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Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.

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

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

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

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.

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

Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in protest.

The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.

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

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

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

By law, the government may close a publication–printed or online–after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Regulations also give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.

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

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

Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”

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

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

Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information.

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

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

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

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.

Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as principals.

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

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups.

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

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

The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Association

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

Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.

The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity.

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

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

The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

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

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

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

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.

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

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

Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, particularly after the August 9 election. Some others were in self-imposed exile or were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.

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

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

Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a process for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but are unable to return to their countries of origin.

All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. The government made an exception for one Russian citizen who sought asylum for religious reasons.

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

Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.

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

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

g. Stateless Persons

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

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

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

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government consistently denied citizens this ability by not conducting elections according to international standards.

Since his election in 1994 to a four-year term as the country’s first president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka steadily consolidated power in the executive branch to dominate all branches of government, effectively ending any separation of powers among the branches. Flawed referendums in 1996 and 2004 amended the constitution to broaden his powers, extend his term in office, and remove presidential term limits. Subsequent elections, including the National Assembly elections held in November 2019 and the presidential election held on August 9, continued to deny citizens the right to exercise their will in an honest and transparent process including fair access to media and to resources.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: According to independent local observation groups, the August 9 presidential election was marred by numerous abuses, the use of administrative resources in favor of the incumbent, the absence of impartial election commissions, unequal access to media, coercion of voters to participate in early voting, nontransparent vote tabulation, and restrictions on independent observers. Irregularities identified by NGOs and independent observers raised significant doubts regarding authorities’ claims that Alyaksandr Lukashenka received 80 percent of votes during the presidential election.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Parties and Political Participation: Authorities routinely impeded the activities of opposition political parties and activists. Some opposition parties lacked legal status because authorities refused to register them, and the government routinely interfered with the right to organize, run for election, seek votes, and publicize views. The government allowed approximately six largely inactive but officially registered pro-Lukashenka political parties to operate freely. The government used its monopoly on broadcast media to disparage the opposition and promote pro-Lukashenka parties and to restrict the ability of opposition candidates to publicize their views. There were reports of government resources being used to benefit the incumbent, such as government officials campaigning for Lukashenka during working hours.

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

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

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

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

Women

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

Domestic violence was a significant problem and the government did not take effective measures to prevent it during the year. The government continued to issue protective orders mandating the separation of victims and abusers and provided temporary accommodations for the duration of the orders. It also operated crisis rooms that provided limited shelter and psychological and medical assistance to survivors.

The law on crime prevention establishes a separate definition of domestic violence and provides for implementation of protective orders, which are from three to 30 days in duration. The law requires authorities to provide victims and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition the code on administrative offenses prescribes a substantial fine or detention for up to 15 days for violating protective orders, battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coercion in Population Control: In prior years, women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. While there are no indications that the practice has changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.

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

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

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

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

Consensual same-sexual conduct between adults is not illegal, but LGBTI discrimination was widespread, and harassment occurred. The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.

Societal discrimination against LGBTI activists persisted with the tacit support of the government, which either failed to investigate crimes or did so without recognizing it as a hate crime. For example, in December 2019 a Minsk district court sentenced a local resident on charges of grave hooliganism to 18 months in jail and ordered him to pay 5,400 rubles ($2,210) in compensation to his victim Mikalai Kuprych. The perpetrator assaulted Kuprych, who suffered multiple facial injuries and bone fractures, after he reportedly saw Kuprych hugging friends. Although the perpetrator stated during the investigation that this was the prime motive for his attack, the court refused to recognize anti-LGBTI sentiments as a motive.

The government allows transgender persons to update their name and gender marker on national identification documents, but these documents retain old identification numbers that include a digit indicating the individual’s sex assigned at birth. Transgender persons reportedly were refused jobs when potential employers noted the “discrepancy” between an applicant’s identification number and gender marker. Banks also refused to open accounts for transgender persons on the same grounds. Transgender men were issued military identification that indicated they had “a severe mental illness.”

Crimea

Read A Section: Crimea

Ukraine

In February 2014 Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and occupied it militarily. In March 2014 Russia announced the peninsula had become part of the Russian Federation following a sham referendum that violated Ukraine’s constitution. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 on the “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine” of March 27, 2014, and Resolution 75/192 on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”of December 28, 2020, called on states and international organizations not to recognize any change in Crimea’s status and affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. In April 2014 Ukraine’s legislature (Verkhovna Rada) adopted a law attributing responsibility for human rights violations in Crimea to the Russian Federation as the occupying state. The United States does not recognize the attempted annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Russian law has been applied in Crimea since the Russian occupation and purported “annexation” of the peninsula. For detailed information on the laws and practices of the Russian Federation, see the Country Report on Human Rights for Russia.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

A local occupation authority installed by the Russian government and led by Sergey Aksyonov as “prime minister” of the “state council of the republic of Crimea” administers occupied Crimea. The “state council” is responsible for day-to-day administration and other functions of governing. In 2016 Russia’s nationwide parliamentary elections included seats allocated for purportedly annexed Crimea, a move widely condemned by the international community and that contravened the Ukrainian constitution.

Russian government agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Federal Investigative Committee, and the Office of the Prosecutor General, applied and enforced Russian law in Crimea as if it were a part of the Russian Federation. The FSB also conducted security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism activities and combatted organized crime and corruption. A “national police force” operated under the aegis of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian authorities maintained control over Russian military and security forces deployed in Crimea. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by Russia or Russia-led “authorities,” including punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and transfer of prisoners to Russia; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the occupation judiciary; pervasive arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and website blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, or indigenous people, including Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons.

Occupation authorities took few steps to investigate or prosecute officials or individuals who committed human rights abuses, creating an atmosphere of impunity and lawlessness.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of expression and subjected dissenting voices including the press to harassment and prosecution. Occupation authorities’ reported failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Speech: The HRMMU noted occupation authorities placed “excessive limitations on the freedoms of opinion and expression.” On July 31, occupation authorities began enforcing a law that prohibited the unauthorized dissemination of information damaging to the FSB’s reputation without the FSB’s approval. Enforcement of this law in Crimea deprived Crimean residents of the opportunity to publicly criticize and disseminate information about reportedly unlawful actions of FSB officers and alleged violations or abuses of human rights.

Individuals could not publicly criticize the Russian occupation without fear of reprisal. Human rights groups reported the FSB engaged in widespread surveillance of social media, telephones, and electronic communication and routinely summoned individuals for “discussions” for voicing or posting opposition to the occupation. These unlawfully obtained recordings were often used against those who were arbitrarily arrested in closed trials.

Occupation authorities often deemed expressions of dissent “extremism” and prosecuted individuals for them. For example, according to press reports, on January 18, the FSB placed a 34-year entry ban on Taras Ibrahimov, a Ukrainian journalist who covered politically motivated lawsuits and human rights violations in Crimea. Occupation authorities officially informed Ibrahimov of the ban but did not provide a justification.

Occupation authorities harassed and fined individuals for the display of Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar symbols, which were banned as “extremist.” For example, on March 9, police dispersed a small group of women who began singing the Ukrainian national anthem during an authorized ceremony next to a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. Police told the women their actions constituted an “act of provocation.”

Occupation authorities deemed expressions of support for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula to be equivalent to undermining Russian territorial integrity. For example, on May 22, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged in absentia Crimean Tatar television channel ATR deputy director Ayder Muzhdabaev with violating a Russian law against “public calls for committing terrorist activities.” The charges were purportedly due to his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which he routinely expressed on the daily talk show that he cohosted.

There were multiple reports that occupation authorities detained and prosecuted individuals seeking to film raids on homes or court proceedings. For example, according to press reports, journalist Amet Suleimanov was among those arrested on “terrorism” charges in the FSB’s March 11 raid on multiple Crimean Tatars’ homes in Bakhchisaray district. Occupation authorities first detained Suleimanov in 2017 for filming security forces during a raid on the home of a fellow member of Crimean Solidarity. Occupation authorities have detained and released him multiple times since 2017, citing vague “terrorism” concerns. As of October Suleimanov was under house arrest.

During the year occupation authorities prosecuted individuals for the content of social media posts. For example, on May 28 a “district court” in occupied Crimea fined the acting chairman of the Alushta Muslim community, Ruslan Emirvaliev, for a social media post made in 2016 containing an image of a boy pointing at a banner displaying the words of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith, in Arabic script. Court documents characterized these words as “an inscription in an unknown language, of an unknown nature and content.”

