step to enhance the legal framework for the protection of refugees, the concept did not cover Syrians who had obtained Armenian citizenship, thus excluding from coverage the majority of displaced Syrians who had arrived in country since the beginning of the conflict. The concept also does not address critical aspects of integration, such as language needs and access to education.

STATELESS PERSONS

As of June 30, according to the police passport and visas department, there were approximately 300 stateless persons in the country. In addition authorities considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless. In May amendments to citizenship legislation contributed to the prevention and reduction of statelessness. The amendments provided Armenian nationality to stateless children born on the country’s territory, including children born of foreigners who held Armenian citizenship but did not meet the requirement for transmission to their children. These changes de facto affected those born on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, who had access to Armenian identity documents when requested. There was anecdotal evidence that some persons without documents were stateless or at risk of being stateless because they had entered the country irregularly or lived in remote areas and still held Soviet documents. Rejected applicants for naturalization did not have the right to appeal. There was no clear procedure for the determination of statelessness and no national legislation on the rights of stateless persons.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although government officials were at times cooperative and responsive to their views, some also occasionally harassed activists.

Authorities generally agreed to requests for meetings from domestic NGO monitors and followed some of their recommendations, particularly those related to social welfare, education and local matters. The government also consulted with NGOs on anticorruption matters; these did not result in follow up actions, however. The government failed to take significant action in response to NGO allegations of mistreatment and abuse by law enforcement bodies. In instances when officials initiated investigations, they typically maintained they could not corroborate the allegations.

Authorities harassed civic activists and citizens who engaged in peaceful protests. On July 26-27, police detained Levon Barseghyan, the head of a Gyumri-based anticorruption watchdog, the Asparez Journalists Club, detaining him for more 16 hours without access to a lawyer, his family, or basic necessities, allegedly for possession of a small folding knife. Investigators released him on July 29 after determining the knife was not an illegal weapon. Barseghyan and his lawyer claimed the detention was illegal and connected to Barseghyan’s public activism.

During the year human rights organizations and the media reported on the continued harassment of and threats against human rights defender Marina Poghosyan. Poghosyan’s NGO, Veles, provided legal support to victims of moneylenders allegedly linked to the government.

On October 21, members of the Armenian organization International Humanitarian Development made allegations on the Russian website, Sputnik Armenia against prominent Armenian organizations, presenting them as threats to national security and plotting revolutions in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Human Rights Defender (the ombudsman) has a mandate to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms from abuse at all levels of government. On January 12, the country’s third ombudsman, Karen Andreasyan, unexpectedly resigned without explanation, amid media speculation regarding growing political pressure on him from the ruling RPA and the executive branch. On February 23, the National Assembly affirmed Arman Tatoyan to replace Karen Andreasyan. The office served as an effective advocate, publishing issue-specific and routine reports on human rights problems. In particular, it addressed and brought to the government’s attention human rights violations, illegal detentions, and missteps during the forceful dispersal of protesters by police in July.

Australia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although the constitution does not explicitly provide for freedom of speech or press, the High Court has held that the constitution implies a right to freedom of expression, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of speech and press.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The internet was widely available to and used by citizens. In February the Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported that 86 percent of households had access to the internet at home in 2014-15.

Law enforcement agencies require a warrant to intercept telecommunications, including internet communications. In emergencies the director general of the ASIO may issue a warrant for this purpose without prior judicial authorization, but the attorney general must be informed.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) maintained a list of “refused classification” website content, primarily pertaining to child pornography, sexual violence, and other activities illegal in the country, compiled because of a consumer complaints process. The ACMA may issue a notice to the internet service provider to remove domestically hosted “refused classification” material, or links to such material, that is the subject of a complaint if an investigation concludes the complaint is justified. The list is available to providers of filtering software. An owner or operator of such a website can appeal an ACMA decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), an executive body that reviews administrative decisions by government entities. Since 2010 three major telecommunications providers voluntarily blocked websites on Interpol’s list of child-abuse links.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Although the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association are not codified in law, the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In August, The Guardian leaked 2,000 reports of abuse of asylum seekers on Nauru, some involving accusations of assault, sexual abuse, and abuse of children.

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

The government maintains a humanitarian refugee program that includes several types of visas available to refugees for resettlement in the country. UNHCR identifies and refers the majority of applicants considered under the program. For the fiscal year that began on July 1, the intake remained at 13,750. In 2015-16 authorities reserved at least 1,000 places for women at risk and at least 1,500 for Syrians. In September 2015 the government announced it would accept an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq for permanent resettlement, in addition to the annual refugee intake of 13,750.

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

The number of asylum seekers arriving by sea significantly increased between 2008 and 2013, putting pressure on detention center capacity, processing times, and the capacity of the humanitarian refugee program. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the government recorded 25,750 such arrivals. As of May 31, 28,329 asylum seekers were living in the community while authorities processed their cases. The country retained third party processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for asylum seekers who arrived after July 19, 2013. Authorities continued their policy of not settling those arrivals in the country and forced intercepted boats carrying smuggled persons back into the territorial waters of their country of embarkation when safe to do so. Since the inception of OSB in 2013, authorities have transferred 2,125 asylum seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island as of May 31, and there were 537 voluntary returns to country of origin during this period. In June the immigration minister reported that authorities had turned back 28 boats transporting asylum seekers since 2013.

The law authorizes the immigration minister to designate a country as a regional offshore processing center, if the minister determines it is in the national interest to do so, and requires the minister to notify parliament, which may then disapprove the proposed designation within five working days of notification. The law states that such a designation “need not be limited by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country.” Under the government’s policy on asylum processing for unauthorized maritime arrivals, asylum seekers transferred to third countries for regional processing have their asylum claims assessed by the country in which the claim is processed.

In 2013 the previous Labor government entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea to send all unauthorized maritime arrivals to Papua New Guinea for assessment and to resettle those found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea. In 2013 Nauru became part of the arrangement. The government then began transferring all unauthorized maritime asylum seeker arrivals to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing. As of September Papua New Guinea had not approved any permanent resettlement arrangements but had granted refugee status to at least 50 individuals for release into the local community to receive support services at an open facility, including language training, cultural orientation, and case support. In 2014 the government reached agreement with Cambodia to resettle refugees on a voluntary basis from the processing center in Nauru. Of the five refugees settled in Cambodia, four voluntarily returned to their country of origin. In October 2015 the Nauruan government announced it would expedite processing for the 600 outstanding refugee claims and claimants would be able to move freely around the island, while maintaining access to assistance from the regional processing center.

In 2014 parliament passed a law that the government stated, “fundamentally changes Australia’s approach to managing asylum seekers” and was partly aimed at addressing a backlog of approximately 30,000 asylum applications. The legislation provided additional clarity and consistency in the powers to detain and move vessels and persons; introduced three-year temporary protection visas (TPV) for those who arrived between August 13, 2012 and December 31, 2013; and introduced a “fast-track” assessment process for those who arrived during this period. It also established a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) that enabled TPV holders to apply for five-year visas to work in non-metropolitan areas. After holding a SHEV for three and a half years, an applicant would be eligible to apply for other onshore visas, such as a permanent skilled visa.

There is a statutory obligation for the government to facilitate access to legal representation for persons in immigration detention. In March 2014 the federal government tightened access to government-funded legal assistance to only those that arrived through authorized channels.

In May there were 399 persons in immigration detention for longer than 730 days and the average duration authorities held them in detention facilities was 459 days.

There were no children (younger than 18 years) in immigration detention in the country as of May 31, compared with 118 in 2014. There were 50 children on Nauru and none on Manus Island. In 2014 the government announced arrangements to enable more minors to reside in the community while authorities processed their applications.

On May 2, UNHCR stated, “There is no doubt that the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention is immensely harmful…Despite efforts by the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, arrangements in both countries have proved completely untenable….The situation of these people has deteriorated progressively over time, as UNHCR has witnessed firsthand over numerous visits since the opening of the centers.”

In February the Australian High Court threw out a challenge to the existence of the country’s offshore immigration detention center on Nauru. In March protests occurred in major cities after authorities prepared to return a one-year-old girl to Nauru 24 hours after her transfer to a Brisbane hospital for severe burns. Doctors refused to release the infant and the Victorian government issued a public letter to the prime minister criticizing the federal government’s stance on children in detention, and offered to resettle the refugees in Victoria.

More than 1,800 academics urged the prime minister to call a summit to create a more “just and humane approach” to handling asylum seekers arriving by sea. The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled in April that the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Island processing center was illegal. The Australian government stated in August it intended to close the Manus Island Center, but did not reveal a specific date.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement from third countries and funded refugee resettlement services. The Humanitarian Settlement Services program provided case-specific assistance that included finding accommodation, employment programs, language training, registering for income support and health care, and connecting with community and recreational programs.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Human Rights Commission (HRC), an independent organization established by parliament and adequately funded by the federal government, investigates complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights under the federal laws that implement the country’s human rights treaty obligations. The HRC reports to parliament through the attorney general. The media and nongovernmental organizations deemed its reports accurate and reported them widely. Parliament has a Joint Committee on Human Rights, and federal law requires that a statement of compatibility with international human rights obligations accompany each new bill.

In addition to the HRC at the federal level, each state and territory has a human rights ombudsperson.

Austria

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against a group because of its members’ race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity if the statement violates human dignity, and imposes criminal penalties for violations. The government strictly enforced these laws (see section 6, Anti-Semitism).

Press and Media Freedoms: The law prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print media, broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers or journals, and provides criminal penalties for violations. The government strictly enforced these laws (see section 6, Anti-Semitism).

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

The law gives the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum (BFA) responsibility for handling asylum applications. The BFA operated nine regional directorates (one in each federal state) and three reception centers. In addition to processing asylum applications, the BFA is responsible for alien police matters (return decisions and custody pending deportation) and certain decisions on humanitarian stays. The Federal Administrative Court in Vienna is the appeals body for decisions of the BFA and had branches in Linz, Graz, and Innsbruck. Access to the administrative high court is limited to cases involving principal legal policy questions.

Following the filing of a record of more than 88,000 asylum applications in 2015, administrative proceedings on the requests of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries were often lengthy. The number of applications dropped significantly during the year, with approximately 28,800 applications filed between January and July.

In April the parliament passed a law that limits the number of asylum requests accepted for routine processing at 37,500 applications a year; the law entered into force in May. Once the cap is reached, authorities may grant asylum at the border only on the basis of specific criteria. Under this procedure authorities may accept asylum applications only from persons who argue successfully that their lives would be in danger or that they would face a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment in a neighboring country or who have a nuclear family member already in Austria. Appeals against returns would be possible only after deportation has taken place. The UN high commissioner for human rights expressed concern that asylum applicants could be rejected under the expedited procedure without having had sufficient assessment of possible grounds for asylum. NGOs and some legal experts within the country also questioned whether such measures complied with international human rights standards.

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

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

Durable Solutions: There are provisions for integration, resettlement, and returns, which the country was cooperating with UNHCR and other organizations to improve. The integration section in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Integration, together with the Integration Fund and provincial and local integration offices, coordinate measures for integration of refugees. The country has a resettlement program in place for Syrian refugees. The country has bilateral agreements with several countries on implementing the return of rejected asylum seekers.

Temporary Protection: According to the Interior Ministry, in 2015 the government provided temporary protection to 6,803 individuals who might not qualify as refugees.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to UNHCR there were 570 persons in the country under its statelessness mandate at the end of 2014. Stateless persons in the country were largely Austrian-born children of foreign nationals who are unable to acquire citizenship through their parents due to the laws in their parents’ country of origin. Authorities did not deport them because they lacked a home country. The law allows some stateless persons to gain nationality. A stateless person born in the country may be granted citizenship within two years of reaching age 18 if he or she has lived in the country for a total of 10 years, including five years continuously before application, and are able to demonstrate sufficient income. Stateless persons could receive temporary residence and work permits that must be renewed annually.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: A human rights ombudsman’s office consisting of three independent commissioners examines complaints against the government. The ombudsman’s office is completely independent, has its own budget, and parliament appoints its members. The ombudsman’s office effectively monitors the administration. There is a parliamentary human rights committee.

Azerbaijan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the law provides for freedom of speech and press and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of speech and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. NGOs considered at least six journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. During the year authorities continued pressure on media, journalists in exile, and their relatives.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of speech, but the government continued to repress subjects considered politically sensitive. For example, in the period leading up to the September constitutional referendum, authorities arrested selected activists who criticized the referendum. Arrests included that of opposition activist and economist Natig Jafarli, the executive secretary of the opposition REAL Movement, on August 12. Activists who were arrested were secular democratic opposition figures, although authorities cited alleged ties to Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was accused by Turkey of having organized the failed July 15 coup attempt there, to justify some of the arrests. Activists whose arrests were based on such alleged ties included Fuad Ahmadli of the opposition Popular Front Party, and Faiq Amirov, the financial director of opposition newspaper Azadliq, who was also the assistant to Popular Front Party chair Ali Karimli.

In October Human Rights Watch reported the government continued to crack down on critics and dissenting voices, including through the politically motivated arrests of at least 20 political and youth activists during the year. The incarceration of persons who attempted to exercise freedom of speech raised concerns about authorities’ use of the judicial system to punish dissent. In addition, the government attempted to impede criticism by threatening some peaceful activists who spoke out against politically motivated imprisonments–including those in the Nardaran case (see section 1.c.)–and by monitoring political and civil society meetings.

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious and social discord and animosity.” Under the September constitutional referendum, “hostility based on any other criteria” also is prohibited.

Press and Media Freedoms: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies. Newspaper circulation rates remained low, not surpassing 5,000 in most cases.

Beginning in 2014 the government blocked the sale of newspapers in the metro and on the street, limiting sales to government-approved kiosks. During the year the government restricted the sale of opposition newspapers at such kiosks. Credible reports indicated opposition newspapers were available outside Baku only in limited numbers due to the refusal of a number of distributors to carry them. In September the opposition newspaper Azadlig discontinued its print edition when it was unable to conduct banking operations following the arrest of its financial director, who was also an active member of the Popular Front Party. Authorities then prevented the newspaper from continuing payment on loans.

The law allows authorities to close media outlets deemed to be broadcasting extremist propaganda or discriminating on ethnic grounds, among other offenses. On July 29, the Baku Court of Appeals revoked the license of the semi-independent privately owned ANS television station based on a lawsuit filed by the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC). The lawsuit was initiated after ANS announced its intention to air an interview with exiled Turkish religious figure Fethullah Gulen and Turkish authorities protested the planned broadcast after accusing Gulen of plotting the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. The NTRC accused ANS of propagating terrorism and violating the law. ANS appealed; on September 21, the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals verdict, resulting in the closure of what had been the country’s sole independent television station until late 2006, when its independence began to decline. It had operated for 25 years.

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

While authorities released six journalists and bloggers during the year, local NGOs considered at least seven journalists and bloggers and two writers/poets to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. For example, on January 29, the Absheron District Court sentenced opposition Azadlig newspaper journalist Seymur Hazi to five years in prison. Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations similar to that applied to other NGOs in the country.

During the year authorities continued pressure on independent media outlets outside the country and those associated with them in the country. For example, authorities continued the criminal case against Meydan TV initiated in August 2015. The Prosecutor General’s Office investigated more than 15 individuals in the case for alleged illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Official pressure on journalists also included the incarceration of relatives of journalists in exile, including Azadliq editor in chief Ganimat Zahidov’s nephew and cousin, and bans on an increasing number of journalists and some relatives of journalists in exile from traveling outside the country (see section 2.d.).

Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported 33 physical assaults on at least 21 journalists during the year. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television. For example, on November 26, police detained journalist Teymur Karimov from internet-based TV Kanal 13 after an unknown person attacked Karimov while he was preparing a video report on water supply problems in the Barda District. Police threatened the journalist with filing a criminal case on charges of assault if he did not erase all his recordings.

Impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) reported in August that more than nine out of every 10 cases of physical attacks on journalists remained unsolved. There were no indications authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in prior years.

Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for full accountability for the August 2015 beating and death of journalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev, who reported receiving threatening messages three weeks earlier; the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa; and the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.

Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were used also to intimidate journalists and media outlets. During the year approximately 29 court cases were initiated against journalists or media outlets, with plaintiffs demanding 1.3 million manat ($720,000) in compensation; courts ultimately imposed 95,000 manat ($53,000) in fines.

The majority of independent and opposition newspapers remained in a precarious financial situation and experienced problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.

The government prohibited some state libraries from subscribing to opposition and independent newspapers, prevented state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and put pressure on private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result, paid advertising was largely absent in opposition media. Political commentators noted these practices reduced the wages that opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, which allowed progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition, international media monitoring reports indicated that intimidation by Ministry of Taxes authorities further limited the independence of media.

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

On June 12, police seized the work of the Ganun Publishing House in Baku under the pretext of having received a bomb threat to the building. Civil society activists reported that authorities raided the publishing house after it printed posters advocating the release of imprisoned head of the REAL democratic movement, Ilgar Mammadov. The director of the publishing house, Shahbaz Khuduoghlu, reported that police took some published materials and printing molds from the office.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense and covers written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel. Conviction of defamation is punishable by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($55.60 to $556) and imprisonment for six months to three years.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Germany-based opposition media outlet Meydan TV were intermittently blocked during the year.

Radio Liberty and the opposition newspaper Azadlig reported denial of access to their Internet-based resources on November 28 and December 2 for publicizing critical online articles on proposed legislative amendments in the parliament. These outages became chronic by mid-December, with Voice of America and RFE/RL becoming only sporadically available inside Azerbaijan. Although the government denied involvement, the outages originated from within Delta Telecom, a company with close ties to the government that controlled over 90 percent of Internet traffic in Azerbaijan. The government also required internet service providers to be licensed and have formal agreements with the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 77 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2015.

The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet. On November 29, the Milli Mejlis passed new articles to the criminal code that expand those penalties. Article 148-1, stipulates fines of from 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($556 to $833), or public works from 360 to 480 hours, or corrective work up to two years or one year imprisonment for insults and slander through using fake web nicknames or Internet profiles. A second new provision, Article 323, stipulates fines from 1,000 up to 1,500 manat ($556 to $833) or imprisonment up to three years for insulting the honor and dignity of the president.

There were strong indications that the government monitored the internet communications of democracy activists. For example, after detaining Popular Front deputy chairman Fuad Gahramanli in December 2015, authorities prosecuted him on charges related to his exercise of freedom of expression on Facebook (see section 1.e.). In addition, many youth activists who were questioned, detained, or jailed frequently had posted criticism of alleged government corruption and human rights abuses online. The activists included video blogger Husseyn Azizoghlu, who had posted videos online that mocked police officers for planting drugs and falsifying evidence and was detained for 15 days on January. Other cases involved Popular Front Party member Fizuli Huseynov, who received 30 days’ detention on January 27 after having criticized the government on Facebook, and blogger Mehman Huseynov, who was briefly detained in September and threatened with physical abuse if he did not stop posting video and images of police violence.

The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report, covering the period June 2015 through May, stated that the government “demonstrated its willingness to shutdown connectivity in times of civil unrest, disconnecting the entire village of Nardaran from the internet for several days following police clashes.” The report acknowledged that the government did not extensively block online content, while noting that “netizens” (citizens of the net) and their families faced arrest and intimidation.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party members continued to report difficulties finding jobs teaching at schools and universities. Authorities fired most known opposition party members teaching in state educational institutions in previous years. NGOs reported local executive authorities occasionally prevented the expression of minority cultures, for example, by prohibiting cultural events at local community centers and the teaching of local dialects.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

While the law provides for freedom of assembly, the government severely restricted the right. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters.

While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations, often at inconvenient sites, although a site often used in the outskirts of Baku was easily accessible by metro and bus. Most political parties and NGOs found the requirements unacceptable and believed them to be unconstitutional. Authorities throughout the country routinely refused to acknowledge notifications of planned public rallies, thereby effectively denying the freedom to assemble.

As modified by the September 26 referendum, the constitution provides that public gatherings not disrupt “public order and public morals.” The Venice Commission’s September 20 preliminary opinion on the proposed constitutional amendments noted that it is “almost inevitable” that peaceful gatherings may disrupt public order (for example, by disturbing traffic) or disturb someone’s views on morality and yet be permissible under the European Convention on Human Rights. The commission concluded, “The State should allow such gatherings and even facilitate them provided that those disturbances are not excessive and help convey the message of the public event.”

Early in the year, the devaluation of the local currency (manat) and worsening economic conditions sparked protests in different parts of the country, beginning on January 6 in the town of Saatli. On January 12, after dispersing a protest in Lankaran, police detained opposition Popular Front Party activist Nazim Hasanov and Musavat Party activist Imanverdi Aliyev. Both were sentenced to 30 days’ detention on charges of inciting people to public disorder. On January 13, Interior Ministry security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters in Siyazan. Police later reported that 55 persons were detained for participation in the various protests.

Activists reported that police harassed and/or detained 185 persons before, during, and after authorized rallies on September 11, 17, and 18 against the referendum on constitutional amendments. The courts subsequently sentenced 12 opposition activists to administrative detention that ranged from eight to 30 days, allegedly for resisting police, and fined one opposition activist 200 manat ($111) for violating public order.

The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($278 to $556) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.

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

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

In 2014 the president approved a number of amendments to the administrative code and the laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities that imposed additional restrictions on NGO activities and closed several loopholes for the operations of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The laws make unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidated and dissuaded potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricted their ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.

A resolution detailing new grant registration implementing regulations, enacted by the Council of Ministers in June 2015, sets a 15-day limit for NGOs to register their grants with the appropriate ministry, 15 days for the ministry to approve or deny the registration, and an extension of 15 days if further investigation by the ministry is needed. Based on extensive authority provided in the 2014 amendments, the Ministry of Justice put into effect new rules on monitoring NGO activities in February. The rules empower the ministry to conduct intrusive inspections of NGOs, with few provisions protecting the rights of NGOs and the potential of harsh fines if they do not cooperate.

A far-reaching criminal investigation opened in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership continued during the year. The investigation covered prominent independent organizations focused on human rights and transparency in natural resource governance, as well as international organizations providing assistance to citizens. As a result of the investigation, at least 32 organizations closed rather than subject their staff to continued pressure and the prospect of incarceration. Authorities froze dozens of NGO bank accounts as well as the personal accounts of a number of organization heads. Domestic and international NGOs described the criminal investigations, arrests, bank account closures, and other pressure as a crackdown on civil society unprecedented for the country (see section 5). A few activists affiliated with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a civil society coalition) reported that the government lifted the freeze on their bank accounts. Others affiliated with the coalition reported government constraints on their ability to operate.

The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, no foreign NGOs had been able to register under these rules.

The Ministry of Justice reported it registered 99 NGOs and did not observe the practice of nonacceptance of applications during the year. The Ministry of Justice registered the human rights-focused NGO of Oktay Gulaliyev immediately before the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative board meeting in October, but it changed its name and removed all references to human rights. Some experts estimated 1,000 NGOs remained unregistered.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited freedom of movement for an increasing number of activists and journalists.

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

Foreign Travel: The number of activists and journalists whom the authorities prevented from traveling outside the country increased compared to the previous year. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (since 2006), blogger Mehman Huseynov, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, lawyers Intigam Aliyev and Asabali Mustafayev, opposition REAL members Natig Jafarli and Azer Gasimli, Emin Milli’s brother-in-law Nazim Agabeyov, and at least 15 freelance journalists who filed material with Meydan TV.

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

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

UNHCR reported 613,129 registered IDPs in the country as of December 31, including persons in IDP-like situations. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1993 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The IDPs were initially required to register their places of residence with authorities and could live only in approved areas. This “propiska” registration system, which formally ceased to exist after the breakup of the Soviet Union, was enforced mainly against persons who were forced from their homes after separatists, with Armenia’s support, took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The government asserted that registration was needed to keep track of IDPs to assist them.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, many IDPs who resided in Baku were unable to register their residences or gain access to formal employment, government assistance, health care, education, or pensions and had difficulty buying property.

Significant numbers of IDPs remained in overcrowded collective centers, where they were socially marginalized with limited employment opportunities and high rates of poverty. The law requires IDPs to register in the districts where they reside, and registration is necessary to obtain IDP status. Temporary registration where IDPs reside does not restrict migration within the country.

According to the government, it allocated 290 million manat ($161 million) to the State Committee for IDPs during the year. UNHCR reported that during the year the government rehoused 1,620 families, representing approximately 7,000 individuals, primarily in Fizuli, Sabirabad, Baku, Gazakh, and Zagatala.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

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

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,193 refugees in the country lacked access to social services.

STATELESS PERSONS

Amendments to the constitution adopted by referendum on September 26 allow Azerbaijani citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” Previously, the constitution explicitly prohibited the loss of citizenship.

According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at the end of the year. According to the State Migration Service, 245 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year, and citizenship was restored to two persons. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azeris from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.

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

For the most part, stateless persons enjoyed freedom of movement. The law permits stateless persons access to basic rights, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered stateless persons’ access to these rights.

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

The government continued to limit severely the operations of domestic and international human rights groups during the year. Application of restrictive laws to constrain NGO activities, and other pressure continued at the high level of recent years. Leading human rights NGOs faced a hostile environment for investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. As a result, some activists left, others stayed outside the country, and a number of NGOs remained unable to operate. While authorities released at least four human rights defenders, their ability to work was constrained by the overall restrictions on NGO activities. Prominent human rights defender Aliabbas Rustamov remained incarcerated and was widely considered a political prisoner. In addition, authorities imposed restrictions such as travel bans on some of the defenders, including on prominent human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, and had not returned Aliyev’s case files or his organization’s office equipment as of year’s end.

While the government maintained ties with some human rights NGOs and responded to their inquiries, on numerous occasions it criticized and intimidated other human rights NGOs and activists. The Ministry of Justice continued to deny registration or placed burdensome administrative restrictions on human rights NGOs on arbitrary grounds. Activists also reported that authorities refused to register their organizations or grants, continued investigations into organizations’ activities, froze their personal and organizational bank accounts, and did not return previously seized office equipment. Some NGO representatives also reported that they or a family member suffered physical assault with impunity. Many representatives reported difficulty locating office or event space, particularly in hotels and especially for events occurring outside Baku.

Senior government officials engaged in ad hominem attacks on human rights activists. State-run media outlets accused Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Reporters without Borders of supporting “antinational elements.” On multiple occasions, Presidential Administration officials accused local and foreign NGOs of representing foreign interests seeking to destabilize the country and, therefore, of subversive activity, naming specific democracy and human rights groups and activists who had been incarcerated.

During the year a government council provided 5.25 million manat ($2.9 million) to 520 NGOs. While observers considered many of the NGOs to be progovernment or politically neutral, some NGOs that criticized the government also received grants.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government viewed with suspicion statements from such organizations, claiming these international bodies had no right to act in ways authorities saw as interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

On September 22, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, stated, “civil society of Azerbaijan faces the worst situation since the independence of the country” and called on authorities to rethink their “punitive approach to civil society.” He also noted arrests and detentions of individuals prior to a peaceful protest on September 17 as well as administrative and legal pressure being applied to NGOs and called on the government to establish a dialogue with human rights defenders.

Following the government’s July 2015 closure of the OSCE’s Baku office, the OSCE remained unable to re-establish operations in the country.

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

The Ombudsman’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan reported receiving 18,740 complaints in 2016, an increase of 22.3 percent from 2014. The majority of complaints involved alleged violations of property rights, court provisions for the protection of rights and freedoms, social benefits, and labor rights. The Ombudsman’s Office reportedly resolved 63.6 percent of complaints accepted for consideration.

The Ombudsman’s Office of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic reported receiving 37 complaints in 2016. The main subjects of the complaints were on labor and social protection rights. The Ombudsman’s Office stated that 10 complaints were resolved successfully and violations of the law were not identified in 27 cases.

Human rights offices in the Milli Mejlis and the Ministry of Justice also heard complaints, conducted investigations, and made recommendations to relevant government bodies.

Bahrain

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” In practice the government limited freedom of speech and press through active prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted civilian and professional journalists and by passing legislation to limit speech in print and social media.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who publicly expressed such opinions often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech, under charges of unlawful assembly or “insulting the king.” A 2014 amendment to the penal code increased penalties to no less than one year and no more than seven years in prison, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.”

On June 13, police arrested Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) president Nabeel Rajab for tweets released in April 2015 criticizing Saudi-led coalition’s military operations in Yemen and treatment of prisoners in Jaw Prison. Police initially arrested Rajab on these charges in April 2015 but released him from prison in July 2015 when he received a pardon in connection with a previous arrest. Rajab’s trial on the latter charges began in July and continued as of year’s end. At his hearing on December 28, the judge ordered Rajab released on bail; however, on the same day, the public prosecutor announced that Rajab would remain in detention under investigation on separate charges stemming from “publishing false news and statements” for statements in a New York Times op-ed published in Rajab’s name on September 4 and another article attributed to Rajab that was published in the French newspaper Le Monde on December 19. That case had not gone to trial as of year’s end, and Rajab remained in custody.

In July 2015 authorities arrested Ibrahim Sharif after he delivered a speech calling for reforms and making reference to the “embers of revolution.” This arrest came 23 days after the king pardoned him for a conviction stemming from involvement in the 2011 unrest, for which Sharif had spent more than four years in prison. In the 2015 case, the prosecutor charged Sharif with “promoting political change through forceful means.” On February 24, a criminal court found him guilty of “inciting hatred against the regime” and sentenced him to one year in jail. The authorities released him on July 11. On November 7, the appeals process concluded with no additional jail time for Sharif, although a travel ban remained in effect at year’s end. Authorities also brought charges of “inciting hatred and contempt against the regime” against Sharif on November 13 after he gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he said that the November visit by United Kingdom Prince Charles and wife Camilla could “whitewash” the ongoing crackdown on dissent. Sharif was not taken into police custody, and the charges were dropped on November 24.

On June 21, an appeals court upheld a one-year jail sentence against women’s rights activist Ghada Jamsheer in conjunction with a series of tweets about corruption at a local hospital and a physical altercation that happened when she was in pretrial detention in 2014. Authorities arrested Jamsheer on August 15 when she returned from a trip abroad. She was released from prison on December 14 under the agreement that she would perform community service in lieu of serving the remaining time on her sentence.

On February 2, an appeals court upheld a nine-month sentence issued against activist Zainab al-Khawaja in June 2015 for trespassing. In October 2015 a different appeals court reduced a separate sentence against her for tearing up a picture of the king in court from three years to one year. Al-Khawaja claimed she tore up the picture as a political statement, while the government maintained the charge against her was for contempt of court. Police took al-Khawaja into custody on March 14 to serve these two sentences, but authorities released her on May 31 for “humanitarian reasons” after she served 2.5 months of her 21-month sentence. She subsequently left the country and at year’s end remained abroad.

Press and Media Freedoms: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.

The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic, Farsi, and English from countries in the region, including by satellite, without interference. The ministry reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs reviewed books that discussed religion.

The Ministry of Information Affairs did not renew the accreditation of three journalists who worked for international media agencies, Nazeha Saeed, Reem Khalifa, and Hasan Jamali. The ministry did not give reason for its decision, nor was recourse available. It brought criminal complaints against journalists who continued to work without accreditation.

Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists, authorities harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists and photographers due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists. The government arrested or deported individuals who were in the country on other types of visas and who engaged in even limited journalistic activities. The government sentenced several journalists and bloggers arrested in 2015-16 to prison for social media postings.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop writing about certain subjects or told them not to publish a press release or story.

The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion for offense and criticism.” The law states, “any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Index on Censorship, an international NGO that supports freedom of expression, reported the ministry’s Press and Publications Directorate banned and confiscated all copies of the book, Political Organizations and Societies in Bahrain, coauthored by Bahraini writer Abbas al-Murshid, and another book by al-Murshid, Bahrain in the Gulf Gazetteer. Additionally, a number of books remained banned from 2010, including the Arabic translation of The Personal Diary of Charles Belgrave and Unbridled Hatreds: Reading in the Fate of Ancient Hatreds, by Bahraini author Nader Kadim.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets”; and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment for no more than two years or a fine of no more than 200 dinars ($540). Application of the slander law was selective.

National Security: National security-related law provides for fines of as much as 10,000 dinars ($27,000) and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines of up to 2,000 dinars ($5,400) for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization before obtaining ministry approval, publishing any reports that may adversely affect the dinar’s value, reporting any offense against a head of a state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks about an accredited representative of a foreign country due to acts connected with the person’s position.

INTERNET FREEDOM

More than 90 percent of citizens had access to the internet. The government restricted internet freedom and monitored individuals’ online activities, including via social media, leading to degradation of internet and mobile phone services for some neighborhoods and to legal action against some internet users.

On January 4, police arrested optometrist, Dr. Saeed al-Samahiji, for tweets critical of Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr. On April 7, a criminal court sentenced him to a one-year prison term for “insulting a neighboring country.” The appeals court upheld the conviction on September 7. He remained in Jaw Prison at year’s end.

Three days after a sit-in outside of Sheikh Isa Qassim’s house in Diraz began in late June, residents complained that mobile phone networks and internet services were significantly reduced each evening. The offshore-based Bahrain Watch organization concluded two of the three main Internet Service Providers in the country deliberately restricted access for some users each day during certain times.

In 2013 the Ministry of Communication blocked 70 websites in accordance with laws passed following parliament’s recommendations. The government stated that it took this action to prevent access to “terrorist materials,” but NGOs asserted many of the websites featured only political speech. As of year’s end, the websites were intermittently accessible.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Some academics engaged in self-censorship, avoiding discussion of contentious political issues.

Human rights advocates claimed government officials unfairly distributed university scholarships and were biased against Shia, for both political and religious reasons, when admitting students into certain programs. In 2011 the government instituted interviews into the university selection process, partially to correct for grade inflation, as there is no national standardized test to account for different grading practices across secondary schools; however, students reported authorities asked them about their and their families’ political beliefs as part of the interviews. The government maintained it distributed all scholarships and made all placements based on merit.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides for the right of free assembly, but the law restricts the exercise of this right. The government limited and controlled political gatherings and denied permits for organized demonstrations. For the second year, there were no authorized demonstrations, although the Ministry of Interior generally did not intervene in peaceful, unauthorized demonstrations. The ministry reported it did not approve any major demonstrations during the year due to past failures by organizers to control their own events. Political societies, however, reported the ministry refused even to accept permit requests, whether delivered by hand, by registered post, or by fax. The opposition group Wifaq reported that despite many new requests, its last approval for a march came in 2014.

According to the Ministry of Interior, three persons from the locality where an event will take place must submit a signed request to the chief of public security three days in advance, to receive permission to hold a public gathering. The law outlines the locations and times during which it prohibits functions, including areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. In addition to the locations listed in the law, the chief of public security may change the time, place, or route of the event if there is a possibility that it would cause a breach of public order. The law states mourners may not turn funeral processions into political rallies, and that security officials may be present at any public gathering.

The law states every public gathering shall have a committee consisting of a head and at least two members. The committee is responsible for supervising and preventing any illegal acts during the function. According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify why it approves or denies requests to allow protests. The penal code penalizes any gathering “of five or more individuals” that is held for the “purpose of committing crimes or inciting others to commit crimes.” Lawyers asserted authorities should not prevent demonstrations in advance based on assumptions crimes would be committed. Authorities prohibited the use of vehicles in any demonstration, protest, or gathering unless organizers obtained special written permission from the head of public security.

Organizers of an unauthorized gathering faced prison sentences of three to six months. The minimum sentence for participating in an illegal gathering is one month, and the maximum is two years. Authorities gave longer sentences for cases where demonstrators used violence in an illegal gathering. The maximum fine is 200 dinars ($540). The law regulates election campaigning and prohibits political activities at worship centers, universities, schools, government buildings, and public institutions. The government did not allow individuals to use mosques, maatams (Shia religious community centers), or other religious sites for political gatherings. During the year authorities questioned and detained some political society officials for discussing political matters in religious venues.

Police arrested or summoned several dozen individuals, including Shia clerics, in relation to their alleged participation in the Diraz sit-in, which began June 20 following the revocation of Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship. On July 30, police arrested Shia cleric Sheikh Sayed Majeed al-Mashaal, head of the banned Islamic Ulema Council, on allegations he participated on June 30 in the sit-in. On August 31, a court sentenced al-Mashaal to two years in prison on these charges and transferred him to Jaw Prison. On December 1, an appeals court reduced an additional one-year sentence he received on October 7 on other charges stemming from his participation in the sit-in on July 19.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all groups to register: civil society groups with the Ministry of Social Development, political societies with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, and labor unions with the Ministry of Labor. The government decided whether a group was social or political in nature, based on its proposed bylaws. The law prohibits any activity by an unlicensed society, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. A number of unlicensed societies were active in the country (see also section 3).

A civil society group applying for registration must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, together with minutes of the founding committee’s meetings containing the names, professions, places of residence, and signatures of all founding members. The law grants the Ministry of Social Development the right to reject the registration of any civil society group if it finds the society’s services unnecessary, already provided by another society, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved society. Associations whose applications the authorities rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court, which may annul the ministry’s decision or refuse the appeal.

Many NGOs and civil society activists asserted the Ministry of Social Development routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. While some local NGOs asserted bureaucratic incompetence characterized the ministry’s dealings with NGOs, many others stated officials actively sought to undermine some groups’ activities and imposed burdensome bureaucratic procedures on NGO board members and volunteers. The Ministries of Justice and Interior must vet funding from international sources, and authorities sometimes did not authorize it.

(For information on the closure of the Wifaq political society, see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation.)

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.

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

Foreign Travel: The law provides the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities banned them from travel out of the country due to unpaid debt obligations or other fiduciary responsibilities with private individuals or with lending institutions. The government launched an online website during the year that allowed individuals to check their status before they traveled. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. During the year the authorities prevented a number of activists from leaving the country without providing options for legal recourse.

Starting in June approximately 40 individuals, including activists and opposition figures, reported customs agents stopped them from leaving the country. Individuals reportedly under “travel bans” claimed the government had not informed them of the ban, provided them with an official document citing the reason, or allowed them to present an appeal. In November police summoned some of these individuals to question them regarding allegations they participated in the Diraz sit-in. Critics alleged the authorities tried to build cases against the individuals retroactively to give the travel bans the appearance of legality. Observers noted the travel bans prevented activists from participating in UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions and other international events. In July the NIHR urged the government to stop issuing travel bans without a judicial order.

On November 10, authorities charged human rights lawyer, Mohamed al-Tajer, with insulting government institutions, inciting hatred of a religious sect, and misusing a telecommunications device, in part based on statements critical of the government that he made on a social media network. Al-Tajer had been banned from travel to the June HRC session. He was not detained, and the case had not gone to trial as of year’s end.

Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government maintained were Bahraini citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens. There were reports of individuals who lived in self-imposed exile, often to avoid jail time for convictions imposed in their absence.