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent print and broadcast media could not operate freely. Most independent media outlets were forced to close in 2015 after occupation authorities refused to register them. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, after the occupation began, many local journalists left Crimea or abandoned their profession. With no independent media outlets left in Crimea and professional journalists facing serious risks for reporting from the peninsula, civic activists were a major source of information on developments in Crimea.

Violence and Harassment: There were numerous cases of security forces or police harassing activists and detaining journalists in connection with their civic or professional activities. For example, on November 3, occupation authorities detained two journalists of the Russia-based Grani.ru website near a Russia-controlled military court building in Simferopol on administrative charges related to public order. The journalists had come to the military court building to report on the sentencing of three Crimean Tatars by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, which was due to be delivered on the same day. Occupation authorities suggested the reporters had been involved in protests in support of the defendants, although local media reported the crowds of protesters had already dispersed when the journalists were arrested.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, journalists resorted to self-censorship to continue reporting and broadcasting.

There were reports occupation authorities sought to restrict access to or remove internet content about Crimea they disliked. As of September Russia-led authorities blocked 30 websites in Crimea, including the websites of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (a representative body that Russia deems extremist), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Ministry of Integration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and several independent Ukrainian news outlets, among others. Censorship of independent internet sites was widespread (see Internet Freedom).

Occupation authorities banned most Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-language broadcasts, replacing the content with Russian programming. On June 22, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that occupation authorities were continuing to block Ukrainian FM radio stations in northern Crimea by broadcasting their stations on the same wavelength. The signal of Ukrainian FM radio stations was heard in only five of the area’s 19 settlements.

Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to forbid songs by Ukrainian singers from playing on Crimean radio stations.

National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to justify retaliation against opponents of Russia’s occupation.

The Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service included prominent critics of the occupation on its list of extremists and terrorists. Inclusion on the list prevented individuals from holding bank accounts, using notary services, and conducting other financial transactions.

Authorities frequently used the threat of “extremism,” “terrorism,” or other purported national security grounds to justify harassment or prosecution of individuals in retaliation for expressing opposition to the occupation. For example, on May 25, the Russia-controlled “supreme court” in occupied Crimea began hearing the in absentia trial of Lenur Isliamov, the owner of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR. In 2015 occupation authorities charged Isliamov with “organizing an illegal armed group, committing sabotage, [and] public calls for extremist activities.” In 2015 Isliamov led a group of volunteers near the administrative border in blocking the transport of commercial goods to and from occupied Crimea. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group called the act an “essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea,” and the Ukrainian government subsequently approved the formal registration of Isliamov’s organization.

Internet Freedom

Russian occupation authorities restricted free expression on the internet (see section 2.a. of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia), by imposing repressive Russian Federation laws on Crimea. Security services routinely monitored and controlled internet activity to suppress dissenting opinions. According to media accounts, occupation authorities interrogated and harassed residents of Crimea for online postings with pro-Ukrainian opinions (see Censorship or Content Restrictions, above).

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Occupation authorities engaged in a widespread campaign to suppress the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

According to the June UN secretary-general’s special report, “public events initiated by perceived supporters of Ukrainian territorial integrity or critics of policies of the Russian Federation in Crimea were reportedly prevented or prohibited by occupation authorities.”

Human rights monitors reported that occupation authorities routinely denied permission to hold assemblies based on political beliefs, in particular to opponents of the occupation or those seeking to protest the actions of the occupation authorities. Those who gathered without permission were regularly charged with administrative offenses. Expansive rules about what type of gatherings required permits and selective enforcement of the rules made it difficult for protesters to avoid such offenses. For example, according to a local news website, on January 19, police shut down a small women-led rally in Kerch against the possible closure of the Taigan Safari Park, which faced mismanagement-related litigation in Russia-based courts. Police and representatives of the Kerch city council told the rally’s participants that holding a public event unauthorized by the city council was illegal. The participants complied in ending the rally, and several of them began disseminating leaflets to passers-by. An hour later, police detained several of the women and took them to the police station. Police did not register the arrests.

Occupation authorities brought charges for “unauthorized assemblies” against single-person protests, even though preauthorization is not required for individual protests. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on June 8, police charged activist Serhiy Akimov with an administrative offense for holding a one-person protest in Simferopol in front of the Crimean “parliament” building in support of Russian politician Nikolay Platoshkin, who was under house arrest in Moscow.

There were reports that authorities used a ban on “unauthorized missionary activity” to restrict public gatherings of members of religious minorities. For example, on April 1, the “prosecutor” of Alushta opened administrative proceedings against Yusuf Ashirov, the imam of the local Islamic community, for “illegal missionary activity.” The prosecutor did not explain how Ashirov’s performance of Friday prayers, a traditional rite for Muslims, violated the law.

A “regulation” limits the places where public events may be held to 366 listed locations, which, as the HRMMU noted, restricted the ability to assemble to a shrinking number of “specially designated spaces,” a move that appeared “designed to dissuade” peaceful assembly.

There were reports occupation authorities charged and fined individuals for allegedly violating public assembly rules in retaliation for gathering to witness security force raids on homes.

Freedom of Association

See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.

Occupation authorities broadly restricted the exercise of freedom of association for individuals who opposed the occupation. For example, there were numerous reports of authorities taking steps to harass, intimidate, arrest, and imprison members of the human rights group Crimean Solidarity, an unregistered movement of friends and family of victims of repression by occupation authorities (see section 1.d.). During the year the Crimean Human Rights Group documented multiple cases in which police visited the homes of Crimean Solidarity activists to threaten them or warn them not to engage in “extremist” activities. For example, on May 6, Seyran Menseitov, a member of the Crimean Solidarity movement, received a letter from the Yevpatoriya “prosecutor’s office,” which warned him against participating in gatherings related to the May 18 “Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide,” as they might constitute “extremist” activities. At least 10 other Crimean Tatar activists and journalists received similar “preventive warnings” in advance of the May 18 holiday.

According to human rights groups, Russian security services routinely monitored prayers at mosques for any mention that Crimea remained part of Ukraine. Russian security forces also monitored mosques for anti-Russia sentiment and as a means of recruiting police informants, whose secret testimony was used in trials of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members.

The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People remained banned for purported “extremism” despite a decision by the International Court of Justice holding that occupation authorities must “refrain from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the Mejlis.” Following the 2016 ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as an “extremist organization,” occupation authorities banned gatherings by Mejlis members and prosecuted individuals for discussing the Mejlis on social media.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

Occupation authorities imposed restrictions on freedom of movement.

In-country Movement: Occupation authorities maintained a state “border” at the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea. According to the HRMMU, the boundary and the absence of public transportation between Crimea and mainland Ukraine continued to undermine freedom of movement to and from the peninsula, affecting mainly the elderly and individuals with limited mobility. The government simplified crossing the administrative boundary for children in a decree that came into force on February 9. Children younger than 16 were allowed to cross the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea both ways if accompanied by one parent. Notarized permission of the second parent was no longer required. Children ages 14-16 could cross the administrative line both ways unaccompanied if they studied at an educational institution located in mainland Ukraine and resided or were registered in Crimea.

There were reports occupation authorities selectively detained and at times abused persons attempting to enter or leave Crimea. According to human rights groups, occupation authorities routinely detained adult men at the administrative boundary for additional questioning, threatened to seize passports and documents, seized telephones and memory cards, and questioned them for hours.

On March 14, Ukrainian authorities restricted crossing of the administrative boundary as a COVID-19 preventative measure. Under the restrictions, only individuals registered as residents of government-controlled territory could cross into mainland Ukraine, and only individuals registered in Crimea could cross into the occupied peninsula. Public backlash to the measures led the government to expand authorized crossings four days later, allowing for crossings for humanitarian reasons, such as family reunification, cases of serious illness, and the death of a close relative. On June 15, the State Border Guard Service rescinded the residency requirements and resumed normal operations of checkpoints along the administrative boundary, while still requiring self-isolation for persons leaving occupied Crimea. On August 1, the service rescinded the self-isolation requirement but temporarily closed the crossing points again from August 8 to 30.