Citizenship: As a punitive measure, the government continued to revoke citizenship for both criminal and political cases. The minister of interior may also request that the cabinet approve revoking citizenship from a naturalized citizen who has violated specific conditions. The government has not implemented a comprehensive legal review process concerning citizen revocation, as recommended by the NIHR in 2015, to assure the government protected the rights of individuals and their family members. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions and has at times threatened to halt payments of pensions, or remove families from government-assisted housing if a head-of-household loses his citizenship. Some family members, especially females and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. During the year the government issued a number of individuals, whose citizenship it had revoked, limited validity Bahraini passports and deported them to Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. There is no procedure for accused persons to mount a defense prior to having their citizenship revoked.

On June 20, the Bahrain News Agency (BNA) announced the government had revoked Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship. Government sources reported Qassim had the right to appeal the decision, but he declined to do so. On that same day, authorities raided his offices and froze his bank accounts. Authorities indicted him and two staff, Mirza al-Dirazi and Sheikh Hussain al-Mahrous, on money laundering charges citing large transfers of funds overseas that allegedly bypassed banks to avoid detection. Qassim denied the charges and has not attended any court proceedings. His supporters claimed the government targeted Qassim because of his status in the Shia community and asserted Qassim’s office collected the funds and spent them according to Shia customs and obligations. As of December Qassim remained at his home in the village of Diraz. Supporters maintained a sit-in/vigil outside of his house in response to fears police would arrest him. Security forces have limited entrance into and egress out of the village to Diraz residents.

In January 2015 the BNA named 72 individuals who had their citizenship revoked but did not specify what violation each committed. The BNA instead provided a list of violations that may have led the authorities to act, including defaming the image of the regime and defaming brotherly countries. Authorities did not notify these individuals, who learned about the decision from the press. Some of the individuals had previously been involved in activism or in the political opposition. During the year the authorities gave at least three of these individuals limited validity passports and immediately deported them, including Sheikh Mohammed Khojasta on February 22, Hussein KhairAllah Mahood on February 24, and Masaud Jahromi on March 7.

In 2014 the Interior Ministry’s Nationality, Passports, and Residence Directorate summoned 10 Bahrainis, whose citizenship the government revoked for politically motivated reasons in 2012 and against whom it filed criminal lawsuits, requesting them to defend their legal status and indicate whether they had found other citizens willing to sponsor them. Later in 2014, a court found them guilty of being in the country without sponsors and fined each 100 dinars ($270). Their appeal hearing continued in December 2015. On April 17, they lost their appeal. Authorities deported Taimoor Karimi to Iraq on June 26. Human rights organizations reported the remaining nine were at risk to be deported.

In 2014 a court adjourned an appeal brought by Ibrahim Karimi, who filed a constitutional challenge to his citizenship revocation–the only one to do so among the 31 whose citizenship was revoked in 2012. In September 2015 authorities arrested him on new charges related to social media postings and searched his house; authorities also again charged him with living in the country illegally. His trial on the new charges began January 31, and on March 31, he was sentenced to two years in prison. His appeal continued at year’s end. Separately, on March 8, the appeals court upheld the original deportation order against him, putting him at risk of deportation once he completes his current sentence.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; however, this was mostly limited to those who had been able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of being deported if they became unemployed or if their country of origin revoked their passports. The foreign minister told media in September 2015 that Bahrain had accepted “thousands” of Syrian refugees; however, UNHCR reported that as of June, there were 355 refugees registered with the agency.

STATELESS PERSONS

Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may confer or revoke it. Since the government only considers the father’s citizenship when determining citizenship, it does not grant children born to a non-Bahraini father citizenship, even if they were born in Bahrain to a Bahraini mother. Likewise, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to Bahraini women, unlike the process by which foreign women married to Bahraini men may become citizens. Human rights organizations reported that these laws have resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father is unable or unwilling to pursue citizenship from his country of origin for his children, or when the father himself was stateless, deceased, or unknown. It was unknown how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment. There were reports authorities refused applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose Bahraini fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person (see section 6, Children).

The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law.

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

Government officials sometimes met with local human rights NGOs but generally were not responsive to the views of NGOs they believed were politicized and unfairly critical of the government.

Domestic human rights groups operated with some government restrictions. These groups included the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the primary independent and licensed human rights organization in the country; the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which the government officially dissolved in 2004 but continued to operate and maintained an online presence; and the unlicensed Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. The unlicensed umbrella human rights organization Bahrain Human Rights Observatory also issued numerous reports and had strong ties to international human rights NGOs. The licensed Bahrain Human Rights Watch continued to issue numerous reports.

Some domestic human rights groups faced significant difficulties operating freely and interacting with international human rights organizations. The government sometimes harassed and deprived local NGO leaders of due process. Local NGO leaders and activists also reported government harassment including the imposition of travel bans (see section 2.c.), police surveillance, delayed processing of civil documents, and “inappropriate questioning” of their children during interviews for government scholarships.

Individuals affiliated with international human rights and labor organizations, or who were critical of the government, reported authorities indefinitely delayed or refused visa applications, or at times refused entry to the country for individuals who possessed a valid visa or qualified for the country’s visa-free entry program.

In April authorities denied a Solidarity Center representative entry into the country although the individual possessed a valid visa. The purpose of the trip was to meet with a domestic labor organization.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2011 the government convened the BICI, chaired by Cherif Bassiouni, whose staff included international human rights experts, and tasked it with investigating allegations of human rights violations–including reports of police brutality, arrests, disappearances, and torture, along with reports of violence by demonstrators against police–in early 2011. It presented recommendations for reform in late 2011, describing a “culture of impunity” in the security services and documenting excessive use of force, including torture and a range of other human rights violations by security forces during the unrest. On May 9, Bassiouni returned to Bahrain on an unannounced visit to meet with the king and the national commission and received an award. The BNA reported that Bahrain had fully implemented the recommendations of the BICI report and suggested Bassiouni concurred. On June 5, Bassiouni published a statement on his website recognizing Bahrain’s accomplishments on BICI implementation, but he made clear his view that the country has not yet fulfilled all of the recommendations of the BICI report. Among outstanding recommendations, Bassiouni said that Bahrain should prioritize the release of prisoners convicted on the basis of their political beliefs and expression and emphasize accountability for those responsible for deaths resulting from torture.

In line with the 2011 BICI report recommendations, the king issued a royal decree in 2013 to re-establish the country’s National Human Rights Organization, now called the NIHR, to receive complaints and investigate allegations of human rights violations. Throughout the year the NIHR conducted numerous human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred numerous complaints to the PPO. It issued its latest annual report in December 2015 and contributed to PDRC, ombudsman, and SIU investigations. Also in December an amendment to the law strengthened the NIHR by giving it the right to conduct unannounced visits to police facilities and increasing its financial independence. Although many observers viewed the NIHR as effectively resourced and independent, other human rights groups doubted the government would implement most of its recommendations and doubted its impartiality.

During the year the government also maintained the Ombudsman’s Office within the Ministry of Interior, the SIU within the PPO, and the PDRC in response to the BICI report’s recommendations. These organizations worked with each other throughout the year.

Local and international observers and human rights organizations continued to view the BICI report as a standard against which to measure the country’s progress on human rights reforms. They expressed concern the government did not make significant progress on other BICI recommendations, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, integrating Shia into security forces, and creating an environment conducive to national reconciliation.

Bangladesh

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government sometimes failed to respect these rights. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment. Several high profile individuals were charged with sedition, including BNP leader Khaleda Zia, TV personality Mahmudur Rahman Manna, and reporter Kanok Sarwar, but the government did not proceed with prosecutions. The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, leaving the government with broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense.

Press and Media Freedoms: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure. For example, independent journalists alleged that intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well.

The government maintains editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station (BTV), and private channels were mandated to air government content at no cost. Civil society said that there was political interference in the licensing process, as all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation. In February, members of the ruling party initiated 79 sedition and defamation cases in multiple courts against Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, for publishing reports of corruption involving Prime Minister Hasina in 2007 and 2008. Hasina publicly stated Anam’s newspaper and its sister media outlet, Prothom Alo, would be punished for publishing the reports.

The government imprisoned several prominent editors affiliated with the BNP, including the arrest of 81-year-old journalist Shafiq Rehman in April on charges relating to his alleged role in a plot to cause harm to Hasina’s son. On September 6, the Supreme Court granted him three-month conditional bail after four and a half months of detention. The government continued to pursue charges against the editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, whom police arrested in 2013 for publishing Skype conversations between the Chairman of the ICT and a private consultant on ICT cases. Although the High Court granted Rahman bail on September 8, the Appellate Court chamber judge stayed his bail until October 30, further prolonging his detention of nearly four years. Rahman was released on bail on November 23.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Privately owned newspapers usually enjoyed broad freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship in an atmosphere of fear remained a problem, however. The media generally favored one of the two major political parties. Ownership of the media is influenced by politics, and both the government and big businesses used advertising as a weapon to control the media.

The government sought to censor the media indirectly through threats and harassment. On multiple occasions, government officials asked privately owned television channels not to broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. One talk show host reported overt censorship from Directorate General of Forces Intelligence personnel, who intimidated and threatened the host and the channel until owners finally cancelled the program. When the host continued working on another program, he reported receiving word for word instructions from security forces for behavior on air and being subject to surveillance and death threats via text, letter, and voice messages. The host was ultimately forced to flee the country. The well regarded newspapers Prothom Alo and Daily Star were denied access to prime-ministerial events because they published reports critical of the government and prime minister.

Both the government and businesses used the threat of pulling advertising dollars to pressure the media to avoid unfavorable coverage.

According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship, particularly due to fear of security-force retribution. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.

The government did not subject foreign publications and films to stringent review and censorship. Some international media outlets reported delays and difficulties in obtaining visas. One television producer reported that the government would only issue a visa if the government were allowed to review and approve their coverage. A government-managed film censorship board reviewed local and foreign films and had the authority to censor or ban films on the grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism, but it was less strict than in the past. In January the Bangladesh Censor Board upheld a ban on the movie “Rana Plaza,” originally set to premier in September 2015. The film told the story of a garment factory worker’s 17-day fight to survive under debris following the April 24, 2013 eponymous factory collapse. Video rental libraries and DVD shops stocked a wide variety of films, and government efforts to enforce censorship on rentals were sporadic and ineffective.

The government at times censored objectionable comments regarding national leaders. In April, the government refiled a criminal defamation complaint against news editor Probir Sikder for “tarnishing the image” of a minister.

National Security: In some cases, the government criticized media outlets for reporting that allegedly compromised national security. The prime minister and other government officials criticized local media for their live telecast of government counter terrorism efforts during the July 1 Holey Bakery terrorist attack and, following the incident, the government enacted a blanket ban on live television news coverage of terrorist attack and disaster rescue operations.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from extremist organizations. Following his inclusion in a “hit list” of 34 individuals published online by Ansar al-Islam (a purported AQIS affiliate) in November 2015, one blogger reported frequent threats via Facebook messenger and persistent surveillance, including an incident in April when four masked individuals with weapons followed him before being scared away by police. On April 7, blogger Najimuddin Samad was killed in Dhaka; investigation into the murder was ongoing.

A journalist at a prominent newspaper reported receiving frequent death threats since September 2015, including from persons claiming affiliation with Da’esh. The journalist reported receiving almost daily text messages with threats and passages from the Quran describing death, such as “consider doomsday as if tomorrow,” and “all will see the Prophet at the graveyard.” Several other outlets experienced similar threats, some of which culminated in bias-based murders.

INTERNET FREEDOM

There were isolated incidents of government restriction and disruption of access to the internet and censorship of online content. Approximately 14.4 percent of the population has access to the internet according to the International Telecommunication Union. The BTRC reported approximately 63.9 million internet subscriptions in July, including roughly 60 million mobile internet subscriptions (one individual may have more than one subscription). Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephony were illegal, but the laws were rarely enforced against individuals.

There were several incidents of government interference in internet communications, filtering or blocking of access, restricting content, and censoring websites or other communications and internet services. Many websites were suspended or closed based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content in violation of legal requirements. The BTRC is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. In May the BTRC blocked encrypted communication applications Threema and Wickr as well as several blogs and Facebook posts it deemed to be crafted in “malice to Islam.” The BTRC Chairman later stated that the BTRC only blocks websites or services upon the request of law enforcement or MOHA and does not take independent action to block any websites or services. In July, the BTRC carried out a directive of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police to block 30 websites and Facebook pages for allegedly inciting militancy or running anti-religion propaganda. On August 2, the BTRC initiated a temporary shutdown of internet and mobile telephone services in a section of Dhaka city. BTRC officials stated that the exercise, the first in a series of temporary shutdowns, was to test the agency’s ability to restrict access to communications to protect public safety in the event of an emergency, such as a terror attack. On August 4, the BTRC carried out a directive to block 35 news websites that had published material critical of the government and current political leaders or were perceived to feature overt support for political opposition groups. Many of the sites remained blocked at the end of the year.

Facebook’s “biannual government requests report” for January to June 2016 showed the government made nine requests for data pursuant to legal process regarding eight users or accounts and one emergency request for data regarding one user or account in that period. Facebook reported producing some data in response to one request pursuant to legal process and one emergency request. The 10 total requests for data regarding nine users or accounts made by the government in the first half of 2016 is a slight decrease from the 12 requests for data regarding 31 users or accounts made in second half of 2015. Facebook further reported that two pieces of content were restricted at the BTRC’s request in the first half of 2016, due to alleged violation of local law regarding blasphemy and the Bangladesh Information and Communications Technology Act.

Google’s biannual transparency report for July to December 2015 showed the government made two requests for removal of two YouTube videos in that period. One request was related to alleged defamation and the other was related to alleged copyright violation. Google, which owns YouTube, did not comply with either request. Twitter’s biannual Transparency Report for January to June 2016 showed no requests for data or content removal from the government. In Twitter’s July to December 2015 report, the government made 10 requests for account information regarding 25 accounts, all pursuant to emergency disclosure requests. Law enforcement officers may submit an emergency disclosure request to Twitter on the basis of an exigent emergency that involves the danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that Twitter may have information necessary to protect. Twitter provided some information in response to six of those requests.

Individuals and groups generally engaged in the expression of views via the internet, although some activists stated that fear of prosecution under the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA) limited their online speech. The government used the ICTA and the threat of sedition charges, which carry a possible death penalty, to limit online activity and curtail freedom of expression online. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission filtered internet content that the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs. The ICTA was amended in 2013 to increase penalties for cybercrime, make more offenses ineligible for bail, and give law enforcement officers broader authority to arrest violators without a court order. Opponents of the ICTA stated that section 57, which criminalizes the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals, stifles freedom of speech and is unconstitutional. The High Court previously rejected pleas challenging the constitutionality of section 57. The Cabinet approved a draft of the controversial digital security act in August, which includes a provision for life imprisonment for spreading negative propaganda through digital devices regarding the country’s independence war and founding leader. The law was under review by the Law Ministry at the year’s end.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, media groups reported authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval. Appointment of teachers in universities continued to be politicized, and in September the Ministry of Education suggested that police or intelligence agencies should review teachers’ personal information to ensure that they are not involved in antigovernment or criminal activities.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, but the government did not respect these rights for opposition political parties. The government limited both freedom of assembly and association for political reasons, ostensibly in the interest of national security.

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The government generally permitted rallies of nonpolitical entities and its political allies, but on occasion, it prevented political opposition groups from holding meetings and demonstrations. The law authorizes the government to ban assemblies of more than four persons. A Dhaka Metropolitan Police order requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations. According to human rights NGOs, authorities increasingly used this provision, and preemptively banned gatherings around the election anniversary. Occasionally, police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.

On April 4, police fired upon a crowd after an alleged attack by demonstrators gathered to protest the planned construction of a coal-fired power plant to Chittagong District, killing four villagers and injuring 60. Following the protest, local authorities filed a legal case against 6,000 protesters for attacking the police and obstruction of law enforcers. The government, including the prime minister, supported construction of the power plant despite local concerns regarding economic and environmental impacts to the region. On July 28, police in Dhaka dispersed a march toward the prime minister’s office to protest similarly the planned Rampal power plant near the ecologically sensitive Sunderbans. Police used tear gas and batons, injuring more than 50 individuals.

Police prevented opposition party members from holding events in several cases. For example, police allegedly stopped BNP rallies on July 27 in four sub-districts of Narayanganj, which were organized to protest the sentencing of BNP’s senior vice chairman, Tarique Rahman, on corruption charges. Police prevented another BNP rally on October 2 to protest a government action against a BNP leader despite having given initial permission for the event.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).

On October 5, Parliament passed the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, which places additional restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any ‘derogatory’ comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5).

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas–the CHT and Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced some restrictions on foreigners’ access to the CHT.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR reported cases of refugee abuse, including rape, assault, and domestic violence, deprivation of food, arbitrary detention, and documentation problems. From January to September, UNHCR reported a total of 168 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the two official camps, including 129 cases of domestic violence and 14 cases of rape. According to a June IOM report, 53.5 percent of those surveyed in Rohingya populations living in makeshift settlements also experienced violence. Of those, 50.5 percent said they experienced physical violence, 6.5 percent said they experienced sexual violence, 3.8 percent said they experienced mental abuse, and 2.8 percent said they experienced food deprivation. These reports continued at year’s end.

The government did not fully cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. For example, the government did not allow UNHCR access to all individuals whom UNHCR deemed persons of concern, particularly the undocumented Rohingya population living in the towns and villages outside of the two official refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district. UNHCR was also not allowed unrestricted access to a new influx of Rohingya migrants during the last three months of the year although the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was allowed to provide services.

Foreign Travel: Some senior opposition officials reported extensive delays in getting their passports renewed; others reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. Authorities barred one BNP official from leaving the country to attend a party event in Bahrain while another was detained at the airport before being allowed to board a plane. Another opposition leader required High Court intervention in order to obtain his passport from the government after nearly a year of delays.

The international travel ban continued on war-crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war.

The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel according to Bangladesh policy.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous people continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy during the 1973-1997 low-level armed conflict there of relocating landless Bengalis from the plains to the CHT with the unstated objective of changing the demographic balance in the CHT toward a Bengali majority, which displaced tens of thousands of indigenous persons.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Indigenous community leaders maintained that settlers’ violations of indigenous persons’ rights, sometimes with the involvement of security forces, were widespread.

The IDPs in the CHT also lacked sufficient access to courts and legal aid. The CHT Commission composed of experts from inside and outside the country, who sought to promote respect for rights in the CHT, found that a lack of information and lawyers to assist indigenous persons hindered IDP access to justice. The commission reported settlers expropriated indigenous land using false titles, intimidation, force, fraud, and manipulation of government eminent-domain claims (see section 6).

In August the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act curtailing the unilateral authority of the commission chair to make decisions on behalf of the commission and harmonizing the provisions with the CHT Peace Accord signed between the government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), a political party representing indigenous and tribal people of the CHT. Some Bengali groups, however, observed general strikes in CHT to protest the amendment, saying that it failed to recognize their rights as citizens of the country. They demanded inclusion of their representatives in the commission.

The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000, a government task force estimated the number to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission estimated that there were slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and to close the remaining military camps, but the task force on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported that authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

As of August, the government and UNHCR provided temporary protection and basic assistance to 32,967 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara). The government and UNHCR estimated that an additional 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya lived in various villages and towns outside the two official refugee camps. Most of these undocumented Rohingya lived at unofficial sites among the local population in Teknaf and Ukhyia subdistricts of Cox’s Bazar District. These sites included approximately 35,000 at the Kutupalong Makeshift site adjacent to the official Kutupalong refugee camp, 15,000 at a site called Leda, and 10,000 at the Shamlapur site. Starting in October, a new wave of more than 34,000 migrants entered Bangladesh, seeking refuge from violence in Rakhine state. Led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government continued to implement a national strategy on Rohingya with six key elements: border management, addressing security threats, humanitarian assistance, strengthened engagement with Burma, internal coordination on Rohingya problems, and surveying the undocumented Rohingya.

Starting in May, the government funded and implemented a survey of the undocumented Rohingya population in the six districts where they are most populous. As part of an awareness-raising campaign, the government stated that the survey would be used to improve services available to the undocumented Rohingya population. Other key messages of the awareness-raising campaign included that the survey was voluntary, would not lead to refugee status, and would not be used to force repatriation. Some NGOs and donor countries expressed concerns regarding how the survey will affect some portions of the undocumented Rohingya population, particularly children with one Bangladeshi and one Rohingya parent. The government stated its intent to issue “information cards” to those enumerated through the process, which can be used as proof of identity to authorities.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided some protection to Rohingya refugees from Burma already resident in the country, but it continued to deny asylum to the undocumented Rohingya, whom it categorized as illegal economic migrants. The government cooperated with UNHCR in providing temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees already resident in two official camps. Although significant protection problems remained, delivery of humanitarian assistance to the undocumented Rohingya has continued through implementation of the national strategy.

Refoulement: Continued violence and human rights abuses against the Rohingya in Burma prevented them from safely and voluntarily returning to their homes. Between January and September, according to UNHCR, Bangladeshi authorities forcibly turned back an estimated 3,487 Rohingya to Burma, compared with 4,719 during the same period in 2015. According to UNHCR, which maintained a field presence in both countries, many of these individuals were likely entitled to refugee status and protection. Despite these expulsions, the border remained porous, and UNHCR noted the existence of considerable daily cross-border movement for trade, smuggling, and illegal migration. The government of Bangladesh, including Prime Minister Hasina, engaged Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi regarding a durable solution to the Rohingya issue although these diplomatic efforts have not resulted in increased cooperation.

Freedom of movement: There were restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement. By law, refugees are not permitted to move outside of the two camps. Police can punish with detention any movement without valid documentation, including illegal entry and departure from the country.

Employment: The government did not authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers or rickshaw pullers in the informal economy. Undocumented Rohingya also worked illegally, mostly in day-labor jobs.

Access to Basic Services: Working with UNHCR, the government continued to improve some aspects of the official refugee camps following findings in recent years that sanitation, nutrition, and shelter conditions had fallen below minimum international standards. Some basic needs remained unmet, and the camps remained overcrowded, with densities on par with the country’s urban slums. A 2014 nutrition survey report from UNHCR and World Food Program stated the prevalence of malnourished (stunted) and underweight children in refugee camps remained higher than in the rest of the country and above the emergency threshold levels set by the World Health Organization.

Public education, while mandatory as of 2010 through eighth grade throughout the country, was offered only through seventh grade in the camps, compared with fifth grade in previous years. The government agreed to allow international NGOs to provide Rohingya outside the camps with access to informal education, starting with a group of 10,000 students. Government authorities did not allow refugees outside the camps to attend school, but some did so.

Government authorities did not allow registered or unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care. Instead, UNHCR and NGOs provided basic health services in the official camps to registered refugees, and IOM provided health services to the unregistered Rohingya in the makeshift sites. Although NGOs provided humanitarian assistance to registered Rohingya refugees, undocumented Rohingya, and the local population, the government’s restrictions on NGO activities outside the camps limited the unregistered population’s access to basic medical care and other services.

Four international NGOs provided basic services to undocumented Rohingya and to surrounding impoverished host communities. As with other NGOs, these organizations faced challenges working with the NGO Affairs Bureau. Some reported delays as long as three or four months in obtaining necessary permits for working with the Rohingya, which required coordinating with government officials at the local and national level.

Registered refugees did not have access to the formal legal system although they were able to take legal complaints to a local camp official who could mediate disputes. Members of the unregistered population had no legal protection and were sometimes arrested because the government viewed them as illegal economic migrants. Rohingya were sometimes harassed by security forces due to a perception among some groups, including the government, as well as members of indigenous groups in the CHT, that the Rohingya were responsible for perpetrating a range of criminal and terrorist activities in Southeastern Bangladesh, including through the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). For example, following the May 13 attack on security forces near the Nayapara official camp, authorities responded by detaining and questioning five Rohingya refugees, including an NGO volunteer.

STATELESS PERSONS

The Rohingya in Bangladesh are legally stateless. Government and UNHCR estimates indicate that between 200,000 and 500,000 undocumented Rohingya are present in Bangladesh. They cannot derive citizenship from birth in the country, marriage with local citizens, or any other means.

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

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated independently, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers noted that a “culture of fear” had diminished the strength of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for their public criticism of government policies.

The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar since the 2013 publication of an Odhikar report that many independent observers believed significantly exaggerated the government’s use of force during a Hefazat-e-Islam rally. The report included a count of resulting deaths that differed considerably from the official number and other independent estimates. Although the ACC dropped its case against Odhikar in June, Odhikar representatives continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events. Odhikar reported investigations into its finances that it regarded as harassment and the blockage by the NGO Affairs Bureau of foreign funds, including a grant from the European Union. Family members and Odhikar staff reported additional harassment and claimed their telephone calls, e-mails, and movements were under constant surveillance by security officers.

The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous people, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions. In July, the State Minister for Social Welfare Nuruzzaman Ahmed told parliament that his ministry would investigate and cancel the registration for any NGO involved in “anti-state activities.” International NGOs that assist Rohingya refugees and work with organized labor reported difficulties in meeting stringent government administrative requirements. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals. Some civil society members reported repeated audits by the National Board of Revenue. The government countered NGO criticism through the media, sometimes with intimidating or threatening remarks, and through the courts (see section 1.e.). In October, NGOs discovered that the NGO Affairs Bureau posted on its public website detailed information for foreigners employed by NGOs in the country, including names, passport numbers, local addresses, e-mail addresses, and local telephone numbers, creating a significant security risk.

Following a two-year drafting process, parliament passed the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act on October 5, placing stricter control over the foreign funding of NGOs and enacting punitive provisions for those NGOs that make “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (i.e., government institutions and leaders). NGO leaders stated that the bill infringes on their constitutional right to freedom of expression, to which prominent MP Suranjit Sengupta responded that NGOs are not entitled to freedom of expression. NGOs also stated that the law was unclear, autocratic, subject to interpretation, and contrary to the constitution.

The law also includes a provision that will require NGOs to obtain preauthorization for obtaining funds from foreign individuals, and for NGOs’ sub-grantees to do the same, which will negatively affect the ability of some organizations to operate. The bill will also require approval and monitoring of each project by the NGO Affairs Bureau and give the director general of the bureau the authority to impose sanctions, including fines up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of an NGO. Some NGOs reported that the NGO Affairs Bureau had pushed them toward service delivery and away from rights-based awareness raising or NGO capacity building.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC has seven members, including five honorary positions. Observers noted that the NHRC’s small government support staff was inadequate and underfunded. The NHRC’s primary activity was educating the public about human rights and ostensibly advising the government on key human rights issues. The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights found that the NHRC did not fully comply with international standards for such bodies. Specifically, the coordinating committee focused on the lack of transparency in selecting NHRC commissioners and the NHRC’s lack of hiring authority over its support staff. In August, the government appointed Kazi Rezaul Haque as the new chairman of the NHRC through a process that lacked transparency and limited civil society participation.

Barbados

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Civil society representatives, however, reported that journalists who were overly critical of the government would be denied access to press conferences or denied the opportunity to ask questions of government officials.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Civil society representatives reported media practiced self-censorship in matters relating to corruption due to fear that making allegations could invite a defamation lawsuit.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 76 percent of citizens used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The government was prepared to cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Immigration Department was responsible for considering refugee or asylum claims.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsman’s Office hears complaints against government offices for alleged injuries or injustices resulting from administrative conduct. The governor general appoints the ombudsman on the recommendation of the prime minister and in consultation with the opposition. Parliament must approve the appointment. The ombudsman submits annual reports to Parliament, which contain recommendations on changes to laws and descriptions of actions taken by the Ombudsman’s Office.

Belarus

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

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

On January 29, a Minsk district court fined three men, Maksim Pekarski, Viachaslau Kasinerau, and Vadzim Zheromski, in the so-called graffiti case; the fines ranged from 630 rubles ($300) to 1,050 rubles ($500) on the charges of property damage. While the judge dropped the criminal charges of hooliganism and vandalism, the three were convicted of painting graffiti with patriotic slogans, such as, “Belarus should be Belarusian,” that police deemed to be “promoting violence in society and disregard of universally accepted rules of conduct.” Police brutally detained the three men and their two associates, who were later released without charge, in August 2015, and Kasinerau told the press in September 2015 that during his detention, police bundled him into a bus, and an officer hit him in the face, fracturing his jaw. When they arrived at the police precinct, investigators pressured him to plead guilty and showed him records of his private phone conversations with his spouse, which were reportedly wiretapped months before the arrest. Although authorities opened an investigation into his reported beating, there were no developments during the year in bringing any charges related to police brutality.

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

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

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

On March 2, the Information Ministry announced that it issued warnings to two independent, internet publications: the online newspaper Yezhednevnik and the online version of the print newspaper Nasha Niva. The former purportedly violated the media law by using images of World War II German military equipment in an article about the armed forces’ readiness checks, which, according to the ministry “discredited the army.” Nasha Niva was warned for violating the law by publishing an article about the demographic situation in the country, which reportedly did not comply with figures released by the National Statistics Committee, and discredited the “successful” demographic policies of the government. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists condemned the warnings as far-fetched penalties, violations of media freedom, and an unacceptable measure to censor publications.

Limited information was available in the state-run press about the September parliamentary election, including about independent candidates. Although authorities did not generally censor the publication of candidates’ programs in print media, some opposition candidates complained that local television channels refused to televise their addresses. For example, in Hrodna Mikalai Ulasevich, a United Civic Party member and antinuclear activist, accused authorities of not broadcasting his speech, which included criticism of the country’s nuclear power plant project and discussion of corruption and lack of local governance. In another case, Siarhei Kalyakin, leader of the Just World Belarusian Party of the Left, complained to the regional election commission that the text of his biography was edited without his authorization on the official poster listing the biographies of all candidates in the Orsha district. The printed text of Kalyakin’s biography was missing a sentence referring to Kalyakin’s efforts as an MP to impeach President Lukashenka in 1996. State media otherwise provided only limited coverage of the campaign, focusing largely on the activities of the president and other state officials as well as political statements of the Central Election Commission chairperson.

On February 7, Information Minister Liliya Ananich warned media about criticizing the government and against publicizing inaccurate information, in particular taking remarks or statements out of a broader context, and fomenting negative sentiments, which she described as “destructive.” She committed to continue tight monitoring of the internet and printed media, so “they serve [the cause of] consolidation of society.” Ananich stated that any media violating the country’s laws would receive official warnings and subsequently be blocked.

The Information Ministry continued to deny registration to independent media outlets. In spite of the lack of registration, independent media, including newspapers, magazines, and internet news websites, sought to provide coverage of events. They operated, however, under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of papers, and raising the cost of printing.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state-owned kiosk system, Belsayuzdruk, continued to refuse to deliver or sell numerous independent newspapers that covered politics. For example, on September 14, Aksana Kolb, an editor of the Novy Chas independent weekly newspaper, told the press that Belposhta and Belsayuzdruk had refused to distribute the newspaper through their subscription and retail chains, respectively. Novy Chas is a Belarusian-language weekly that publishes materials about national culture, history, identity, and information related to reinforcing the country’s sovereignty. The exclusion of the independent printed press from the state distribution system and the requirement that private stores secure registration to sell printed media effectively limited the ability of the independent press to distribute their publications.

Although authorities continued to allow the circulation of Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva, two independent national newspapers, through state distribution systems, they remained subject to restrictions on the number of copies allowed to circulate.

Several independent newspapers, including Vitsyebski KuryerSalidarnascBDG, and Bobruysky Kuryer, disseminated internet-only versions due to printing and distribution restrictions.

International media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and then with a lag time that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable by authorities. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their international news programs with local programming.

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

Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that, as of November 11, police detained at least six journalists while performing their professional duties.

The government routinely denied accreditation to journalists who work with foreign media. As of November 1, at least two journalists had been fined in 10 cases for not having government accreditation or cooperating with a foreign media outlet.

Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of the Warsaw-based Belarusian-language channel Belsat, told media on June 1 that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to its application to accredit 10 local journalists. The ministry was supposed to respond to the accreditation application by May 21. She pledged that the unregistered Minsk-based office and journalists across the country would continue their operations and would “not adjust our reporting to meet the Belarusian authorities’ wishes because we represent free journalism.”

Independent journalist and military expert Aliaksandr Alesin was detained in November 2014 and faced charges of cooperating with foreign intelligence sources, which carry a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. He was released in December 2014, although he was banned from leaving the country. On January 20, he told the press that authorities suspended the criminal charges brought against him for allegedly “establishing cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign security or intelligence service.”

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

Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints. Authorities banned state media from citing works and broadcasting music by independent local and well-known foreign musicians, artists, writers, and painters who were named on an alleged, unofficial nationwide blacklist for speaking in support of political prisoners and opposition or democratic activists.

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

Journalists reporting for international media that gave extensive coverage to the country, such as the Warsaw-based independent satellite channel Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, were denied press accreditation and received warnings from the Prosecutor’s Office and heavy fines.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report.

On September 23, a Minsk city court declined an appeal in the case of Aliaksandr Lapitski, who was convicted on April 12 of “committing socially dangerous acts” and violating Article 368 (“insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”), Article 369 (“insulting the authorities”), Article 391 (“insulting a judge or a lay judge”) of the Criminal Code of Belarus. The charges against Lapitski stem from e-mails and blog posts he wrote that, according to the authorities, insulted the president. Authorities alleged that Lapitski suffered from mental illness and sentenced him to a period of compulsory psychiatric treatment. Human rights group Vyasna called on authorities to end prosecution for defamation offenses and claimed that Lapitski’s involuntary hospitalization infringed on his personal freedom.

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

In January 2015 authorities introduced media law amendments making news websites and any internet information sources subject to the same regulations as print media. Under the amended law, online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by the authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. Amendments also restricted access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that can harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. In addition, owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The amended law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from the authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. Amendments also prohibit foreign states and foreign individuals from holding more than a 20 percent stake in local media companies.

While the list of blocked internet resources remained unavailable to the public, from January 2015 to March 2016 the Ministry of Information reportedly blocked access to 46 internet sites for drug trafficking, for distributing extremist materials, for illicit promotion of medications, for child pornography or for other content violations. Independent online media outlets were not generally blocked during the year, however, the election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) stated in a postelection press conference that its observers monitoring online news noted at least four online news sources, including popular news portal tut.by, had unexplained outages on election day, September 11.

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

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

State companies and organizations, which included the workplaces of up to 70 percent of the country’s workers, reportedly had internet filters.

In response to the government’s interference and internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to internet domains operating outside the country. Observers said the few remaining independent media sites with domestic “.BY” (Belarus) domain suffixes practiced self-censorship at times.

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

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

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.

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

Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language (vice Russian) in the majority of fields of study were scarce. The administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes.

The Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU), an official organization modeled on the Soviet-era KOMSOMOL, urged university students to join the BRYU to receive benefits and dormitory rooms. Local authorities also pressured BRYU members to campaign on behalf of government parliamentary candidates and to vote early. Students from various universities and colleges reported to an independent election-monitoring group that their faculties were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from their dormitories. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.

According to an Education Ministry directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in anti-government or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. On January 20, Hleb Vaykul, a second-year student of the philology department, received final orders of his expulsion from the Belarusian State University. Earlier in January Vaykul announced he had been expelled, at which time the university stated the expulsion orders had not been signed. The student called his expulsion politically motivated as he was one of the organizers of a December 2015 student protest against the university’s decision to impose fees to retake exams. Authorities fined Vaykul 324 rubles ($175) for organizing through the “Students Against” community on the social networking website VKontakte and participating in the unsanctioned demonstration. The university administration stated Vaykul was expelled for failing to pass an examination on the psychology of literary works three times and not attending classes for the course during the fall semester.

The government continued to discourage and prevent teachers and activists from advancing the wider use of the Belarusian language and the preservation of Belarusian culture. A number of universities across the country continued not to enroll students in their undergraduate Belarusian linguistic programs for teachers of the Belarusian language and literature, citing low demand and a low number of applications in recent years.

The government also restricted cultural events, selectively approving performances of what they deemed opposition music groups at small concert halls. Approvals required groups to go through cumbersome and time-consuming procedures to receive permissions. The procedures continued to force some opposition theater and music groups out of public venues and into bars and private apartments by banning their performances.

Organizers of Theater Ch, an independent theater troupe, announced on January 20 that their two scheduled performances at the Modern Arts Center in Minsk were cancelled with short notice by the center’s administration. Opposition leaders, 2010 presidential candidates, and former political prisoners Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and Mikalai Statkevich attended the premier of their play What to do with the Tiger? and took pictures with the cast after the performance. The administration of the Modern Arts Center claimed they cancelled the performances after only four tickets were sold, while Theater Ch’s managers reported that the two shows in January were sold out. The Polish Institute in Minsk sponsored the production of the play.

The government also restricted the activities of a nonofficial writers union, the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, and extensively supported the progovernment Union of Writers of Belarus. Authorities harassed distributors of books authored by critical and independent writers or written in the Belarusian language. Although sold at bookstores and online across the country, authorities did not allow printing houses and publishers to print copies of books by Sviatlana Aleksievich, winner of the Nobel prize for literature.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants.

Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups. A general atmosphere of repression and the threat of imprisonment or large fines exercised a chilling effect on potential protest organizers. This appeared to have resulted in fewer and smaller demonstrations.

The law criminalizes the announcement of demonstrations via the internet or social media before official approval, the participation in the activities of unregistered NGOs, the training of persons to demonstrate, the financing of public demonstrations, or the solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Violations are punishable by up to three years in prison.

Organizers must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission to conduct a public demonstration, rally, or meeting, and government officials are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits only for opposition demonstrations if held far from city centers. Authorities used intimidation and threats to discourage persons from participating in demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unsanctioned demonstrations. In addition, authorities required organizers to conclude contracts with police, fire department, health, and sanitary authorities for their services during and after a mass event. In some localities, local officials told permit applicants that they must first secure these contracts before a permit could be issued. When the applicants asked the police, fire department, health, and sanitary authorities to sign contracts, however, they were told they first must have an approved permit. Any individual found guilty of violating the law on mass events may not apply for another permit for a year following the conviction. From January through March, local authorities across the country rejected a number of applications for permission for market vendors to stage small demonstrations to protest new regulations that ban vendors from selling clothing and footwear without documents certifying their compliance with the Customs Union’s safety requirements.

Opposition activists held dozens of unsanctioned rallies during the year and faced administrative charges and fines for allegedly violating the Law on Mass Events. Those who refused to pay fines, calling them politically motivated, potentially faced property confiscation and travel bans. Authorities regularly fined the same activists for their continuous political activity during the year. For example, on March 24, a Minsk district court fined approximately 11 opposition leaders and activists for participating in an unsanctioned February 28 demonstration in Minsk. Mikalai Statkevich, 2010 presidential candidate and former political prisoner, European Belarus campaign activist Maksim Vinyarski, and independent filmmaker Volha Mikalaichyk were tried in absentia and fined 105 rubles ($520) each. The court imposed similar fines on United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka and member Mikalai Kazlou, Belarusian Christian Democracy co-chair Vital Rymasheuski, market vendor Ales Makayeu, and European Belarus campaign activist Leanid Kulakou. Mikalai Autukhovich, a businessman from Vaukavysk and former political prisoner, and opposition activist Mikalai Kolas were fined 420 rubles ($210) each.

Authorities took various measures to limit how prodemocracy activists celebrated Freedom Day, the March 25 anniversary of the country’s 1918 declaration of independence (an event the government does not recognize), although Minsk city authorities authorized a demonstration. In the permit issued by Minsk authorities, the route requested by activists from central Minsk was changed to a remote park. While approximately 2,000 opposition and civil society activists participated in the sanctioned rally, approximately 600 defied the permit by marching to the central part of Minsk, laying flowers at the Yanka Kupala monument, and holding a demonstration with political speeches at the monument. For their activities during the unsanctioned-route march, authorities fined a number of activists. opposition leaders Paval Sevyarynets, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, Mikalai Statkevich, Anatol Lyabedzka, and several activists, including Leanid Kulakou, Maksim Vinyarski, Zmitser Dashkevich, and others received fines for their activities on March 25.

In spite of providing a permit to the opposition to demonstrate, authorities also fined a number of opposition leaders and activists for participating in the sanctioned rally and speaking at the assembly point of the March 25 sanctioned demonstration. Police alleged that activists, who addressed the crowd at the gathering point, violated the permit, which allowed participants to gather but not demonstrate at the assembly point and speak only at the venue of the actual demonstration at a remote park. For example, Ryhor Kastuseu, a Belarusian Popular Front deputy chair, told the press that he received a notice that on May 5 a district court fined him in absentia 630 rubles ($320) also for violating the Law on Mass Events, when he spoke at the assembly point of the March 25 Freedom Day sanctioned demonstration. Though Kastuseu was only at locations sanctioned by the city authorities, police claimed that since he spoke at the gathering point, it violated the permit.

On May 16, a court in Maladzechna convicted activist Paval Siarhei for holding an unsanctioned rally in front of the local government building on May 12 and sentenced him to seven days in jail. He was detained on May 14 and was kept in holding facilities pending trial. Siarhei and other activists protested the continuing construction of two large hog farms near the city on May 12.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government. Particularly since 2010, authorities have sought to close any legal loopholes they considered beneficial to NGOs.

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

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

Following the 2010 repression, authorities sought to close any legal loopholes they considered beneficial to NGOs. For example, the law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity, a provision widely believed to be aimed at the Polish minority.

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

The government continued to deny registration to NGOs and political parties, which President Lukashenka frequently labeled as “the fifth column,” on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated individuals who identified themselves as founding members of organizations in an effort to induce them to abandon their membership and thus deprive groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many of the rejected groups previously had been denied registration on multiple occasions.

On January 5, authorities in Hrodna refused to register an NGO called Mothers’ Movement 328, consisting of a group of mothers and wives who seek to defend the rights of their children and spouses, who were convicted under Article 328 of the Criminal Code for illegal drug trafficking and who, according to their families, received incommensurately long prison sentences. Larysa Zhygar, the leader of the NGO, said that authorities noted questions about the name of the group and its stated goals, which included charitable activities and assisting former prisoners and drug addicts, in their decision to reject the NGO’s application for registration.

The Supreme Court upheld the Justice Ministry’s decisions to deny registration to the Christian Democratic Movement, a nascent NGO affiliated with the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party, and the Campaign for Fair Elections. On March 10, the Court denied an appeal filed by the campaign on the grounds that a letter of guarantee from an individual providing the organization with an office had not been notarized and that the banker’s order contained abbreviations. This was the campaign’s fourth registration denial. Separately, on March 14, the court also turned down an appeal from the Christian Movement to challenge the Justice Ministry’s denial, citing the lack of an office number in the organization’s legal address, among other grounds as a reason for the denial.

On April 18, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party to challenge the Justice Ministry’s March 3 decision not to register the party, citing “gross violations” of procedures to establish a party. According to the ministry’s press release, a number of individuals, who were stated as founders of the party on the registration application, denied any connection to the party and claimed they did not participate in the party’s founding convention after they were reportedly pressured to withdraw and threatened to be dismissed from jobs or expelled from universities. Additionally, “certain individuals on the founders’ list were duplicated, and some of the personal information listed for founders was not valid,” the ministry explained. The ministry also claimed that some of the founders the party listed on its application were not citizens of Belarus This was the sixth time that the party has been denied registration.

On July 31, a show on the main state television channel, Belarus1, claimed that the Vilnius-registered Independent Institute for Social, Economic, and Political Studies (IISEPS) did not actually conduct polls in the country, but rather it put together falsified data. IISEPS announced on August 9 that it would suspend all polling in the country due to “authorities destroying the polling network.”

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Students required permission from the head of their educational institution to study abroad. Ostensibly intended to counter trafficking in persons, the Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.

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

Many university students who had been expelled or believed themselves to be under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. Under the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians can legally settle and obtain residence permits in the country based on their Russian citizenship and therefore do not need asylum. Overall, as of October 1, immigration authorities accepted 596 applications for asylum compared with more than 1,000 in 2015, including from 443 Ukrainians, 13 Syrians, 22 Afghans, and 20 Tajiks.

In addition to refugee status, the country’s asylum law provides for complementary protection and protection against refoulement (in the form of temporary residence for a one-year term). In the period January-September, 428 foreigners were granted complementary protection (395 Ukrainians, seven Syrians, one Libyan, 18 Yemenis, six Iraqi, and one Kyrgyz).

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

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

STATELESS PERSONS

As of January 1, the Ministry of the Interior and UNHCR listed 5,635 stateless persons in the country; all had permanent residence according to authorities.

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

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

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

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

Two prominent human rights NGOs–the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Center for Legal Transformations–were registered. The government refused to register others, placing them at risk under the criminal code, which criminalizes organizing, or participating in any activity by, an unregistered organization. The law also prohibits persons from acting on behalf of unregistered NGOs. Nonetheless, a variety of unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna, the Solidarity Committee for the Protection of the Repressed, and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.

Authorities harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations, subjected them to frequent inspections and threats of deregistration, reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations, and harassed family members of group leaders and activists. The government ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and rarely met with them. State-run media did not report on human rights NGOs and their actions.

In February 2015 authorities expelled Alena Tankachova, a Russian citizen, from the country and stated she would not be permitted to return for three years. Tankachova, the chair of the Legal Transformation Center (also called Lawtrend), had been a permanent resident for 30 years. Authorities accused her of traffic violations and stated she posed a threat to national security. Local human rights organizations asserted the case was politically motivated and that she was expelled for her human rights work. On October 24, the Interior Ministry denied Tankachova’s October 5 appeal to remove the entry ban against her.

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

Authorities were reluctant to engage on human rights problems with international human rights NGOs or other human rights officials, and international NGO representatives often had difficulty gaining admission to the country.

Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country and requests to stop harassing the human rights community.

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In July the UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate of Miklos Haraszti as the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus. During the year Haraszti released three reports on the situation of human rights in the country. Senior foreign ministry officials continued to assert Haraszti’s mandate was “politically motivated” and that his appointment was made “without consultations and approval from Belarusian authorities.” The government continued to refuse any cooperation with his mission, and he was not permitted to enter the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: On October 24, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna announced that the government adopted a national human rights action plan and described it as, “a political document and a kind of a road map to outline main activities for us to implement our international obligations” on human rights. The government published, “the interagency plan to implement the 2016-2019 Universal Periodic Review recommendations” on October 25. While independent human rights groups, including the human rights center Vyasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), welcomed the plan’s adoption, they also noted with concern that the documents lacks specific target goals or results assessment mechanisms. They noted that the government failed to include any of the concrete suggestions civil society groups offered during the drafting of the plan, which they believe would have made the plan more substantial.

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

Belgium

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

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

In November 2015 a Liege court sentenced French stand-up comedian Dieudonne to two months of prison and a 9,000 euro ($9,900) fine for incitement to hatred, anti-Semitic and discriminatory statements, and Holocaust denial. Dieudonne made the statements during a 2012 one-man show he held in Liege. Police attended and recorded the show. Dieudonne appealed the ruling.

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to estimates compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 85 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, including specific subsidiary protection that goes beyond asylum criteria established by the 1951 Convention relating to the Treatment of Refugees and its 1967 protocol.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country denied asylum to asylum seekers who arrived from a safe country of origin or transit, pursuant to the EU’s Dublin III Regulation. Following an ECHR ruling, authorities ceased transferring asylum seekers to Greece if it was the first EU country the asylum seeker entered.

Durable Solutions: The country accepted refugees through UNHCR, including persons located in Italy and Greece, under the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. On September 22, one year after the EU agreement to spread refugees across EU countries to support Greece and Italy, Belgium had created 230 spaces for refugees and had effectively resettled 119.

The government facilitated local integration through language and other courses, counseling assistance, and the provision of most of the welfare benefits that other legal residents receive. The country also conducted a voluntary return program for migrants in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration.

Temporary Protection: The country provides temporary protection to individuals who do not satisfy the legal criteria for refugee status but who cannot return to their country of origin due to a real risk of serious harm. Under EU guidelines, individuals granted temporary protection (“subsidiary protection”) are entitled to temporary residence permits, travel documents, access to employment, and equal access to health care and housing. In 2015 authorities granted temporary protection to 1,365 persons. For the first half of the year, authorities granted temporary protection to 1,886 persons.

STATELESS PERSONS

According to UNHCR, at the end of 2015, there were 5,776 persons in the country who fell under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate. The country does not have a specific legal framework for the protection of stateless persons, and there are no specific procedural rules to determine who is stateless. As a result, authorities applied general texts of laws, such as the judicial code or the General Law on the Foreigners, to find the basis for a statelessness determination in order that the rights of stateless persons were respected on the country’s territory. In these general regulations, a person who wants to be qualified as a “stateless” has to file an application before the Tribunal of First Instance, of which there are two.

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

Various domestic and international human rights groups operated without government restriction and were free to investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

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

Belize

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judicial system, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of speech and press.

In an August session of the House of Representatives, four police officers forcibly removed a news reporter, which raised concerns about the treatment of the media. Other journalists were forcibly pushed out of the media gallery, allegedly under instructions from the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Reporters claimed it was an attempt to censor their coverage of the actions of police inside the chamber (when an opposition representative was also forcibly removed).

Libel/Slander Laws: Independent groups noted some concerns with defamation suits. In July Secretary General Myrtle Palacio of the opposition People’s United Party (PUP) sued the editor of the ruling UDP newspaper (The Guardian) for defamation of character after the newspaper published a cartoon depicting Palacio practicing and endorsing witchcraft. Palacio argued the cartoon was an attack on her reputation and her culture (Garifuna). The court sided with the newspaper’s editor and ordered Palacio to pay the defendant’s court costs of BZ$5,000 ($2,500).

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the Caribbean-based Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 20 percent of households were connected to broadband internet, but the telecommunication companies offering wireless internet service estimated that approximately 40 percent of the population had access to the internet by the end of 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. After a nearly 20-year hiatus in accepting refugee claims, the government reconstituted its Refugee Eligibility Committee in November 2015 and reestablished its Refugee Department in March 2016. Prior to the establishment of the Refugee Department, the Immigration and Nationality Department handled individual cases but did not make any determinations on asylum claims in nearly 20 years. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reactivated its presence in Belize in October 2015. Although the government committed to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, persons at risk of becoming stateless, or other persons of concern under the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, the Belize Refugees Act, and the UN Convention for Statelessness, the government has yet to take action to meet the needs of these new cases.

In-country Movement: In April to defuse cross-border tensions and to ensure public safety, the government introduced a statutory instrument temporarily prohibiting citizens from accessing the Sarstoon River for 30 days. The statutory instrument’s constitutionality was widely questioned, and it was lifted four days before it was set to expire due to public pressure.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status within 14 days, but of the more than 70 cases reviewed by the Refugee Eligibility Committee since the committee was reconstituted in November 2015, the government has not granted asylum status to anyone. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Help for Progress, UNHCR’s implementing partner in the country, continued to assist with UNHCR’s persons of concern.

An increasing number of persons from Central America, particularly El Salvador, sought protection in Belize. As of December the Refugee Department received 1,400 asylum applications, although there were separate reports that approximately 3,000 applications were filed. In November 2015 the reactivated Refugee Eligibility Committee, responsible for reviewing refugee applications, met for the first time in 18 years. Moreover, the passports of those applying for asylum who did not meet the government’s 14-day deadline were unable to work legally in the country and their passports were stamped with a “Refugee Department” stamp. UNHCR recommended the government eliminate the use of stamps indicating the status of refugees or asylum seekers on passports. While the government stopped stamping passports for refugees, it continued the practice for asylum seekers.

Employment: Persons awaiting adjudication of their asylum cases and not meeting the government’s 14-day deadline were unable to work legally in the country.

Durable Solutions: When the refugee status of an asylum seeker is confirmed, refugees may be issued permanent residency with the possibility of obtaining citizenship after extensive stays.

Temporary Protection: The Immigration Department issued renewable special residency permits for periods of 60 to 90 days to asylum seekers who met the 14-day deadline.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, although appointed by the government, acts as an independent check on governmental abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman holds a range of procedural and investigative powers, including the right to enter any premise to gather documentation and the right to summon persons. The office operated under significant staffing and financial constraints. The law requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports, and the office also created a midyear report to address problem trends. The office does not have the power to investigate allegations against the judiciary.

While the Ombudsman’s Office technically has wide investigative powers, noncompliance from the offices it investigates severely limited its effectiveness. Through 2015 only 35 percent of complaints to the office had been resolved or were under investigation; 6.4 percent were resolved by other means (mediation outside the Ombudsman’s Office), and 58.5 percent remained unresolved. The backlog continued to grow.

The Human Rights Commission, an independent, volunteer-based government agency, continued to operate, but only on an ad hoc basis, constrained by funding and staffing limitations. Nevertheless, NGOs and other organizations stated the Human Rights Commission was more active and vocal than in previous years. The commission provided human rights training for police recruits, prison officers, and the BDF.

Benin

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights.

There were a large number of public and private media outlets, including two public and five private television stations, one public and 50 private radio stations, and approximately 175 newspapers and periodicals. Many of these were openly critical of authorities, nearly always without consequence.

Unlike in previous years, there were few reports the government inhibited freedom of the press.

Press and Media Freedoms: The press and media were closely regulated, and the government considered itself to have an essential role in ensuring the press did not behave in an “irresponsible” or “destabilizing” way. The High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) is a quasi-governmental commission with members appointed by the president, private media, and the legislature. HAAC has a dual–and perhaps inherently contradictory–role of ensuring press freedom and protecting the country against inflammatory, irresponsible, or destabilizing coverage. On February 3, HAAC banned private television broadcaster Golfe TV from any political reporting, including coverage of news on the presidential election. HAAC issued this decision because Golfe TV violated a previous HAAC decree restricting media coverage of events prior to the official opening of the presidential election campaign season. On February 9, HAAC lifted the suspension following a meeting with members of the Federation of Radio and Television Employers.

On February 2, HAAC issued two decrees to grant all 33 presidential candidates equal access to state-owned and private media for publicizing their political agenda.

The government typically countered accusations of infringing on press freedom with arguments stating the need to support press freedoms while also preventing press activity that may threaten the stability of the country or willfully misinform the public. In January 2015 the government banned the reprint and distribution of an issue of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. The statement condemned the terrorist attacks that took place in France that month while simultaneously noting the government’s responsibility to provide for public safety and respect of religious principles and public figures.

Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Publications criticized the government freely and frequently. A nongovernmental media ethics commission censured some journalists for unethical conduct, such as reporting falsehoods or inaccuracies or releasing information that was embargoed by the government.

The government owned and operated the most influential media organizations by controlling broadcast range and infrastructure. Private television and radio had poorer coverage due to inadequate equipment and limited broadcast ranges awarded to them by HAAC.

Most citizens were illiterate, lived in rural areas, and generally received news via radio. The state-owned National Broadcasting Company broadcast in French and in 18 local languages.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: HAAC publicly warned media outlets against publishing information related to legal cases pending before a criminal court because it could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the ruling of the court. It was possible to purchase and thus influence the content of press coverage. HAAC warned the media against such practices. Some journalists practiced self-censorship because they were indebted to government officials who granted them service contracts. Other journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear the government would suspend their media outlets. HAAC held public hearings on alleged misconduct by media outlets during the year.

Libel/Slander Laws: In January 2015, after years of lobbying by professional media associations, the National Assembly passed a revised press code, the Information and Communication Code, repealing the previous code that imposed prison sentences for conviction of certain abuses of freedom of expression. The press code, signed into law by the president in March 2015, disallows prison sentences for journalists charged with defamation and some other offenses. Although journalists may no longer be imprisoned for libel and slander, they may face legal prosecution and fines for incitement of crimes through the press.

In January 2015, prior to the enactment of the code, a broadcast journalist from the state-owned television station (ORTB) criticized a decision by the president to participate in a march in Paris against terrorism. He also called on the president to allow freedom of the press and political debates within public media. He was later suspended from doing live programs. Professional media associations, NGOs, and ethics groups denounced the measure as retaliatory. In response to trade union and NGO demonstrations, the ORTB director claimed the removal of the journalist was consistent with internal office regulations but then reinstated the television journalist.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 6.8 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of assembly and association. Permits are required for demonstrations and other public gatherings. The government generally respected these rights. Although opposition groups cited instances in which they did not seek permits, anticipating they would be opposed, there were no instances of denial on political grounds.

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right.

The government requires and generally granted permits for use of public places for demonstrations. Authorities sometimes cited “public order” to deny requests for permits from opposition groups, civil society organizations, and labor unions.

On July 12, security forces disbanded a peaceful demonstration to demand the replacement of obsolete medical equipment staged by health-care staff of the Abomey Hospital (central Benin). The mayor of Abomey declared the demonstration a “threat to public order.”

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

In-country Movement: The presence of police, gendarmes, and illegal roadblocks inconvenienced domestic movement. Authorities justified roadblocks as a means of enforcing vehicle safety and customs regulations, but police and gendarmes exacted bribes from travelers at many checkpoints.

Foreign Travel: The government maintained documentary requirements for minors traveling abroad as part of its continuing campaign against trafficking in persons. This was not always enforced, and trafficking of minors across borders continued.

The government’s policy toward the seasonal movement of livestock allowed migratory Fulani (Peul) herdsmen from other countries to enter and depart freely; the government did not enforce designated entry points.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

Durable Solutions: The government and UNHCR assisted former refugees and asylum seekers with obtaining documents from their countries of origin while granting their status as privileged residents. The government also facilitated naturalization of refugees as part of a local integration effort. The government involved civil society, the media, and academia in the process.

The government, in partnership with UNHCR, assisted in the safe, voluntary return of three Ivorian citizens to Cote d’Ivoire during the year.

STATELESS PERSONS

There were large communities of stateless individuals residing in eight villages along the border with Niger and Nigeria. These villages were returned to Benin following the resolution of land disputes among Benin, Niger, and Nigeria. The residents lacked the necessary identification documents to claim citizenship. During the year the Court of Natitingou, with the assistance of UNHCR, issued birth certificates to the residents of Kourou-koualou, a village along the border with Burkina Faso. In 2014, the most recent year for which information was available, the mayor of the commune of Karimama bordering Niger, informed UNHCR that there were 1,000 stateless persons in the vicinity of his commune.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country’s ombudsman was independent, adequately resourced, and effective.

Bhutan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press. Citizens could publicly and privately criticize the government without reprisal.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of speech including for members of the press. Defamation can carry criminal penalties, and citizens were cautious in their expression, especially as it related to criticism of the royal family or government practices.

Press and Media Freedoms: The media law does not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. The media law also prohibits media outlets from supporting political parties. Media sources suggested that while there was commitment to media freedom at the highest levels, some media professionals continued to find bureaucrats unwilling to share information, especially on issues of corruption and violations of the law. Independent media outlets relied heavily on government advertisements for revenue, and most news outlets struggled to generate sufficient revenue to operate.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: In its Freedom in the World 2016 report, Freedom House reported that a 2015 survey of 119 current and former Bhutanese journalists revealed general concerns about press freedom and access to information. Local contacts reported increased use of social media to raise complaints of official misconduct or abuse.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government generally permitted individuals and groups to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet. Government officials stated the government did not block access, restrict content, or censor websites. Freedom House reported the government occasionally blocked access to websites containing pornography or information deemed offensive to the state. Such blocked information typically did not extend to political content. The Annual Statistics 2015 of the Ministry of Information and Communications estimated the number of internet users at 61.15 percent of the population.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

While the constitution provides for the right to assemble peacefully, the government restricted this right. The 1992 National Security Act permits the government to control the public’s right to assembly “to avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and declaring curfew. The penal code prohibits “promotion of civil unrest” as an act that is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony among different nationalities, racial groups, castes, or religious groups.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government permitted the registration of some political parties and organizations that were deemed “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” Many of the NGOs in the country maintained formal or informal connections to members of the royal family. In its Freedom in the World 2016 report, Freedom House stated the government did not permit the operation of NGOs working on the status of Nepali-speaking refugees. Under the law, all NGOs must register with the government. In order to register an NGO, an individual must be a Bhutanese citizen, disclose his or her family income and assets, disclose his or her educational qualifications, and disclose any criminal records.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited freedom of movement and repatriation. Freedom of movement often was restricted along ethnic lines. Rules established differences in citizenship categories and determined whether a person may be granted a “route permit” to travel internally or obtain a passport for international travel. (Bhutanese citizens are required to obtain a security clearance certificate to obtain a passport.)

Foreign Travel: The law establishes different categories of citizenship under which foreign travel is restricted. NGOs reported these restrictions primarily affected ethnic Nepalis although children of single mothers who could not establish citizenship through a Bhutanese father were also affected.

Exile: The law does not address forced exile, and there were no reported cases of forced exile during the year. In the early 1990s, the government reportedly forced between 80,000 and 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents to leave the country, following a series of decisions taken during the 1970s and 1980s establishing legal requirements for Bhutanese citizenship.

As of September after years of international resettlement efforts, approximately 10,000 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in two refugee camps in Nepal administered by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In its Freedom in the World 2016 report, Freedom House stated, 18,000 Nepali-speaking refugees remain in Nepal as of late 2015. The Bhutanese government claimed UNHCR failed to screen individuals who originally entered these camps to determine whether they had any ties to Bhutan.

Emigration and Repatriation: There continued to be delays in government consideration of claims to Bhutanese citizenship by refugees in Nepal.

Citizenship: Under the constitution, only children whose parents can both be proven to be citizens of Bhutan can apply for citizenship up to their first birthday, after which a petition must be filed with the king to be granted citizenship. NGOs reported that approximately 9,000 applicants have received citizenship since 2006. In May, 163 persons from Tashichhodzong and in August, 93 from Mongar were granted citizenship by the king. The law provides for revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who “has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, and people.” The law permits reapplication for citizenship after a two-year probationary period. The government can restore citizenship after successful completion of the probation and a finding that the individual was not responsible for any act against the government.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) reported that since the 1960s the country had sheltered Tibetan refugees who were initially located in seven settlements. The government reported that the Tibetans were integrated into society and that approximately 1,600 had applied for and received citizenship. As of July, there were 2,583 Tibetan refugees as per records maintained by the Department of Immigration. There are no current records of these refugees holding work permits. The CTA did not have an official presence in the country and did not provide social and economic assistance to Tibetans in Bhutan. The country’s border with China was closed, and Tibetans generally did not transit the country en route to India. The Tibetan population in the country appears stable. It is decreasing as Tibetan refugees adopt Bhutanese citizenship according to the Department of Immigration.

Employment: There were unconfirmed reports that some Tibetan refugees and some Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens could not obtain security clearances for government jobs, enroll in higher education, or obtain licenses to run private businesses. According to the government, all Bhutanese citizens are eligible for security clearances provided they do not have criminal records.

Access to Basic Services: The government stated that Tibetan refugees have the same access to government-provided health care and education as citizens, and access was given routinely. According to the CTA, 13 Tibetan refugees have received licenses to run businesses. The CTA also said that while Tibetan refugees are not eligible for government employment, a few Tibetan refugees worked as teachers and health-care providers under temporary government contracts. They reportedly have difficulties traveling within and outside the country.

Durable Solutions: Tibetan refugees could travel to India although many faced obstacles in obtaining travel permits. There were also reports the government did not provide the travel documents necessary for Tibetan refugees to travel beyond India. The government continued to delay implementing a process to identify and repatriate refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship.

STATELESS PERSONS

A nationwide census in 1985 resulted in a determination that many Nepali-speaking persons in Bhutan were not citizens, effectively rendering them stateless. The government alleged that they were not citizens because they could not prove they had been resident in the country in 1958. The census was repeated in 1988-89 in the southern districts. During the second round of the census, those who were deemed not to be citizens in 1985 could apply for citizenship provided they met certain conditions. Those who did not meet the new criteria were categorized by the government as illegal immigrants and expelled. According to NGOs, an unknown number of Nepali-speaking stateless persons remained in the country, mainly in the south.

NGOs and media sources also highlighted the existence of stateless children born to unwed mothers who were unable to prove the identity of the father of the child. According to 2014 NGO reports, more than 700 children born in the country were not recognized as Bhutanese citizens because the nationality of their fathers was undocumented. Nonetheless, the Bhutanese government claimed that 20 children in the kingdom fell into this category.

Stateless persons cannot obtain “no objection certificates” and security clearance certificates, which are often necessary for access to public healthcare, employment, access to primary and secondary education, enrollment at institutions of higher education, travel documents, and business ownership. According to contacts, approximately 1,000 families are stateless. The National Commission for Women and Children stated children without citizenship were eligible for public educational and health services.

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

According to international NGOs, local civil society organizations practiced self-censorship to avoid issues perceived as sensitive by the government. Sensitive issues included women’s rights and environmental issues. The government reportedly did not permit human rights groups established by the Nepali-speaking community to operate, categorizing them as political organizations that did not promote national unity.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: An agreement between the government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) allowing the ICRC to make prison visits to persons detained for crimes against the security of the state expired in 2013 and was not renewed. The ICRC continued to engage with the government to facilitate prison visits for Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal. The UN has a resident coordinator in Bhutan, and UN organizations, including the UN Development Program and UN Children’s Fund, have a strong presence.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Assembly Human Rights Committee (NAHRC) conducted human rights research on behalf of the National Assembly. The Civil Society Organization (CSO) Authority has the legal authority to regulate civil society operations. Forty-seven CSOs were registered, of which 35 were categorized as Public Benefit Organizations and 12 Mutual Benefit Organizations.

Bolivia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government did not allow media outlets to express opinions without some reprisal. Government actions to curb dissenting opinion and criticisms created a climate of hostility towards independent journalists and media. Some media sources reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably about its policies, particularly by withholding of government advertising and imposing steep taxes. Members of the press also alleged government officials publicly harassed individual journalists, both verbally and legally, resulting in several prominent journalists ceasing their work or fleeing the country to avoid legal prosecution. Other sources reported that the government intimidated and threatened media outlets perceived to be critical of the government, in an attempt to censor journalists. Members of the government publicly labeled various independent media outlets and individual journalists as being part of a “Cartel of Lies,” in attempts to discredit their reporting; one negative result of such treatment was that journalists practiced self-censorship. Further, the government used its advertising funds to support government-friendly media and deny resources to media it considered critical of the government. The special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted during his August visit that the government’s actions against the media did not contribute to a climate of plurality, tolerance, or respect for freedom of expression.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: On May 10, Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana accused Wilson Garcia, the then executive director of the print and digital newspaper Sol de Pando, of sedition. During the time of the accusation, Garcia was in the city of Cobija investigating an international human trafficking and prostitution ring that had supposed ties to several government officials. Garcia intimated throughout the investigating his suspicions that Quintana was either directly or tangentially involved in this illegal operation. Shortly thereafter Quintana ordered Garcia to appear in court on sedition charges in the city of Cochabamba. On May 12, Garcia fled to Rio Branco, Brazil, due to fears that he would be arrested if he appeared in court. The judge in the case issued an arrest warrant when Garcia did not appear at his court appointment. The warrant was still active, and legal action against Garcia remained pending.

In May independent journalist Carlos Valverde fled the country after government officials issued threats of legal action against him for publishing articles about government corruption and nepotism. In February, Valverde accused President Morales of involvement in “influence peddling” with Morales’ former partner, Gabriela Zapata, and CAMC. In response to this article, several of Valverde’s family members reported being followed to and from home and work and harassed by police on several occasions. After Valverde fled, Morales personally commented on this situation through his twitter account, stating, “Whoever hides themselves or escapes is a confessed delinquent, not a politically persecuted person.” While the government, including Morales, was absolved of any wrongdoing in the case, Zapata remained in prison under pretrial detention.

President Morales initiated criminal proceedings against well-known journalist Humberto Vacaflor for defamation and slander after Vacaflor publicized accusations that Morales ordered the execution of the Andrade family in 2000. Although other individuals, including a former senator who represented the ruling MAS party, corroborated Vacaflor’s assertions, the case against him went forward. On September 28, the judge denied Vacaflor’s petition to move the case to an independent press tribunal and gave Vacaflor five days publicly to retract the accusations he made against Morales. On September 29, Vacaflor retracted the accusations, stating the system was too powerful for him to fight. Morales “accepted” the retraction on October 4, and the government apparently dropped the case against the journalist.

During a May 19 address to parliament, Minister of the Presidency Quintana accused the independent newspapers ErbolEl Deber, and Pagina Siete and the news agency Fides of forming a “Cartel of Lies.” According to Quintana, this “unit” actively worked in conjunction with a foreign embassy to discredit the government and President Morales. The president, vice president, and other top officials in the government used this branding in an attempt to undermine and silence opposition journalists, columnists, and op-ed writers. Morales also asserted Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza Robatto was aligned with the “Cartel” after Lanza’s August 24 commentary on the lack of media freedoms in the country.

In an apparent case of self-censorship, the Red Uno news network fired Enrique Salazar for publicly arguing with Minister of Communication Marianela Paco during a live broadcast on May 20. Red Uno had ties to the government as the wife of Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera was its main news anchor.

Press and Media Freedoms: Some media outlets alleged the government pressured news organizations to report favorably about government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The National Press Association and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing all of its advertisements, thus denying a significant source of revenue, and launching stringent tax audits, which forced companies to spend time and resources to defend themselves. According to Supreme Decree 181, the government is responsible for providing goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner. Moreover, the withholding of these government-guaranteed goods and services is in direct violation of Declaration of Principles of the Freedom of Expression Declaration adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. There were many credible reports that the government chose not to deliver these goods to media outlets they designated as adversarial to the government. Certain independent outlets did not receive funding from the government after being identified as part of the “Cartel of Lies.”

On August 19, Marco Antonio Dipp, leader of the Sucre-based daily newspaper Correo del Sur, sent a denunciation letter to the mayor, MAS party member Ivan Arcienega, claiming that he prohibited Correo del Sur from receiving any funds from the municipal government. On August 21, the National Press Association decried the economic asphyxiation of independent media at the national, departmental, and municipal levels. The association also asserted that this financial attack against independent media was made more acute by the February 21 referendum loss, which the government blamed in large part on social media and the press. The secretary general of the municipality stated that Dipp’s accusations were false and that the government was not unfairly biased; according to the secretary, it was less expensive for the city to advertise in other publications.

Financial actions on the part of the government appeared to support the claim that the government was trying to control the media narrative. The government increased media investment by 22 percent over the previous 12 months. Further, the Ministry of Communication received a 367 million-boliviano ($54 million) budget allocation for the year, an increase of 260 million bolivianos ($38 million) compared with 2015. Finally, the government invested in the creation of the new General Directorate of Social Networks, an entity dedicated specifically to placing government-friendly messages in social media outlets and engaging in online harassment of social media users who criticize the government on their personal pages.

Authorities disputed the idea that they were economically suffocating any media outlets. Minister of Communication Paco cited the August modification of Telecommunications Law, which provides for broadcasting licenses to broadcast media outlets until November 30, 2019, as proof of the existence of freedom of expression. According to the director of the telecommunications and transportation authority, the modifications of the law would positively affect 135 media outlets. Under the new version, media outlets can retain their licenses until 2019–three years past the original expiration date. Nonetheless, outlets must still bid on their licenses. Critics expressed concern that it would permit government officials to turn bidding into an opaque and unfair process for those media outlets that were critical of the government.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of violence and harassment against members of the press corps, especially those who reported on the February 21 referendum proceedings and results and on various protests throughout the year. Jesus Alanoca, of the newspaper El Deber, and Alvaro Valero were arrested while covering demonstrations in La Paz. The vice minister of the interior claimed that Alanoca was detained because he was not carrying proper credentials to cover the protests, although Alanoca stated that he showed both his journalist credentials and his government identification at the time of his arrest. Before either was allowed to leave custody, police ordered that they destroy all their footage of the protests. Valero reported being victimized again during the course of his work when he was attacked during a demonstration two days after he was released from police custody. Reporters without Borders noted that the government-affiliated group Satucos intimidated Australian filmmaker Daniel Fallshawn on several occasions for his documentation of the protests by disability activists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored journalists, and journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs, fear of prosecution, and fear of losing access to government sources. According to a 2014 study published by the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Unite Foundation, 54 percent of journalists reported being censored, and 83 percent stated they knew of colleagues who had been censored. Of those responding, 59 percent admitted to self-censorship. Approximately 28 percent of journalists were censored for topics that could have caused conflict with the government, 26 percent for reasons that could have affected the interests of advertisers, and 26 percent for reasons that could have exposed journalists to lawsuits.

In January writer Diego Ayo published an investigation about the now defunct Indigenous Fund in which he mentioned specific points of corruption in the handling of the fund that caused economic damage to the government. On May 24, government officials who were conducting an investigation into the Indigenous Fund corruption scandal asked Ayo to “correct himself” and remove his work to prevent anyone else from reading the information he published. Additionally, the officials instructed Ayo that the only information about the Indigenous Fund case should emanate from an official government office, thereby prohibiting him from republishing his investigation.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government systematically monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Nevertheless, after the loss of the February 21 referendum, government officials proposed two different initiatives aimed at regulating social networks. The government blamed social media attacks against the government as a major reason for Morales’ defeat in the referendum. While these measures were not approved, the government managed to pass a supreme decree that establishes the General Directorate of Social Networks, an entity under the control of the Ministry of Communication, shortly after the referendum loss. This new institution is tasked with directing the government’s “dissemination, consultation, and interaction” with cyber communities.

The Ministry of Government publicly warned citizens involved in the August miners’ protest against posting any videos on social media of the negotiation process between the miners and now deceased vice minister of interior, Rodolfo Illanes. The ministry stated that any individual found violating this order would face legal consequences. There is no law prohibiting a citizen’s ability to publish this content on any social outlet.

In June the Telecommunications and Transportation Authority reported 6.9 million mobile internet users (in an estimated population of 11 million). The connections to the internet from mobile sources represented 96.7 percent of all internet connections. The remaining percentage of individuals maintained the full range of connectivity in their homes. The three main reasons for low penetration were economic barriers, speed deficiencies, and poor access to broadband, which limited access beyond urban areas.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments, and government entities promoted a culture of self-censorship.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Although the constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, civil society groups, especially, but not limited to, those critical of the government, faced harassment and threats of expulsion from government officials.

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

While the law requires a permit for most demonstrations, the government rarely enforced the provisions, and most protesters demonstrated without obtaining permits. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but occasionally demonstrators carried weapons, including clubs, machetes, firearms, firecrackers, and dynamite. Security forces at times dispersed protest groups carrying weapons or threatening government and private facilities.

Disability activists began protesting during May in the city of Cochabamba to demand an increase in their annual government stipends from 1,000 bolivianos ($146) to 7,000 bolivianos ($1,023). After more than a month of failed attempts to increase the government’s financial allocation, more than 500 persons with disabilities traveled to La Paz to demand a meeting with the president and other high government officials. Although they arrived in La Paz without disruption from the police, several citizens verbally and physically attacked the group along the way. The activists also faced public criticism from government officials after the protests began. Health Minister Ariana Campero was one of the most vocal critics of the movement, trying to discredit the claims of the protesters by stating various times that they were carrying out political stunts. She also claimed that the protesters were purposefully attempting to generate the image that the ruling party was insensitive to the needs of this population.

In La Paz on April 27, after a small confrontation between disability protesters and police, the police released what then vice minister of interior Rodolfo Illanes referred to as a “fraction of chemical agent” to ward off the crowd. The action occurred after police formed a human blockade to bar the protesters’ entry into Plaza Murillo, where multiple federal government buildings are located. According to sources police released this spray indiscriminately and in a larger quantity than how Illanes described. Video footage provided by the independent news source Pagina Siete showed police again attacking protesters who tried to enter the same plaza on May 12. There were also multiple reports of police’s using pressurized water tanks against the protesters in an attempt to disperse them.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect this right. NGOs continued to be targets of government officials, including the president, vice president, and government ministers, if they operated in a manner perceived as adversarial to the government. Some NGOs alleged that government registration mechanisms were purposefully stringent in order to deter an active civil society.

On July 4, the Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of Law No. 351, which grants legal operating status to NGOs in the country. With the court’s ruling, the government may close any NGO working in the country that “does not meet the standards of the law.” The ruling came despite the recommendation from UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Association Maina Kiai that the law was too vague and a threat to freedom of association.

In 2015 Vice President Garcia Linera stated the government would expel NGOs that receive international financing and “get involved in politics.” Garcia Linera specifically named four NGOs that he claimed were “spreading lies to defend foreign interests”: the Center for Bolivian Documentation and Information, the Center of Studies for Labor and Agrarian Development, the Millennium Foundation, and the Earth Foundation. All four had expressed their disapproval of government plans to explore for hydrocarbons in protected areas. Minister of Autonomies Hugo Siles threatened to rescind their legal permission to operate in the country.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: The law prohibits travel 24 hours before elections and on census days and restricts foreign and domestic travel for up to three months as a penalty for persons who do not vote.

Exile: In April, Walter Chavez, President Morales’ former advisor and former strategist for the ruling MAS party, requested asylum in Argentina due to claims that he was being pursued by the government. Several other former government officials, including Roger Pinto and Mario Cossio, were also in exile.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees through the National Commission on Refugees. In September, Vice President Garcia Linera declared the country would not accept Syrian refugees because, in his words, “[t]he situation in Syria was created by the United States and European nations, and they should accept responsibility.”

UNHCR reported that 33 individuals from Colombia, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Cameroon sought refugee status in the country as of October. The National Commission on Refugees reached a decision on 31 of the cases, and two additional cases remained pending. Three individuals were granted asylum and 28 individuals were denied. According to media reports, more than 800 refugees from more than 20 countries resided in the country. Most were Peruvian or Colombian and lived in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. The government did not provide temporary protection or resettlement services to these persons.