On March 18, Russian occupation authorities banned Ukrainian citizens from entering occupied Crimea, citing COVID-19 prevention as justification. The number of administrative boundary crossings dropped to nearly 1 percent of historical levels as a result of these restrictions. For instance, from April to May, the State Border Guard Service registered 4,000 crossings of the administrative boundary, compared with 344,000 crossings during the same period in 2019.

On April 3, Russian occupation authorities imposed upon Ukrainians in Crimea a measure banning those they considered Russian citizens from leaving the territory of what they considered the Russian Federation. Occupation authorities justified the action by asserting that many Ukrainians in Crimea had Russian passports, many of which were issued without being requested. For example, on April 5, FSB officials at the administrative boundary denied the request of a Ukrainian citizen seeking cancer treatment in Kyiv to exit occupied Crimea, citing her alleged Russian citizenship. Similarly, on April 17, Soviet dissident and marathon swimmer Oleh Sofianyk presented a Ukrainian passport to Russian officials at the administrative boundary in order to cross into mainland Ukraine. The officials refused his request to exit occupied Crimea, citing his alleged Russian citizenship. On April 27, Sofianyk attempted a second time to exit Crimea, but authorities again refused his request. Sofianyk managed to leave the peninsula on June 2.

In other cases, occupation authorities issued entry bans to Crimean Tatars attempting to cross the administrative boundary. For example, on May 23, the FSB detained 61-year-old human rights defender Diliaver Memetov when he attempted to pass through an administrative boundary checkpoint for a planned trip to mainland Ukraine. Occupation authorities took Memetov to a police station, where he claims police tore out pages from his passport. Upon his release three hours later, Memetov attempted to cross again, but was denied entry and fined a substantial amount for presenting a damaged passport.

Occupation authorities launched criminal cases against numerous high-profile Crimean Tatar leaders, including Member of Parliament Mustafa Jemilev; the chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubarov; the director general of the ATR television channel, Lenur Isliamov; and ATR deputy director Aider Muzhdabayev.

According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian law restricts access to Crimea to three designated crossing points and imposes penalties, including long-term entry bans, for noncompliance. Crimean residents lacking Ukrainian passports, who only possessed Russian-issued Crimean travel documents not recognized by Ukrainian authorities, often faced difficulties when crossing into mainland Ukraine.

Citizenship: Russian occupation authorities required all residents of Crimea to be Russian citizens. Those who refused Russian citizenship could be subjected to arbitrary expulsion. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, during the six years of Russia’s occupation, approximately 2,000 Ukrainians were prosecuted for not having Russian documents, and approximately 530 persons were ordered to be “deported.”

According to the HRMMU, in 2019 Crimean “courts” ordered “deportation” and forcible transfer of 109 Ukrainian citizens whose residence rights in Crimea were not recognized.

Residents of Crimea who chose not to adopt Russian citizenship were considered foreigners but in some cases could obtain a residency permit. Persons without Russian citizenship holding a residency permit were deprived of key rights and could not own agricultural land, vote or run for office, register a religious congregation, or register a vehicle. Authorities denied those who refused Russian citizenship access to “government” employment, education, and health care as well as the ability to open bank accounts and buy insurance, among other limitations.

According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, Russian authorities prosecuted private employers who continued to employ Ukrainians. Fines could be imposed on employers for every recorded case of employing a Ukrainian citizen without a labor license. Fines in such cases amounted to several million dollars.

In some cases authorities compelled Crimean residents to surrender their Ukrainian passports, complicating international travel, because many countries did not recognize “passports” issued by Russian occupation authorities.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Approximately 47,000 residents of Crimea registered as IDPs on the mainland, according to the Ministry of Social Policy. The Mejlis and local NGOs, such as Crimea SOS, believed the actual number could be as high as 100,000, as most IDPs remained unregistered. Many individuals fled due to fear that occupation authorities would target them for abuse because of their work as political activists or journalists. Muslims, Greek Catholics, and Evangelical Christians who left Crimea said they feared discrimination due to their religious beliefs.

Crimean Tatars, who made up the largest number of IDPs, said they left because of pressure on their community, including an increasing number of arbitrary searches of their homes, surveillance, and discrimination. In addition, many professionals left Crimea because Russian occupation authorities required them to apply for Russian professional licenses and adopt Russian procedures in their work.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Recent Elections: Russian occupation authorities prevented residents from voting in Ukrainian national and local elections since Crimea’s occupation began in 2014.

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

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

Human rights groups and LGBTI activists reported that most LGBTI individuals fled Crimea after the Russian occupation began. Those who remained lived in fear of abuse due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert received reports of increased violence and discrimination of the LGBTI community in Crimea, as well as the use of homophobic propaganda employed by the occupation authorities. LGBTI persons reportedly were frequently subjected to beatings in public spaces and entrapped by organized groups through social networks. The council’s report noted, “this environment created an atmosphere of fear and terror for members of the community, with related adverse impacts on their mental health and well-being.”

According to the HRMMU, NGOs working on access to health care among vulnerable groups have found it impossible to advocate for better access to healthcare for LGBTI persons due to fear of retaliation by occupation authorities.

Occupation authorities prohibited any LGBTI group from holding public events in Crimea. LGBTI individuals faced increasing restrictions on their exercise of free expression and peaceful assembly, because occupation authorities enforced a Russian law that criminalizes the so-called propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors (see section 6 of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia).

Hungary

Executive Summary

Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in 2018, the Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with the organization’s commitments” and noted, “The widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.

The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts; it is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. The state of emergency was renewed in September for another six months. On April 29, the government amended a decree passed under the coronavirus state of emergency law that allows the minister of interior to involve police and the military to participate in the protection of medical resources and permits the military during the state of emergency to take part in street patrols and in monitoring compliance with security measures. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were no reports that members of the security forces committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal penalties for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” or libel (although court decisions limited the impact of the latter); exposure of asylum seekers to risk of refoulement; allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations; and threats of violence by extremists targeting Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not widespread.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and media were active and expressed a wide range of views. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech.”

On March 30, as part of the government’s legislative package declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19, parliament permanently amended the criminal code to increase the penalty for spreading a “falsehood” or “distorted truth” (“scaremongering”) that could obstruct or prevent successful protection under a special legal order to imprisonment of up to five years (see section 3 for more on the state of emergency). Government officials asserted that the legislation sought to discourage the spread of harmful “fake news” that could hinder attempts to keep the pandemic under control. Domestic and international observers spoke out against the legislation and raised concerns about its potential effects on media freedom. On March 27, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns that the amendments could negatively affect the work of journalists and have a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. On March 26, Reporters without Borders (RSF) stated that the law granted the government a tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship. On April 21, RSF also noted that before the legislation was submitted, “progovernment media organizations” had called for the arrest of journalists critical of the government.

On June 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2018 government decree classifying the nonprofit Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA)–which experts estimated controls between 80 and 90 percent of all commercial Hungarian media outlets and is managed by Fidesz party allies–as being of “national strategic importance” was constitutional. The Competition Authority and the Media Council cannot scrutinize transactions categorized as of national strategic significance. Government-linked media mounted mostly ad hominem attacks against the owner of the country’s largest independent media group. A law granting members of parliament the right to enter the offices of public buildings was repealed in 2019, and they now require prior notification or permission; experts viewed this as a response to opposition members of parliament having attempted to enter government and state-run media facilities as a form of protest. The European Commission reported that KESMA represented an “increased risk to media pluralism.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government set up an Operative Board to manage and communicate government action. Operative Board members answered press questions submitted in writing and in advance at daily press briefings. Independent and government-critical media repeatedly complained that their questions were rarely answered.

Freedom of Speech: Criminal law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The law prohibits the public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech; however, NGOs representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that police officers continued to resist classifying incidents as hate speech and were unfamiliar with police hate crime protocols (see section 6). The media law also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.

On May 12, police went to the home of a man from Borsod County with a search warrant based on suspicion of COVID-19 “scaremongering” because of his April 28 social media post. The man had questioned the government’s decision to lift curfew restrictions the day after a peak of the pandemic and appealed to “our dear dictator, our dear leader.” Police published photos and videos of the arrest, which was widely reported. Police released him that afternoon after questioning and told him he would not be charged since no crime had been committed.