Employment: Refugees have the right to work once authorities grant their residency status but not while waiting on pending applications.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. NGOs and human rights groups working on problems deemed sensitive by the government were subject to verbal attacks and criticism by the president, vice president, and government ministers.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes a human rights ombudsman with a six-year term. Confirmation to the position of ombudsman requires a two-thirds majority vote of approval from both houses of the national assembly, in which the ruling party enjoys a supermajority. The ombudsman is charged with overseeing the defense and promotion of human rights, specifically defending citizens against government abuses. The constitution also affords the ombudsman the right to propose new legislation and recommend modifications to existing laws and government policies. Human rights ombudsmen in each of the country’s nine departments report directly to the national ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s Office operated with adequate resources. Both houses of congress have human rights committees that propose laws and policies to promote and protect human rights. Congressional deputies and senators sit on the committees for one-year terms.

The MAS party-controlled National Assembly appointed David Alonso Tezanos as the new human rights ombudsman on May 13. Immediately after his swearing-in, Vice President Garcia Linera called for Tezanos to change the institution so that it would no longer resemble the office headed by former human rights ombudsman Villena, who was criticized by the MAS government as being a “demagogue,” a “neoliberal,” and an “advisor of the right.” Upon taking office, Tezanos pledged that the Ombudsman’s Office would “cease being a judge of the State” and would no longer issue critical reports. Many criticized the government’s choice in Tezanos, stating that the position was designed for individuals free of political affiliations; before becoming the ombudsman, Tezanos worked for the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Comptroller.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press, but governmental respect for these rights continued to deteriorate during the year. Intimidation, harassment, and threats against journalists and media outlets intensified, while media coverage continued to reflect ethnic and political allegiances. Deterioration of the political situation further encouraged reporting that incited political and ethnic intolerance. Absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem. In the RS, authorities sporadically implemented a law enacted in 2015 restricting internet speech critical of officials and other individuals.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law prohibits expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance, to include “hate speech,” but authorities did not enforce these restrictions. There were no new legal or administrative measures restricting freedom of speech adopted during the first nine months of the year.

According to data from the BiH Journalists’ Association covering 2006 to 2015, authorities prosecuted only 15 percent of reported criminal acts committed against journalists and investigated less than one-third of all cases alleging violation of journalists’ rights. In response, the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees and relevant state-level parliamentary committees began documenting violations of freedom of expression. The BiH Journalists’ Association subsequently noted increased readiness on the part of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices to address violations of press freedom.

Independent analysts noted the continuing tendency of politicians and other leaders to label unwanted criticism as hate speech or national treason. As of August, the official Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) registered one complaint alleging hate speech, which it rejected. By the end of August, the self-regulatory BiH Press Council received 118 complaints related to hate speech. The council determined that, in the first eight months of the year, there were 39 cases of incitement and speech spreading hate. Most instances occurred in online media.

Press and Media Freedoms: The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals but was not enforced. Laws delegate responsibility for safeguarding freedom of the press in most instances to the cantons in the Federation and to the entity-level authorities in the RS. Numerous outlets continued to express a wide variety of views, but coverage diverged along political and ethnic lines, and media outlets continued to be subject to excessive influence from governments, political parties, and private interest groups. A number of independent print-media outlets continued to encounter financial problems that endangered their operations.

Authorities continued to exert pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over the major information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained under strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability and dependence on politically controlled funding sources. These factors limited their independence and resulted in news that was consistently subjective and politically biased.

The public broadcasters Radio and Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHRT), Radio and Television of the Republika Srpska (RTRS), and Federation Radio and Television (FTV) faced continued financial instability due to the loss of dedicated tax revenue. The nationwide public broadcaster BHRT, whose content was assessed as being the most balanced and politically neutral, announced on May 30 that it may be forced to suspend programming due to lack of funds. Institutional instability within the governing structures of the FTV continued, leaving the Federation entity public broadcaster vulnerable to political pressure. While the FTV continued to demonstrate layers of political bias, the RS government directly controlled the RTRS, using it as a mouthpiece for the RS political establishment. The entity governments further undercut the independence of their respective broadcasters by excluding the CRA from the process of appointing governing boards for the broadcasters. Remaining subject to competing political interests, the various authorities failed to establish a public broadcasting service corporation to oversee the operations of all public broadcasters in the country as the law requires.

Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists continued during the year. There were instances of intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities. As of December, the Free Media Help Line recorded 58 cases involving violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms or pressure from government and law enforcement officials.

On March 13, several participants of a Serbian ultranationalist rally in Ravna Gora near the city of Visegrad verbally and physically assaulted an N1 television news crew and forced an FTV crew to cease filming. The N1 crew notified police, who arrested one assailant several hours later. The vice president of the Federation, the Sarajevo Canton prime minister, the chairman of the state-level Council of Ministers, the Association of BiH Journalists, the FTV and N1 editorial boards, and many political parties and NGOs condemned the attack.

On May 14, while reporting on simultaneous opposition and ruling party political rallies in Banja Luka, a BNTV crew was verbally assaulted by a group that called them traitors and demanded they leave the site of the rally. At the same event, an unidentified assailant physically assaulted RTL Croatia reporter Petar Panjikota, punching him in the head during a live broadcast. BNTV journalist Vladimir Kovacevic later received written threats via Facebook from Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) activist Brane Covickovic, who was dissatisfied with Kovacevic’s coverage of the event. The Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the OSCE, the Association of BiH Journalists, the Banja Luka Club of Journalists, and the Croatian Journalists’ Association, among others, condemned the attacks and urged authorities to investigate.

On May 25, Luka Petrovic, the general secretary of the SNSD and member of the RS National Assembly, allegedly threatened Dragisa Sikimic, the editor in chief of the web portal MojaHercegovina.info. Dissatisfied with the portal’s reporting, Pertrovic reportedly told Sikimic that “those who play with fire would get burned” and threatened a lawsuit intended to bankrupt the online daily. He allegedly also insulted Sikimic because of a physical disability. In response the Association of BiH Journalists sent a written warning to Petrovic and demanded a public apology. The OSCE representative for freedom of the media also condemned the incident.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some political parties attempted to influence editorial policies and media content through legal and financial measures. As a result, some media outlets practiced self-censorship.

In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices indicated that close connections between major advertisers and political circles allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The state government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law prohibits expression provoking racial, ethnic, or other intolerance, to include hate speech. Authorities did not enforce these prohibitions for online media.

In the RS, authorities sporadically implemented a controversial 2015 law that declared that internet-based social networks were part of the public domain and provided fines for “insulting or disturbing” content, not clearly defined, published on the internet. In April 2015 authorities detained Sanel Menzil from Kotor Varos for a comment posted on his Facebook account regarding an attack on a police station in Zvornik several days earlier. According to media reports, Menzil condemned the attack but criticized the decision by Federation authorities to declare a day of mourning. In May 2015 Adis Kusmic from Banja Luka was among 31 arrested in a RS Police operation after posting a Facebook comment critical of the RS president, Milorad Dodik. Both Menzil and Kusmic were interviewed by police but never arrested. Media reports in August asserted that authorities had invoked the RS law on 11 different occasions in the preceding 18 months, mostly for insults and threats posted on Facebook; in most instances, the perpetrators reportedly were fined.

Adoption of the law initially met negative and strong reaction from journalists, NGOs, opposition political parties, and the international community in the country. In late June, the RS Constitutional Court rejected as unfounded an appeal submitted jointly by Transparency International, the BiH Journalists’ Association, and the Banja Luka Club of Journalists that challenged the legality and constitutionality of the legislation.

According to the CRA’s annual report for 2015, approximately 72 percent of the population used the internet that year.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

The country’s eight public universities remained segregated along ethnic lines, including their curriculums, diplomas, and relevant school activities. Professors sometimes used prejudicial language in their lectures. The selection of textbooks and school materials reinforced discrimination and prejudice.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right. In the RS, assembly in front of public institutions is prohibited. According to an October 2015 law in the Tuzla Canton drafted in response to previous violent protests, police were permitted to limit access to public buildings and facilities as they deemed necessary.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, although some NGOs reported difficulties registering as official entities with the government. Several NGOs expressed frustration over the lengthy bureaucratic procedures required for registration at the state level. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations at the state and entity levels remained weak or nonexistent, while government support for civil society organizations remained nontransparent, particularly regarding the allocation of funds.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation and includes measures to avoid statelessness. The government generally respected these rights, but some restrictions remained.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities routinely placed asylum seekers in the immigration detention center without documenting their asylum requests and frequently issued expulsion and detention orders to would-be asylum seekers without giving them an opportunity to present asylum applications. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), authorities held five individuals seeking asylum from Serbia and one from Turkey at the immigration detention center during the first six months of the year. Information on the right to seek asylum appeared not to be readily available to potential asylum seekers in the detention center. UNHCR expressed concern foreigners in detention may not have access to asylum procedures and authorities may prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements.

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

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

During the 1992-95 conflict, approximately one million individuals became IDPs. Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees statistics indicated that 98,324 persons still held IDP status. The majority of Bosniaks and Croats fled the RS, while Serbs fled the Federation. At the beginning of the year, UNHCR was providing protection and/or assistance to 84,500 IDPs. According to UNHCR, 20 years after the war, an estimated 7,000 persons, including IDPs, continued to live in collective accommodations, located throughout the country and meant to be temporary. A substantial number of IDPs and returnees lived in substandard conditions that affected their livelihoods.

The Dayton Peace Accords provide for the right of persons displaced by the conflict to return to their homes. The country’s constitution and laws provide for the voluntary return or resettlement of IDPs consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

While the rate of physical violence against minority returnees subsided significantly after the war, isolated attacks continued. These attacks were generally not investigated or prosecuted adequately. Minority returnees continued to face obstacles in exercising their rights in places of return.

There were no formal restrictions on IDP access to humanitarian organizations and assistance, but procedures for applying were complicated, and IDPs often could not afford to pay the associated costs.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The country adopted a new Law on Asylum, which entered into force in February. The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security adjudicates their claims, a process that normally took three months or longer. Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision within 15 days in regular procedure cases and within eight days in urgent cases. In urgent cases a court must render a decision within 30 days. The system for providing protection to refugees continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.

UNHCR reported that applicants for refugee status did not have legal assistance, that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict. UNHCR also expressed concern regarding the detention of potential asylum seekers who may be denied access to asylum procedures and returned under readmission agreements.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit without risking refoulement.

Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration, resettlement, and return. The country was party to a regional housing program facilitated by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the BiH. A protracted process of selecting beneficiaries due to capacity and management problems resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes for the beneficiaries. As of December, 100 families received housing assistance. A continuing problem was the fragmented institutional setup that added layers of administrative delays in implementing durable solutions. Another was a political imperative in the country to select beneficiaries proportionally among its constituent peoples for a program designed to select beneficiaries based on vulnerability criteria. Amendments to the country’s citizenship law, enacted in 2013 and adopted by the RS in 2014 and by the Federation in May, allow for naturalization of refugees after five years’ residence. Authorities naturalized 16 refugees residing in the RS during the first six months of the year.

Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first six months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to four individuals and extended existing protection to eight individuals.

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

A variety of human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials in both the Federation and the RS attempted at times to limit NGO activities, particularly in the RS. Many groups complained that the NGO registration process, which could last up to a year, remained overly complex and protracted.

NGOs reported weak cooperation with the government, and both entities lacked official mechanisms for cooperation between NGOs and government. While the Council of Ministers could return draft legislation that had not undergone consultation with NGOs, it did not employ this mechanism. The Council of Ministers largely excluded NGOs from politically important or sensitive decisions. NGOs nevertheless continued to expand cooperation with the government at lower levels.

Due to inefficiency, procedures to register an NGO or change its organizational statute took significantly longer than prescribed by law. The most difficult problem for civil society organizations, however, was lack of adequate funding. Most were dependent on either governmental or international assistance. Local governments generally extended support to NGOs, provided the governing parties did not consider them threats. There were no mechanisms to insulate NGOs from the political, religious, and ethnic considerations that affected the support they received from state and entity governments.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The RS government was less responsive and cooperative than the state and Federation governments in dealing with the Office of the High Representative, which was created by the Dayton Accords and given special executive powers in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A state-level ombudsman has authority to investigate violations of the country’s human rights laws on behalf of individual citizens and to submit legally nonbinding recommendations to the government for remedy. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that in 2015 it reviewed more than 340 cases and issued 324 recommendations, of which approximately 50 percent were implemented. The largest number of cases pertained to harassment in the work place (37), discrimination based on ethnicity (13), discrimination based on ethnic or social origin (eight), and discrimination based on education (eight). Members of the international community noted that the ombudsman lacked the resources to function effectively and had to contend with disagreement between representatives of the country’s three constituent peoples over what constitutes a human rights violation. A Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared leadership of the ombudsman institution.

The state-level parliament has a Joint Commission for Human Rights. The 12-member commission participated in human rights-related activities with the governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Botswana

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, however the law restricts the speech of some government officials and fines persons found guilty of insulting public officials or national symbols. The law states, “Any person in a public place or at a public gathering (who) uses abusive, obscene, or insulting language in relation to the President, any other member of the National Assembly, or any public officer” is guilty of an offense and may be fined up to 400 pula ($39). The penal code also states that any person who insults the country’s coat of arms, flag, presidential standard, or national anthem is guilty of an offense and may be fined up to 500 pula ($48).

On September 13, security services arrested a man in Maun for allegedly producing and disseminating a satirical digitally manipulated image of President Khama. The INK Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization based in Gaborone, condemned the arrest as a violation of freedom of expression.

Press and Media Freedoms: NGOs reported the government attempted to limit press freedom and continued to dominate domestic broadcasting. The INK Center for Investigative Journalism said the environment for journalists was one of “intimidation” by officials.

The government owned and operated the Botswana Press Agency, which dominated the print media through its free, nationally distributed newspaper, Daily News, and two state-operated FM radio stations. State-owned media generally featured reporting favorable to the government and, according to some observers, were susceptible to political interference. Opposition political parties claimed state media coverage heavily favored the ruling party.

The independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views, which frequently included strong criticism of the government; however, members of the media complained they were sometimes subject to government pressure to portray the government and the country in a positive light. Private media organizations had more difficulty than government-owned media obtaining access to government-held information.

Violence and Harassment: On March 17, police detained overnight a journalist who wrote a series of articles exposing corruption by government officials. Initially charging the journalist with receiving stolen property, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions later dropped all charges. The INK Center for Investigative Journalism called the arrest a government “scare tactic.”

On August 8, the BPS arrested and detained for several hours two print media journalists as well as a radio talk show host and his producer who were covering a protest outside the National Assembly. One of the journalists arrested was the president of the Botswana Media and Allied Workers Union, which condemned the incident.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some members of civil society organizations alleged the government occasionally censored stories in the government-run media it deemed undesirable. Government journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship. One civil society organization asserted self-censorship among journalists was growing.

Libel/Slander Laws: In 2014 police arrested Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone and charged him with sedition for publishing articles about an automobile accident allegedly involving President Khama. Observers noted the use of the penal code’s sedition clause for a newspaper article was unprecedented and further noted the Sunday Standard had recently published several articles exposing corruption allegations within the DIS. Lawyers for Mokone sought to have the charges dropped based on the penal code’s infringement of the defendant’s constitutional right to freedom of expression. On August 30, the High Court ruled the penal code’s sedition clause was constitutional and charges of sedition against Mokone could proceed.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2015 approximately 27 percent of individuals used the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

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

On August 8, police dispersed a group outside the National Assembly protesting youth unemployment. Police took five protesters into custody and held three overnight. Police released all five without charge within 24 hours.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The system for granting refugee status was accessible but slow. The government generally provided protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting more than 2,800 refugees, asylum seekers, and others of concern. The government held refugees and asylum seekers in CII in Francistown until the Refugee Advisory Committee (RAC), a governmental body, made a status recommendation. The committee met once during the year. UNHCR representatives participated in advisory committee meetings as observers and technical advisers. During the year RAC authorities approved refugee status for one minor, and the case awaited final government approval at year’s end.

More than 400 persons, including more than 200 children, sought asylum during 2015; the majority were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Composed mainly of families that had transited Zambia and Tanzania, the RAC refused their claims based on “first country of asylum” policy, and held the families at the CII while they awaited deportation. UNHCR urged the government to review its decision to deny asylum and to keep the asylum seekers at the CII, where authorities separated families, and women and children lived in tents in substandard conditions.

Employment: As of September most of the country’s 2,123 registered refugees and 725 registered asylum seekers were living in Dukwi Camp without the right to work outside the camp. As a general policy, all registered refugees must reside in Dukwi, although the government may issue a residence permit to remain outside the camp in exceptional cases, such as for refugees enrolled at a university, in need of specialized medical care, or with unique skills.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees in Dukwi had access to education and basic health care. They were unable to access government programs for HIV/AIDS medication, but the government allowed an international donor-funded parallel program to provide such medication. UNHCR facilitated refugee and asylum seekers’ exit permit applications for medical referrals as necessary through their implementing partner, the Botswana Red Cross. Officials typically granted exit permits for three days; refugees found outside the camp without a permit were subject to arrest.

According to UNHCR there was no access to education in the CII. The center hosts a clinic, and a specialized nurse provides basic health care, while critical cases were referred to Francistown city hospital.

Durable Solutions: Since 2000 an estimated 2,000 Namibian refugees previously living in Botswana have voluntarily returned to Namibia. During the year five Namibian refugees applied to return voluntarily to Namibia, and at year’s end they were awaiting clearance from the Namibian government.

Temporary Protection: Since 2012 the government has provided temporary protection at Dukwi to approximately 50 individuals who may not qualify as refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. UNHCR provided food and other provisions to individuals under temporary protection.

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

The small number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to domestic NGO views on most subjects. The government interacted with and provided financial support to some domestic organizations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: An autonomous ombudsman handled complaints of maladministration, including some human rights abuses in the public sector, and the government generally cooperated with the ombudsman. The Office of the Ombudsman had inadequate staff, however, and some criticized its effectiveness. Public awareness of the office and its services was low.

Brazil

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views with minimal restriction, but nongovernmental criminal elements subjected journalists to violence because of their professional activities. Despite national laws prohibiting politically motivated judicial censorship, some local-level courts engaged in judicial censorship. NGOs highlighted instances of violence against journalists. Most were perpetrated by protesters or provocateurs in the context of massive demonstrations, but at times security forces injured journalists during crowd-control operations.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were sometimes subject to harassment and physical attacks as a result of their reporting. According to Reporters without Borders, four journalists were killed in the country through September. On August 16, Mauricio Campos Rosa, owner of the newspaper O Grito, was killed in Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais. According to a local radio station, the motive was likely related to Rosa’s journalistic investigations into corruption involving city councilors and a cooperative responsible for garbage collection.

In February the newspaper Gazeta do Povo, based in the state of Parana, published a list of “super salaries” containing the names of judges, public prosecutors, and civil servants who earned more than the maximum salary allowed by law when government benefits were included in the calculation. In response judges and public prosecutors in Parana initiated 37 lawsuits against the newspaper and its employees. In July, Supreme Court Justice Carmen Lucia suspended the lawsuit spending a decision on the proper jurisdiction for the cases. The NGO Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the lawsuits as “judicial harassment.”

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

In theory the 2014 landmark Marco Civil law–considered an internet “bill of rights”–enshrines net neutrality and freedom of expression online and provides for the inviolability and secrecy of user communications online, permitting exceptions only by court order. Several legal and judicial rulings citing Marco Civil nevertheless had the potential to threaten freedom of expression on the internet. Anonymous speech is explicitly excluded from constitutional protection, which left little privacy protection for those who used the internet anonymously through a pseudonym. Police and prosecutors may obtain data pursuant to three main statutes: the Wiretapping Act, the Secrecy of Financial Data Act, and the Money Laundering Act.

Private individuals and official bodies took legal action against internet service providers and providers of online social media platforms, such as Google and Facebook, holding them accountable for content posted to or provided by users of the platform. During the year there were at least three instances of messaging applications such as WhatsApp being temporarily blocked for users throughout the country due to judicial decisions related to criminal investigations. A Supreme Federal Court judge overturned the WhatsApp shutdown within hours, citing it as a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

The electoral law regulates political campaign activity on the internet. The law prohibits paid political advertising online and in traditional media. During the three months prior to an election, the law also prohibits online and traditional media from promoting candidates and distributing content that ridicules or could offend a candidate.

According to CGI.br, the country’s internet management committee, 51 percent of households had access to the internet in 2015 and 58 percent of the population used the internet. The government promoted digital inclusion by providing free satellite internet access to remote areas; broadband access to municipal governments, schools, and health centers; computers to selected populations; and other assistance targeting vulnerable communities.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The government generally respected rights of freedom of assembly, but police occasionally intervened in citizen protests. In January in the city of Sao Paulo, for instance, military police used tear gas and stun grenades to keep Free Pass Movement (MPL) protesters opposing increases in bus and transit fares from marching on one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Local authorities stated MPL leaders had not informed police of the planned route of the march, and therefore police took action to prevent protesters from damaging property, such as banks that were vandalized in previous protests. NGOs reported both the police and MPL played a part in the escalation of events. Some noted police were not consistent in informing demonstrators how far in advance notification of the protest march was required; others noted that during the demonstrations the MPL had tolerated violence perpetrated by groups not affiliated with their organization.

There were a series of large-scale, national protests in March, April, and August calling for the impeachment of President Rousseff and an end to corruption. Police reported no serious security incidents during these protests.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for this right, the government generally respected it.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The National Committee for Refugees cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. By law refugees are provided official documentation, access to legal protection, and access to public services.

Temporary Protection: The government provided assistance to Haitian migrants who entered the country in hope of securing employment and relief from economic conditions in Haiti. To reduce the number of Haitians seeking to enter Brazil via dangerous irregular migration routes, the government extended through October 2017 its policy of issuing humanitarian visas through its embassy in Haiti. The visas entitle the recipients to receive health care and social assistance and grant them the right to work. According to the government, 85,000 Haitian migrants had migrated to the country since 2012.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Federal officials were cooperative and responsive to their views. Federal and state officials in many cases sought the aid and cooperation of domestic and international NGOs in addressing human rights problems.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In May a ministerial reform resulted in a restructuring in the composition of numerous federal ministries. The Ministry of Justice and Citizenship was created, which absorbed the competencies of the Secretariat of Women’s Policies, Secretariat of Human Rights, and Secretariat of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality. Local human rights organizations criticized the reform, since several of these secretariats previously held the rank of ministry and had more autonomy.

The Chamber of Deputies and the Senate had human rights committees that operated without interference and participated in several activities nationwide in coordination with domestic and international human rights organizations. Most states had police ombudsmen, but their accomplishments varied, depending on such factors as funding and outside political pressure.

A National Council for Human Rights, composed of 22 members–11 from various government agencies and 11 from civil society–met regularly. Other councils using this mixed government and civil society model included the National LGBT Council, National Council for Religious Freedom, National Council for Racial Equality Policies, National Council for Rights of Children and Adolescents, and National Council for Refugees.

Brunei

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Under the emergency powers and the Sedition Act, the government restricted freedoms of speech and press.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Members of the LegCo are allowed to “speak their opinions freely,” but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the Sedition Act, it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The act also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This concept, the all-pervasive ideology that underscores the Sedition Act, proclaims Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or “wound religious feelings.” No cases of persons charged under the Sedition Act were reported.

The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers ceased allowing comments on stories after the sultan issued repeated warnings.

All public musical or theatrical performances required prior approval by a censorship board made up of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministries of Home Affairs and Religious Affairs. The SPC was interpreted by the government as prohibiting public celebration of religions other than Islam, including displaying Christmas decorations.

Press and Media Freedoms: The Sedition Act requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval of foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit. The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. In November, one of the two English-language dailies ceased operations without prior notice; the newspaper’s website and social media presence were removed without access to archives. Although the Board of Directors attributed the closure to business sustainability, poor journalistic standards, and competition from alternative media, there were widespread reports that the government shuttered the paper as a result of a complaint from the Saudi Arabian Embassy regarding alleged “inaccurate” reporting on a change in visa costs for Bruneians visiting Saudi Arabia.

Foreign newspapers were routinely available, although the government must approve their distribution. Internet versions of local and foreign media were routinely available without censorship or blocking.

The government owned the only domestic television station. Three Malaysian television stations were also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including sexual or religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Sedition Act provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything allegedly having a seditious intent. The government may suspend publication for up to one year and prohibit publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing, or editing any other newspaper. The government may also seize printing equipment. Persons convicted under the act face fines of up to 5,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($3,640) and jail terms of up to three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subjected to fines or prison sentences. During the year the government reprimanded the media for their portrayal of certain events and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. At least one editorial viewed as critical of government policy was removed from news sites, but there were no reports of fines or charges. The government maintained that most censorship aimed to stop violent content from entering the country.

The SPC includes regulations barring the publication or importation of publications giving instruction in Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution of publications related to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons with no religion. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as the Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.

Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government monitored private e-mail and internet chat room exchanges believed to be propagating religious extremism or otherwise subversive, including those of religious minorities or on topics deemed immoral. The Ministry of Communications and the Prime Minister’s Office enforced the law that requires internet service providers and internet cafe operators to register with the director of broadcasting in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Authority for Info-Communications Technology Industry advised internet service and content providers to monitor for content contrary to public interest, national harmony, and social morals. The government blocked websites promoting violent extremism and some websites containing sexually explicit material. Internet companies self-censor content and reserve the right to cut off internet access without prior notice. The government also ran an awareness campaign aimed at warning citizens about the misuse and social ills associated with social media, including the use of social media to criticize Islam, sharia, or the monarchy.

The great majority of the population had access to the internet and the country had a high rate of social media usage. Social media websites were widely accessible.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

While there are no official government restrictions on academic freedom, quasi-governmental authorities must approve public lectures, academic conferences, and visiting scholars. Academics reported practicing self-censorship, and some researchers chose to publish from overseas under a pseudonym when they perceived that certain subject matter would not be well received. Religious authorities reviewed publications to ensure compliance with social norms.

A censorship board made up of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministries of Home Affairs and Religious Affairs determined the suitability of concerts, movies, cultural shows, and other public performances, and censored, banned, or restricted these activities. Traditional Chinese New Year lion dance performances were limited to a two-day period and confined to Chinese temples, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese association members.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The emergency powers restrict the right to assemble. Public gatherings of 10 or more persons require a government permit, and police may disband an unofficial assembly of five or more persons deemed likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Permits require the approval of the minister of home affairs. The government routinely issued permits for annual events, but occasionally used the restrictions to disrupt political gatherings. Organizers of events on sensitive topics tended to hold meetings in private locations rather than apply for permits, or practiced self-censorship at public events.

In March, 10 individuals including foreign nationals were fined BND 300-2,000 ($220-1,460) for organizing and taking part in an “unlawful assembly” in 2015 outside of a mosque that called for the ousting of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The sentencing magistrate said the defendants should have been “more sensitive to the country’s norms” after having worked and lived in Brunei most of their lives.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law does not provide for freedom of association. It requires formal groups, including religious, social, business, labor, and cultural organizations, to register with the Registrar of Societies and provide regular reports on membership and finances. The government reported the majority of applications to form associations were accepted, but applicants were subject to background checks, and proposed organizations were subject to naming requirements, including a prohibition on names or symbols linked to triad societies (Chinese organized crime networks). Some new organizations reported delaying their registration application after receiving advice that the process would be difficult. The government may suspend the activities of a registered organization if it deems such an act in the public interest.

Organizations seeking to raise funds or donations from the general public are required to get permission to do so from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and each individual fundraising opportunity required separate permits. Approved organizations dealt with matters such as pollution, wildlife preservation, arts, entrepreneurialism, and women in business. An organization called Youth Against Slavery founded in 2015 continued to raise awareness about human trafficking, forced labor, and modern-day slavery, but it had not officially registered as of November.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, or Stateless Persons: During the year a refugee family traveling on UN Convention Travel documents and in possession of valid Brunei entry visas was denied entry and informed their travel documents were not recognized by the government and their entry permits had been issued in error.

Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreigners working on a contractual basis, must apply for approval to go abroad. The government’s guidelines state no government official may travel alone and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but this was enforced inconsistently based on ministry and gender. Brunei tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel. There were reports of individuals suspected of violating sharia law being told they were on a travel blacklist or being refused exit from the country, without being notified of the charges against them or of how to appeal the ban.

Exile: By law the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

STATELESS PERSONS

The 2011 Population and Housing Census reported 13,310 stateless persons normally resident in the country. A significant number of stateless persons were of Chinese or aboriginal descent. The vast majority of stateless persons held a certificate of identity (COI), which looks like and functions as a passport. COI holders have rights including to subsidized health care and education similar to those of permanent residents. The government had no data available on stateless persons who hold no form of residency or COI.

Stateless persons may apply for citizenship if they are permanent residents who have contributed to the country’s economic growth, spouses married to citizens for two years, women married to permanent residents for five years, or children of permanent resident fathers older than two years and six months. All applicants must pass a test demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Malay culture and language. From January to October, according to the government, 244 holders of COIs obtained citizenship, more than in the entirety of 2014 (220).

Stateless persons without permanent resident status or a COI were ineligible for most benefits or services from the government and for government employment. Nonetheless, government agencies offered welfare services to stateless parents unable to gain access to basic needs. The Ministry of Home Affairs also pushed to expedite the permanent resident registration of the country’s stateless persons if they met all necessary requirements. The strict procedure in assessing the applications continued to cause bureaucratic delays.

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

No registered civil society organizations dealt directly with human rights. A few domestic organizations worked on humanitarian issues such as assistance for domestic violence victims or free legal counsel for indigent defendants. They generally operated with government support, and the government was somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, although they reported practicing self-censorship and avoiding sensitive issues. Youth Against Slavery (see section 2.b.) sought to work with the government but officials did not always welcome cooperation. Regional and other foreign human rights organizations occasionally operated in the country but faced the same restrictions as all unregistered organizations. At least one foreign activist was blacklisted from entering the country without being told the reason or how to appeal the decision.

Bulgaria

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources and support for the media, gravely damaged media pluralism.

According to the Association of European Journalists Bulgaria (AEJ), a “culture of pressure” was steadily restricting media pluralism. A survey conducted in 2015 by the AEJ showed that 72 percent of journalists witnessed their colleagues being subjected to pressure, 67 percent stated that politicians significantly interfered with their work, 54 percent were personally prevented from freely exercising their profession, 43 percent admitted to pressure from the government and local institutions, and 41 percent were the targets of rumor spreading and slander. In January the AEJ expressed concern that public institutions could “buy” the media and influence editorial content through a provision in the law that allows direct public procurement of media airtime without transparent selection procedures.

The International Research and Exchanges Board’s (IREX) 2016 media sustainability index indicated “significant shifts on the Bulgarian media ownership scene” and “a radical increase in corporate and political propaganda.” IREX noted that the media market was defined by a growing number of quasi-media, externally funded propaganda mouthpieces and progovernment propaganda outlets leading smear campaigns against politicians, journalists, and media who “do not follow the official line.” Reports of intimidation and violence against journalists continued.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Individuals criticized the government without official reprisal. In rural areas offering fewer employment opportunities, however, individuals were more hesitant to criticize local governments. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee expressed concern over the “deterioration of the freedom of expression, particularly the freedom and ethical standards of practicing journalism.”

In June Sofia Administrative Court revoked the 100,000 lev ($56,000) fine on Economedia imposed in 2015 by the Financial Supervision Commission (FSC) over publications in Capital Daily and Dnevnik Online perceived as aiming to destabilize the banking sector. As of September, Economedia was still appealing a second 50,000 lev ($28,000) fine imposed by the FSC after Economedia outlets implicated FSC chair Stoyan Mavrodiev in a money laundering case and accused him of having connections with an organized crime figure. NGOs commented that the National Assembly, which appoints the FSC chair, and other authorities declined to address the press allegations.

The penal code provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as speech that instigates hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital or social status, or disability. In July the Open Society Institute presented a survey highlighting “a disturbing trend of increasing public occurrence and acceptance of hate speech.” NGOs noted that hate speech escalated especially around the time of elections, turning into a common form of expression, not just for xenophobic politicians but also for media and social network commentators. Paid “trolls” populated forums and social media of all media outlets, targeting political opponents with racist and xenophobic comments.

As of July prosecutors had opened 12 hate crime investigations and had pursued two indictments.

Press and Media Freedoms: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to material appearing in the print media. According to the Reporters without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index, the press environment was “dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs” and the FSC deterred journalists from “shedding light on problems with the country’s banks and the banking regulatory system.” Following a June European Court of Human Rights ruling that publishers are obliged to control the content of their forums, some online media outlets imposed stricter policies on postings. Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for lack of ownership and financial transparency, editorial bias, and susceptibility to economic and political influence.

Violence and Harassment: In January authorities in Pomorie arrested Martin Dushev on charges of severely beating journalist Stoyan Tonchev, who was hospitalized with multiple injuries to his head and body. According to Tonchev, the attack was prompted by his online criticism of the local government. In March the court released Dushev on bail and, as of September, an investigation was in progress.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists continued to privately report self-censorship, editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and subjects, and the imposition of a political point of view by corporate leaders. In July the AEJ demanded Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov’s resignation following his letter to the public broadcaster BNT in which he accused Georgi Angelov, the host of a morning culture show, of encouraging criticism of the government and “advised” him to be careful what he said because the government paid his salary. On April 13, Nova TV terminated its contract with cartoonist Chavdar Nikolov and removed all his cartoons from its website following posting of his cartoon featuring the prime minister as leader of a vigilante group that captures migrants at the border.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a 3,000-15,000 lev ($1,700-$8,400) fine and public censure. The courts usually interpreted the law in a manner favoring journalistic expression. Journalists’ reporting on corruption or mismanagement prompted many defamation cases brought by politicians, government officials, and other persons in public positions.

In September the Sofia City Court exonerated the owner and editor of the online outlet e-vestnik, Ivan Bakalov, of slander charges filed by the owner of Investbank stemming from his 2011 publications on the banking system. In May the Sofia Regional Court exonerated Bakalov of the criminal charges pressed by the Investbank owner over the same publications. As of September, a lawsuit over a 2015 e-vestnik article reporting on a company’s nine million lev (five million dollar) claim against Investbank was underway in civil court.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the National Statistics Institute, approximately 59.1 percent of households had access to the internet in 2015.

The security services could access electronic data with judicial permission when investigating cyber and serious crimes and electronic data traffic in cases related to serious crime or national security (also see section 1.f.).

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right.

The law requires groups requesting a permit for gatherings to give 48 hours’ notice. The law prohibits public gatherings within a security zone (16 to 66 feet) around the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers, and presidency buildings. Mayors can prohibit, suggest an alternative site for, or dismiss (if in progress) a gathering they believe poses a threat to public order, security, or traffic.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association. While the government generally respected these rights, the law prohibits some groups, including political parties that endangered national unity, promoted racial, national, or religious hatred, violated the rights of citizens, or sought to achieve their objectives through violent means. The government generally respected the rights of individuals and groups to establish political parties or other political organizations. According to the constitution, NGOs may not pursue political goals or engage in political activity. There was no legal limitation on NGOs participating in demonstrations, discussions, or developing and debating legislative amendments as long as those activities are not part of an election campaign. The law allows NGOs to engage in other activities, such as providing services or advocacy.

On July 8, Sofia City Court judge Lilia Ilieva denied the registration of political party DOST, asserting that it is an ethnic and religious organization because the majority of its founders have Turkish names, because its name, DOST, is a Turkish word, and because there are no guarantees that it will accomplish the goals in its manifesto. On July 29, the Supreme Cassation Court allowed DOST’s registration, stating that the lower court’s judgment of the ethnic and religious character of the party was hypothetical.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights organizations continued to report police and civilian vigilante violence against migrants and asylum seekers, including assaults, beating, and humiliation, at the country’s borders. In June the prosecution brought charges of xenophobia-motivated attempted murder against two men who attacked and stabbed an asylum seeker returning to a refugee center after a trip to the grocery store.

Human rights organizations claimed that data indicated the government employed violence and forceful pushbacks to prevent access to the border.

In January, Human Rights Watch released a report describing 59 cases of asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan being pushed back to Turkey, with 46 of them claiming to have been robbed and beaten by border guards.

On November 17, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee accused the government of indiscriminately pushing back asylum seekers and migrants and stated that between May and September it had received 33 reports of police mistreatment, including the robbing, physical violence against, and degrading treatment of more than 600 migrants.

On November 24, police fired water cannon and rubber bullets at rioting migrants in the reception center near Harmanli. The camp was sealed after reports that some migrants were suffering from infectious skin diseases. A week earlier, local residents had protested and called for the camp’s closure after media reports of contagious skin diseases. Camp residents threw stones and tires at police, broke windows, and set fire to furniture. More than 400 asylum seekers were arrested after the clash, and their deportation to their countries of origin was pending at the end of the year.

There were reports of vigilante groups conducting citizen arrests of migrants along the border with Turkey, and police authorities encouraged citizens to alert them when they spotted groups of migrants who entered the country illegally. A video posted online on April 10 showed Petar Nizamov, who purportedly belonged to the group Civil Squad for Protection of Women and Faith, detaining three migrants by forcing them to lie on the ground with their hands zip tied behind their backs and telling them to go back to Turkey. A similar video featured the self-proclaimed “migrant hunter” Dinko Valev who, on February 14, called the emergency line 112 to report that he had detained 16 migrants–15 adults and one child–forcing them to lie on the ground and subjecting them to death threats and verbal abuse. On April 10, the prime minister expressed gratitude to the vigilante groups because “everyone helping [the government] deserves thanks” and told journalists that he had instructed the border police leadership to award a vigilante group for its contribution to border security. On April 11, he stated he had been misquoted and noted that the government does not tolerate any violations of the law or inhuman treatment. On November 25, the Burgas district court started a trial against Nizamov for an illegal arrest and on November 15, the Sredets prosecution service opened an investigation against Valev for ethnic/nationality-based discrimination, violence, and hatred.

Extreme nationalist parties used antimigrant rhetoric in their political campaigns. Negative coverage of migrants appeared in some media, claiming they were mostly criminals and terrorists and repeating negative stereotypes that encouraged societal intolerance. In September, following a brawl among asylum seekers in the Harmanli reception center, the extreme nationalist parties Patriotic Front and Ataka held a demonstration demanding the immediate closure of all reception centers and the return of their occupants to their countries of origin. The patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stated in September that it is important “to maintain the ethnic balance on Bulgaria’s territory and the peace and security of Bulgarian citizens.”

In August the UN high commissioner for human rights criticized the country for detaining all irregular migrants who have not applied for asylum and for prosecuting and jailing them “if they try to leave.”

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. The council of ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The State Agency for Refugees provides international protection (refugee status) under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

As of November, the overall number of asylum seekers had decreased by 37 percent compared with the same period in 2015. Independent observers had access to refugee reception centers, whose capacity was 5,130. During the first half of the year, migrants and asylum seekers were able to leave the country for destinations further west shortly after arriving. As a result of Serbia strengthening its border controls in July, migrants accumulated at the border and completely filled reception centers, while detention centers for those that did not qualify for asylum or with whom the government had security concerns were overcrowded. At various times throughout the year, the State Agency for Refugees experienced financial shortfalls, resulting in disruptions in medical and interpretation services. Humanitarian organizations and volunteers helped with food, educational, and other support. NGOs expressed concern that the government has no administrative mechanism for the early identification, referral, and provision of adequate services to vulnerable asylum seekers, such as minors, persons with disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women, and survivors of rape, torture, or other forms of severe physical or sexual violence.

As of September, according to the government, approximately 95 miles of the fence along the country’s border with Turkey were complete. In February the National Assembly approved a legislative amendment allowing the government to deploy up to 1,000 military personnel to assist border police in managing the entry of migrants and asylum seekers. Human rights NGOs expressed concern that the government viewed migrants and asylum seekers more as a national security matter than as vulnerable persons in need of humanitarian assistance.

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of migrants and asylum seekers to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. As of September authorities reported there had been more than 32,000 attempts by foreign nationals to cross the border and border police had detained approximately 12,000 persons.

On October 17, the government handed over to Turkey seven Turkish nationals–three former police commissioners, a university lecturer, a newspaper journalist, a high school teacher and a shop owner–wanted for suspected ties to the exiled opposition cleric Fethullah Guillen. The seven had been detained hiding in a truck bound for Romania. According to the Interior Ministry, none of the seven had asked for protection and they were returned under the bilateral readmission agreement. In August authorities handed over to Turkey businessman Abdullah Buyuk, who was also wanted for ties to Gulen. Buyuk, whose permanent residence status in the country had expired, applied for political asylum in July. The vice president denied the application, but in June the Sofia Appellate Court refused to extradite Buyuk to Turkey. Human rights organizations accused the authorities of ignoring the court’s decision and violating due process.

Access to Basic Services: In August the government adopted rules for concluding integration agreements with persons with refugee status that spell out the basic services–housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance–to which they will receive access and the obligations of the responsible institutions. As of June 13, 61 persons with refugee/humanitarian status had registered with an unemployment office, 11 found jobs, and 10 were placed in training programs.

Durable Solutions: As of October 25, Bulgaria had accepted 21 refugees relocated from Greece, out of an agreed quota of 1,302 for the country.

Temporary Protection: The government provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of August, the government provided protection to 384 persons.

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

Numerous domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Human rights observers reported uneven levels of cooperation from various national and local government officials. There was increasing public rhetoric opposing human rights and the work of NGOs. Some political parties, civic movements, and media outlets advocated closing certain NGOs because they obtained funding from foreign donors. In 2015 prosecutors terminated a year-long financial fraud and tax and insurance evasion investigation of four Protest Network civic activists, who believed the government had taken action against them as harassment for their role in antigovernment protests.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman reviews individuals’ complaints against the government for violations of rights or freedoms. The ombudsman can request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals to end existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

As of October, the ombudsman had received double the number of complaints–8,100 versus 4,069–than during the same period in 2015. The majority concerned public utility and telecommunication companies’ debt collection practices and their lack of fair process, social assistance programs, and property problems, including forced evictions. Authorities sometimes acted in response to recommendations from the ombudsman by adjusting their practices and regulations.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent specialized agency for preventing discrimination, protecting against discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity.

One permanent committee of the National Assembly oversees religious denominations and human rights.

Burkina Faso

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. In September 2015 the government adopted a law decriminalizing press offenses. The law replaces prison sentences with penalties ranging from one million to five million CFA francs ($1,718 to $8,591). Some editors complained that few newspapers or media outlets could afford such fines.

Despite the advent of the 2015 law, journalists occasionally faced criminal prosecution for libel and other forms of harassment and intimidation.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law prohibits persons from insulting the head of state or using derogatory language with respect to the office. Individuals generally criticized the government without reprisal, but security forces arrested political leaders for their statements during the year (see sections 1.e. and 3).

Press and Media Freedoms: There were numerous independent newspapers, satirical weeklies, and radio and television stations, some of which strongly criticized the government. Foreign radio stations broadcast without government interference. Government media outlets–including newspapers, television, and radio–sometimes displayed a progovernment bias but allowed significant opposition participation in their newspaper and television programming. On June 17, the minister of communications stated that government-owned national television news broadcasts should begin with the activities of government officials and that journalists employed by government media should either support the government or resign. On July 21, the journalists’ union denounced the minister for his statement, and in September the journalists’ union launched strikes and demanded that the government end “intimidation and pressure.”

All media are under the administrative and technical supervision of the Ministry of Communications, which is responsible for developing and implementing government policy on information and communication. The Superior Council of Communication (CSC) monitored the content of radio and television programs, newspapers, and internet websites to enforce compliance with standards of professional ethics and government policy. The CSC may summon journalists and issue warnings for subsequent violations. Hearings may concern alleged libel, disturbing the peace, inciting violence, or violations of state security. On February 19, the CSC suspended private newspaper L’Evenement for one month following its February 10 publication of information the CSC categorized as military secrets. On February 22, L’Evenement published a statement denouncing the CSC decision describing it as an attack on press freedom. The newspaper took the case to the Administrative Court of Ouagadougou; the court reversed the suspension.

Violence and Harassment: According to the Association of Burkina Journalists, on June 9, gendarmes threatened and verbally assaulted William Somda of BF1 Television, a private broadcasting company, as he was filming a peaceful event. The head of the gendarmerie apologized for the incident, but no disciplinary or judicial actions were taken against the gendarmes.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: In addition to prohibitions on insulting the head of state, the law also prohibits the publication of shocking images or material that demonstrates lack of respect for the deceased. Journalists practiced self-censorship. On February 26, police ordered the Burkina Information Agency to remove an article from the agency’s website that it considered offensive, entitled, “Fara: Bandits shut down police station before robbing it.” Police stated that the report was false and forced the agency to issue a denial of the story.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict access to the internet, although the CSC monitored internet websites and discussion forums to enforce compliance with regulations. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 11.4 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, but the government did not always respect this right. Authorities sometimes banned or violently dispersed demonstrations.

For example, RSP soldiers used force, including gunfire, to disperse and prevent public gatherings following the September 2015 attempt to seize power (see section 1.a.) and during a 2014 popular uprising. In October 2015 an independent commission was created to investigate RSP use of force during the 2014 uprising. The commission cited more than 30 individuals, including former president Blaise Compaore and former prime minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, as responsible for RSP-inflicted injuries and homicides. Legal action had yet to be taken against the accused by year’s end.

Political parties and labor unions may hold meetings and rallies without government permission, although advance notification and approval are required for public demonstrations that may affect traffic or threaten public order. If a demonstration or rally results in violence, injury, or significant property damage, penalties for the organizers include six months’ to five years’ imprisonment and fines of between 100,000 and two million CFA francs ($172 and $3,436). These penalties may be doubled for conviction of organizing an unauthorized rally or demonstration. Demonstrators may appeal denials or imposed modifications of a proposed march route or schedule before the courts.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Ministry of Women, National Solidarity, and Family, aided by the National Committee for Refugees (CONAREF), is the focal point for coordination of national and international efforts to assist 34,000 refugees in the country. The government assistance to Malian refugees totaled 240 million CFA francs ($412,371) during the year.

According to the ministry, following intercommunal conflict in Bouna, Cote d’Ivoire, 2,167 persons fled to Burkina Faso and took refuge in the southwestern province of Noumbiel. The government designated them as returnees, because the majority of them were Burkinabe citizens. The government provided them with an estimated 125 million CFA francs ($215,000) in food and other assistance.

In 2012 fighting resumed in northern Mali between government forces and Tuareg rebels, resulting in the flight of more than 250,000 Malians to neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso. According to UNHCR approximately 50,000 Malians–most of them Tuaregs and Arabs–fled across the border to Burkina Faso and registered with local authorities as displaced persons. Authorities granted all displaced persons from Mali prima facie refugee status, pending the examination of all applications individually. Authorities settled most of the refugees in Soum and Oudalan Provinces in the Sahel Region. The ministry, aided by CONAREF, was the government focal point to help coordinate all national and international efforts to assist more than 32,000 Malian refugees remaining in the country at year’s end. During the year the refugees received 240 million CFA francs ($412,371) in assistance from the government.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman addresses citizen complaints regarding government entities, public institutions, and other bodies entrusted with a public service mission. The ombudsman, whom the president appoints for a nonrenewable five-year term and who may not be removed during the term, was generally viewed as effective and impartial. During 2014, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the office registered 560 complaints, approximately 59 percent of which it resolved.

The Ministry of Justice, Human Rights, and Civic Promotion is responsible for the protection and promotion of human and civil rights and conducts education campaigns for security force members to raise their awareness of human rights.

The government-funded National Commission on Human Rights provides a permanent framework for dialogue on human rights concerns. Its members include representatives of human rights NGOs, unions, professional associations, and the government. The Burkinabe Movement for Human and People’s Rights, which did not participate on the commission, charged that it was subject to government influence. Although inadequately funded, the commission continued to be more effective and visible in promoting human rights than in previous years.

Burma

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists decreased.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, and imprisoned citizens for defaming religion and expressing political opinions critical of the government, generally under the charges of protesting without a permit or violating national security laws. Prior to the government amending the law in October, some charged for demonstrating without a permit faced hundreds of court hearings and significant delays in reaching a verdict. Many individuals in urban areas, however, reported far greater freedom of speech and expression than in previous years.

On November 3, the government arrested NLD official U Myo Yan Naung Thein and charged him with defamation under the Telecommunications Law for posting comments critical of the military’s response in northern Rakhine State on Facebook in October. They denied his bail in multiple hearings as he spoke out against the arbitrary nature of the Telecommunications Law. His trial was pending at the end of the year, and he remained in detention.

In April the government pardoned hundreds of political prisoners, including Htin Lin Oo, an NLD official sentenced in June 2015 to two years in prison for religious defamation. Also released were Htin Kyaw, a well-known democratic activist who spent more than a decade in prison, and five journalists from Unity Journal, each sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014.

Although freedom of speech generally expanded, some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, writers, and diplomats. Journalists complained of the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.

In October and November, instances of media self-censorship and suppression rose in connection with violence in northern Rakhine State. Media access was restricted due to the continuing security operation. Reporters and media executives were reportedly fired for printing stories critical of the military’s actions in Rakhine.

Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were active and increasingly able to operate with fewer restrictions. The government permitted the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of September authorities approved 27 dailies, seven of which were available for purchase.

Local media could cover information about human rights and political issues, including the peace process and democratic reform. The government generally permitted the media to cover protests and civil conflict, topics not reported widely in state-run media. Self-censorship continued, however, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, and the situation in Rakhine State. The government continued to use visas to control foreign journalists, who reported visa validities ranged from 28 days to six months. The exception to this procedure was in northern Rakhine from October through December, where the military prevented media access under the auspice of security concerns.

The military continued to practice zero-tolerance regarding perceived misreporting by the media. Authorities charged Wai Phyo, chief editor of Daily Eleven newspaper for defamation in a Sagaing Region court in June. A soldier sued the newspaper because of an April 2015 article that included a photograph of the soldier while noting an excursion beyond enemy lines by the military. The newspaper issued a clarification on May 4, after the army filed a complaint through the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), and sent copies of the letter to the commander in chief and to the chairperson of the army’s information division. Daily Eleven said the army and the MPC did not respond, and the military subsequently sued the journalist a year later.

On October 31, the Myanmar Times newspaper fired journalist Fiona Macgregor allegedly for her reporting on allegations of human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State. Her dismissal followed criticism from President Office Spokesperson Zaw Htay on his Facebook page on October 28, following articles written by Macgregor and published in the Myanmar Times on October 27 and 28. Zaw Htay asserted MacGregor cited faulty sources and did not contact government officials to give them a chance to deny the allegations. In her reporting, however, MacGregor cited other outlets that quoted Zaw Htay denying the charges that abuse and rape had taken place in northern Rakhine State. Leadership at the Myanmar Times cited a rule in the employee handbook that staff could be fired for “denigrating the reputation of the paper” as reason for the dismissal but did not speak publicly about the firing.

Radio and television were the primary media of mass communication. Compared with previous years, circulation of independent news periodicals expanded outside of urban areas. Several print publications maintained online news websites that were popular among persons with access to the internet. The government and government-linked businesspersons controlled the content of the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.

The government continued to monopolize and control all domestic television broadcasting. It offered six public channels–five controlled by the Ministry of Information and one controlled by the armed forces. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. In August the ministry announced it would allow five media outlets to apply for television channel licenses as private broadcasters. Many media outlets, however, reported the costs of applying and maintaining a television channel were prohibitive.

Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment of journalists dropped precipitously following the March transition to the new government. Nationalist groups, however, continued to target journalists who spoke out regarding intercommunal and Rakhine State issues. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to media located outside the country, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship of press publications, and the government allowed open discussion of sensitive political and economic topics, but incidents of legal action against publications continued to raise concern among local journalists and led to some self-censorship.

On June 14, the Pazundaung Township Court in Yangon Region sentenced four individuals to one year in prison for publishing information that could cause public fear or alarm after they printed a calendar that stated “Rohingya” are an ethnic minority in the country. A fifth man charged in the case remained in hiding. Police arrested the five individuals in November 2015 after fining them approximately 1.1 million kyats ($830) each for breaking the 2014 Printing and Publication Law, which bars individuals from publishing materials that could damage national security and law and order. The court dropped the charges against the owner of the printing house.

In May 2015 the Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit against five editorial staff members of the Daily Eleven newspaper for allegedly defaming the ministry in a 2014 story that criticized the ministry for paying a suspiciously high price for a printing press. Editors of the Daily Eleven disputed the allegation and suggested that the government took legal action to stifle criticism. In June the ministry filed a contempt of court complaint against the publisher and 16 editorial employees, claiming bias in the newspaper’s coverage of a court testimony given by a ministry official in the defamation case. The cases were underway as of December, and the government continued to litigate them through the end of the year.

On April 17, the government released and granted a presidential pardon to the five journalists of the Unity Journal newspaper whom the government had convicted in 2014 for breaching the 1923 State Secret Act.

Libel/Slander Laws: Elements of the military sued journalists on multiple occasions for what they perceived as defamation or inaccurate reporting. The government normally dropped the cases after a lengthy court process. For example, in June the military sued 7Day Daily newspaper, accusing the media outlet of trying actively to undermine the authority of the military with a story that quoted former parliamentary speaker and retired general Thura Shwe Mann urging his colleagues from the military to work with the new government. Only after mediation by the MPC and 7Day Daily’s published apology did the military drop the suit.

Individuals also used the Telecommunications Law to sue reporters for perceived defamation. For example, the chief minister of Rangoon, Phyo Min Thein, sued Eleven Media Group chief executive U Than Htut Aung and the editor in chief, U Wai Phyo, for defamation in November. The chief minister argued that an article insinuating he was corrupt due to an expensive wristwatch amounted to defamation.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. The government reportedly monitored internet communications under questionable legal authority, however, and used defamation charges to intimidate and detain some individuals using social media to criticize the military. There were also some instances of authorities intimidating online media outlets and internet users. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship. Independent research estimated internet penetration at 22 percent by fixed or mobile connection, with the number of active internet users growing by more than 350 percent between March 2015 and August. The current Freedom on the Net report issued by international NGO Freedom House rated internet freedom in Burma not free, but the rating increased slightly from previous years.

On February 10, the government charged Hla Hpone (accused of running the “Kyat Pha Kyi” Facebook page), under the Telecommunications Law for allegedly doctoring images of President Thein Sein and Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Chaw Sandi Tun and Patrick Kum Ja Lee were both released after serving their six-month sentences for posting photographs on their personal Facebook accounts that authorities deemed as defaming the military.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were fewer government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. In its first month in office, the new government released more than 80 education activists who had been in custody for more than a year, following protests over limitations on academic freedom and association in the 2014 National Education Law. The Ministry of Education and universities demonstrated an increased willingness to collaborate with international institutions to host educational and cultural events, as well as to expand educational opportunities for undergraduate students. For example, the Yangon University of Education collaborated with the international community to hold film screenings and discussions on educational issues, while other universities worked with international institutions to allow foreign English-language instructors to teach their students full-time.

The government restricted political activity and freedom of association on university campuses by officially banning political activity on university campuses and student unions. As in previous years, the All Burma Student’s Union was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.

There was one reported incident of the government restricting cultural events. In June the Motion Picture Classification Board banned the showing of a film entitled Twilight Over Burma, which was due to open at an international human rights festival in Rangoon. The board cited concerns that the film, which tells the story of an Austrian woman who married a Shan prince and who was later arrested during the 1962 coup d’etat, could have threatened the peace process underway with ethnic armed groups. Local and international human rights organizations criticized the censorship as a violation of freedom of speech.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides the right to freedom of assembly, and the government took steps to ease restrictions on these rights. On October 4, the government passed an amendment to the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law. The new law requires 48-hour notice to local police for any peaceful assembly or procession, removing the requirement for permission. The law also reduces the maximum penalty for conducting a peaceful assembly or procession without notice from six months to three months in prison. For second violations of the law, the maximum penalty increases to one year. Under the previous law, six-month sentences could be, and often were, stacked consecutively for every township the procession passed through, resulting in multi-year sentences; the new law allows sentencing only for the township where the assembly begins.

Citizens and international civil society groups criticized provisions of the new peaceful assembly and processions law that make it a criminal offense to give speeches that “contain false information,” say anything that can harm the state, or “do anything that causes fear, a disturbance, or blocks roads, vehicles, or the public.”

As part of the April 8 amnesty, the government released all prisoners involved in the March 2015 Letbadan protests. The government also released student union leaders Kyaw Ko Ko and Lin Htet Naing, whom they had arrested in October and November 2015.

Farmers and social activists continued to hold protests over land rights and older cases of land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups continued to report some cases in which the government arrested groups of farmers and those supporting them for demanding the return of confiscated land. Many reported cases involved land taken by the army under the former military regime and given to private companies or individuals with ties to the military. Common charges used to convict the peaceful protesters included criminal trespass, violation of the Peaceful Assembly and Processions Act, and violation of section 505(b) of the penal code, which criminalizes actions that the government deemed likely to cause “an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.” The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) reported more than 100 arrests and indictments during the year, with approximately 116 individuals, including farmers and laborers, known to be facing trial.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

While the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right. The former government reportedly blocked efforts of ethnic language and literature associations to meet and teach, and it impeded efforts of Islamic and Christian associations and other organizations to gather and preach. The new government did not address these restrictions as of November.

In 2014 the government adopted the Law Relating to Registration of Organizations, which effectively voided State Law and Order Restoration Council Law 6/1988. The 2014 registration law stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs.

Activists reported that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss openly human rights and other political problems.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law does not explicitly and comprehensively protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Laws provide rights for citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country “according to law.” Laws related to noncitizens empower the president to make rules for the purpose of requiring registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require registration for every temporary change of address exceeding 24 hours.

In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restricted freedom of movement. In September the government amended the 2012 Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, removing the requirement that persons who intend to spend the night at a place other than their registered domicile inform local ward or village authorities in advance. The new law requires that guests inform local authorities only if their stay outside their registered domicile is longer than one month.

The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move. While a person’s possession of identification documents primarily related to their freedom of movement, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic-minority states reported that the government restricted the travel of, involuntarily confined, and forcibly relocated IDPs and stateless persons.

Restrictions on in-country movement of Muslims in Rakhine State were extensive. Authorities required the Rohingya, a stateless population, to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in five areas in Rakhine State where the Rohingya ethnic minority primarily resides: Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, and Sittwe (see Stateless Persons). Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” for permission to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.

Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and usually required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the Township Immigration and National Registration Department (INRD) and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is valid for 14 days. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with payments required to village administrators or to the township INRD office in amounts ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 kyats ($38 to $76). Change of residency from one village or township to another in northern Rakhine State required permission from the INRD or the township, district, and state officials. While Rohingya could change residency, the government would not register them on a new household registration list in that new location. This practice effectively prevented persons from changing residency.

On March 28, the President’s Office lifted the state of emergency in Rakhine State that had been in place since 2012. This act did not improve freedom of movement for IDPs and stateless persons, since local administrative orders restricting those freedoms stem from separate legislation. Township administrators in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine State reinforced this circumstance by announcing in April that the curfew order would remain in place until further notice.

Travel restrictions effectively prevented Muslims from northern Rakhine State from traveling outside of the state. There were reports of the government preventing Rohingya living outside Rakhine State from traveling into the northern part of the state.

There were reports of regular, unannounced nighttime household checks in northern Rakhine State and in other areas.

Foreign Travel: The government reduced restrictions preventing foreign travel of political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. While some administrative restrictions remained, local organizations reported encountering far fewer delays and restrictions. Stateless persons, particularly the Rohingya, were unable to obtain documentation necessary for foreign travel.

Exile: There was a sizeable diaspora, with some citizens choosing to remain outside the country after years of self-imposed exile. During the year the government encouraged exiles to help rebuild their country, and some returned home.

Emigration and Repatriation: According to the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of the end of September, the verified population of concern for UNHCR and the Thai Ministry of Interior, including those who were unregistered, was 103,366. The government allowed UNHCR and other organizations limited access to monitor potential areas of return to assess conditions for the eventual voluntary return of refugees and IDPs.

UNHCR reported nearly 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees lived in two official camps, Kutapalong and Nayapara, in Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh, with approximately 35,000 undocumented Rohingya living adjacent to the two camps in makeshift settlements. An additional 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya were living outside the camps among the local host population in the surrounding towns and villages. Neither Bangladesh nor Burma claimed the stateless Rohingya as citizens. In Malaysia UNHCR registered approximately 54,400 Rohingya, of whom approximately 13,300 were asylum seekers and 41,100 were refugees. NGOs believed there were many more unregistered Rohingya in Malaysia. At the end of September, the total number of registered asylum seekers and refugees from Burma in Malaysia was 150,226, including more than 41,000 Chin and 39,000 non-Rohingya Burmese Muslims and other ethnic groups from Burma.

According to the United Nations, in the first half of the year, mixed maritime movements of refugees and migrants through Southeast Asia were limited to isolated attempts by several hundred persons trying to reach Malaysia and Australia, fewer than during the first six months of any year since 2011.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

There were an estimated 220,000 persons displaced by violence in Rakhine and Kachin States and northern Shan State. This figure did not include the southeast, where estimates ranged from between 100,000 and 400,000 persons displaced due to prolonged armed conflict in those areas. Accurate figures were difficult to determine due to poor access to affected areas.

As of September the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than 100,000 persons remained displaced because of continued armed conflict in Kachin and Shan States. Camps housing more than half of the IDPs were located in areas beyond government control where government forces restricted humanitarian access. There were approximately 172 locations hosting IDPs. Some IDPs found refuge with hosting families, and others hid in forested areas straddling the border with China.

Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups continued in Kachin, Shan, Karen, and Rakhine States. Ethnic armed groups also clashed among themselves in northern Shan State. Access to displaced persons continued to be a challenge, with the government restricting access by humanitarian actors to provide aid to affected communities. In Shan State, of the 80,000 displaced by the prior conflict, local and international relief agencies reported more than 42,000 had returned. Following November attacks by ethnic armed groups on security forces in Shan State, many displaced persons crossed into China, with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimating them at 15,000 at that time. Since mid-April circumscribed fighting between the military and the Arakan Army displaced approximately 1,500 persons in Buthidaung, Kyawktaw, Ponnagyun, and Rathedaung townships in Rakhine State. The government relocated the displaced, who initially stayed in schools, to areas where they could build makeshift shelters within their displaced communities.

Armed clashes between a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Border Guard Police in September led to more than 5,600 IDPs from 22 villages taking refuge in Myaing Gyi Ngu Township (two hours north of Karen State’s capital Hpa An). Additional estimates of up to 2,000 persons sought shelter in border areas and stayed with host communities. A number of local and community-based actors provided support and assistance, including youth groups, faith-based organizations, and private donors. International actors provided support, in coordination with their government counterparts.

Approximately 120,000 persons, including Rohingya and Kaman Muslims, and ethnic Rakhine remained displaced in Rakhine State following the 2012 violence, and reports estimated that security operations in northern Rakhine displaced 30,000 persons. Nearly 90,000 Rohingya IDPs lived in Sittwe’s rural camps, where they relied on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps. The government limited health and education services and livelihood opportunities through systematic restrictions on movement. Rakhine State authorities and security officials imposed severe and disproportionate restrictions on movements of Rohingya IDPs. Conditions in Aung Mingalar, the sole remaining Muslim quarter in Sittwe, remained poor, with Rohingya allowed to leave the fenced and guarded compound to shop for necessities at nearby markets or to visit outside health clinics if they paid a fee to security services. There were reports that some Rohingya were able to engage in limited commercial activities outside Aung Mingalar. While restrictions on movement remained in place, local residents reported some easing of restrictions on their movements.

During the year humanitarian agencies more regularly received travel authorizations to provide assistance, but humanitarian access to Rakhine State was irregular and often restricted. Humanitarian workers continued to be under pressure from local communities to reduce assistance to Muslim IDPs and villages, despite limited adequate access to meet humanitarian need.

UNHCR noted some small-scale, spontaneous IDP returns in the southeast of the country.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The country’s laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

UNHCR did not register any asylum seekers during the year.

STATELESS PERSONS

The Myanmar Population and Housing Census reported that there were an estimated 1.09 million Muslims residing in Rakhine State who were stateless because of discriminatory provisions in the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law. The census did not enumerate the Rohingya population in specific due to their statelessness, but according to UNHCR the census number was an accurate estimate of the stateless Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Based on preliminary analysis, there were likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent.

Provisions of the Citizenship Law relating to the acquisition of citizenship discriminate on the grounds of race or ethnicity and contributed to statelessness. Following the entry into force of the 1982 law and procedures, the government released a list of 135 recognized “national ethnic groups” whose members, according to the law, are automatically “citizens.” The government list of 135 official ethnic groups excluded the Rohingya, and subsequent actions by the government rendered members of the Rohingya ethnic minority stateless. The law defines “national ethnic group” only as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate. While the majority of the country’s inhabitants automatically acquired citizenship under these provisions, some minority groups, including the Rohingya; persons of Indian, Chinese, and Nepali descent; and “Pashu” (Straits Chinese), some of whose members had previously enjoyed citizenship in the country, are not included on the government’s list. The law does not provide protection for children born in the country who do not have a “relevant link” to another state. As a result statelessness continued to increase, since children of stateless parents could not acquire citizenship. UNHCR and a number of human rights and humanitarian organizations continued to advocate amendment of the Citizenship Law to bring it in line with the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments (see section 6, Children).

The name Rohingya is used in reference to a group that self-identifies as belonging to an ethnic group defined by religious, linguistic, and other ethnic features. Rohingya do not dispute their ethnogeographic origins from present day Bangladesh, but they hold that they have resided in what is now Rakhine State for decades, if not centuries. Previously authorities usually referred to Rohingya pejoratively as “Bengali,” claiming that the Muslim residents of northern Rakhine State are irregular migrants from Bangladesh or descendants of migrants transplanted by the British during colonial rule. In May the government policy began using “Muslims in Rakhine State” to refer to the population. In May the government announced a plan to continue its citizenship verification process in Rakhine State by continuing to issue Identity Cards for Nationality Verification (ICNV). As of December the government issued ICNVs to 3,162 of the 390,000 Kaman Muslims and Rohingya, who surrendered their previous national identity card–the Temporary Identity Certificate–in 2015 at the government’s request. The government no longer requires all participants to identify as “Bengali” as a condition of participating in the process, nor does it require applicants to list their race or religion on forms in the earliest phases of the process. As of December an estimated 2,000 Rohingya participated in the new government’s citizen verification process, applying for ICNV as a first step. As of December the government had not released results, and individuals going through the process had not enjoyed any additional benefits in recognition of their participation. The government continued to call Rohingya to participate, but many of them expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process. Many said the government once recognized them as citizens but expressed fear the government would either not grant them citizenship or would grant them a form of lesser citizenship, curtailing their rights.

According to the Citizenship Law, two lesser forms of citizenship exist: associate and naturalized. According to other legal statutes, these citizens are unable to run for political office; serve in the military, law enforcement, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. According to the Citizenship Law, only the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.

Rohingya experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The government required them to receive prior approval for travel outside their village of residence; limited their access to higher education, health care, and other basic services; and prohibited them from working as civil servants, including as doctors, nurses, or teachers. Authorities singled out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor and arbitrarily arrested them. Authorities required Rohingya to obtain official permission for marriages and limited the registration of children to two per family, but local enforcement of the two-child policy was inconsistent. For the most part, authorities registered additional children beyond the two-child limit for Rohingya families, yet there were cases of authorities not doing so.

Restrictions impeded the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings.

Local security officials in Rakhine State committed violent crimes and arbitrarily arrested an unknown number of Rohingya, according to reports. Many of these reports occurred during October to December following attacks against police and border authorities by local groups and a subsequent security clearance operation. The perpetrators and the reported abuses remained unconfirmed at year’s end.

The number of voluntary migrants departing Rakhine State dropped to its lowest since 2011, with only a few hundred departures reported in the first six months of the year. This significantly reduced the risk to Rohingya migrants who had been vulnerable to human trafficking, migrant smuggling, and other abuses once on boats and during transit. Following violent attacks against Border Guard Police posts on October 9, however, UN and NGO reports estimated more than 20,000 persons in northern Rakhine State began to move across the Bangladeshi border to flee security operations underway in the area.

There were reports of extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, forced labor, sex trafficking, torture, mistreatment in detention, deaths in custody, and systematic denial of due process and fair trial rights in Rakhine State.

According to media reports and local NGOs, on January 11 in Shwe Zar Kat Pa Kaung Village, Maungdaw Township, villagers found the bodies of two young men, reportedly including one minor, in a boat the day after they went fishing. Villagers noted that they last saw the two near a Border Guard Police station, but no investigation took place and the perpetrators were unknown at year’s end.

Local organizations reported 24 cases of arbitrary arrest and detention in Rakhine State, mostly in Buthidaung Township. Most of the individuals detained by the government secured their release by payment of up to 950,000 kyat ($715). A number of those arrested reported authorities beat them while in prison. One man arrested on April 5 in Buthidaung Township reported that officials handcuffed and tied him to the roof of the prison, where they slapped, punched, and beat him and set his chest on fire. Officials released him following payment of 10 million kyat ($7,500). Local NGOs reported widely credible incidents of forced labor, most allegedly perpetrated by the Tatmadaw and the Border Guard Police. Government officials reportedly used villagers for maintenance work and were either unpaid or received compensation that was well below market rates.

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

The government did not fully allow domestic human rights organizations to function independently. As of year’s end, the current government had not fulfilled the previous government’s 2012 pledge to open an office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). While allowing the OHCHR to maintain a nominal presence in country, the government delayed visa issuance for some OHCHR staff members and continued to require travel authorization for travel to Rakhine State. Human rights NGOs were able to open offices and operate with less harassment and monitoring by authorities than in previous years.

Human rights activists and advocates, including representatives from international NGOs, continued to obtain short-term visas that required them to leave the country periodically for renewal. The government continued to monitor the movements of foreigners and interrogated citizens concerning contacts with foreigners, but observers reported a decrease in such activity in some areas.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: During the year there was a significant deterioration in access for UN and international humanitarian organizations, particularly in Rakhine and nongovernment-controlled areas where there were clashes with ethnic armed groups. Beginning in April the military blocked access to areas outside government control in Kachin State and instructed IDPs in these areas to cross conflict lines and travel to designated distribution points in government areas to collect necessary relief supplies. The government did not regularly grant approval for humanitarian convoys, but smaller scale missions conducted by individual and local agencies reportedly were more successful in obtaining approvals. UN agencies, along with all other humanitarian actors, were not able to access northern Rakhine State from October to December, following the attacks and subsequent security response.

The government facilitated regular visits of the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar and the UN special adviser to the secretary-general, but it had not come to an agreement with the OHCHR on the establishment of a field office within the country.

Following a 2012 government pledge to allow the ICRC prison access, the ICRC had full access to independent civilian prisons and labor camp visits. The government also allowed the ICRC to operate in ethnic-minority states, including in Shan, Rakhine, and Kachin States.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) investigated incidents of gross human rights abuses and in some instances called on the government to hold accountable members of the police force or military implicated in the crimes. Its ability to operate as a credible, independent mechanism remained limited. The commission supported the development of human rights education curricula, distributed human rights materials, and conducted human rights training. It engaged with the United Nations and international partners and increasingly with civil society.

Despite this progress, in June the MNHRC came under significant public scrutiny over its mediation of a human rights case in Rangoon. Reporter Ko Swe Win published a story of two teenage female housekeepers who had been tortured, abused, and isolated from any outside contact at a Rangoon tailoring shop over the course of five years. When police took no action in July, Win brought the case to the MNHRC, which proceeded to handle the case through mediation, facilitating a payment of approximately 5.45 million kyat ($4,100) to the victims from the alleged abusers–4.1 million kyat ($3,100) to one family and 1.35 million kyat ($1,000) to the other. Public outrage ensued over the lack of formal prosecution and for a perceived failure on behalf of the MNHRC to defend the rights of the victims. Led by the antihuman trafficking unit, police subsequently arrested three alleged abusers on September 20 and 21 and reportedly charged them under the Antihuman Trafficking Law. Following this incident parliament called for a review of the MNHRC, and four MNHRC commissioners voluntarily resigned. The review continued at year’s end. The government awarded journalist Ko Swe Win a commendation for his work on September 23.

In August the government established the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by Kofi Annan, as a neutral and impartial body tasked with proposing concrete measures to improve the welfare of all persons in Rakhine State. The commission visited Rakhine State twice during the year, both before and after the violence in Rakhine broke out in October, and their recommendations were due to the government in early 2017.

Burundi

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press but ban “defamatory” speech about the president and other officials, material deemed to endanger national security, and racial or ethnic hate speech. Restrictions on freedom of speech and press increased significantly following dissent against the president’s 2015 announcement that he would seek a third term in office and government accusations of media complicity in the 2015 failed coup. Forces allied to the CNDD-FDD repressed media perceived as sympathetic to the opposition, including print and radio journalists, through harassment, intimidation, and violence.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law protects public servants and the president against “words, gestures, threats, or writing of any kind” that is “abusive or defamatory” or would “impair the dignity of or respect for their office.” The law also prohibits racially or ethnically motivated hate speech. The law mandates a penalty of six months to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 francs ($6 to $30) for insulting the head of state. Some journalists, lawyers, NGO personnel, and leaders of political parties and civil society alleged the government used the law to intimidate and harass them (see section 3).

Press and Media Freedoms: Government-owned and operated Le Renouveau, the only daily newspaper, and Burundi National Television and Radio (RTNB), the sole television and radio station with national coverage, were among the few outlets that were allowed to operate without interruption during the year. The country’s last independent newspaper, the French-language Iwacu, whose editor in chief fled the country in 2015, saw one of its journalists disappear in July. Iwacu was allowed to stay open and continued to report information critical of the government. Three radio stations forcibly closed in the aftermath of the May 2015 failed coup remained closed. The law prohibits political parties, labor unions, and foreign NGOs from owning media outlets.

In 2013 the government passed a media law that required journalists to reveal sources in some circumstances and prohibited the publication of articles deemed to undermine national security. Penalties for failing to observe the law were severe. In 2014 parliament revised the law following journalists’ successful appeal to the East African Court of Justice. The court’s decision caused parliament to remove from media law some of its more draconian elements. Following the failed coup of May 2015, the government invoked the law to intimidate and detain journalists.

Reporters who were able to continue working complained that government agents harassed and threatened media that criticized the government and the CNDD-FDD. Journalists had difficulty corroborating stories, as local sources were intimidated.

Violence and Harassment: Several media outlets alleged they received explicit threats that they would be closed if they published or broadcast unflattering stories about the government. The government detained or summoned for questioning several local and international journalists investigating subjects such as human rights violations, corruption, or the movement opposing a third term for the incumbent president. Journalists experienced violence and harassment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 100 journalists had fled the country since the April 2015 protests and the May 2015 failed coup attempt and remained abroad at year’s end.

In April 2015 the RTNB cut access to its broadcasting towers by radio stations it accused of supporting antigovernment protests, effectively preventing the interior of the country from receiving radio broadcasts overtly critical of the government’s actions. In May 2015 supporters of the failed coup attempt burned the offices and destroyed the equipment of the progovernment station, Radio REMA FM. The next day unidentified persons attacked the offices and destroyed the equipment of four radio stations–Radio Television Renaissance, Radio Isanganiro, Bonesha FM, and Radio Publique Africaine–accused by the government of broadcasting messages inciting persons to support the coup. Radio REMA FM reopened in October 2015. Radio Isanganiro was allowed to reopen in March following an agreement with the government. No prosecutions for the destruction of the stations had occurred by year’s end.

On January 4, the Ministry of Public Security issued a press release criticizing the reporting of a Radio France Internationale journalist. The release concluded, “The authorized government services will take the necessary measures to deal with this journalist’s disruptive activities,” a phrase that Reporters without Borders described as a “barely veiled threat.” As widely reported in media, on January 28, security forces detained two international journalists on assignment for Le Monde on suspicion of fraternizing with an armed opposition group. After 24 hours in custody, they were released without any formal charges being brought.

According to Reporters without Borders, Bonesha FM journalist Boaz Ntaconayigize fled to Uganda after receiving death threats and being attacked and badly injured by four men wielding knives on July 3. Ntaconayigize had reportedly investigated reports that SNR agents were infiltrating the Burundian refugee community in Uganda. He alleged he recognized two of his assailants as Burundians posing as refugees. According to Radio Bonesha, another of its journalists, Leon Ntakiyiruta, was attacked on August 8 in Kampala, Uganda, by two men wielding machetes; his attackers fled when a passerby intervened.

On July 22, Iwacu reporter Jean Bigirimana was abducted by unknown men. Police and the SNR denied that he was in their custody. Presidential spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe stated that the government was investigating the disappearance and tweeted that the opposition might be behind Bigirimana’s disappearance.

Reporters without Borders and local media outlets estimated that, by year’s end, 75 to 80 percent of the independent journalists who were working in early 2015 had fled the country due to growing threats from progovernment groups.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored media and penalized outlets that violated its standards of acceptable content. Broadly interpreted laws against libel, hate speech, endangering state security, and treason also fostered self-censorship, including by journalists working for the national broadcaster. Those who did not self-censor reportedly faced “reassignment” to jobs where they did not have access to the public or were fired.