On May 13, police also carried out a home raid and detained Janos Csoka-Szucs, a member of the opposition Momentum party in the town of Gyula, for a comment he made in a closed Facebook group on April 20. Csoka-Szucs had shared a post from an independent member of parliament about a protest against the government’s decision to discharge patients from hospitals to make room for potential COVID-19 cases. Police claimed his post “jeopardized the effectiveness of the defense in an emergency.” He was released after four hours of questioning, but police seized his computer and mobile phone. NGOs and opposition parties claimed the arrest was an attempt to suppress free speech and intimidate opponents of the government.

A law approved in 2018 imposed a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5). According to press reports, no entity had paid any tax in 2019 under the law, and no known tax office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.

On September 21, the independent news outlet Telex reported that, in a June 2 letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy state secretary for development of European affairs, Jozsef Magyar, asked the country’s EU-based embassies to report the professional visits of Hungarian journalists to those countries. According to the report, the letter asked the embassies to report when the visit(s) took place, which Hungarian outlets took part, and the organizations or local press outlets with which they met. In response to Telexs query as to the purpose of gathering such information, the ministry stated: “To fulfill its mandate, [the ministry] is doing everything against foreign interference in Hungarian domestic affairs. Experience has shown that Soros organizations tend to be behind such attacks.”

On September 29, the Prosecutor General’s Office indicted the president of the Momentum party, Andras Fekete-Gyor, and another member of the party on the charge of assaulting law enforcement personnel during the 2018 protests against the government’s changes to the labor code, which critics dubbed the “slave law” (see section 7). Fekete-Gyor declared he was innocent of the charges, which he described as politically motivated, and opposition Democratic Coalition party released a statement of support, arguing that the government was attempting to use the justice system to stifle freedom of expression.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices. Some new independent media outlets were founded, one of them by reporters from a formerly independent outlet. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) relaunched its Hungarian service on September 8.

In February the beverage company Hell Energy Drink brought a lawsuit against the monthly magazine Forbes Hungary after it published a list of the richest Hungarians. Forbes was forced to recall the issue from newsstands because the privately owned family beverage company argued that the magazine had breached their privacy under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In October the company also obtained a court order barring the publication of parts of an article in the weekly Magyar Narancs, which noted that companies connected to the family had received large amounts in state and EU grants and subsidized loans in previous years, citing again GDPR regulations.

On March 31, government-aligned media mogul Miklos Vaszily purchased 50 percent of Indamedia, the advertising sales company that generated virtually all revenues for the independent news site Index, at the time the country’s most visited online news outlet. With ad revenues decreasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a newly appointed adviser proposed a reorganization plan that would have stripped part of the editorial board’s control. In June, Indexs editor in chief, Szabolcs Dull, publicly opposed the proposal, warning that the outlet was under increasing political pressure. In response, Laszlo Bodolai, chairman of the board of Indexs parent foundation, fired Dull on July 22. Bodolai asserted that Dull’s actions had endangered Indexs economic viability while denying that the outlet’s independence was at risk. Index journalists publicly called Dull’s dismissal “unacceptable” and an open attempt at pressure, which would lead to “the end of independent reporting.” On July 24, more than 70 journalists–the majority of Indexs staff–resigned in protest. On November 23, Indamedia announced it had purchased all of Index’s shares. As of November the website was still operating under the same name but with different staff and with far fewer investigative stories.

Some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. According to Freedom House, “while private, opposition-aligned media outlets exist, national, regional, and local media are increasingly dominated by progovernment outlets, which are frequently used to smear political opponents and highlight false accusations. Government advertising and sponsorships favored progovernment outlets, leaving independent and critical outlets in a financially precarious position.” The European Commission stated that advertising directed at progovernment outlets permitted the government to exert indirect control over media.

The government and government-linked entities often excluded independent and opposition media from their events and press conferences.

The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consists exclusively of persons named by the governing parties. Some experts criticized the NMHH’s frequency awarding practices for allegedly penalizing radio stations that are critical of the government. In December 2019 the NMHH declined to extend the frequency license of a prominent Budapest community radio station, citing previous minor violations of the media law for which the station had already been fined. The station continued to operate online throughout the year. The Capital City Court of Law ruled in July that a September 2019 Media Council resolution that exonerated a public television station from accusations of unlawful bias violated the media law. The court ordered the Media Council to conduct new proceedings into the case. In September the NMHH announced it would not renew the frequency license for Klubradio, set to expire in February 2021, due to minor national content violations. Klubradio had previously broadcast news critical of the government.

The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government. Because MTI’s news services are free, its news products are broadcast widely by national and local outlets. Opposition politicians complained that they were rarely able to appear on state-run broadcasts or were given significantly less time to articulate their positions.

A November independent press report described a concerted effort by state-run media to promote the political agenda of Fidesz ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. The report included audio recordings from officials at state media conglomerate MTVA from March and April 2019, in which MTVA chief editor Balazs Bende and news director Zsolt Nemeth were heard directing MTVA employees to promote the government agenda in advance of the elections. Bende made repeated threats that employees were to get on board with the directive or “get out.” According to the independent press report, the Media Council stated it had “received a complaint which was being investigated.”

The speaker of parliament, Laszlo Kover, continued to ban parliamentary access for various individuals–primarily journalists–for alleged violations of parliamentary rules. On May 26, the ECHR ruled that the bans Kover imposed on journalists working for independent and government-critical media in the spring of 2016 unlawfully restricted the work of media and violated the rights of the reporters. Kover issued a statement declaring that the ruling did not mandate his office to change the existing rules governing press work.

Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists as “Soros agents” or “Soros mercenaries” and independent media as the “Soros media,” or in one instance as the “Soros blog.” In 2018 an investigative reporter for an independent news website was admonished in a summary procedure before a district court in Budapest for alleged abuse of personally identifiable information by using publicly available information in an article on a Hungarian person who criticized Sweden’s migration policy. The reporter demanded a full trial. In September 2019 another court notified the reporter of its nonbinding resolution exonerating him, since the person in question was a public figure who must tolerate in-depth scrutiny in the public interest. The prosecutors appealed the court ruling, and the Capital City Appeal Court remanded the case to the original court for a new trial in February. The case remained pending as of November.

In November 2019 an extreme right-wing website published an anti-Semitic drawing of a journalist from an independent outlet, which was then shared by a mainstream progovernment outlet. A few days later, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli posters appeared in downtown Budapest with the photographs of two reporters who at that time worked for the country’s most widely read news site. The posters suggested the two journalists were foreign agents. The Action and Protection Foundation and the mayor of the district where the posters appeared filed police reports, citing hate speech, against unknown perpetrators. In March the chief of the Budapest police told a press outlet that no proceedings had been launched as there was no indication of a public crime, and no private prosecution had been initiated.

On multiple occasions, government-aligned outlets criticized nongovernment-aligned, independent, and international journalists by name for their reporting. The outlets, many of which belong to the Fidesz-affiliated media conglomerate KESMA (see above), accused these journalists, among other accusations, of being “Soros agents” and, on at least one occasion, reported comments calling for a journalist to be prosecuted under the “scaremongering” provision of the COVID-19 state of emergency law. Some publications included details about the journalists’ backgrounds, where they reside, and photographs of them. Some journalists and commentators were specifically named on multiple occasions, including by a government representative in a press briefing.

For example, an April 16 article in a KESMA-held media outlet published the names of two international journalists, claiming that the “sole purpose of their article was to denigrate the Hungarian government” and included pictures of the journalists. On April 9, the host of a KESMA-held news channel identified by name one of the journalists who resides in Budapest as a native of another country. In an April 16 press conference, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, singled out one of the international reporters for criticism over his reporting. An April 6 article in the KESMA-held Magyar Nemzet quoted a constitutional lawyer who said an article the journalist published on COVID-19 in Hungary qualified as the “spread of horror” and therefore a crime under the scaremongering provision of the emergency law. The lawyer also suggested that a Hungarian news portal that reported on the article should be liable under the law, and both comments were later reported on a KESMA-held news channel. Journalists targeted in this manner by media and government officials reported receiving threats to their safety from individuals.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.

The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by public media. Public television station M1 and its news website, hirado.hu, launched a segment monitoring “fake news” related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The independent media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor noted in a June 16 analysis that the featured reports were “a mix of items published on actual fake news sites and of articles published by independent and government-critical media that obviously do not seem like fake news at all; in fact, the series even included as alleged fake news statements by opposition politicians.”

The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The Council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($666,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.