The National Communications Council (CNC) regulates both print and broadcast media, controls the accreditation of journalists, and enforces compliance with media laws. The president appoints all 15 members, who were mainly government representatives and journalists from the state broadcaster. According to Freedom House, observers regarded the CNC as a tool of the executive branch, as it regularly issued politicized rulings and sanctions against journalists and outlets.

On October 25, the CNC suspended the radio program KARADIRIDIMBA on Radio Isanganiro for one month after the program aired a song about human rights abuses in Burundi. The CNC determined the airing of the song violated the agreement Radio Isanganiro signed which prohibited certain topics from being broadcast.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel laws prohibit the public distribution of information that exposes a person to “public contempt” and carry penalties of prison terms and fines. The crime of treason, which includes knowingly demoralizing the military or the country in a manner that endangers national defense during a time of war, carries a criminal penalty of life imprisonment. It is a crime for anyone knowingly to disseminate or publicize rumors likely to alarm or excite the public against the government or to promote civil war. It is illegal for anyone to display drawings, posters, photographs, or other items that may “disturb the public peace.” Penalties range from two months’ to three years’ imprisonment and fines. Some journalists, lawyers, and leaders of political parties, civil society groups, and NGOs alleged the government used these laws to intimidate and harass them.

In 2014 opposition politician Leonce Ngendakumana sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General to alert him to concerns about violence during Burundi’s election cycle that year. Ngendakumana’s letter warned that the ruling party might be preparing a “political genocide.” Authorities charged Ngendakumana with “false accusations and inciting ethnic strife.” He was acquitted on appeal during the year.

Nongovernmental Impact: Many members of the governing party’s youth militia, Imbonerakure, collaborated closely with government security forces. In some cases they were official members of mixed security councils, which comprise police, local administration officials, and civilians. Journalists and human rights defenders accused Imbonerakure of acting as irregular security forces, using government resources to follow, threaten, and attack individuals they perceived as opposition supporters.

Actions to Expand Press Freedom: In February the government announced it would allow two radio stations to resume broadcasting after their closure and destruction in 2015. As a condition to reopening, REMA FM (which supported the ruling party) and Radio Isanganiro (which was critical of the ruling party) were obliged to sign an agreement stating they would be “balanced and objective” and not threaten the country’s security.

INTERNET FREEDOM

According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 5 percent of individuals used the internet. In the absence of independent radio, some citizens relied heavily on the social media platforms WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information about current events. The government blocked the use of two or three social media applications on mobile networks for several days following the May 2015 failed coup. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored e-mail or internet chat rooms. Several radio stations that were closed after the failed coup continued to publish radio segments and articles online.

On August 20, police arrested 54 persons attending a private event in a downtown Bujumbura bar. Relatives of the detainees claimed they were arrested for exchanging messages critical of the government on the WhatsApp messaging platform. On August 21, most detainees were released, but eight remained in custody and were later prosecuted for defamation.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

On July 23, independent Radio Bonesha reported that Jerome Nzokirantevye, the head of the national radio and television company, the RTNB, had forbidden the playing of all Rwandan music including religious music. Nzokirantevye denied the report, stating he had only directed the station to “favor Burundian music.”

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, but the government severely restricted this right (see section 1.d.). The law requires political parties and large groups to notify the government with details at least four days prior to a meeting, but even when notified, authorities in most cases denied permission for opposition members to meet and dispersed meetings already underway. Many opposition political parties said their decision to boycott the 2015 elections was a response to consistent denials of permission by authorities to hold campaign rallies.

Freedom of assembly was further restricted following the failed coup attempt in May 2015, and these restrictions remained in place at year’s end.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association within the confines of the law, but the government severely restricted this right. The law requires registration of CSOs with the Ministry of Interior, a complex process with unclear criteria. There is no recourse when authorities deny registration. Registration must be renewed annually.

On October 19, the government permanently banned five CSOs, led by those opposed to the president’s run for a third term. On December 22, in the wake of an internet video accusing the president of planning genocide, the government permanently banned Ligue Iteka, the country’s oldest human rights organization, for being “recidivist in its actions to tarnish the image of the country and sow hate and division among the Burundian population.” The government allowed 14 previously suspended organizations to restart activities after investigating their involvement in the 2015 protests and subsequent violence.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

In-country Movement: According to several news sources, the government enforced the use of “cahiers de menage,” booklets that listed the residents and domestic workers of each household in some neighborhoods of the capital. Police arrested persons during neighborhood searches in numerous instances for not being registered in household booklets. Persons who attempted to cross the border to flee violence and reach refugee camps were sometimes stopped by police, the SNR, or Imbonerakure members at border crossings and turned back. Other persons feared being arrested if they attempted to cross and remained in hiding inside the country as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The government strongly encouraged citizens to participate in community-level work projects every Saturday morning and imposed travel restrictions on citizens from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Authorities required permits for movement outside of one’s community during those hours, and police enforced the restrictions through roadblocks. Persons could obtain waivers in advance. Foreign residents were exempt.

Foreign Travel: Many middle and upper class citizens fled the country during the political unrest. The price of passports fluctuated from 50,000 francs to 235,000 francs ($30 to $142). In 2015 the opposition group known as CNARED (Council for the Observance of the Constitution, Human Rights, and the Arusha Peace Accord) accused the government of using Interpol to harass its members. The government confirmed that it had sent a list of “putchists” and others implicated in violence to Interpol because they were being pursued by Burundian police. Authorities required exit visas for foreign nationals who held nonofficial passports; these visas cost 48,000 francs ($29) per month to maintain.

Exile: The law does not provide for forced exile, and the government did not practice it. Many political opposition members, civil society leaders, and journalists have reportedly gone into voluntary exile to escape threats and violence.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted approximately 60,000 IDPs displaced as of September, concentrated mainly in Rumonge and Makamba provinces. These IDPs were in addition to a preexisting population of IDPs in the country. Some IDPs reported feeling threatened because of their perceived political sympathies. Some IDPs attempted to return to their homes, but the majority returned to the IDP sites or relocated to urban centers. The government generally permitted IDPs to be included in programs provided by UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations, such as shelter and legal assistance programs.

During the political unrest that began in late April 2015, many citizens sent family members out of neighborhoods in Bujumbura that were the scenes of violent clashes.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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

As of October, approximately 55,000 Congolese refugees remained in the country, prevented from returning to the DRC by continuing violence there. Efforts to resettle Congolese refugees in third countries, begun in 2015, continued.

Employment: Refugees have the right to work except in the army, police, judiciary, or any political position.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees residing in camps administered by the government and the United Nations and its partners received basic services. The large percentage of refugees residing in urban areas also accessed services, such as education and health care.

STATELESS PERSONS

Citizenship generally derives from the citizenship of parents. According to UNHCR, an estimated 1,500 stateless persons lived in the country at the end of 2015. The National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons stated that, at year’s end, these numbers remained unchanged. All were from Oman, were awaiting proof of citizenship from the government of Oman, and had lived in Burundi for decades. The government offered the stateless Omanis citizenship if they could not get Omani citizenship. There was no evidence that stateless persons experienced discrimination.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups struggled to operate without government restriction. Many human rights defenders who had fled the country in 2015 remained outside the country at year’s end.

In October the government banned five CSOs led by opponents to the president’s third term and, in December, banned the country’s oldest human rights organization, League Iteka. During the year the government allowed 14 organizations suspended for their involvement in the 2015 protests to resume operations after an investigation (see section 2.b.). Many suspended organizations continued to function and post newsletters online, often from abroad. During the year progovernment local NGOs grew stronger and more vocal. They tailored their messages to weaken the effectiveness of antigovernment NGOs and opposition organizations. The progovernment Collective of Associations of People Infected and Affected by HIV/AIDS and the Integrated Platform for Civil Society issued a statement in October praising the permanent ban of five NGOs.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: On February 27, the AU announced it would send 100 human rights monitors and 100 military monitors to the country and stated that the president supported the deployment. As of year’s end, however, procedural issues related to the possible deployment had not been resolved.

On June 28, a government delegation led by Justice Minister Aimee Laurentine Kanyana attended the first part of a UN Committee against Torture review to address concerns including torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and rape. The minister dismissed the review as not credible. The country’s delegation issued a statement saying the government needed time to investigate the reports and did not attend the second day of the review.

On July 29, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2303 expressing grave concern over human rights violations and welcomed the government’s professed cooperation in the deployment of UN and AU human rights monitors. The resolution also authorized a force of up to 228 UN police to be deployed throughout the country. On August 2, the government issued a communique signed by government spokesperson Philippe Nzobonariba stating that the government rejected the deployment of 228 police and that “the government agreed to the deployment of a team of 20 to 50 unarmed police to build the capacity of the Burundian police in the fight against terrorism.” The communique asserted that security forces were not necessary because the country’s defense and security forces fully controlled the situation within the national territory. The communique stated the government was ready to welcome the 200 observers and experts from the AU, as agreed in October 2015. The government organized nonviolent protests against France, the sponsor of the resolution. According to the AU, fewer than 50 monitors had been granted permission to enter the country as of year’s end, and the monitors were limited in what they could do because the government had yet to agree on a memorandum of understanding for the monitors.

In September, UNIIB published a report on the human rights situation in the country. The government challenged many of the UNIIB’s allegations in a report published later that month. The Senate, National Assembly, and minister of human rights also rejected the report’s findings, and the government organized countrywide protests against both the report and the United Nations. In October the government declared the authors of the report officially unwelcome in the country and suspended the activities of OHCHR Burundi.

On April 26, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched a preliminary examination to investigate reports of killing, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. In October the government passed a law withdrawing the country from the ICC, the first country to do so.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Prosecutor General’s Office set up a commission of inquiry to “shed light on the deaths of 11 and 12 December 2015 and on the allegations of mass graves.” The commission’s findings, announced on March 10, that “no mass graves had been found in the locations cited by certain NGOs.” The prosecutor general stated the investigation had found on February 29 a previously unreported common grave dug for the victims of (see section 1.a.).

On March 4, the president officially launched the operational phase of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC has a mandate to document events from Burundi’s 1962 independence to 2008, when the last opposition combatant group (the FNL) laid down its arms. Impunity Watch, an international NGO, asserted in a March report that conditions for the TRC’s operation were not conducive “in the current climate of fear and intimidation, lack of genuine free speech, and a ruling party that maintains a tight grip on power.” Based on interviews with 60 persons and a series of focus group discussions in 2015 and 2016 in four provinces, Impunity Watch reported that citizens believed the investigations would lead to criminal prosecutions and payment of compensation, which is not within the TRC mandate. Many expressed fear of retribution if they described events. The Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society, a local NGO banned by the government in October, criticized the composition of the TRC, asserting its members were too close to the ruling party to be impartial. The TRC president, Jean-Louis Maimane, responded publicly, “One can belong to a political group and yet still be honest.”

A lack of funding adversely affected the TRC’s ability to operate. As of October, the 150 investigators called for by the end of March had not been recruited, and international donors had not provided adequate funding to finance a pilot project intended to monitor progress and provide feedback to donors and the TRC.

Ombudsman Mohamed Rukara, whose functions included monitoring prison conditions and encouraging interreligious dialogue, was out of the country for the first half of the year. He left the country abruptly in September 2015 after speaking out against the president seeking a third term, returning to Burundi in July. The National Assembly replaced Rukara with Edouard Nduwimana in November when the previous ombudsman’s mandate expired.

The CNIDH, a quasi-governmental body charged with investigating human rights abuses, exercised its power to summon senior officials, demand information, and order corrective action. The CNIDH was generally independent, but its effectiveness was limited in part by inadequate resources. The CNIDH, which also monitored the government’s progress on human rights investigations, did not always release its findings to the public. Human rights committees in the National Assembly and the Senate worked on a range of issues, including human rights and antitrafficking legislation.

Cabo Verde

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

According to the Cabo Verdean National Communications Authority’s 2016 Second Quarter Report, 59 percent of the population used the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The country has not established national legislation or an institutional body for granting asylum or refugee status. While very few asylum applications were registered (UNHCR reported only two cases in total in 2011 and 2012 and none since), the actual number of asylum seekers was unknown, since there is no systematic procedure in place to register and process asylum claims. Because UNHCR does not have an established presence in the country, asylum seekers who request protection and assistance are referred by the International Organization for Migration to UNHCR’s regional representation for West Africa in Dakar, Senegal, which conducts refugee status determinations. Temporary protection mechanisms and access to basic services are in place for asylum seekers while they await a decision.

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

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

Cambodia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government did not always respect these rights.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution grants free speech except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares that the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive conforming to the defamation law reiterates these limits and prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame not just the king, but also government leaders and institutions.

In March 2015 the National Assembly agreed to amendments to the laws governing the NEC and passed a new Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly. Both the amendments and the new law contain provisions that require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaign periods and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties through the media. The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), promulgated in August 2015, further restricts freedom of speech by broadly requiring all associations and NGOs to be politically neutral.

The law prohibits prepublication censorship or imprisonment for expressing opinions; however, the government used the penal code to prosecute citizens on defamation, disinformation, and incitement charges. The penal code does not prescribe imprisonment for defamation but does for incitement or spreading disinformation, which carry a maximum imprisonment of three years. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Courts broadly interpreted the crime of “incitement,” and senior government officials threatened to prosecute opposition figures on incitement charges for acts including calling for a “change in government” by electoral means.

Local human rights NGOs, media, and several independent analysts continued to express concern publicly about government actions targeting their work, including the cases against ADHOC officials. On May 9, a group of human rights activists launched the “Black Monday” campaign to protest the injustice of the judiciary and demand the release of the so-called prisoners of conscience. The campaign called upon members to wear black every Monday in solidarity with the prisoners. In a number of cases, authorities arrested the campaigners and granted release contingent on their signing an agreement promising not to rejoin the protests.

Press and Media Freedoms: All major political parties had reasonable and regular access to the print media. A majority of Khmer-language newspapers received financial support from individuals closely associated with the ruling CPP. According to the Ministry of Information, there were an estimated 13 Khmer-language newspapers, while 30 to 40 small circulation “papers” printed on an irregular schedule.

Although observers considered the five newspapers with the largest circulation pro-CPP, the newspapers occasionally criticized the government in some general areas, particularly with regard to corruption and land acquisition. As of August no pro-opposition newspapers published regularly; however, opposition voices relied on electronic publications and social media to express a wide range of opinions, including dissent. While the use of social media remained largely uncensored, some activists noted an increase in targeted crackdowns by government authorities, resulting in some social media users being subject to threats, arrest, detention, and unfair convictions.

The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to influence broadcast media. There were 16 domestic television stations and more than 175 radio stations. The CPP controlled or strongly influenced most television and radio stations, although a few were independent or aligned with other parties. According to a media monitoring NGO, the government routinely used state television to promote the activities of the government and the CPP and to criticize the opposition, while not granting the opposition parties equal access. In July civil society organizations criticized local media outlets for not covering the events surrounding the killing of Kem Ley. Some individuals attributed this to CPP and government pressure on media.

As part of the 2014 deal ending the political impasse between the ruling and opposition parties, the government granted the CNRP a license to operate a television station; however, the CNRP faced difficulties obtaining local land and building permits. In April, Kandal provincial authorities banned the CNRP from erecting its television antenna, citing concerns by local residents that the station would emit electromagnetic radiation and harm their health. CNRP officials accused the authorities of being biased, noting that the CPP-aligned Apsara TV had broadcasted from a densely populated area in Phnom Penh since 1996 without any problem or protest. The CNRP announced in June it would identify an alternative location for the station.

Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. On April 10, Pailin District police officer Khea Sokhorn pointed a rifle at Ouk Touch, a reporter for the Kampuchea Aphivat newspaper, claiming he was infuriated with the journalistic investigation into his violent shooting of villagers. In a separate case, military police in Mondulkiri Province detained Vann Tith, a TV9 broadcaster who reported that their commander took bribes from illegal loggers in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports government agents harassed and intimidated journalists, publishers, and media distributors. Because the government controls permits and licenses for journalists, most media outlets practiced self-censorship to some degree. Some reporters and editors continued to self-censor their reporting due to fear of government reprisal.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests. The government issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy relying on a conviction from a defamation suit brought by then foreign minister Hor Namhong in 2008 (see section 3).

National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ rights to criticize government policies and officials. In particular the government routinely threatened to prosecute and arrest anyone who questioned the demarcation of the country’s border with Vietnam or suggested the government had ceded national territory to Vietnam.

INTERNET FREEDOM

While the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, there were credible reports government entities monitored private online communications. According to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, internet access was widely available, particularly in urban centers, and more than 31 percent of the population had internet access. More than 98 percent of users could access the internet through mobile devices as opposed to home connections.

In December 2015 the Law on Telecommunications came into effect, causing backlash from the country’s leading civil society and human rights activists, who claimed it provides the government broad authority to monitor secretly online public discussion and communications using private telecommunication devices. According to human rights NGO Licadho, the government has the legal authority to monitor every telephone conversation, text message, e-mail, social media activity, and correspondence between individuals without their knowledge or consent. Any expressed opinions deemed to violate the government’s definition of national security could result in a maximum imprisonment of 15 years. As of November there were no arrests based on the new legislation.

A local human rights NGO claimed there were at least 20 cases of persons arrested for content they posted online. In March the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced political science student Kong Raya to 18 months in prison for calling for a “color revolution” on Facebook. Civil society groups condemned the conviction and characterized it as a measure to restrict further freedom of expression online. Several activists said the government sought to use Raya’s case to threaten, intimidate, and obstruct civil society.

In 2015 the Ministry of Interior announced it would begin enforcing rules mandating all SIM cards be associated with an identifiable individual. This led to the disconnection of nearly one million SIM cards. As of September an estimated 19 million SIM cards were in use, compared with approximately 20 million in use in 2015. Police justified the new rule as a necessary step to curb crime, including trafficking in persons, and terrorism. Despite this new requirement, many mobile operators did not confirm the identities of SIM card owners. Civil society groups continued to express concern the government could use the collection of personal information from SIM card registration to stifle freedom of expression online.

A “Cyber War Team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit is responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. A leak of the draft Cybercrime Law in July 2015 raised additional fears the government was developing new legal mechanisms to broaden its powers to arrest and convict those who challenge its position. In response the government stated the goal of the legislation was to “inform the public,” protect the government’s “prestige and honor,” and defend the government from “insults.”

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

In general there were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although scholars tended to be careful when teaching political subjects due to fear of offending politicians. In May the Ministry of Education reminded public and private education institutions the education law strictly prohibits all political activities and discussions. Specifically the law states, “Political activities and/or propaganda for any political party in educational establishments and institutions shall be completely banned.” Many activists asserted the law aims to stifle youth support of the opposition, adding that a majority of school principals supported the CPP. On August 10, the ministry issued a directive banning all political activity at academic institutions. Government officials appeared to exempt several large campus-based organizations affiliated with the ruling party, however, stating these were “extracurricular” groups that promoted “humanitarian causes.”

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government did not always respect this right.

The LANGO requires an advance permit for meetings, training, protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities sometimes inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments may issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party.

There were credible reports the government occasionally prevented associations and NGOs from organizing public events, arguing the groups had not registered under the newly passed LANGO, although implementation regulations on the law were not yet in place. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security as reasons for denying permits, although the law does not define the terms “stability” or “public security.” Government authorities also occasionally cited provisions in the LANGO to prevent associations and NGOs from organizing public events or to break up meetings and training deemed hostile to the government. In some cases police forcibly dispersed groups assembled without a permit, sometimes causing minor injuries to demonstrators. The press reported numerous public protests, most related to land or labor disputes.

A human rights NGO reported the government prevented at least 42 cases of peaceful gatherings or public speeches, double the number in 2015. The Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, a community-based organization working with farmers to improve their livelihoods, reported that Prey Veng authorities stopped one of its training sessions and demanded it show its official registration documents, although the Ministry of Interior claimed the LANGO does not obligate such organizations to register.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect this right, particularly with regard to workers’ rights (see section 7.a.).

Vaguely worded provisions in the LANGO prohibit any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and culture of Cambodian society.” Civil society organizations expressed concern the vaguely worded provisions created a substantial risk of arbitrary restrictions to the right of association. According to critics the LANGO provides for a heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration process that lacks administrative safeguards, rendering the process vulnerable to politicization. The law also imposes burdensome reporting obligations on finances and activities. Additional obligations include the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts held by associations and NGOs. While official statistics continued to be unavailable, many NGOs reported difficulties filing registration paperwork with the government.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

Exile: Opposition leader Sam Rainsy remained in France under self-imposed exile. The government issued a warrant for his arrest in November 2015 on charges of defamation while he was outside of the country, and he had not returned at years’ end.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government failed to grant equal access to that system for all asylum seekers. In particular authorities routinely denied access by Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam to the refugee registration process. The national asylum system had limited capacity, which resulted in long delays for some asylum seekers. In April 2015 the government deployed more than 1,000 soldiers to the Vietnamese border at Ratanakiri-Dak Lak to prevent more than 100 Christian Montagnard asylum seekers from entering the country. In May the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) transferred a group of 13 Montagnards to the Philippines Refugee Processing Center and sought a third country for their resettlement. A group of 16 additional asylum seekers returned voluntarily to their home country in July after failing to secure refugee status in Phnom Penh.

Refoulement: Stating that they were “economic migrants,” the government returned at least 50 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam in 2015 without conducting refugee status determinations. According to UNHCR more than 170 Montagnards remained in Phnom Penh and wished to register as asylum seekers, but the Ministry of Interior’s Refugee Department refused to allow them to do so. In October the ministry announced it had not granted asylum to a majority of the remaining Montagnards following extensive interviews, stating, “Their answers do not comply with the convention on refugees.” Local media initially reported the ministry provided them two weeks’ notice to leave the country or face arrest and immediate deportation to Vietnam; however, the ministry later retracted that timeline.

Employment: According to an NGO, documentation granted by the government was insufficient to allow 85 persons granted refugee status in 2015 to work, open a bank account, or use public services.

Durable Solutions: Pursuant to a 2014 deal with Australia, the government accepted for domestic resettlement five refugees previously held on Nauru. After the arrival of a lone Rohingya refugee, a group of four followed. Local media reported authorities confined the four to a villa provided by the government and were not, contrary to assurances, allowed to seek their own housing or integrate into society. The four refugees subsequently returned to their country of origin, including an Iranian married couple who returned to Iran in March. The Rohingya refugee reportedly remained in the country. No effective pathway to citizenship existed for refugees.

STATELESS PERSONS

The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless, and the government did not effectively implement laws or policies to provide such persons the opportunity to gain nationality (see section 6, Children).

A 2007 study commissioned by UNHCR estimated that several thousand potentially stateless persons lived in the country. This estimate was based on anecdotal evidence, and local UNHCR representatives did not consider the figure conclusive. The most common reason for statelessness was lack of proper documents from the country of origin.

UNHCR reported that the country’s stateless population was primarily ethnic Vietnamese. According to an NGO, individuals without proof of nationality often did not have access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the courts, or the right to own land.

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

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, but there were multiple reports of lack of cooperation and, in some cases, intimidation by government officials, including the cases against ADHOC (see section 1.e.).

Domestic and international human rights organizations faced threats and harassment from local officials and individuals with ties to the government. These took the form of restrictions on and disruptions of gatherings sponsored by NGOs, verbal intimidation, threats of legal action, and bureaucratic obstruction justified by provisions in the LANGO.

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

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government generally cooperated with international bodies and permitted visits by UN representatives. Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the country, conducted an official visit in March to examine the situation of disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as women, indigenous peoples, and victims of racial and ethnic discrimination. Smith paid a follow-up visit to Phnom Penh in October. Officials often cited “administrative reasons” to explain reluctance by government officials to meet with her. The government regularly chastised UN representatives publicly for their remarks on a variety of human rights problems.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government had three human rights bodies: two separate Committees for the Protection of Human Rights and Reception of Complaints, one under the Senate and another under the National Assembly; and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, which reported to the prime minister’s cabinet. The committees did not hold regular meetings or conduct transparent operations. The Cambodian Human Rights Committee submitted government reports for participation in international human rights review processes, such as the Universal Periodic Review, and issued responses to reports by international organizations and government bodies, but it did not conduct independent human rights investigations. Credible human rights NGOs considered the government committees to have limited efficacy.

The government hosted the hybrid ECCC to try Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible for the abuses of the Khmer Rouge period. Some observers believed public comments by government leaders on matters related to the ECCC’s jurisdictional mandate constituted a form of political interference, but there was no evidence these comments inhibited the work of the court. At the end of 2015, the court began hearings related to later crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime, including allegations of genocide of the Cham minority, forced marriages, rapes, internal purges, and charges arising out of crimes committed at certain security centers and worksites.

Cameroon

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press but also criminalizes media offenses, and the government restricted speech and press.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy. Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately sometimes faced reprisals. The government occasionally used the law requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse, and many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty in obtaining approval to organize public gatherings. The government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political meetings.

Antiterrorism legislation was also used to exercise government control over public and private expression. In November the military court of Yaounde sentenced three men to 10 years in prison for exchanging private text messages that joked about Boko Haram. The three individuals were not military personnel and were not accused of any terrorist involvement or support, but they were tried and convicted of “nondenunciation of terrorist acts.”

Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, although there were restrictions, especially on editorial independence, in part due to terrorism concerns and the fight against Boko Haram. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters.

Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents subjected journalists to arrest, detention, physical attack, and intimidation due to their reporting.

On May 17, a Voice of America (VOA) correspondent and state media Cameroon Radio and Television reporter, Moki Edwin Kindzeka, reported he was detained for four hours over a story he published on VOA speaking about crackdowns on corruption and some politicians’ beliefs that President Biya was eliminating his political opponents. Unknown individuals forced Kindzeka into a car and interrogated, threatened, and offered him money for “favorable” reporting.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The National Communication Council (NCC) is empowered to ensure all printed media comply with the legal requirement that editors in chief deposit two signed copies of each newspaper edition with the Prosecutor’s Office for scrutiny within two hours after publication. Journalists and media outlets practiced self-censorship, especially if the NCC had suspended them. The NCC issued fewer warnings and suspensions than in 2015.

On July 14, the NCC issued sanctions ranging from warnings to temporary suspensions for up to six months. The weekly newspaper L’Epervier and its publisher received two suspensions of six and three months, respectively, for publishing unsubstantiated statements deemed likely to impair the reputation of persons, including Martin Belinga Eboutou, director of the civil cabinet of the presidency, and Eletana Ayinda Rene, another staff member of the presidency. Weekly newspapers Ades-info and Le Regard received three-month suspensions. Weekly newspaper La Tornade received a two-month suspension, while weekly newspaper Canard Libre received a one-month suspension. The daily newspaper The Guardian Post, weekly newspaper Essingan, and Roger Kiyek, Royal FM director each received a warning for unethical conduct, following complaints by some staff members of the presidency and the CPDM.

Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is constrained by strict libel laws. Any citizen may file a lawsuit against media organs for defamation of character. These laws authorize the government, at its discretion and the request of the plaintiff, to criminalize a civil libel suit or to initiate a criminal libel suit in cases of alleged libel against the president or other high government officials. Such crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines. The libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant. The government contended libel laws are aimed at safeguarding citizens whose reputations can be permanently damaged by defamation. The government and public figures reportedly used laws against libel or slander to restrict public discussion. While government officials and individuals filed libel complaints against media outlets with the NCC, none of the complaints was sanctioned with prison terms.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 11 percent of the population used the internet in 2014. Other studies stated the usage rate remained the same during the year.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, state security informants reportedly continued to operate on university campuses. There were no reports the government censored curricula; sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, or research; restricted academic travel or contacts; intimidated academics into self-censoring; or attempted to influence academic appointments based on political affiliation. There were a few reports, however, of security personnel disrupting student activities. Further, the penal code adopted in July bans “political processions in any public establishment, school, or university”; it was criticized by some observers as isolating youth from the political process.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

Although the law provides for freedom of assembly, the government restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies and does not authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it has not approved in advance. Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assembly. The government often refused to grant permits for assemblies and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits. The government also prevented civil society organizations and political parties from holding press conferences. Police and gendarmes forcibly disrupted meetings and demonstrations of citizens, trade unions, and political activists throughout the year.

In the early hours of April 8 in Yaounde, the police Mobile Intervention Unit (GMI) detained 12 political activists at the judicial police headquarters for hours. GMI agents initially arrested the activists at the Biyem Assi neighborhood for wearing black, as they prepared for a distribution of pamphlets calling on Yaounde residents to observe a Black Friday, and took them to the GMI office in the Tsinga neighborhood. Edith Kah Walla of Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) and Alain Fogue of Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) went to the GMI to inquire about the others, and police detained them. Police subsequently transferred the detainees to the judicial police headquarters at Elig-Essono neighborhood and allegedly subjected them to humiliation for hours. Police took detainees’ pictures, fingerprints, height, and shoe sizes before releasing them later in the day. Kah Walla and 53 CPP party members were again detained in October for more than eight hours, during which they were questioned without being informed of the reason for their detention. Speaking to media following their release, Kah Walla indicated the police arrested them with claims they were holding an illegal meeting.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, but the law also places limits on this right. The minister of territorial administration may, on the recommendation of the SDO, suspend the activities of an association for three months on grounds the association is disrupting public order. The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security.

National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the Ministry of Territorial Administration, but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations and religious groups; if they do not, the law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association. The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.

Conditions for government recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, these rights sometimes were impeded. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: Police and gendarmes at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways often extorted bribes and harassed travelers. Male refugees in Gado, for example, reported they were often required to pay between 2,000 and 4,000 CFA francs ($3.40-$6.80) when they traveled to Meiganga, even when they carried UNHCR-issued identification cards. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures.

Exile: The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not use it. Some citizens remained in self-imposed exile because they feared the government.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

Several thousand persons abandoned their homes in some villages on the border with Nigeria and fled to cities in the Far North Region because of frequent attacks by Boko Haram (83 percent of IDPs), while others left their homes as a result of natural disasters (13 percent of IDPs), mainly flooding. The July International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix 4 for the Far North Region indicated the number of IDPs due to the conflict increased from 81,693 to 157,657 between April 2015 and July 2016. The total number of IDPs reported by UNHCR, including populations affected by natural disasters, was estimated at 192,912 as of September 30. Thirty percent of IDPs were children of school age, according to estimates by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). While IDPs were within communities spread across the entire Far North Region, Logone and Chari, with an estimated 91,131 IDPs (40 percent); Mayo Tsanaga with 24,258 (11 percent); and Mayo Sava with 45,386 (20 percent) were the three divisions that hosted most IDPs.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees. UNHCR continued to play an important role in providing documentation and assistance to the refugee population. UNHCR and the government conducted biometric verification and registration of all refugees and asylum seekers in the Adamawa, East, and North Regions. As of September 30, 83,273 individuals, including 43,522 women and 39,751 men, had been registered. The country hosted at least 574,704 persons of concern to UNHCR as of September 30.

Refoulement: Following security measures taken by authorities in the Far North Region to counter Boko Haram, civil society organizations reported cases of forced returns, including individuals of Nigerian descent who spoke Kanuri. According to NGOs, persons speaking Kanuri were considered Boko Haram members or sympathizers and were systematically returned to Nigeria. UNHCR and government sources, however, did not confirm these allegations. Furthermore, 338 Nigerian asylum seekers arrived in early June in Kolofata, where UNHCR processed them for assistance. Cameroonian military authorities, however, unilaterally returned them to Nigeria.

Durable Solutions: The Cameroonian and Nigerian governments agreed in principle with UNHCR on the safe return of refugees who wish to be repatriated. Cameroon signed the agreement but awaited Nigeria’s signature.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to approximately 100,000 individuals during the year, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in the CAR.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published findings on human rights cases. Government officials, however, impeded the effectiveness of many local human rights NGOs by harassing their members, limiting access to prisoners, refusing to share information, and threatening violence against NGO personnel. Human rights defenders and activists received anonymous threats by telephone, text message, and e-mail. The government took no action to investigate or prevent such occurrences. The government criticized reports from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, accusing the organizations of being biased and of intervening in security matters in a sovereign state without soliciting the government’s point of view. Despite these restrictions, numerous independent domestic human rights NGOs continued operations.

There were several reports of intimidation of, threats against, and attacks on human rights activists, including members of the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), OS-Civile Droits de l’Homme, and Front Line Fighters for Citizens’ Interests (FFCI), amongst others.

For example, the intimidation of Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, executive director of REDHAC, continued. In February her landlord expelled her without notice from the house she had occupied for five years in Douala. The landlord claimed he was designated to become a traditional ruler and that authorities insisted his official coronation take place in Ngo Mbe’s residence. As of August 31, however, the house remained unoccupied. In addition, on September 28 in Bafoussam, West Region, an unidentified person attacked FFCI member Nouayou Edy Michel and stabbed him in his left shoulder. The victim was returning to a hotel where he had an FFCI working session. The assailant did not take anything from Michel, who had two telephones and an important sum of money with him. Also, Mey Ali, president of OS-Civil Droits de l’Homme, continued to receive anonymous telephone and text-message threats, which compelled him to abandon his Kousseri residence and seek refuge elsewhere in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country has a national Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF), an independent institution for consultation, monitoring, evaluation, dialogue, concerted action, promotion, and protection of human rights. The NCHRF was established by a 1990 presidential decree and subsequently given more powers by a 2004 law. NCHRF powers are limited, however. It can only make recommendations to competent authorities. The commission publishes yearly reports on the human rights environment and may engage in research, provide education, coordinate actions with NGOs, and visit prisons and detention sites. As of September 30, the NCHRF had not released its 2015 human rights report. NGOs, civil society, and the general population considered the NCHRF to be a dedicated and effective organization, albeit inadequately resourced and with insufficient ability to effectively hold human rights violators to account. Its budget was far smaller than that of most other agencies with comparable status, such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission (CONAC) and ELECAM.

The National Assembly’s Constitutional Laws, Human Rights and Freedoms, Justice, Legislation, Regulations, and Administration Committee was adequately resourced and effective in reviewing the constitutionality of proposed legislation. It approved most ruling party legislation, however, and was not an effective check on ruling party initiatives.

Canada

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The Supreme Court has ruled that the government may limit free speech in the name of goals such as ending discrimination, ensuring social harmony, or promoting gender equality. The court has also ruled that the benefits of limiting hate speech and promoting equality are sufficient to outweigh the freedom of speech clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the country’s constitutional bill of rights.

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

In November media reported that municipal and provincial police in Quebec had electronically monitored seven journalists in the province on multiple occasions between 2008 and 2016. In each case the police had a warrant from a Quebec court authorizing the surveillance. The most recent case started in 2016 as police investigated an internal leak suggesting police officers may have fabricated evidence. The electronic monitoring allowed police authorities to track the journalists’ movements and telephone logs. Federal, Quebec, and Montreal politicians condemned the electronic surveillance. The provincial government of Quebec committed to make it more difficult for police to obtain warrants to monitor journalists, and it launched a public commission to investigate the incidents. The commission’s investigation had not started as of November 8.

In July the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordered a comedian to pay C$42,000 ($32,400) to the family of a child whose appearance he mocked during a stand-up routine. The judge determined the comedian’s joke did not qualify as protected speech and violated the child’s right to protection against discriminatory comments. In October the Quebec Court of Appeals granted the comedian permission to file an appeal.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

Approximately 99 percent of households could access broadband services. According to the World Bank, 87 percent of the population used the internet in 2014.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government offered alternatives to refugee claimants whose cases the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) refused. The option for judicial review through the federal courts exists. Two other remedies of last resort are available through the Department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship: a “preremoval risk assessment” and an appeal to the minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship for a waiver based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

In January the government dropped its appeal of a 2015 court ruling that found authorities’ denial of access to appeal by refugee claimants from designated countries of origin (DCOs) was unconstitutional. DCOs include countries that do not normally produce refugees but respect human rights and offer state protection, or countries whose nationals have a high rate of rejection by the IRB and regularly abandon or withdraw asylum claims in Canada.

Claimants who arrive in the country in a manner designated by the minister as a mass or irregular arrival (in cases of suspected human smuggling) may be subject to detention (subject to review at legislated intervals) pending verification of their identity and admissibility. They face restrictions on access to appeal and remedies of last resort if the IRB refuses their claims.

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian Residential Schools released its full report in November 2015 (see section 6, Indigenous People), and the federal government launched a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (see section 6, Women).

Central African Republic

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights.

Press and Media Freedoms: All print media in the country were privately owned. Radio was the most important medium of mass communication. There were a number of alternatives to the state-owned radio station, Radio Centrafrique. Independent radio stations operated freely and broadcast organized debates and call-in talk shows critical of the government, the election process, ex-Seleka, and anti-Balaka militias. International media broadcast within the country.

The government monopolized domestic television broadcasting (this was available only in the capital and for limited hours), and television news coverage generally supported government positions.

Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of journalists being targeted for violence by the government.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports the government attempted to censor the media. Three journalists arrested in 2014 had not been tried by year’s end. Local and international journalists used a variety of social media platforms to broadcast updates and commentary during the elections, without restriction.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 4 percent of the population used the internet in 2014.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no reports the transitional or newly elected government restricted academic freedom or cultural events.

Many schools remained closed or without adequate resources. The country’s sole university was open.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The new constitution provides for the right of assembly, and the government generally respected it. Any association intending to hold a public political meeting is required to obtain the Ministry of Interior’s approval.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. All associations, including political parties, must apply to the Ministry of Interior for registration.

A law prohibiting nonpolitical organizations from uniting for political purposes remained in place.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, but the government did not always respect this right.

In-country Movement: Armed groups and bandits made in-country movement extremely dangerous. Illegal checkpoints were frequently used by government forces, armed groups, and criminals alike to extort funds. Muslims were often targeted for attacks, including truck drivers.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

Ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka attacks on civilians and fighting between armed groups displaced at least 922,000 persons at the height of the conflict in January 2014. As the security situation improved during the last two years, hundreds of thousands of IDPs returned to their homes. According to an August 2016 UNHCR report, there were more than 385,000 IDPs across the country. Destruction of homes and insecurity were the most widely cited reasons for continued displacement.

Displaced persons in Muslim enclaves continued to be especially vulnerable to violence by armed groups, in particular in Bambari and Batangafo.

The government provided assistance to IDPs and returnees. The government allowed humanitarian organizations to provide services, although security concerns sometimes prevented organizations from operating in areas previously controlled by the Seleka, and targeted attacks on humanitarian operations impeded their ability to access some populations.

On May 14, the president and prime minister visited the M’Poko and Bimbo camps for displaced persons. In June, during her meeting with the minister for social affairs and national reconciliation, the UN independent expert stated priority would be given to relocating the M’Poko camp and to identifying appropriate action to ensure returns are carried out in accordance with international standards. In December the government announced the closure of the IDP camp at M’Poko International Airport and began distributing cash payments to residents willing to leave. As of December 27, 446 IDPs had departed the site.