As of August 24, the Media Council had issued 86 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, of which 57 imposed fines totaling some 23.14 million forints ($77,800) on 46 media service providers.

Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.

Public officials and other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. Opposition politicians and government-critical private individuals sued government-allied media outlets in several high-profile cases. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters.

Internet Freedom

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

In cooperation with internet service providers, the NMHH maintained a nonpublic database to store and cooperate in the implementation of court rulings and tax authority resolutions to block websites that violate the law, including content-related legislation.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

In 2017 an amendment to the higher education law required universities from non-EU countries to have a physical presence in their country of origin, operate under an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the country of accreditation, and ensure that the university’s name in Hungarian reflects an exact translation of the name in the country of origin. The U.S.-accredited Central European University (CEU) established a presence at Bard College in New York in 2018, and the government and the State of New York negotiated an intergovernmental agreement. The government argued, however, that CEU had not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the law and declined to sign the draft agreement to bring CEU into compliance with the law. In 2018 CEU announced it would move its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna and did so in 2019. In July 2019 CEU was accredited as an Austrian private university under the name of Central European University, and in November 2019 it officially opened its campus in Vienna. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the matter in 2017. The Constitutional Court suspended the case until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) makes its decision.

The ECJ ruled on October 6 that the amendment violated EU law and contradicted the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights relating to academic freedom. The ECJ also found the law violated the international General Agreement on Trade in Services and World Trade Organization regulations. The ruling stated that the condition of an international treaty between Hungary and the third country constituted a “means of arbitrary discrimination because of the decisive nature of the political will of the Hungarian authorities.” The CEU rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the ruling as a legal and moral vindication but underscored that CEU’s move to Vienna was final, adding that the ruling “lifts the whole burden of Lex CEU off our backs and restores our freedom.”

In 2019 parliament passed a law that gave the government control, through a newly established organization, over the funding of 15 research institutes previously funded and managed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The law received domestic and international criticism as infringing upon the principles of academic freedom and the self-governance of scientific institutions. In July the research institutes received a one-day deadline to submit their “research plan descriptions,” which renewed concerns over the evaluation process of research funding.

Under legislation passed by parliament on May 19, the government assigned private foundations the right to operate six public universities starting August 1. Following the model introduced at Corvinus University in 2019, the Veterinary University, the University of Miskolc, the Moholy-Nagy University of Arts, Neumann Janos University, the University of Sopron, and Szechenyi Istvan University began operating under new structures financed by foundations and in some cases with government officials as members of the board.

On July 3, parliament adopted a law that transferred the ownership of the University of Theater and Film Arts to a foundation as of September 1. The government disregarded the university’s proposal on the composition of the foundation board, instead appointing National Theater director Attila Vidnyanszky as the head of the foundation. The university senate asserted that Vidnyanszky “consistently and deliberately sought to destroy the reputation of the university for years, while the other members of the board have no significant experience in higher education.” Several instructors announced their resignations following the announcement. The university’s students, staff, artists and the public held several demonstrations against the law, and students barricaded themselves inside university buildings, demanding university autonomy. Students ended the blockade due to the government announcement of a ban on assemblies on November 10 as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In an exceptional procedure on March 24 during the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament passed an amendment to the act on culture that removed state-funded Budapest theaters from the control of the municipal government and placed them under central government control. The central government also gained the right to appoint theater leadership. Referring to an allegation of sexual harassment at a Budapest theater at the end of 2019, the government argued that if it provided all funds for the operation of the theaters then it should also be entitled to make personnel and financial decisions, adding that it could no longer support the operation of theaters that did not allow inspection into their affairs. The cabinet introduced the amendment without any professional consultations. In April the central government and the municipality of Budapest concluded an agreement on the operation of Budapest theaters. Under the agreement the municipality of Budapest will finance four theaters without government funding, with the right to decide on the appointment of their directors.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution includes a provision on the protection of privacy, which stipulates that freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to assembly shall not harm others’ private and family life and their homes, potentially restricting protests in public spaces near politicians’ homes and protests in other public spaces that have apartments nearby. The law also permits the government to regulate public demonstrations, including holding organizers liable for damages caused by their events, and to ban protests in advance. Under the law authorities may ban or dissolve gatherings that unnecessarily and disproportionately harm the dignity of the nation or other national, ethnic, or religious communities. The law also criminalizes the nonviolent disturbance or impediment of a demonstration.

The criminal code provides that harassment of “official persons” (including members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors) when they are not performing public duties is a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government introduced restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings and events. In May police fined drivers who participated in a protest against the government’s decision to release patients from hospitals due to COVID-19 by honking their car horns. Police considered the May 28 protest of far-right groups against “Gypsy crime” as falling outside the scope of the law on assembly (see also section 6 on ethnic minorities). During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government put a blanket ban on assemblies in public spaces and imposed fines for violations of up to 500,000 forints ($1,670) for participants of banned protests.

On May 26, the ECHR ruled that police interfered with a private individual’s right to peaceful assembly by unjustifiably dismissing his notification of intent to hold a demonstration in front of the president’s residence in 2013. Police argued that TEK had closed the area in question, rendering it no longer a public space available for demonstrations for the requested period. Subsequent court scrutiny removed the legal basis of the ban but only at a time when the reason for the demonstration had already become obsolete. The ECHR ordered the state to pay the private individual 2,600 euros ($3,100) as compensation for nonpecuniary damage.

Freedom of Association

On June 18, the ECJ ruled that the country’s 2017 law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding to register and label themselves as “foreign-funded organizations” violated EU law (see section 5).

A 2011 law on religion deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had previously held incorporated church status; most were required to reapply for registration. The government had not approved any applications for incorporated church status since it amended the law in 2012, but it approved many applications for a lesser status of religious organizations. In 2019 an amendment to the law entered into force creating four different statuses for religious organizations. Observers noted that while the amendment provides a simpler procedure for religious entities to gain an intermediate-level status, it only restores some of the rights those religious groups could exercise before 2011.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with and provided the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to refugees and asylum seekers, with the exception of those held in detention under the aliens policing procedure.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates and UNHCR criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, including its pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia.

Domestic human rights NGOs reported that their attorneys had difficulties in maintaining contact with foreigners kept in aliens-policing or asylum-detention facilities.

Refoulement: The CPT report published in March noted there were no legal remedies offering effective protection against forced removal or refoulement, including chain refoulement. Human rights advocates reported that 11,101 pushbacks to Serbia took place in 2019, according to official police statistics.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for asylum seekers outside the country to apply for it, but UNHCR stated on June 29 that the new law (see below) “further undermines the effective access to territory and asylum for those fleeing wars and persecution which had been already seriously constrained before.” UNHCR called on the government to bring its asylum system into conformity with international refugee and human rights law.

Following the ECJ’s May 14 ruling that classified the government’s holding of asylum seekers in two transit zones on the Hungary-Serbia border as unlawful detention, the government announced on May 21 the closure of the transit zones and introduced a new asylum system in a government decree as of May 27. Based on the new legislation, asylum seekers arriving at Hungary’s border were subsequently turned away and directed to submit a statement of intent to request asylum at the Hungarian embassies in Belgrade or Kyiv. The asylum authority had 60 days to examine the statement of intent and make a proposal to the embassy whether to issue the asylum seeker a special single-entry travel permit to enter Hungary. In case the permit is issued, the asylum seeker travels on their own to Hungary within 30 days and, upon arrival, immediately avail themselves to the border guards who present them to the asylum authority within 24 hours. Those not granted the special one-time entry permit at one of the embassies cannot request asylum in Hungary. The decree was later included as part of the bill ending the state of emergency that entered into force on June 18. On June 29, UNHCR expressed concern that the law exposes asylum seekers to the risk of refoulement. All third-country nationals found anywhere in the country without already having a right to stay (e.g., a valid visa or residence permit) are “escorted” to the other side of the border fence. As of November the asylum authority had not approved any submitted statements of intent.

On October 30, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure due to the new asylum rules, which it considers to be unlawful as they preclude persons who are in the country’s territory, including at the border, from applying for international protection.

On December 17, the ECJ ruled that restricting access to the international protection procedure, detaining asylum applicants for that protection procedure in transit zones, and moving third-country nationals who were illegally present to the Hungary-Serbia border area without observing the safeguards in a return procedure were in breach of EU law.

On June 21, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee reported that between 2017 and the closure of the transit zones in May, thousands of adults and children were detained unlawfully for extensive periods of time, up to almost two years. Authorities deprived 34 individuals of food in 24 cases for one to eight days. In each case the Hungarian Helsinki Committee had to request interim measures from the ECHR to stop the deprivation of food.

On March 1, Prime Minister Orban’s domestic security adviser Gyorgy Bakondi announced the indefinite suspension of the admission of new asylum seekers due to COVID-19. On March 8, the government extended the “crisis situation due to mass migration”–first introduced in 2015 and renewed since every six months–until September 7 due to COVID-19 and the security risk posed by the situation at the border between Turkey and Greece. On September 1, the government extended the “crisis situation” for a further six months. On August 6, Surgeon General Cecilia Muller stated that uncontrolled migration posed an “extreme danger” to the country because most “illegal migrants” came from countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases and may be infected with other diseases no longer common in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government maintained lists of “safe countries of origin” and “safe third countries.” Both lists included Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. UNHCR repeatedly objected to the government’s designation of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures. In 2018 parliament modified the constitution to state that persons arriving in the country “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.” Parliament also amended the asylum law and restricted the right to asylum to only those persons who arrived in Hungary directly from a place where their life or freedom were at risk.

On March 19, the ECJ ruled that national legislation, which stipulated that an asylum application by an asylum seeker arriving in an EU member state through a safe transit country was inadmissible, breached EU law. The court ruled that EU member states were obliged to assess the asylum seekers’ “connection” to the transit country when determining the admissibility of their application; merely transiting through the country was not sufficient to provide the basis of such connection. The case concerned a Syrian Kurd’s asylum application that the immigration authority deemed inadmissible because the applicant had transited Serbia, which the government considers a safe transit country.

Freedom of Movement: Following the closure of the transit zones, the new asylum provisions prescribe the automatic “placement of the applicant in a closed facility” for four weeks following the registration of their asylum request, without any available remedy to challenge the placement. After four weeks the applicant can either be placed in an open facility or in detention, with a legal remedy available against that detention decision. The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers under an aliens policing procedure for a maximum of 12 months, or for six months under asylum detention in certain cases of pending asylum applications. Immigration detention generally took place in immigration detention centers.

In May authorities expelled 15 Iranian students who had allegedly broken COVID-19 quarantine restrictions while being examined at a Budapest hospital. The expulsions came after national political leaders claimed that foreigners, particularly Iranians, were spreading the disease. On July 15, media reported that the decisions were under review.

Access to Basic Services: The National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing (asylum authority) has 60 days to make a proposal to the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade or Kyiv on whether to grant an asylum seeker a one-time entry permit. During this time the asylum seeker is not entitled to accommodation or any support services and does not enjoy any protection.

Human rights advocates reported that, from the closure of transit zones at the end of May until the end of August, no formal education was provided in either the Vamosszabadi or Balassagyarmat refugee reception centers on the Hungary-Slovakia border, where the government moved nearly all of the asylum seekers previously kept in the transit zones. In Balassagyarmat social workers were present in adequate numbers, but psychosocial assistance was not available on a regular basis on site, while a psychologist was contacted on demand. A similar situation was reported in Vamosszabadi.

The law limits benefits and assistance to persons given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than citizens. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers, refugees, or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.

In 2019 the European Commission referred Hungary to the ECJ, stating the legislation that criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country curtailed the asylum seekers’ right to communicate with and be assisted by national, international, and nongovernmental organizations. The case remained pending as of November.

Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but according to civil society organizations, the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee criticized the procedural framework for naturalization, noting decisions were not explained to applicants and no appeal of rejections were allowed. There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states.

Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protection status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used in practice. Under the law all forms of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, tolerated stay, stateless status, etc.) are temporary by nature, with periodic review of the entitlement to protection.

In 2019 the ECJ ruled that judges may grant international protection status to asylum seekers if an administrative body has overruled their decision without establishing new elements in the case. A 2015 regulation had stripped the courts of the right to overrule immigration authorities on asylum applications.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: National elections were held in 2018 under a single-round national system to elect 199 members of parliament. The elections resulted in the ruling parties gaining a third consecutive two-thirds supermajority in parliament, receiving 49 percent of party-list votes while winning 91 of the country’s 106 single-member districts, decided by a first-past-the-post system.

Nationwide municipal elections were held in October 2019 under a single-round national system to elect local council representatives, mayors, and ethnic minority self-government members. With 48.6 percent turnout, the elections resulted in governing Fidesz-Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) candidates retaining the majority of mayoral positions in smaller towns and villages, and the opposition capturing the mayoral seats of Budapest, 14 of the capital’s 23 districts, and 11 of the country’s 23 county seats. Observers suggested the relative success of the opposition resulted from the nomination of a single opposition candidate running against Fidesz-KDNP in most key races. Domestic observers noted the lack of changes to the electoral and media environment and referenced the findings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission deployed to the country in 2018 (see below).

A mission representing the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observed the 2018 national elections. In its final report on the elections, the mission characterized the election as “at odds with OSCE commitments” and concluded that a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling-party resources” undermined contestants’ ability “to compete on an equal basis.”

The ODIHR election observation mission report highlighted that despite the “large number of contestants, most did not actively campaign, ostensibly registering to benefit from public campaign-finance entitlements or to dilute the vote in tightly contested races.” The report called attention to the lack of a “periodic review of constituency boundaries in a transparent, impartial, and inclusive manner by an independent body.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, stipulations of the COVID-19 state of emergency law enacted by parliament included a ban on holding by-elections during the crisis. Upon termination of the state of emergency, the National Election Office announced that 20 local by-elections had been postponed during the period of the pandemic; all 20 were subsequently scheduled on later dates.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The ODIHR report on the 2018 elections noted several problems with media influence that “undermined the level playing field for campaigning and raised questions with regard to the abuse of administrative resources and the blurring of the line between state governing and party campaigning, which is at odds with OSCE commitments.” The report also noted campaign finance laws limited the transparency and accountability of political parties.

Citizens living abroad but having permanent residency in the country were required to appear in person at embassies or consulates to vote, while citizens without Hungarian residency could vote by mail, but only for party lists. ODIHR election observers noted that the practice of applying different procedures to register and vote depending on whether or not a person had a permanent address in the country “challenged the principle of equal suffrage.”

On December 15, parliament modified the electoral law, stipulating that any party wishing to put forward a national party list must nominate candidates in at least 71 (up from the previous 27) of the 106 individual parliamentary constituencies.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the government introduced a state of emergency by government decree on March 11. Under the state of emergency, the government is entitled to issue emergency government decrees which, in line with the constitution, expire after 15 days. On March 30, parliament passed a bill to extend the scope of the emergency decrees indefinitely, authorizing the government to govern by emergency decrees without parliamentary approval.

The bill generated domestic and international criticism for its expansion of the government’s powers without a specified end date and for permanently changing the criminal code in a manner that observers claimed could restrict the free press (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Expression). On March 27, the OHCHR stated that the “bill appears to give the government practically unlimited powers to rule by decree and bypass parliamentary scrutiny with no clear cut-off date.” The OHCHR stressed that “under international human rights law, emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary.” On March 30, ODIHR director Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir expressed concerns about the bill and added, “emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight.” On March 30, the European Commission stated that it was not preventing anyone from doing their job, but would vigilantly ensure that European norms are respected in all policy areas while combating COVID-19. On June 16, parliament passed a bill compelling the government to lift the state of emergency, effective June 17.

Observers noted that many of the decrees and legislation enacted during the state of emergency, including imposing prison time for “scaremongering” under a special legal order and measures critics said were unrelated to the pandemic, remained on the books after the state of emergency was lifted. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Amnesty International Hungary called the termination of the state of emergency an “optical illusion,” asserting that an omnibus bill passed concurrently contained provisions that allow the government to once again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.

Under the state of emergency in April, the government issued a decree that classified the area of the city of God, which is led by opposition parties and home to a Samsung factory, as “strategically important” and a “priority economic zone,” thus transferring jurisdiction of that zone, including tax collection, from the municipality to the Fidesz-led county government. In May parliament passed a similar bill that allowed the government to declare any site hosting investment projects worth more than approximately five billion forints ($16 million) as a “special economic zone.” Critics noted that this provision was unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic and seemed designed to target municipalities controlled by opposition parties, stripping them of tax revenue.