According to the Association of Women Lawyers of Central Africa (AFJC), sexual and gender-based violence in IDP camps was widespread.

With an improving security situation in the capital, some Muslims returned to Bangui.

There were reports of sexual exploitation of children and the inappropriate use of force in IDP camps by international and MINUSCA peacekeeping forces during the year (see section 1.c.).

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Subcommission on Eligibility, however, had not held sessions since 2009, which contributed to a growing backlog of asylum applications.

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

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

On April 14, the president began a series of discussions with the leaders of the armed factions to keep channels of communication open and to pave the way for a national program of disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and repatriation (DDRR), funded by international partners. A special presidential advisor for security-sector reform (SSR), DDRR, and national reconciliation was appointed in May, and the president initiated a national framework for SSR, DDRR, and national reconciliation in July. In October the president convened the first meeting of the national DDRR consultative committee, which included representatives from 11 of 14 armed groups. In late June, however, the UN independent expert noted the discussions had not led to the conclusion of clear agreements on disarming armed groups and dismantling of militias.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A Joint Commission of Inquiry established in 2013 with a mandate to investigate human rights violations committed in the country since 2004 lacked resources and was not operational during the year.

Chad

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of opinion, expression, and press, but the government severely restricted these rights, according to Freedom House. Authorities used threats and legal prosecutions to curb critical reporting.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law prohibits “inciting racial, ethnic, or religious hatred,” which is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of one to three million CFA francs ($1,700 to $5,110). Despite a 2010 media law that abolished prison sentences for defamation or insult, authorities arrested and detained persons for defamation.

In August authorities banned two singers from performing on government-owned television and radio after they performed songs calling for the payment of back salaries for public-sector employees and denouncing the high cost of living.

Press and Media Freedoms: The government subsidized the only daily newspaper and owned a biweekly newspaper. Government and opposition newspapers had limited readership outside the capital due to low literacy rates and lack of distribution in rural areas.

According to Freedom in the World 2016, “broadcast media were controlled by the state, and the High Council of Communication exerted control over most content on the radio,” which remained the most important medium of mass communication. The government-owned Radiodiffusion Nationale Tchadienne had several stations. There were approximately a dozen private stations, which faced high licensing fees and threat of closure for critical coverage, according to Freedom House. The number of community radio stations that operated outside of government control continued to grow, and radio call-in programs broadcast views of callers that included criticism of the government.

The country had three television stations–one owned by the government and two that were privately owned.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities reportedly harassed, threatened, arrested, and assaulted journalists for defamation.

For example, on June 24, police arrested Madjissembaye Ngardinon, a reporter for the Abba Garde newspaper, during an operation to evict persons in N’Djamena who had lost a legal battle with the owner of the land. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Ngardinon was detained after photographing police officers subduing a woman who was resisting their efforts to evict her. In a June 20 article, Ngardinon also had criticized irregularities in the judicial handling of property disputes. Authorities initially charged Ngardinon with contempt of court, punishable by one to six months in prison, but subsequently changed the charge to “rebellion,” punishable by three months to two years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 CFA francs ($850). RSF called the charges “trumped up” and accused the government of manipulating the criminal code to serve private interests. Ngardinon remained in prison at year’s end.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines, sometimes by closing media outlets. Some journalists and publishers practiced self-censorship.

INTERNET FREEDOM

On April 10, the day of the presidential election, the government shut down all access to the internet and SMS/text messaging; they had been used to criticize how military voting was conducted and to organize antigovernment protests. Although internet access was restored two days later, social media–such as Facebook and SMS/text messaging–remained blocked. On April 21, the day provisional election results were announced, authorities restored SMS/text messaging, but access to social networks was not fully restored until December 3.

At the same time, the government blocked access to international data roaming, including Blackberry access, allegedly for security reasons; the government claimed criminals and terrorists from Nigeria and Cameroon were using international roaming to communicate with each other while in Chad. The government also claimed the blockages were due to technical problems, a claim met with widespread skepticism.

According to multiple sources, between 2.7 and 10.2 percent of citizens had access to the internet through a computer; as much as 99 percent of the population had access to limited internet via mobile phones.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the government did not respect this right. The government regularly interfered with opposition protests and civil society gatherings, particularly before and after the April election. The law requires organizers to notify the Ministry of Public Security and Immigration five days in advance of demonstrations, although groups that provided advance notice did not always receive permission to assemble. Following the 2015 Boko Haram attacks, the ministry often denied permission for large gatherings, including social events such as weddings and funerals. During the April election campaign, the government allowed ruling party supporters to gather and rally but banned such activities for opposition groups (see section 3).

For example, on May 24, police denied permission for an opposition press conference and barricaded the site. The minister of public security and immigration also banned opposition rallies scheduled for August 6 and 7 in advance of the August 8 inauguration of the president.

There were violent student protests, and security forces used lethal force to disperse demonstrators (see section 1.a.).

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. While an ordinance requires the Ministry of Public Security and Immigration to provide prior authorization before an association, including a labor union, may be formed, there were no reports the ordinance was enforced. The ordinance also allows for the immediate administrative dissolution of an association and permits authorities to monitor association funds.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, the government imposed limits on these rights.

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of rape, attempted rape, and sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps. The perpetrators were either fellow refugees or unknown individuals living near the camps. Authorities only occasionally prosecuted perpetrators of sexual violence. The judicial system did not provide consistent and predictable recourse or legal protection, and traditional legal systems were subject to ethnic variations. To fill the void, UNHCR enlisted the support of a local NGO to support the cases of refugees through the judicial process. The DPHR was unable to provide humanitarian escorts consistently due to lack of resources but was generally effective in providing protection inside refugee camps.

Due to absence of rebel activity and implementation of education campaigns in camps, there were no reports of recruitment of refugees in refugee camps, including by Central African Republic (CAR) militias.

In-country Movement: Lack of security in the east, primarily due to armed banditry, occasionally hindered the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide services to refugees. In the Lake Chad area, attacks by Boko Haram and concurrent government military operations constrained the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to IDPs. Armed criminals carjacked a UN vehicle in May, in Ati, and an NGO vehicle in June, near Mongo.

Emigration and Repatriation: Beginning in 2013 approximately 100,000 persons with claims to Chadian nationality fled violence in the CAR and (returned) to Chad. Most had not resided in the country and had no clear ties to their families’ areas of origin. Approximately 45,000 returnees remained in camps at year’s end and were assisted by humanitarian organizations and the government. The government, with UNHCR support, issued nearly 8,000 birth certificates to returnee children during the calendar year.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

Throughout 2015 and during the year, Chadians residing near the convergent borders of Lake Chad fled occasional Boko Haram attacks and counterattacks by the government. By October the United Nations estimated 76,225 citizens had been displaced in the Lake Chad area since May 2015. Humanitarian access to IDPs improved significantly during the year, and the government actively supported humanitarian operations by international agencies, including legal protection and efforts promoting local integration.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for asylum or refugee status. The government, however, has established a system for the protection of refugees.

In 2013 the government adopted the National Birth Registry Code, which provides for birth certificates for children born to refugees and requires the registration of all births and deaths of foreign persons in the country (see section 6). The government routinely issued birth certificates to refugee children during the year.

Approximately 307,000 Sudanese refugees from Darfur remained in the country, including a small number of refugees fleeing fighting during the year; most were located in 13 camps along the eastern border with Sudan. An estimated 73,000 refugees from the CAR lived primarily in five camps in the south.

Access to Basic Services: Although local communities hosted tens of thousands of newly arrived refugees, antirefugee sentiment existed due to competition for local resources, such as wood, water, and grazing land. Refugees also received goods and services not available to the local population, and refugee children at times had better access to education and health services than those in the surrounding local populations. Many humanitarian organizations included host communities in their programming to mitigate this tension.

Durable Solutions: The government pledged to extend citizenship to tens of thousands of returnees, most of whom had resided in the CAR since birth, although only 3 percent of Chadian returnees from the CAR held Chadian nationality documents by year’s end. The government allowed referral for resettlement in foreign countries of refugees from the CAR and Sudan.

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

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were sometimes cooperative and responsive to their views.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports authorities harassed or expelled staff members of the United Nations or other international bodies.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights coordinated efforts by local and international NGOs to protect human rights. Local NGOs reported the ministry functioned independently but was underfunded and had limited effectiveness.

Chile

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Internet World Statistics, approximately 80 percent of the population had access to the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, including access to education and health care. The country had fewer than 2,000 refugees recognized by the government.

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

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

Government Human Rights Bodies: The INDH operated independently, issued public statements, and proposed changes to government agencies or policies to promote and protect human rights. In its 2015 report, the INDH took an in-depth look at the human rights impact of environmental degradation, corruption, and poverty, among other themes.

The Senate and Chamber of Deputies have standing human rights committees responsible for drafting human rights legislation.

China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution states that citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” although authorities generally did not respect these rights, especially when they conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued tight control of print, broadcast, and electronic media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. The government, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or in remarks to the media remained subject to punitive measures.

In late February prominent real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang criticized President Xi’s call for media outlets to display absolute loyalty to the CCP. In two social media posts, Ren urged the CCP not to waste taxpayer money and opined, “Since when did the people’s government become the party’s government?” The government consequently stripped Ren Zhiqiang of his social media accounts, which had an estimated 37 million followers. The New York Times reported on March 11 that Xinhua News Agency employee Zhou Gang issued an online letter accusing government censors of silencing critics, apparently in response to the Ren case.

Two weeks after President Xi’s visit to state media, anonymous authors posted a letter online calling for him to resign “for the future of the country and the people.” The authors claimed to be “loyal Communist Party members.” Authorities promptly shut down Wujie News, the news website that carried the letter, and detained journalists, such as Jia Jia, whom security agents apprehended at the Beijing airport en route to Hong Kong. According to contacts and news reports, all Wujie News staff were later released.

In April online commentator Tian Li (also known as Chen Qitang) was tried for “inciting subversion of state power.” His verdict was suspended for a third time, with no announcement made before the end of the year. The charges stemmed from six political commentaries Chen had posted, three of which he had personally written. The prosecution said the articles represented a “harsh attack” on the CCP.

In November, Liu Feiyue, the founder of the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website, was detained on charges of “inciting state subversion” in Hubei Province. He had been detained and released earlier in the year when he tried to cover the CCP Central Committee’s sixth plenary session in Beijing.

Huang Qi, founder of the Tianwang Human Rights Center, was detained on November 28 and formally charged with “illegally providing state secrets abroad” on December 16. Authorities had long taken action against Huang for his efforts to document human rights abuses in the country on his 64Tianwang.com website. Previously convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally possessing state secrets” in 2003 and 2008, he served five and three years in prison, respectively.

Press and Media Freedoms: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, or broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order that they not be reported at all.

The government continued to strictly monitor the press and media, including film and television, via its broadcast and press regulatory body, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) regulates online news media. All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. There were growing numbers of privately owned online media. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval. The SAPPRFT announced that satellite television channels may broadcast no more than two imported television programs each year during prime-time hours and that imported programs must receive the approval of local regulators at least two months in advance.

In a well-publicized February 19 visit to the three main state and CCP news organizations–the Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, and the People’s Daily–President Xi said, “Party and state-run media are the propaganda battlefield of the party and the government, [and] must bear the surname of the party. All of the party’s news and public opinion work must embody the party’s will, reflect the party’s ideas, defend the authority of the Party Central Committee, [and] defend the unity of the party.”

In March the prominent Chinese financial magazine Caixin defied the government by highlighting censorship of its online content. On March 5, Caixin published an article pointing out how the CAC had deleted an interview with Jiang Hong, a delegate to the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, because it touched on the issue of free speech. The CAC told Caixin editors the interview contained “illegal content” and “violated laws and regulations.”

Both the SAPPRFT and CAC continued efforts to reassert control over the country’s growing world of new media. In December the SAPPRFT announced that commercial social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo are not allowed to disseminate user-generated audio or video programs about current events and are only supposed to distribute content from those that hold state-issued audiovisual online transmission licenses.

Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics. A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government.

Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. In March authorities detained the siblings of the Germany-based writer Zhang Ping after he wrote an article criticizing the government for its role in the disappearance of journalist Jia Jia. The family members, detained in Xichong County, Sichuan Province, were released several days later, and Zhang later publicly said he had “cut off ties” in order to protect them.

Uighur webmasters Dilshat Perhat and Nijat Azat continued to serve sentences for “endangering state security.” During the year additional journalists working in traditional and new media were also imprisoned.

Liu Yuxia, front-page editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily, once considered a bastion for relatively independent views, was dismissed in March after the headline of one of the newspaper’s front-page stories about the burial of a prominent reformer was seen as a veiled criticism of President Xi’s admonition that the media “bear the surname of the party.” If the Chinese characters of the headline about the sea burial were read vertically in conjunction with the headline about President Xi’s call for loyalty by the media, as both headlines appeared in proximity on the same page, the combined headline could be interpreted as “the souls of Chinese media have died because they bear the party’s name.”

Li Xin, another former editor for the Southern Metropolis Daily’s website, disappeared in Thailand and reappeared in China under detention after reportedly seeking political asylum in Thailand. Yu Shaolei, who edited the newspaper’s cultural section, also resigned in late March. Yu reportedly posted a photograph of his resignation form on Weibo, citing his “inability to bear your surname.” One Southern Metropolis Daily journalist was quoted as stating, “We think it won’t get any worse and then it does. We are being strangled.”

Four of the five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared between October and December 2015 were released but remained under surveillance (see section 1.b.). In June, Zhu Tiezhi, the deputy editor in chief of Qiushi, the CCP’s foremost theoretical journal, reportedly hanged himself in the garage of the building where the journal was housed. Media outlets reported that Zhu had been depressed by ideological infighting within the CCP and was linked to Ling Jihua, one of former president Hu Jintao’s closest aides, who became a prime target in President Xi’s anticorruption campaign.

In December security officials in Gannan County, Heilongjiang Province, detained and beat journalists Liu Bozhi and Liu Dun from China Educational News after they investigated reports of financial irregularities in public school cafeterias.

In July the state-controlled Chinese Academy of National Arts announced on its website that it had removed the existing management of the monthly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, including its 93-year-old publisher and cofounder Du Daozheng. The magazine was known as an “intellectual oasis” in which topics like democracy and other “sensitive” issues could be discussed, and it had a reputation for publishing views on politics and history that challenged CCP orthodoxy. Observers saw the removal of Du along with several other senior staff including Hu Dehua, the son of late reformist CCP leader Hu Yaobang, as a threat to one of the country’s last strongholds of liberal thought. The magazine’s chief editor Yang Jisheng quit in 2015 in protest of increasing censorship. Following the forced reshuffle, Du suspended the publication on July 19, and it had not resumed operations by year’s end.

In September journalists were attacked, detained, and expelled from Wukan, a fishing village in Guangdong Province, as they tried to conduct interviews following protests over alleged land seizures and the detention of the elected village chief. Wukan was the site of protests in 2011 over land seizures and corruption, to which the provincial government responded by allowing villagers to elect their local leader.

Foreign journalists based in the country continued to face a challenging environment for reporting. According to the annual Reporting Conditions survey of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) conducted during the year, 98 percent of respondents did not believe reporting conditions in the country met international standards. In addition, 48 percent of respondents believed working conditions had stayed the same since the previous year, while 29 percent believed conditions had deteriorated. Fifty-seven percent said they had been subjected to some form of interference, harassment, or violence while attempting to report from the country.

Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. Foreign press outlets reported that local employees of foreign news agencies were also subjected to official harassment and intimidation and that this remained a major concern for foreign outlets. The FCCC’s survey reported that 26 percent of respondents described interference or obstruction by police or “unidentified individuals” while reporting. Eight percent of respondents reported being subjected to “manhandling or physical violence,” a 3 percent increase from 2015. In addition, FCCC members reported physical and electronic surveillance of their staff and premises.

Although authorities continued to use the registration and renewal of residency visas and foreign ministry press cards to pressure and punish journalists whose reporting perturbed authorities, wait times were reportedly shorter for many applicants than in previous years. Many foreign media organizations continued to have trouble expanding their operations in the country due to the difficulty of receiving visas for new positions. Government officials continued to require regular meetings with journalists at the time of their renewals or after seeing reports they deemed “sensitive,” at which officials commonly made clear to reporters they were under scrutiny for their reporting. Security personnel often visited reporters unannounced and questioned them about their reporting activities.

Authorities continued to enforce tight restrictions on citizens employed by foreign news organizations. The code of conduct for citizen employees of foreign media organizations threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers information that projects “a good image of the country.” Several FCCC members reported local assistants had been summoned for meetings with security officials that the assistants found extremely intimidating. One foreign correspondent said security officials had called her local assistant a “traitor” and asked her why she was willing to help the foreign press with its “anti-China bias.”

Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of postpublication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministry of Defense continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend monthly press briefings.

Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.

The CCP Central Propaganda Department ordered media outlets to adhere strictly to the information provided by authoritative official departments when reporting on officials suspected of involvement in graft or bribery. Throughout the year the Central Propaganda Department issued similar instructions regarding various prominent events. Directives often warned against reporting on issues related to party and official reputation, health and safety, and foreign affairs. The orders included instructions for media outlets not to investigate or report on their own. The CAC and SAPPRFT strengthened regulations over the content online publications are allowed to distribute, reiterating long-standing rules that only state-licensed news media may conduct original reporting.

The FCCC reported that it was still largely impossible for foreign journalists to report from the TAR, other Tibetan areas, or Xinjiang without experiencing serious interference. Those who took part in government-sponsored trips to the TAR and other Tibetan areas expressed dissatisfaction with the access provided. Of those who tried to report from Tibetan areas, 60 percent reported problems, while 44 percent had trouble in Xinjiang. Foreign reporters also experienced restricted access and interference when trying to report in other sensitive areas, including the North Korean border, coal mining sites where protests had taken place, and other sites of social unrest, such as Wukan village in Guangdong Province.

Authorities continued to jam, with varying degrees of success, Chinese-, Uighur-, and Tibetan-language broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA), the BBC, and Radio Free Asia. English-language VOA broadcasts generally were not jammed. Internet distribution of streaming radio news and podcasts from these sources was often blocked. Despite the jamming of overseas broadcasts, the VOA, the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France International had large audiences, including human rights advocates, ordinary citizens, and government officials.

Overseas television newscasts, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were occasionally subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines occasionally were banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive.

Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released.

In November the NPC Standing Committee passed a Cybersecurity Law containing a provision that appeared to be aimed at deterring economists and journalists from publishing analysis that deviated from official views on the economy. Article 12 of the law criminalizes using the internet to “fabricate or spread false information to disturb economic order.” In January authorities blocked Reuters’ social media account on the Chinese platform Sina Weibo following a report that the country’s securities regulator Xiao Gang had offered to resign. The government stated that the Reuters report was not accurate, but a month later state media announced Xiao had been forced out.

Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. The SAPPRFT controlled all licenses to publish. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications could not be printed or distributed without SAPPRFT approval and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other sanctions. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.

Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published.

Actions to Expand Press Freedom: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs began implementing a new system for journalist visa renewals and press card issuance. There were few complaints, but there was insufficient evidence to comment on the situation at the year’s end. Delays persisted in the approval process to expand foreign bureaus as well as visa applications for short-term reporting tours.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The internet continued to be widely available and used. According to an official report released in August by the China Internet Network Information Center, the country had 710 million internet users, accounting for 51.7 percent of its total population. The report noted 21.3 million new internet users in the first half of the year, with approximately 191 million going online from rural areas. Major media companies estimated that more than 500 million persons, mainly urban residents, obtained their news from social and online media sources. According to the 2016 Chinese Media Blue Book, online media organizations accounted for 47 percent of the country’s entire media industry.

Although the internet was widely available, it was heavily censored. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government also reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat those who posted alternative views. Internet companies also employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government injunctions.

During the year there was a steady stream of new regulatory efforts to tighten government control of the online media space that had grown rapidly in the last four years, including draft regulations on strengthening government control of internet news services and online publishing.

The government’s updated definition of “internet news information” includes all matters pertaining to politics, economics, defense, diplomacy and “other social public issues and reports and comments of breaking social events.” Draft regulations require that all news reports conform to official views, establish a “dishonesty blacklist” system, and expand criminal penalties for violators.

In June the State Internet Information Office published a Circular on Further Strengthening the Management and Control of False News, which prohibits online platforms from publishing unverified content as news reports and strengthens regulation on the editing and distribution of news on online platforms, including microblogs and WeChat. The circular prohibits websites from publishing “hearsay and rumors to fabricate news or distort facts based on speculation.”

During the year the State Internet Information Office reportedly strengthened efforts to “punish and correct” false online news, reprimanding numerous popular portals, such as Sina, iFeng, and Caijing, and calling on the public to help monitor and report on “illegal and harmful information” found online.

On June 25, the CAC released New Regulations on Internet Searches that took effect August 1. The regulations specifically ban search engines from showing “subversive” content and obscene information, longstanding prohibitions for local website operators.

On June 28, the CAC released new Regulations on the Administration of Mobile Internet App Services that also took effect on August 1. The new rules expand the application of some requirements to app stores, such as Apple’s iTunes App Store, and developers and require mobile app providers to verify users’ identities with real-name registration, improve censorship, and punish users who spread “illicit information” on their platforms. The rules prescribe broad and vaguely worded prohibitions on content that “endangers national security,” “damages the honor or interests of the state,” “propagates cults or superstition,” or “harms social ethics or any fine national culture or traditions.” At year’s end authorities required Apple to remove the New York Times English- and Chinese-language news apps from its iTunes App Store in the country. At least three apps were known to have been blocked since April.

In August the CAC called for an “editor in chief” system, ensuring that senior staff are responsible for online editorial decisions contrary to the government’s wishes or censorship guidelines. In September media outlets also reported the CAC had launched a campaign to clean up the comments sections on websites, which a CAC official described as an effort to make it easier for individuals to report illegal or harmful content.

In April, GreatFire.org, a website run by activists tracking online censorship in the country, reported that 21 percent of more than 40,000 domains, web links, social media searches, and internet protocol addresses that it monitors in the country were blocked. In addition to social media websites such as Facebook, the government continued to block almost all access to Google websites, including its e-mail service, photograph program, map service, calendar application, and YouTube.

Government censors continued to block websites or online content related to topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and all content related to the Panama Papers. The Economist, for example, was blocked in April after it printed an article critical of President Xi’s consolidation of power. Many other websites for international media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, remained perennially blocked, in addition to human rights websites, such as those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. In June authorities in Yunnan Province detained citizen journalists Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” as a result of their reporting. Li and Lu compiled and catalogued daily lists of “mass incidents”–the official term for protests, demonstrations, and riots–and disseminated their findings to the public via social media platforms, such as Weibo. Public security officials reportedly beat Lu, choked him, and twisted his arms until he was badly bruised. Reporters without Borders stated that Lu and Li were among 80 detained citizen journalists and bloggers.

In addition, there continued to be reports of cyberattacks against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign governments, including instances involving the website or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, and social networking sites as well as search engines.

While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, some users circumvented online censorship through the use of various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available inside the country, but the government increasingly blocked access to the websites and proxy servers of commercial, academic, and other virtual private network providers.

The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.

At the World Internet Conference in China in November, Ren Xianling, the vice minister for the CAC, called on participants to embrace state control of the internet and likened such controls to “installing brakes on a car before driving on the road.” Xi Jinping opened the conference with a videotaped address in which he reasserted earlier claims that the government exercised absolute control over the internet in the country through “cyber sovereignty.”

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive SAPPRFT and Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons. In 2013 the South China Morning Post reported that the CCP issued secret instructions to university faculty identifying seven “off-limits” subjects, including universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civil rights, an independent judiciary, elite cronyism, and the historical errors of the CCP. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work.

In 2015 then minister of education Yuan Guiren restricted the use of foreign textbooks in classrooms. Domestically produced textbooks remained under the editorial control of the CCP. In January, Reuters reported that the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had set up a team at the Ministry of Education that was “increasing supervision and inspection of political discipline” with the stated purpose, among other things, of preventing CCP members on university campuses from making “irresponsible remarks about major policies.” In addition, schools at all levels were required to merge “patriotic education” into their curriculum and extracurricular activities. The government and the CCP Organization Department controlled appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion.

In July, Chen Baosheng became minister of education, and one of his first acts was to establish a Commission on University Political Education to strengthen ideological discipline within the higher education system. At a press conference in March, Yuan highlighted the centrality of political indoctrination in the education system, declaring “the goal and orientation of running schools is to make our students become people qualified to inherit and build up socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The CCP continued to require undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, to complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought.

In December, Xi Jinping chaired the National Ideology and Political Work Conference for Higher Education and called for turning the academy into a “stronghold that adheres to party leadership.” Xi stressed that “China’s colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning under the Party’s leadership; they are colleges and universities with Chinese socialist characteristics.” Xi further asserted that strengthening the role of Marxism in the curriculum was needed to “guide the teachers and students to become staunch believers in the socialist value system.” Xi specifically called on professors to become “staunch supporters of the Party’s rule.”

Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and frequently refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority nationality areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.

Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was common, particularly those artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. In addition, authorities scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions. In March a cafe was effectively prevented from a holding an event discussing online censorship in the country after security agents threatened one of the visiting Chinese participants.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates that such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views.

The law protects an individual’s ability to petition the government, but persons petitioning the government faced restrictions on their rights to assemble and raise grievances (see section 1.d.).

While the central government reiterated prohibitions against blocking or restricting “normal petitioning” and against unlawfully detaining petitioners, official retaliation against petitioners continued. This was partly due to central government regulations that took effect in 2015 requiring local governments to resolve complaints within 60 days and stipulating that central authorities will no longer accept petitions already handled by local or provincial governments. The regulations encourage all litigation-related petitions to be handled 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. It also resulted in local officials sending security personnel to Beijing and forcibly returning petitioners 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.”

Petitioners faced harassment, illegal detention, and even more severe forms of punishment when attempting to travel to Beijing to present their grievances.

Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or other charges.

Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions, many demonstrations occurred, but those motivated by broad political or social grievances were broken up quickly, sometimes with excessive force.

In June authorities arrested Wukan’s popularly elected village mayor, Lin Zuluan, on corruption charges. On September 8, Lin was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and fined 200,000 yuan ($29,000). Large numbers of villagers took to the streets to protest what they considered bogus charges brought against Lin because of his resistance to land confiscation by higher-level authorities. Authorities deployed large numbers of riot police and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protest. Public security forces reportedly beat villagers at random, forcibly entered private homes to detain individuals suspected of participating in the protests, and prevented anyone from entering or leaving the village. The authorities also reportedly detained, interrogated, and assaulted foreign journalists, offering rewards for information leading to their detention. At year’s end dozens of villagers remained in detention, and at least 13 individuals suspected of leading the protest had been charged with crimes.

In July, thousands of citizens took to the streets in Lubu to protest plans for a new incinerator plant. Local citizens were concerned the plant would contaminate drinking water. The BBC reported that 21 protest leaders were detained, and other media reports indicated that the protests turned violent.

Rights lawyers and activists who advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience were detained, arrested, and in some cases sentenced to prison terms. In January a Guangzhou court convicted Tang Jingling, Yuan Xinting, and Wang Qingying of “inciting subversion of state power,” citing their promotion of civil disobedience and the peaceful transition to democratic rule as evidence. Media outlets reported the men were also signatories of the Charter 08 manifesto advocating political reform.

In April human rights activist Su Changlan stood trial at Foshan Intermediate Court on charges of “incitement to subvert state power” for activities in support of the 2014 Hong Kong prodemocracy movement. Five activists who gathered outside the court in support of Su were detained briefly. Authorities detained Su in 2014 and had held her for more than two years without sentencing her. She was refused a request for medical parole in September. Her husband reported being under police surveillance.

Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, or other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Large numbers of public gatherings in Beijing and elsewhere were not revived during the year after being canceled at the last minute or denied government permits in 2015, ostensibly under the guise of ensuring public safety.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area.

The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.

In January authorities detained a Swedish NGO worker, Peter Dahlin, on charges of endangering state security. He had worked for an organization that trained and supported activists and lawyers seeking to “promote the development of the rule of law.” After being paraded on state television in what his friends and colleagues characterized as a forced confession, which included an apology for “hurting the Chinese government and the Chinese people,” authorities deported Dahlin from the country.

On April 15, police detained 15 human rights activists while they ate dinner in a restaurant in Guangzhou. The activists had planned to gather at the Guangzhou Municipal Intermediate People’s Court the next day to show support for four prominent activists who faced charges of subversion for expressing their support for Hong Kong’s 2014 prodemocracy protest movement.

The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by the Charity Law, which went into effect in September, and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register as one of three categories: a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs were required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities. All organizations were also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding. Domestic NGOs continued to adjust to this new regulatory framework.

On August 22, the CCP Central Committee issued a directive mandating the establishment of CCP cells within all domestic NGOs by 2020. According to authorities, these CCP organizations operating inside domestic NGOs would “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” The directive also mandates that authorities conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.” An editorial in the CCP’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, explained how the CCP intends to transform social organizations into CCP affiliates: “Social organizations are important vehicles for the party to connect with and serve the masses; strengthening the party’s leadership is the basic guarantee of accelerating the healthy and orderly development of social organizations. We must fully bring into play the combat fortress function of party cells within social organizations.”

In April the NPC Standing Committee passed the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities within Mainland China (Foreign NGO Management Law), which was scheduled to go into effect in January 2017. The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates that NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be placed on a “blacklist” and barred from operating in the country.

Although the law had not yet gone into effect, some international NGOs reported that it became more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Finding an official sponsor was also difficult for foreign NGOs, as sponsors could be held responsible for the NGO’s conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. Implementation guidelines and a list of permissible government sponsors were released less than a month before implementation, leaving NGOs uncertain how to comply with the law. Even after a list of sponsors was published, NGOs reported that most government agencies had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, also left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell under the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country, even before the law took effect.

According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by June there were more than 670,000 legally registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. According to the Ministry of Public Security, in August there were more than 7,000 foreign NGOs. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported that foreign funding dropped during the year, as many domestic NGOs sought to avoid such funding for fear of being labeled as “subversive” in the face of growing restrictions imposed by new laws. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs or GONGOs.

For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, the Foreign NGO Management Law requires foreign NGOs to maintain a representative office in the country in order to send funds or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds under the law, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.

Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibited organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.

Authorities continued to restrict and evict local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.

No laws or regulations specifically governed the formation of political parties. The Chinese Democracy Party (CDP) remained banned, and the government continued to monitor, detain, and imprison current and former CDP members. Activists Chen Shuqing and Lu Gengsong, who had been active with the banned CDP, were sentenced to more than 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of “subversion of state power” in June.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times did not respect these rights.

While seriously restricting its scope of operations, the government occasionally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing, to provide protection and assistance to select categories of refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports that North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to forcibly repatriate North Korean citizens. According to press reports, some North Koreans detained by Chinese authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release.

In-country Movement: Authorities heightened restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Freedom of movement for Tibetans continued to be very limited in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Public security officers maintained checkpoints in most counties and on roads leading into many towns as well as within major cities, such as Lhasa. Restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese migrants or tourists in Tibetan areas.

Although the government maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, the national household registration system (hukou) continued to change, and the ability of most citizens to move within the country to work and live continued to expand. Rural residents continued to migrate to the cities, where the per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, but many could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits that could be issued, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in more economically developed urban areas.

A 2014 State Council legal opinion removed restrictions on rural migrants seeking household registration in small and mid-sized towns and cities. The regulations base household registrations on place of residence and employment instead of place of birth. The opinion exempts cities with large populations.

The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2015 National Economic and Social Development published by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 294 million persons lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Of that number, 247 million individuals worked outside their home district. Many migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents. Poor treatment and difficulty integrating into local communities contributed to increased unrest among migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta. Migrant workers had little recourse when abused by employers and officials. Some major cities maintained programs to provide migrant workers and their children access to public education and other social services free of charge, but migrants in some locations reported difficulty in obtaining these benefits due to onerous bureaucratic processes.

Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.

Foreign Travel: The government permitted legal emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, continued to face foreign travel restrictions. The government expanded the use of exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked travel of some family members of rights activists.

Border officials and police cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel. In January authorities detained journalist Jia Jia at the Beijing airport as he attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong. They held him for nearly two weeks with no charges and interrogated him about an open letter published online calling for Xi Jinping to resign.

Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise prevented from traveling overseas. The passport of former political prisoner and Falun Gong practitioner Wang Zhiwen was physically cancelled at a border checkpoint as he attempted to leave the country.

Uighurs, particularly those residing in the XUAR, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved at the local level. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since October authorities ordered residents in some areas of the XUAR to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. The passport recall, however, was not limited to Uighur areas. Family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country.

Uighurs in the XUAR also faced restrictions on movement within the XUAR itself. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in May, identification checks remained in place when entering cities and on public roads. Reuters reported that authorities required applicants for travel documents to provide extra information prior to the month of Ramadan. For example, residents in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in the XUAR had to provide DNA samples, fingerprints, and voice recordings in order to apply for travel documents, according a local government newspaper in June.

In the TAR and Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan Provinces, Tibetans, especially Buddhist monks and nuns, experienced great difficulty acquiring passports. The unwillingness of Chinese authorities in Tibetan areas to issue or renew passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for a large segment of the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.

Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.

Emigration and Repatriation: The government continued to try to prevent many Tibetans and Uighurs from leaving the country and detained many who were apprehended while attempting to leave (see Tibet Annex). Some family members of rights activists who tried to emigrate were unable to do so.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylee status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but allowed UNHCR to assist the relatively small number of non-North Korean and non-Burmese refugees. The government did not officially recognize these individuals as refugees; they remained in the country as illegal immigrants unable to work, with no access to education, and subject to deportation at any time.

Authorities continued to repatriate North Korean refugees forcibly, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported such refugees to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation. The government continued to prevent UNHCR from having access to North Korean or Burmese refugees. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.

In some instances the government pressured neighboring countries to return asylum seekers or UNHCR-recognized refugees to China. At year’s end India was reportedly preparing to return to China two Uighur asylum seekers who had been convicted of crimes in India.

Refoulement: The government did not provide protection against the expulsion or forcible return of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, especially North Korean refugees. The government continued to consider North Koreans as “illegal economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and forcibly returned many of them to North Korea. The government continued to deny UNHCR permission to operate outside of Beijing.

Access to Basic Services: North Korean asylum seekers and North Koreans in the country seeking economic opportunities generally did not have access to health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status. International media reported that as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were married to Chinese spouses, were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent.

Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the resettlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China. The government worked with UNHCR in granting exit permission for a small number of non-Burmese and non-North Korean refugees to resettle to third countries.

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

The government sought to maintain control over civil society groups, halt the emergence of independent NGOs, and hinder the activities of civil society and rights’ activist groups. The government harassed independent domestic NGOs and did not permit them to openly monitor or comment on human rights conditions. The government made statements expressing suspicion of independent organizations and closely scrutinized NGOs with financial and other links overseas. The government took significant steps during the year to bring all domestic NGOs under its direct regulatory control, thereby curtailing the space for independent NGOs to exist. Most large NGOs were quasi-governmental, and government agencies had to sponsor all official NGOs.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In August the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited the country. Alston said that the government restricted his activities and that security agents followed him throughout his visit. Many of his meeting requests were declined, and although he submitted a list of academics he wanted to meet prior to his visit, he was told that many of them had been advised they should be on vacation during his visit. Security agents detained one person en route to a meeting with Alston. Alston’s request to visit was first made in 2005, according to the UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. A dozen other requests for visits to the country by UN experts remained outstanding.

The government remained reluctant to accept criticism of its human rights record by other nations or international organizations. It criticized reports by international human rights monitoring groups, claiming that such reports were inaccurate and interfered in the country’s internal affairs.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government maintained that each country’s economic, social, cultural, and historical conditions determined its approach to human rights. The government claimed that its treatment of suspects, considered to be victims of human rights abuses by the international community, was in accordance with national law. The government did not have a human rights ombudsman or commission.

China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – Hong Kong

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, an unfettered internet, and a generally supportive government combined to promote freedom of speech and of the press on most matters. During the year, however, media groups complained about what they viewed as increasing challenges in this area. (For further detail, please see Press and Media Freedoms section below).

Freedom of Speech and Expression: There were no legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly or privately or to discuss matters of general public interest without reprisal. However, free speech advocates and educators voiced concern in August following the Education Secretary’s public comments warning teachers who “advocate” Hong Kong independence on campus must “bear responsibility and consequences,” including the loss of their teaching licenses. Subsequently, in September Chief Executive Leung said schools in Hong Kong had “no space to discuss independence.” Educators, media outlets, and free speech advocates also voiced concern over comments made by Central Government officials based at Hong Kong’s Central Government Liaison Office (CGLO). CGLO officials suggested publicly that discussion of Hong Kong’s independence amounted to “a violation of laws in Hong Kong” and suggested it could be considered sedition and/or treason under Hong Kong’s Crimes Ordinance if such speech was deemed to occur in the context of a “large-scale discussion in the hopes of gathering a large group to act together.”

The Education Bureau made no formal changes to its policy following the Chief Executive’s and Education Secretary’s public comments. Members of the Professional Teachers Union reported there had been no changes to the guidance about how the union certifies its teachers.

Prospective candidates for public office reported Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission implemented changes to its established procedures for filing legislative candidacy that limited free speech in the political arena. On July 12, the Electoral Affairs Commission instituted a new requirement that all LegCo candidates sign a pledge stating that Hong Kong is an “inalienable part” of China in order to run for office. Despite signing the required form and fulfilling other eligibility requirements, an Electoral Affairs Commission officer disqualified Hong Kong Indigenous convener Edward Leung and several other candidates for standing for election. The Electoral Affairs Commission said Leung’s disqualification was due to Leung’s proindependence comments earlier in the year, which the returning officer said was evidence that Leung was insincere in his loyalty pledge to the SAR. Leung’s supporters voiced concern the new procedures infringed on freedom of speech and the right of Hong Kongers to stand for public office, rights guaranteed in the Basic Law.

On July 20, Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the CGLO, warned the Hong Kong government against allowing the LegCo elections in September to be used to promote “proindependence remarks and activities.” Zhang suggested that allowing free speech on the matter violated the Basic Law and warned of “calamity” if proindependence views continued to spread in Hong Kong. While the CGLO Director has no legal standing, many local observers and free speech advocates said his public comments had a chilling effect on Hong Kong society.