Following the increase of COVID-19 cases during the fall, the government reintroduced a state of emergency on November 4. On November 10, parliament passed a bill to extend the government’s state of emergency powers for an additional 90 days. Also on November 10, the government introduced approximately 30 bills to parliament, including constitutional amendments and other legislative actions on far-ranging issues such as LGBTI rights (see section 6), fiscal transparency (see section 4), judicial independence, and electoral law. On November 20, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, called on parliament to postpone a vote on the measures, scheduled for December, because they could have “serious adverse effects on human rights in the country” if enacted, and because the state of emergency restricts “opportunities for meaningful democratic discussion and public scrutiny.” Parliament passed the bills on December 15.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process. Representation of women in public life, however, was very low. The ODIHR report on the 2018 elections noted, “Women are underrepresented in political life and there are no legal requirements to promote gender equality in elections.” Following the elections, women constituted 12.5 percent of members of parliament. As of November the 15-member cabinet included three women, and 13 percent of subcabinet-level government state secretaries were women, a figure that has remained relatively constant across Fidesz-KDNP administrations since 2010. The UN Human Rights Committee’s Sixth Periodic Report expressed concern that women were underrepresented in decision-making positions in the public sector, particularly in government ministries and parliament.

The electoral system provides 13 recognized national minorities the possibility of registering for a separate minority voting process in parliamentary elections, by which they vote on the minority candidate list instead of the party list. While all 13 national minorities registered candidate lists in the 2018 elections, only one–the German minority–obtained enough votes to win a minority seat in parliament. National minorities that did not win a seat were represented in parliament by nonvoting spokespersons whose competence was limited to discussing minority issues. Regarding the 2018 election campaign, the ODIHR stated it was informed of several instances where pressure was put on Romani voters not to register as minority voters and instead to vote for national lists. Due to privacy laws regarding ethnic data, no official statistics were available on the number of members of a minority who were in parliament or the cabinet.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men or women, including spousal rape, is illegal. Although there is no crime defined as rape, the equivalent crimes are sexual coercion and sexual violence. These crimes include the exploitation of a person who is unable to express his or her will. Penalties for sexual coercion and sexual violence range from one year in prison to 15 years in aggravated cases.

The criminal code includes “violence within partnership” (domestic violence) as a separate category of offense. Regulations extend prison sentences for assault (“light bodily harm”) to three years, while grievous bodily harm, violation of personal freedom, or coercion may be punishable by one to five years in prison, if committed against domestic persons.

By law police called to a scene of domestic violence may issue an emergency restraining order valid for three days in lieu of immediately filing charges, while courts may issue up to 60-day “preventive restraining orders” in civil cases, without the option to extend.

Women’s rights NGOs continued to criticize the law for not placing sufficient emphasis on the accountability of perpetrators and the tendency of authorities to blame the victims. In November 2019 local media reported on a woman who shared photos on Facebook about how she had been physically assaulted on several occasions by her partner, a former member of the defense forces. While an investigation was underway in the case, her partner sued the woman for defamation and breach of his privacy rights. Women’s rights groups held a solidarity protest during the court hearing in Miskolc on September 28.

The Ministry of Human Capacities continued to operate a 24-hour toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence and trafficking in persons. The ministry also sponsored crisis centers and secure shelters for victims of domestic violence operated by civil society organizations and church institutions. The crisis centers provided immediate accommodation and care for individuals and families for up to 90 days. The secure shelters addressed the needs of severely abused women whose lives were in danger, who were allowed a maximum stay of six months at the shelters. One type of service was the “crisis ambulance,” which provided mobile walk-in consultations, but not accommodation, for survivors of domestic violence.

NGOs criticized the lack of training on gender-based violence for professionals and emphasized the need for broader awareness-raising efforts among the public to encourage victims to seek assistance and report violence without stigmatization.

Sexual Harassment: By law harassment of a sexual nature constitutes a violation of the equal treatment principle but is not a crime.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health, and most had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. During the year the state took over fertility clinics and began providing state-subsidized assisted reproductive services (artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization), primarily tailored to support heterosexual married couples who experienced difficulty conceiving naturally. LGBTI NGOs characterized access to assisted reproductive technologies as discriminatory against same-sex couples.

Contraceptives were available but were not covered by the state health-care system, which limited access of marginalized groups living in poverty, including Romani women. Sterilization for family-planning (nonmedical) reasons is limited to persons who are older than age 40 or already have three biological children.

The government operated state-funded shelters and a hotline for victims of crime, including sexual violence against women, but these did not provide specialized assistance and sexual and reproductive health services for survivors.

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

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. According to the Economists 2018 glass ceiling index, women constituted 14.5 percent of company board membership, based on 2017 data. Women’s rights organizations asserted that Romani women could suffer multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and class, and experienced barriers to equal access in education, health care, housing, employment, and justice.

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

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, the law prohibits certain forms of hate speech and prescribes increased punishment for violence against members of the LGBTI community. Victims of discrimination had a wide choice of remedies, including a procedure by a designated government agency (the Equal Treatment Authority), enforcement of personality rights via civil court procedure, and sectoral remedies in media law. Only the civil procedure allows for the awarding of pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages. The Constitutional Court also offers possibilities to challenge allegedly discriminatory legislation. NGOs reported that the Equal Treatment Authority and courts enforced these antidiscrimination laws. On December 1, parliament voted to abolish the Equal Treatment Authority, viewed by LGBTI groups as one of the few remaining public bodies that delivered decisions against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to place it under the ombudsperson’s office as of 2021.

On December 15, parliament adopted a government-submitted amendment introducing additional gender-specific language into the constitution, declaring that “the basis for family relations is [heterosexual] marriage,” and “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.” It also declared that the country “protects children’s right to an identity based on their gender at birth” and that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from [Hungary’s] constitutional identity and Christian culture.” Parliament also adopted government-submitted legal provisions on adoption allowing only married couples consisting of a woman and a man to adopt children, unless the minister for family affairs grants special permission.

On May 19, parliament adopted an omnibus bill that included provisions replacing the term “gender” with “gender at birth” in the civil registry and prohibited gender change on all official documents, such as identification cards, passports, and driving licenses. LGBTI organizations expressed public concern that as a result transgender persons could face harsh workplace and health-care discrimination or could be accused of fraud when presenting personal identity documents. Before the adoption of the amendment, a group of 63 members of the European Parliament sent an open letter to Justice Minister Judit Varga and the chief of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, asking them to withdraw the proposal.

In October, Prime Minister Orban stated that a book that depicted fairy tales with minority, Romani, LGBTI, and characters with disabilities was an “act of provocation.” The leader of the Mi Hazank party tore up a copy of the book in public, and a conservative campaign group collected signatures calling for a boycott. The Hungarian Publishers and Bookseller’s Association condemned the actions, comparing them to censorship under Communism or Nazi book burning.

On August 14, during the Budapest Pride Festival, members of the “Aryan Greens”–a supporters’ group of the Ferencvaros soccer club that includes far-right extremists–tore down the pride flag flying from the Budapest 9th district city hall building and shared photos on Facebook of demonstrators stepping on the flag and burning it. Police identified and detained one suspect on suspicion of harassment. NGOs noted that authorities did not classify the act as a hate crime. Subsequently the vice president of Mi Hazank, Elod Novak, tore down pride flags from two Budapest district city hall buildings. Party president Laszlo Toroczkai stated they would continue to take action against “violent, deviant homosexual propaganda, supported by international background forces,” which he said had reached a point where the symbol of “this satanic group” appeared on the facade of local council buildings. On August 17, a small group of far-right extremists attempted to disrupt a pride festival event but backed off after police asked for their identification. A group of approximately 20 persons dressed in black shirts with the text “Hungarian resistance” appeared at another pride event on August 18, where they damaged the restrooms of Loffice Budapest, which hosted the event.

On November 17, the Budapest Capital Regional Court ruled that police had failed in their duty when they did not take immediate action against a group of far-right extremists who had disrupted an LGBTI event at Aurora Center in September 2019. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which represented the plaintiffs, welcomed the court decision for finding that the intruders’ threatening actions and verbal violence were sufficient grounds for police intervention and for providing “clear guidance” to the authorities on what actions they must take if there is an attack on the LGBTI community.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

According to the 2011 census, 5,579 persons identified their religion as Islam. Government officials regularly made statements in defense of a “Christian Europe.” In an essay published on the occasion of the start of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Orban wrote in the daily Magyar Nemzet on September 21 that, while Central European countries were choosing a migration-free future, the majority population in large Western European cities and 20 percent of the European population would be Muslim by 2050. On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stated that the government had built or refurbished approximately 3,000 churches in the Carpathian Basin since 2010 and pledged that “none of those churches will be turned into mosques or shopping malls.”