Hong Kong residents also expressed concern about the potential implications of the November 7 NPCSC interpretation of Basic Law Article 104 on the SAR’s free speech protections. The interpretation barred legislators-elect from taking office if they refused to take the oath, altered the wording of the oath, or failed to demonstrate sufficient “sincerity” or “solemnity” when taking the oath. Some observers and legal experts voiced concern that the NPCSC’s interpretation could subject sitting legislators to legal sanctions if they “engage in conduct in breach of the oath” at any point in their respective terms. Prodemocracy advocates, particularly those who identify as “localists”, expressed fears that the interpretation created a mechanism for the central government to exclude from office, or potentially evict from office, those who espoused or were suspected of harboring political views that the central government found objectionable. The interpretation stated that the requirements and preconditions contained within it applied to legislators-elect and all other public officers and candidates for public office referred to in Article 104. Some legal experts downplayed these concerns, noting the Basic Law’s Article 77 protects legislators from legal recourse stemming from any speeches they deliver in the normal course of their representative duties, while other legal experts have noted that the central government’s powers over Hong Kong are not subject to any legal supervision, which manifests in the NPCSC’s continued assertion of a power to interpret the Basic Law at its discretion.

Many in the media and civil society organizations further alleged the central government exerted indirect pressure on media organizations to mute criticism of its policy priorities in the SAR. They also voiced concern about increasing self-censorship among the local and regional press corps.

Press and Media Freedoms: In July the Hong Kong Journalists Association in its yearly report on press freedoms in Hong Kong said its Press Freedom Index indicators declined for the second straight year, from 38.9 to 38.2 points for journalists and from 48.4 to 47.4 for the general public. Nearly 85 percent of surveyed Hong Kong journalists thought that press freedom had worsened over the previous year. The report, which this year focused on increasing mainland influence on Hong Kong media outlets, cited as challenges continuing violence against journalists by police and protestors related to media coverage of local riots, lack of government transparency, the government’s “questionable” policy on granting of television and radio licenses, and refusal to accredit online and student reporters (online reporters have since been granted accreditation). The Association called on the government to undertake a number of actions, including to “take a strong approach to protect the one country, two systems principle given the threats to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy as promised in the Basic Law.”

Violence and Harassment: No violent attacks on media-related personalities took place during the year.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship continued during the year. Most media outlets were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland, which led to claims that they were vulnerable to self-censorship, with editors deferring to the perceived concerns of publishers regarding their business interests. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than half of Hong Kong’s media owners held official roles in the PRC political system, either as delegates to the NPC or to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Mainland companies and those with significant business dealings on the mainland reportedly boycotted advertising in the Next Media Group publications, known for its criticisms of the central government and the SAR government. Next Media Group’s popular newspaper Apple Daily said it took special measures to circumvent regular hacking attacks, including the use of sophisticated email security software and asking its lawyers to use couriers instead of email. A private cybersecurity company that works with Next Media Group told Reuters in late 2015 that it had connected denial of service attacks against Apple Daily with professional cyber spying attacks that bore the hallmarks of a common source and suggested the hacker’s apparent objectives matched the central government’s.

Libel/Slander Laws: There were no reports the government or individual public figures used laws against libel, slander, defamation, or blasphemy to restrict public discussion.

National Security: There were no reports of restrictive media distribution to protect national security. Following the November 7 NPCSC interpretation of the Basic Law, Chief Executive Leung and some presumptive Chief Executive candidates indicated that the government would again consider national security legislation. No such legislation was under consideration by LegCo at year’s end.

INTERNET FREEDOM

There were no government restrictions on access to the internet, although prodemocracy activists, legislators, lawyers, religious leaders, and protesters claimed central government authorities closely monitored their e-mails and internet use. The internet was widely available and used extensively.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks against private persons and organizations.

In late 2015 the head of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party said his party had repeatedly faced sophisticated cyberattacks on its website and against members’ personal email accounts that appeared to originate from the central government. Before district council elections in November 2015, Reuters found that hackers had broken into at least 20 Gmail accounts belonging to the Democratic Party. Private cybersecurity company FireEye said attacks launched on Dropbox, in which specific victims were trapped into downloading infected files, targeted “precisely those whose networks Beijing would seek to monitor.” The company said half its customers in Hong Kong, or two and a half times the global average, were attacked by government and professional hackers in the first half of 2015.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were some restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. Some scholars suggested Hong Kong-based academics practiced self-censorship in their China-related work to preserve good relations and research and lecturing opportunities in the mainland.

In July, Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Museum closed after two years of operation. The museum had been the only museum on PRC soil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. According to CNN and Time, the Hong Kong Alliance, a prodemocracy group that operated the museum, said the closure was due to pressure from the owners’ committee of the building, which made it difficult for the museum to operate by restricting visitor numbers, filing a lawsuit disputing the usage of the space as a museum, and forcing visitors to provide their names and personal information–a requirement that discouraged visitors from the mainland. The museum operators also cited high rent and other fundraising challenges, but said they kept the museum’s exhibits and hoped to move to a new and bigger location in the future.

In August and September, the Education Secretary and the Chief Executive warned educators against the discussion of independence in schools. In September, Chief Executive Leung said schools in Hong Kong had “no space to discuss independence.” However, at the year’s end, the Education Bureau had made no policy changes in response to their comments, and members of the Professional Teachers’ Union reported their union had made no changes to the regulations governing the accreditation of teachers and the issuance of teaching credentials. For further information, please see section 2.a.

On October 1, the national holiday marking the PRC’s founding in 1949, students at eight universities in Hong Kong hung banners in support of Hong Kong independence. Media reports indicated that school officials promptly removed the banners.

Hong Kong-based international NGOs voiced concern about pro-Beijing media outlets’ sustained criticism of their activities, which the newspapers characterized as interference by foreign forces. NGO staff members reported that these efforts to discredit their work in the SAR made it difficult for the groups to continue their existing partnerships with academic institutions and their public outreach. NGOs also voiced concern about the mainland’s Foreign NGO Management Law, slated to enter into effect on January 1, 2017, noting the law would impose onerous restrictions on the ability to operate and implement social services delivery, advocacy work, and aid services. The law specifically defines Hong Kong-based organizations as covered by the law’s requirements. In April the New York-based broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD-TV) leased the Heung Yee Kuk Grand Theater in Hong Kong to hold a dance competition. NTD-TV received a notice from the theater in May stating that the Hong Kong Government requested the theater for the same date for use in association with the September Hong Kong LegCo election. The theater canceled NTD-TV’s lease in June and offered a full refund for the contract, as well as assistance in identifying an alternative venue. NTD-TV then arranged to hold the competition at another venue, the government-subsidized Macpherson Stadium, in August, but the second venue also later revoked permission to use its premises. NTD-TV ultimately relocated the competition to Taiwan. NTD-TV is associated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in mainland China, but not in Hong Kong. Falun Gong advocates allege that the Hong Kong Government and the CGLO pressured these venues not to allow the dance competition to be held on their premises because of NTD-TV’s association with Falun Gong.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations–including those critical of the SAR and central governments–and the overwhelming majority of protests occurred without serious incident. On June 4, tens of thousands of persons peacefully gathered without incident in Victoria Park to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The annual vigil and a smaller annual event in Macau were reportedly the only sanctioned events in China to commemorate the Tiananmen Square anniversary.

Figures vary for participation in the annual July 1 prodemocracy demonstration, held on the anniversary of the 1997 transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to the PRC. Police estimated 19,300 protesters; an independent polling organization estimated 29,000, and organizers claimed 110,000. Participants voiced concern over the Mighty Current booksellers’ detentions, called for CE Leung to resign, supported a relaunch of Hong Kong’s electoral reform process aimed at extending universal suffrage for all residents to vote in elections for the Chief Executive, encouraged abolition of LegCo’s Functional Constituencies in favor of directly electing all legislators; and demanded democratic amendments to the Basic Law. Police deployed hundreds of officers, and did not interfere with the legally permitted rally.

Government statistics indicated police arrested 125 persons in connection with public order events in the first half of last year; statistics were not yet available for 2016.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

Under the “one country, two systems” framework, the SAR continued to administer its own immigration and entry policies and make determinations regarding claims under the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) independently. Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1969 Protocol. As such, the SAR only accepts asylum claims on the basis of torture in a claimant’s home country. The most recently available government statistics indicated that there were over 11,000 nonrefoulement claims, including those based on claims under the CAT, pending Immigration Department processing. Applicants and activists continued to complain about the slow processing of claims and limited government subsidies available to applicants. Activists and refugee rights groups also voiced concerns about the very low rate of approved claims (0.6 percent for a recent 15 month period), suggesting the government’s bar for approving claims of torture was far higher than other developed jurisdictions.

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

There continued to be claims that the Immigration Department refused entry to a small number of persons traveling to the SAR for political reasons that did not appear to contravene the law. The Immigration Department, as a matter of policy, declined to comment on individual cases. Activists, some legislators, and other observers contended that the refusals, usually of persons holding views critical of the central government, were made at the behest of PRC authorities. The Security Bureau maintained that the Immigration Department exchanged information with other immigration authorities, including on the mainland, but made its decisions independently.

Foreign Travel: Most residents easily obtained travel documents from the SAR government; however, central government authorities did not permit some human rights activists, student protesters, and prodemocracy legislators to visit mainland China. Some of the students who participated in the protest movement in the fall of 2014 alleged the central government security agencies surveilled the protests and blacklisted them.

The central government took steps to restrict the foreign travel of prominent prodemocracy leaders, according to civil society representatives. In October, Thai immigration authorities blocked democracy activist Joshua Wong from entering the country to speak at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and detained him at the airport for 12 hours without explanation. Wong was to attend an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a massacre on the campus of Bangkok’s Thammaset University. Upon his return to Hong Kong, Wong told the press he believed Thai authorities were responding to pressure from the central government. A senior immigration official told a Thai newspaper that Wong was denied entry in response to a request from the PRC government. The Thai organizer who invited Wong to speak at the university also said Thai police had informed him that they had received a letter about Wong from PRC authorities.

Emigration and Repatriation: Government policy was to repatriate undocumented migrants who arrived from mainland China, and authorities did not consider them for refugee status.

The government did not recognize the Taiwan passport as valid for visa endorsement purposes, although convenient mechanisms existed for Taiwan passport holders to visit. As of 2013 most Taiwan visitors have been able to register online and stay for one month if they hold a mainland travel permit.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The SAR has a policy of not granting asylum or refugee status and has no temporary protection policy. The government’s practice was to refer refugee and asylum claimants to a lawyer or to UNHCR. Persons wishing to file a claim cannot do so while they have legally entered the SAR, and must instead wait until they have overstayed the terms of their entry before they can file such a claim.

Refoulement: The government’s Unified Screening Mechanism, introduced last year, consolidated the processing of claims based on risk of return to persecution, torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Claimants continued to receive publicly funded legal assistance, including translation services, as well as small living subsidies. The children of refugee claimants can usually attend Hong Kong’s public schools, if the Director of Immigration deems adjudication of a claim will take several months. The number of substantiated cases of torture and nonrefoulement is less than one percent of the total determinations made since 2009. According to the HKSAR Immigration Department, between the commencement of the enhanced administrative mechanism in late 2009 and September 2016, determinations were made in 10,172 torture/nonrefoulement claims, among which only 65 were substantiated.

Employment: The government defines CAT claimants and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants or “overstayers” in the SAR, and as such they have no legal right to work in the SAR while claims are under review. Those granted either refugee status by UNHCR or relief from removal under the CAT could work only with approval from the director of immigration. They were also ineligible for training by either the Employees Retraining Board or the Vocational Training Council.

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

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views. Prominent human rights activists critical of the central government also operated freely and maintained permanent resident status in the SAR.

Government Human Rights Bodies: There is an Office of the Ombudsman and an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). The government recruits commissioners to represent both offices through a professional search committee, which solicits applications and vets candidates. Commissioners were independent in their operations. Both organizations operated without interference from the government and published critical findings in their areas of responsibility. In January the EOC, under the supervision of Commissioner Dr. York Chow, published a list of 77 recommendations for how to update the SAR’s existing antidiscrimination legislation to better protect Hong Kong’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, improve access to public and commercial buildings for persons with disabilities, and other issues within the EOC’s responsibility. In March, Lingnan University professor Alfred Chan replaced Chow as EOC Commissioner; Chan continues to serve the EOC as an advocate for LGBTI rights, the ethnic minority community, and persons with disabilities.

China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – Macau

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and expression, and the government generally respected these rights.

The law criminalizes treason, secession, subversion of the PRC government, and theft of “state secrets,” as well as “acts in preparation” to commit these offenses. The crimes of treason, secession, and subversion specifically require the use of violence, and the government stated it would not use the law to infringe on peaceful political activism or media freedom.

The Macau Penal Code states that anyone who initiates or organizes, or develops propaganda that incites or encourages, discrimination, hatred, or racial violence, will be liable to imprisonment for one to eight years. The law also states that anyone who, in a public meeting or in writing intended for dissemination by any means or media, causes acts of violence against a person, or group of persons on the grounds of their race, color, or ethnic origin, or defames, or insults a person, or group of persons on those grounds with the intention of inciting or encouraging racial discrimination, will be liable to imprisonment for between six months and five years.

During the year there were no arrests or convictions under this article.

Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were active and expressed a wide range of views, and international media operated freely. The government heavily subsidized major newspapers, which tended to follow closely the PRC government’s policy on sensitive political issues, such as Taiwan; however, they generally reported freely on the SAR, including criticism of the SAR government. Two independent media websites known to be critical of the Macau government alleged cyberattacks and intrusions prior to PRC Premier Li Keqiang’s October visit to the Macau SAR.

Violence and Harassment: Activists alleged that authorities misused criminal proceedings to target government critics. There were no significant instances of violence or harassment directed at journalists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Activists raised concerns of media self-censorship, particularly because news outlets and journalists worried certain types of coverage critical of the government might limit government funding. Activists also reported the government had co-opted senior media managers to serve in various consultative committees, which also resulted in self-censorship. Journalists expressed concern the government’s limitation on news releases about its own activities and its publishing of legal notices only in preferred media outlets influenced editorial content.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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

According to the Statistics and Census Service, as of July there were 317,981 internet subscribers of a population of 646,800. This total did not take into account multiple internet users for one subscription, nor did it include those who accessed the internet through mobile devices.

The law criminalizes a range of cybercrimes and empowers police, with a court warrant, to order internet service providers to retain and provide authorities with a range of data. Some legislators expressed concern the law granted police authority to take these actions without a court order under some circumstances.

Twitter, which the PRC banned on the mainland, was available on the government-provided free Wi-Fi service. Activists reported they freely used Facebook and Twitter to communicate. Activists also reported the government had installed enterprise-grade software capable of censoring, decrypting, and scanning secured transmissions on its free Wi-Fi service without notifying users.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Academics reported self-censorship and also reported that they were deterred from studying or speaking on controversial topics concerning China. Scholars also reported that they were warned not to speak at politically sensitive events or on behalf of certain political organizations. University professors reported the SAR’s universities lacked a tenure system, which left professors vulnerable to dismissal for political reasons.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The law requires prior notification, but not approval, of demonstrations involving public roads, public places, or places open to the public. In cases where authorities tried to restrict access to public venues for demonstrations or other public events, the courts generally ruled in favor of the applicants. Police may redirect demonstration marching routes, but organizers have the right to challenge such decisions in court.

Activists alleged authorities were making a concerted effort to use both intimidation and criminal proceedings against participants in peaceful demonstrations to discourage their involvement. Activists reported police routinely attempted to intimidate demonstrators by ostentatiously taking videos of them and advising bystanders not to participate in protests. Activists also stated authorities gave orders to demonstrators verbally rather than through written communication, which made it difficult to challenge their decisions in court. Activists reported the use of internal circulars and “rumors” threatening civil servants not to join politically sensitive events and demonstrations.

Further, activists alleged the Macau High Court had begun to adjudicate against defendants in freedom of assembly cases. In March, Macau police shrank the area requested by an antigovernment political organization to host an assembly in the Senado Square. The court upheld the restriction and dismissed the applicant’s citation of law that “any restriction on the exercise of the right of peaceful assembly must conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality.” In June approximately 400 persons participated in a vigil at Senado Square to mark the 27th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. No authorization is required to form an association, and the only restrictions on forming an organization are that it not promote racial discrimination, violence, crime, or disruption of public order, or be military or paramilitary in nature. The SAR registered 570 new organizations from July 2015 to June.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation and the government generally respected these rights. The Immigration Department cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

The Internal Security Law grants police the authority to deport or deny entry to nonresidents whom they regard under the law as unwelcome, as a threat to internal security and stability, or as possibly implicated in transnational crimes.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status under the UN Convention Against Torture, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Persons granted refugee status ultimately enjoy the same rights as other SAR residents. The head of the SAR’s Refugee Commission made clear that resource shortages and other priorities meant resolution of the cases would likely take several years.

Pending final decisions on their asylum claims, the government registered asylum seekers and provided protection against their expulsion or return to their countries of origin. Persons with pending applications were eligible to receive government support, including basic needs such as housing, medical care, and education for children.

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

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

China (includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – Tibet

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of Speech and Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent through cell phones, e-mail, or the internet were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the ill-defined crime of “creating and spreading of rumors.” According to official news reports in January, TAR officials punished 141 individuals for “creating and spreading rumors” online between June 2015 and January.

In March public security authorities charged Tashi Wangchuk, an entrepreneur and education advocate from Jyekundo in the Tibetan Region of Kham, now part of the Yushu TAP in Qinghai Province, with “inciting separatism,” according to The New York Times. Tashi’s lawyer told the Times in August that public security case files he had reviewed indicated that the charge was based on Tashi’s participation in a late 2015 Times report about the lack of Tibetan language education in Tibetan areas. Tashi was detained in January, but his family members were not informed until late March, and he remained in detention awaiting trial at the year’s end. Tashi had no known record of advocating Tibetan independence or separatism, according to the Times, and has denied the charges against him.

On May 9, the Wenchuan County People’s Court sentenced Jo Lobsang Jamyang, a monk at Kirti Monastery and a popular writer who addressed issues such as environmental protection and self-immolation protests, to seven years and six months in prison on charges of “leaking state secrets” and “engaging in separatist activities.” The trial was closed, and his family and lawyers were barred from attending. Soon after he was detained in April 2015, 20 Tibetan writers jointly called for his release and praised his writings. Authorities held Jamyang incommunicado and reportedly tortured him during more than a year of pretrial detention.

On May 14, authorities detained Jamyang Lodroe, a monk from Tsinang Monastery in Ngaba TAP, without providing any information about his whereabouts or the reason for his detention to the monastery or to his family. Local sources told RFA reporters that it was widely believed that authorities detained Lodroe on account of his online publications.

Press and Media Freedoms: The government continued to severely restrict travel by foreign journalists. Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and this permission was rarely granted. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China’s annual report stated that reporting from “Tibet proper remains off-limits to foreign journalists.” This same report noted that many foreign journalists were also told that reporting in Tibetan areas outside the TAR was “restricted or prohibited.”

Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them on the basis of political reliability. In February TAR Television announced job vacancies with one of the listed job requirements to “be united with the regional party committee in political ideology and fighting against separatism.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of local journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the Party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.

Violence and Harassment: Chinese authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” In February the Malho (Hainan) Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court in Qinghai Province sentenced Druklo (pen name: Shokjang), a writer and blogger from Labrang in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, to three years in prison for “inciting separatism.” According to various sources, Shokjang wrote poetry and prose about Chinese government policies in Tibetan areas that enjoyed significant readership among Tibetans. Chinese security officials took Shokjang from the monastic center of Rebkong in March 2015, and no information was known about his welfare or whereabouts until the sentencing almost a year later.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Domestic journalists were not allowed to report on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.

Since the establishment of the CCP’s Central Leading Small Group for Internet Security and Informatization in 2014, the TAR Party Committee Information Office has further tightened the control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple contacts, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported that it was almost impossible to register websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.

The Chinese government continued to jam radio broadcasts of Voice of America and RFA’s Tibetan and Chinese-language services in some Tibetan areas as well as the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway. As part of a regular campaign cracking down on unauthorized radio and television channels, the TAR Department of Communications conducted an investigation in the Lhasa area in June and found zero “illegal radio programs.”

According to multiple sources, authorities in Qinghai Province confiscated or destroyed “illegal” satellite dishes in many Tibetan areas. In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, Chinese authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries outside the PRC. In February the PRC ambassador to Bangladesh pressured organizers of the Dhaka Art Summit to remove an exhibit that displayed the handwritten final writings of five Tibetans who had self-immolated in protest of Chinese government repression.

National Security: In 2015 China enacted a new National Security Law that includes provisions regarding the management of ethnic minorities and religion. The PRC frequently blamed “hostile foreign forces” for creating instability in Tibetan areas and cited the need to protect “national security” and “fight against separatism” as justifications for its policies, including censorship policies, in Tibetan areas.

INTERNET FREEDOM

Authorities curtailed cell phone and Internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time, during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When Internet service was restored, authorities closely monitored the Internet throughout Tibetan areas. Reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content were widespread. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information.

In February the head of the TAR Party Committee Internet Information Office asserted that “the Internet is the key ideological battlefield between the TAR Party Committee and the 14th Dalai (Lama) clique.”

In November the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a cybersecurity law that further strengthened the legal mechanisms available to security agencies to surveil and control content online. Some observers noted that provisions of the law, such as Article 12, could disproportionally affect Tibetans and other ethnic minorities. Article 12 criminalizes using the internet to commit a wide range of ill-defined crimes of a political nature, such as “harming national security,” “damaging national unity,” “propagating extremism,” “inciting ethnic hatred,” “disturbing social order,” and “harming the public interest.” The law also codifies the practice of large-scale internet network shutdowns in response to “major [public] security incidents,” which public security authorities in Tibetan areas have done for years without a clear basis in law. A work conference held in Lhasa on November 8 urged the TAR and other provinces with Tibetan areas to step up coordination in managing the internet.

Throughout the year, authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Well-organized computer-hacking attacks originating from China harassed Tibet activists and organizations outside China.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, in an effort to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion.

Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.

In May senior officials of the state-run TAR Academy of Social Science encouraged scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” and held a conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists.”

Policies promoting planned urban economic growth, rapid infrastructure development, the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expansion of the tourism industry, forced resettlement of nomads and farmers, and the weakening of both Tibetan language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries continued to disrupt traditional living patterns and customs.

Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are official languages in the TAR, and both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Inside official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, signage in Tibetan was frequently lacking, and in many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. Private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval to print in the Tibetan language.

A small number of public schools in the TAR continued to teach mathematics in the Tibetan language, but in June the Tibet Postreported that TAR officials have replaced Tibetan language mathematics textbooks in all regional schools with Mandarin versions. Sources reported that WeChat users in the TAR discussing the issue were subsequently visited by public security officers and given warnings.

According to sources, there were previously 20 Tibetan language schools or workshops for local children operated by Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Sichuan Province’s Kardze TAP. After the 2015 release of the Kardze TAP Relocation Regulation for Minors in Monasteries, authorities forced 15 of these schools to close and relocated their students to government-run schools.

The Kardze TAP has the highest illiteracy rate (above 30 percent) in Sichuan Province, compared with a national rate of 4 to 5 percent. Despite the illiteracy problem, in late April the central government ordered the destruction of much of Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhist education center, a focal point for promoting both Tibetan and Chinese literacy.

China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law states that “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to Tibetan language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of modern education.

China’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced intimidation and arrest if they protested against policies or practices they found objectionable. A 2015 RFA report stated that authorities in Rebkong County in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, now administered under Qinghai Province, circulated a list of unlawful activities. The list included “illegal associations formed in the name of the Tibetan language, the environment, and education.” Sources in the area reported that this list remained in force and no new associations have been formed since the list was published.

In February 2015 public security officials in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, detained a group of Tibetans who were peacefully protesting the government’s seizure of land in Zoige County in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, now administered by Sichuan, outside a meeting of the Sichuan Provincial People’s Congress. In April four of these Tibetans were sentenced to prison terms of two to three years.

On June 23, a protest by Tibetans on Qinghai Lake over the demolition of unregistered restaurants and guest houses was violently dispersed by security forces, leading to the arrest of five demonstrators and the injury of at least eight others. Authorities decreed that these small businesses were illegal and needed to be torn down and that residents should leave the area, which was a popular tourist location. Local Tibetans likened it to a “land grab” meant to benefit ethnic Chinese at their expense.

At the Sixth Tibet Work Forum in August 2015, the CCP ordered a large-scale campaign to expel students and demolish living quarters at Larung Gar, the world’s largest center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. The expulsion and demolition campaign commenced in July. According to a local CCP directive, authorities must reduce the resident population to no more than 5,000 by September 2017. Before the campaign began, the population at Larung Gar was estimated to range between 10,000 and 30,000. In July authorities banned foreign tourists from visiting the area.

In August authorities in the Kardze TAP in the Tibetan Region of Kham reportedly prevented Tibetans from holding a religious gathering and traditional horse race festival after Dargye Monastery, the organizer of the events, and local residents refused a government order to fly the PRC national flag at the two events, at the monastery, and from residents’ homes.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

Chinese law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.

In-country Movement: Freedom of movement for all Tibetans, but particularly for monks and nuns, remained severely restricted throughout the TAR, as well as in other Tibetan areas. The PAP and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports.

Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from going outside the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Many Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. This not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but also obstructed land-based travel to India through Nepal. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to ethnic Chinese visitors to the TAR.

Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported that it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.

Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and other minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other Chinese citizens when applying for a Chinese passport. In the TAR, a scholar needs to get about seven stamps with signatures from various government offices to apply for a passport, in addition to other standard required documentation. For Tibetans, the passport application process could take years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes. Tibetans continued to encounter substantial difficulties and obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. Individuals also reported instances of local authorities revoking their passports after they had returned to China.

In November Chinese officials in the Tibetan Regions of Kham and Amdo under the administration of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu Provinces visited the homes of Tibetan passport holders and confiscated their documents, according to an RFA report. Officials claimed the passports were collected in order to affix new seals on them, but Tibetans suspected the timing was intended to make it impossible for them to attend an important religious ceremony known as the Kalachakra, which the Dalai Lama planned to conduct in India in January 2017. Additional reports in December indicated that travel agencies in China were told explicitly by local authorities to cancel trips to India and Nepal during this same period. The apparent travel ban also reportedly extended to ethnic Chinese travelers. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue on to India reported that Chinese officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid.

Tight border controls sharply limited the number of persons crossing the border into Nepal and India. In 2015, 89 Tibetan refugees transited Nepal through the Tibetan Reception Center, run by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kathmandu, en route to permanent settlement in India. This compared with 80 in 2014, down from 171 in 2013 and 242 in 2012.

The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. In February there were reports that travel agents in Chengdu were forbidden to sell package overseas tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods of time around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6).

The government regulated travel by foreigners to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity in the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, foreign visitors had to first obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR, a government-designated tour guide had to accompany foreign tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. In what has become an annual practice, authorities banned many foreign tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Foreign tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR.

The decline in the number of foreign tourists to the TAR was more than offset by an increase in domestic ethnic Chinese visitors to the TAR. Unlike foreign tourists, Chinese tourists did not need special permits to visit the TAR.

Officials continued to tightly restrict the access of foreign diplomats and journalists to the TAR. Foreign officials were able to travel to the TAR only with the permission of the TAR Foreign Affairs Office, and even then only on closely chaperoned trips arranged by that office. With the exception of a few highly controlled trips, authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see section on Freedom of Speech and Press).

In September The Washington Post reported that “the Tibet Autonomous Region, as China calls central Tibet, is harder to visit as a journalist than North Korea. There were only a handful of government tours organized for journalists in the past decade, all closely controlled.”

Colombia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights. Violence and harassment, as well as the criminalization of libel, inhibited freedom of the press, and the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

Violence and Harassment: According to the domestic NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), during the year through August 29, there were 144 incidents of violence and harassment against journalists, although FLIP noted many other incidents might have gone unreported in the most dangerous areas of the country. FLIP reported 52 threats, some aimed simultaneously at more than one journalist. FLIP also reported that one journalist was detained, 33 journalists were physically attacked, and 17 were stigmatized due to their work; however, no journalists had been killed as of September. According to FLIP, the government did not bring a single case to trial for violence against journalists, although investigations continued.

As of July the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office was investigating 37 active cases of crimes against journalists and had convicted 43 persons for such crimes.

On May 21, the ELN kidnapped RCN journalists Salud Hernandez, Diego D’Pablos, and Carlos Melo. They were released on May 27.

The investigation into the case of journalist Flor Alba Nunez Vargas, shot and killed in 2015, proceeded despite some delays. The accused material author of the crime, Juan Camilo Ortiz, arrested in September 2015, remained in detention, while Ortiz’s alleged accomplice, Jaumeth Albeiro Florez, known by the alias “Chori,” remained at large. After the preliminary hearing was suspended three times, the prosecution in a September 2 preliminary hearing presented evidence against Ortiz, including 93 elements of proof and legal evidence. The preliminary hearing was suspended again and resumed September 19, according to media reports. Oral proceedings in the case were scheduled for November.

On May 10, the Attorney General’s Office called three former DAS employees–former DAS director in Antioquia Emiro Rojas Granados, existing CTI telematics director William Alberto Merchan, and former DAS intelligence group detective Juan Carlos Sastoque–to testify in the case regarding threats and harassment against journalist Claudia Julieta Duque.

In September the Council of the State, the highest court for legal processes involving the state, ruled the state was responsible for the death of Jaime Garzon, a journalist and satirist shot and killed by motorcycle gunmen in Bogota in 1999. The court sentenced the state, represented by the Ministry of Defense, the army, and the National Police, noting the responsibility of DAS agents. According to the Council of the State, Jose Miguel Narvaez, the former deputy director of intelligence of the DAS, and the former chief of intelligence of Brigade 13 of the army, colonel Jorge Eliecer Plazas Acevedo, carried out illegal wiretaps on Garzon and shared the information with the former commander of the AUC, Carlos Castano, to whom they suggested the murder. The court ordered the state to pay more than COP 700 million ($235,000) to Garzon’s family for damages. Plazas Acevedo and Narvaez were being prosecuted for the crime of aggravated homicide. There was only one conviction to date in Garzon’s murder; in 2004 Carlos Castano was convicted in absentia of being the mastermind of the murder, and sentenced to 38 years in prison.

As of July the National Protection Unit (NPU) provided protection services to 132 journalists. On September 23, the NPU presented a new Protocol for Attention to Cases of Journalists and/or Social Communicators, established with the stated goal of meeting the particular needs of this group and providing more robust risk studies.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged that some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP argued that the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor.

Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. There is no specific legislation for slander against public officials. The government did not use prosecution to prevent media from criticizing government policies or public officials. Political candidates, businesspersons, and others, however, sued journalists for expressing their opinions, alleging defamation or libel. FLIP reported three new cases against journalists for libel or slander were filed from January 1 to August 26. FLIP also noted as of August 26, four cases of journalists being prosecuted for libel or slander continued from previous years.

Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups sought to inhibit freedom of expression by intimidating, threatening, kidnapping, and killing journalists. National and international NGOs reported that local media representatives regularly practiced self-censorship because of threats of violence from these groups.

In March a judge sentenced Mario Jaime Mejia to 28 years and Alejandro Cardenas to 11 years in prison for their roles in the aggravated kidnapping, torture, and rape of journalist Jineth Bedoya in 2000. In August the Superior Court of Bogota ruled that neither man was eligible for the alternative benefits provided by the Justice and Peace law because they lied about their participation in and knowledge of the facts in the case.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet and has no onerous legislation or policies censoring online content.

The investigation continued into past abuses by the Army Intelligence Unit known as “Andromeda” (see also section 1.f.).

The International Telecommunication Union estimated 53 percent of the population used the internet in 2015. In view of the general climate of violence and impunity, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within communities at risk in rural areas.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. There was evidence, however, that guerrillas maintained a presence on many university campuses to generate political support for their respective causes and undermine support for their enemies through both violent and nonviolent means.

Organized criminal gangs and guerrilla groups killed, threatened, and displaced educators and their families for political and financial reasons, often because teachers represented the only government presence in the remote areas where the killings occurred.

According to the Colombian Federation of Educators, three educators were killed during the year through August 29. Threats and harassment caused many educators and students to adopt lower profiles and avoid discussing controversial topics.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The law provides for the freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions (see section 1.g.). Some NGOs alleged that riot police used excessive force to break up demonstrations. During a two-week national agrarian strike that began May 30 and concluded with the signing of an accord with the government June 12, local social and human rights organizations accused the armed forces and National Police Anti-Riot Squad of using excessive force and alleged that at least 179 demonstrators were injured and three killed. The government stated the protests had not remained peaceful and noted 54 members of the security forces were also injured.

Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as the FARC, the ELN, and illegal armed groups, was illegal.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

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

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although there were exceptions. Military operations and armed conflict in certain rural areas restricted freedom of movement.

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

In-country Movement: There were no government restrictions on movement within the country. Organized criminal gangs and ELN guerrillas continued to establish illegal checkpoints on rural roads, particularly in the departments of Putumayo, Arauca, Antioquia, and Norte de Santander.

International organizations also reported that illegal armed groups confined rural communities through roadblocks, curfews, car bombs at egress routes, and IEDs in areas where narcotics cultivation and trafficking persisted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, monitoring in the departments where it operated, between January 2015 and August 15, 2016, more than 5.35 million persons faced mobility restrictions that limited their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents, protests, and geographical factors. The departments most affected were Cordoba, Caqueta, Cauca, and Narino. Of the more than five million persons in those areas, 4.1 million suffered mobility restrictions due to events related to armed violence. The restrictions were generally limited in duration.

On April 1, the Gulf Clan illegal armed group conducted an armed strike in 36 municipalities, killing five persons, blocking five roads, and burning eight trucks. CERAC reported that while four of the killings targeted members of the CNP and army, the majority of the strike activities targeted the civilian population.

Exile: The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not employ it. Historically, many persons went into self-imposed exile because of threats from organized criminal gangs and FARC and ELN guerrillas.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS

The armed conflict, especially in remote areas, was the major cause of internal displacement. The government, international organizations, and civil society identified various factors driving displacement, including threats, extortion, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence by illegal armed groups against civilian populations, particularly women and girls. Competition and armed confrontation between and within illegal armed groups for resources and territorial control and confrontations between security forces, guerrillas, and organized criminal gangs, and forced recruitment of children or threats of forced recruitment were also drivers of displacement. Some NGOs asserted that counternarcotics efforts, illegal mining, and large-scale commercial ventures in rural areas also contributed to displacement.

The NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) reported 8,669 persons displaced in mass displacement events (displacement of 50 or more persons) from January through August and indicated the departments with the highest numbers of IDPs from mass displacements in the year were Choco (5,407 displacements), Antioquia (1,250 displacements), Norte de Santander (923 displacements), and Narino (347 displacements). CODHES also reported that eight land-rights leaders were killed from January 1 through August, one land-rights claimant and two employees of the land restitution unit were killed, 10 land rights leaders received individual or collective threats, and eight members of a land rights and human rights organizations were threatened.

As of July the NPU was providing protection services to 300 land restitution leaders.

As of August 1, the government reported the Victims’ Unit listed 6,883,513 displaced in the Single Victims Registry, with registrants dating back since 1985. Of those, 17,976 were due to displacements that occurred during the year. Victims’ Unit statistics showed that new displacements occurred primarily in areas where narcotics cultivation and trafficking persisted, especially where guerrilla groups and organized criminal gangs were present.

The Victims’ Unit maintained the Single Victims Registry as mandated by law. Despite improvements in the government registration system, IDPs experienced delays in receiving responses to their displacement claims because of a large backlog of claims built up during several months. International organizations and NGOs remained concerned about the slow and insufficient institutional response to displacement. Government policy provides for an appeals process in the case of refusals.

The ELN and organized criminal gangs continued to use force, intimidation, and disinformation to discourage IDPs from registering with the government. Guerrilla agents sometimes forced local leaders and community members to demonstrate against government efforts to eradicate illicit crops and forced communities to displace as a form of coerced protest against eradication. International organizations and civil society expressed concern over urban displacement caused by violence stemming from territorial disputes between criminal gangs, some of which had links to larger criminal and narcotics trafficking groups.

The Victims’ Unit cited extortion, recruitment by illegal armed groups, homicides, and physical and sexual violence as the primary causes of intra-urban displacement. The ICRC and UNHCR reported that in some departments displacement disproportionately affected indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups. Through August 1, the government registered 171,634 IDPs (including those displaced during years before 2014) who identified themselves as indigenous and 698,642 who identified themselves as Afro-Colombian. Of those displaced in 2016, 1,025 persons self-identified as indigenous and 2,869 self-identified as Afro-Colombian.

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia estimated the number of displaced indigenous persons to be much higher than indicated by government reports, since many indigenous persons did not have adequate access to registration locations due to geographic remoteness, language barriers, or unfamiliarity with the national registration system.

The local NGO Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) stated that threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities continued to cause high levels of forced displacement, especially in the Pacific Coast region. AFRODES and other local NGOs repeatedly expressed concern that large-scale economic projects, such as agriculture and mining, contributed to displacement in their communities.

Fifty-two government agencies are responsible by law for assisting registered IDPs. International organizations and NGOs maintained that the quality of programs providing emergency assistance, housing, and income generation need strengthening. Emergency response capacity at the local level was weak, and IDPs continued to experience prolonged periods of vulnerability while waiting for assistance.

A specialized unit of the Attorney General’s Office–established through an agreement with the government’s former social agency, Social Action (which the DPS replaced), the Attorney General’s Office, and the CNP–investigated and prosecuted cases of forced displacement and disappearances.

Dozens of international organizations, international NGOs, and domestic nonprofit groups, including UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program, the ICRC, and the Colombian Red Cross, coordinated with the government to provide emergency relief and long-term assistance to displaced populations.

The Victims’ Unit and other government agencies improved their response to mass displacement events throughout the year and were assisted by international organizations such as UNHCR and the ICRC. International organizations and civil society reported that a continuing lack of local capacity to accept registrations in high-displacement areas often delayed by several weeks or months assistance to persons displaced individually or in smaller groups. Humanitarian organizations attributed the delays to a variety of factors, including the lack of personnel, funding, declaration forms, and training. Intense fighting and insecurity in conflict zones, including areas in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, and Narino, sometimes delayed national and international aid organizations from reaching newly displaced populations.

Despite several government initiatives to enhance IDP access to services and awareness of their rights, in many parts of the country, municipalities did not have the resources or capacity to respond to new displacements and provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Local elections in October 2015 resulted in new mayors and municipal officials, many of whom were inexperienced in displacement issues. Many IDPs continued to live in poverty in unhygienic conditions and with limited access to health care, education, and employment.

Displaced persons also sought protection across international borders due to the internal armed conflict. UNHCR stated that Colombia was the country of origin for 360,000 refugees and persons in a refugee-like situation, the majority in Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Panama. UNHCR estimated that between 400 and 500 Colombians crossed into Ecuador every month. The governments of Colombia and Ecuador continued to meet throughout the year regarding the situation of Colombian refugees in Ecuador, and the Colombian government offered a program to assist Colombian refugees in Ecuador who returned to Colombia.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to the government, it approved 77 of the 1,263 applications for refugee status received since 2009. Between January 1 and Augus