Poland

Executive Summary

Poland is a republic with a multiparty democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of an upper house (Senate) and a powerful lower house (Sejm). The president and the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister share executive power. Incumbent President Duda was re-elected to a second five-year term after a second round of voting July 12. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conducted election observation. It found the presidential election was administered professionally despite legal uncertainty during the electoral process due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rescheduling of the election to a later date. It also noted the public broadcaster “failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage, and rather served as a campaign tool for the incumbent.” The government continued to implement judiciary-related measures that drew strong criticism from the European Commission, some legal experts, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations.

The police force is a national law enforcement body with regional and municipal units overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Border Guard is responsible for border security and combating irregular migration; it reports to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Internal Security Agency has responsibility for investigating and combating organized crime, terrorist threats, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Central Anticorruption Bureau is responsible for combating government, business, and financial corruption and may investigate any matter involving public funds. The prime minister appoints and supervises the heads and deputy heads of both offices, which also report to parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Some members of law enforcement entities committed abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: criminal defamation penalties; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic minorities.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of security force impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

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

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits hate speech, including the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature, the public promotion of fascist, communist, or other totalitarian systems, and the intentional offense of religious feelings.

Violence and Harassment: On February 3, the Warsaw regional court sentenced Michal Majewski, a Wprost weekly reporter, to a fine for protection of sources of information. The conviction refers to a 2014 incident, when Internal Security Agency officers tried to seize forcefully a laptop of one of the journalists who revealed a wiretapping scandal involving leading politicians. The Center for Monitoring Freedom of Speech at the Association of Polish Journalists criticized the conviction as a clear violation of freedom of speech. The ruling was subject to appeal.

On November 11, some police officers used violent crowd control measures against several journalists who were covering violent clashes between police and groups of hooligans during the annual Independence March that took place in Warsaw. Police shot one photojournalist in the face with a rubber bullet and used batons and a stun grenade against other journalists. After the incidents the government announced investigations into the police actions. On December 2, police officially apologized for the incidents and announced training for police officers.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits censorship of the press or social communication. Nevertheless, laws regulating broadcasting and media prohibit, under penalty of fines, license revocation, or other authorized sanctions, the promotion of activities endangering health or safety, or the promotion of views contrary to law, morality, or the common good. The law also requires that all broadcasts “respect the religious feelings of the audiences and, in particular, respect the Christian system of values.”

Critics alleged persistent progovernment bias in state television news broadcasts.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation by print and broadcast journalists is a criminal offense and includes publicly insulting or slandering the president, members of parliament, government ministers and other public officials, the Polish nation, foreign heads of state and ambassadors, private entities and persons, as well as insult or destruction of the national emblem, the flag, other state symbols, and monuments. Defamation outside media is punishable by a fine and community service. The courts rarely applied maximum penalties, and persons convicted of defamation generally faced fines or imprisonment of less than one year. The maximum sentence for insulting the president is three years’ imprisonment.

On August 5, police charged three persons with desecrating monuments and offending religious sentiment by placing rainbow flags on several monuments around Warsaw, including an historic religious statue standing in front of a Roman Catholic Church associated with Warsaw’s occupation. If convicted the three may face a fine for insulting the monuments and up to two years in prison for offending religious sentiment.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Association of Polish Journalists reported that journalists convicted of defamation had never received the maximum penalty. According to the Helsinki Foundation, however, the criminal defamation law may have a chilling effect on journalists, especially in local media, since local authorities may use the law against journalists. Media owners, particularly of small local independent newspapers, were aware that potentially large fines could threaten the financial survival of their publications. According to the Helsinki Foundation, there was a considerable increase in the number of convictions under the criminal defamation law over the last several years. The foundation observed that those seeking to protect their reputations were more likely to pursue criminal defamation charges than civil litigation. This may negatively affect the operation of local media outlets, which the foundation stated were often the only source of accountability for local officials. According to Ministry of Justice statistics for 2018, the most recent data available, courts convicted one person of insulting the president and three persons for insulting constitutional organs of the government. In 2018 the courts fined two persons for public defamation through media using the public prosecution procedure, when a private person presses criminal charges against another person. In 2018 there were 116 convictions for criminal defamation through media using the private prosecution procedure.

On September 2, the Supreme Court struck down a Lodz District Court judgment from February 2019 against investigative reporter Wojciech Biedron on charges of public insult of a judge for inaccurately reporting that a court had initiated disciplinary proceedings against the judge. The September 2 decision resulted from a complaint filed with the Supreme Court by the prosecutor general in September 2019. The case was sent back to the district court for a retrial.

Nongovernmental Impact: On July 7, unknown perpetrators vandalized the offices of the magazine Fakty Social Dialogue. The perpetrators wrote “Fakty TVN go away” on the office walls, apparently mistaking the magazine’s offices for those of private television station TVN’s flagship news program Fakty, which had broadcast criticism of the government. The magazine’s equipment and server room were destroyed, and hard drives from laptops and computers were stolen. The editor in chief of the magazine claimed the vandalism was the result of a campaign by the governing party against “opposition media.”

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications or email without appropriate legal authority. The law authorizes the (ABW) to block websites without a prior court order in cases relating to combating, preventing, and prosecuting terrorist crimes; shut down telecommunications networks when there is a terrorist threat; and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals for up to three months without a court order. During the year there were no reports by media or NGO sources that the ABW blocked websites.

The law against defamation applies to the internet as well.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The law permits restrictions on public assemblies in situations of elevated terrorist threats. During the year there were no cases of the prohibition of a public assembly due to an elevated terrorist threat.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 13, the government limited public assemblies to a maximum of 50 persons. From March 31 to May 29, due to a declared “state of epidemic,” the government introduced a total ban on public assemblies. From May 30 to October 16, public assemblies of up to 150 participants were allowed, except for so-called spontaneous gatherings organized without prior notification to local authorities. On October 17, new regulations entered into force that allowed public assemblies of up to 10 participants in regions of the country with the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and 25 participants in the remaining parts of the country. On October 24, public assemblies were limited to five participants nationwide. In a speech to the Senate on November 27, the ombudsperson expressed concerns that police were increasingly using excessive means of direct coercion against demonstrators over the course of the pandemic and urged the Senate to work on a bill “to make the police more oriented towards observing human rights.”

On May 16, police detained more than 380 persons following a protest by entrepreneurs in Warsaw against government policy towards businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Police used tear gas to disperse the protest. The government punished 220 persons for violating social distancing restrictions, and five were charged with more serious crimes, including assaulting police officers.

On October 27, following several days of large public demonstrations against an October 22 Constitutional Court ruling restricting abortion, Law and Justice Party Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski released a video statement claiming protest organizers and protesters themselves were committing a “serious crime” by protesting during a period of heightened COVID-19 infections in the country. He said authorities had an “obligation to oppose such events.”

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

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

In addition to guarded centers for foreigners, the government operated 10 open centers for asylum seekers with an aggregate capacity of approximately 1,900 persons in the Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lublin areas.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Some incidents of gender-based violence in the centers for asylum seekers occurred, but UNHCR reported that local response teams involving doctors, psychologists, police, and social workers addressed these cases. UNHCR reported no major or persistent problems with abuse in the centers.

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

On July 23, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the country, stating it violated the European Convention on Human Rights by not accepting a group of asylum seekers from Russia and not allowing them to file applications for international protection. The case originated in 2017 when several Russian asylum seekers of Chechen origin attempted to enter the country via Belarus but were repeatedly returned to Belarus. The Polish Border Guard refused to accept their applications for international protection even though some had documents that proved they were victims of torture and persecution. On July 24, the Warsaw branch of UNHCR appealed to the government to follow international law and allow asylum seekers to apply for international protection in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The EU’s Dublin III Regulation, to which the country is subject, recognizes all EU countries as safe countries of origin and transit. The regulation also authorizes the governments of EU member states to return asylum seekers to the countries where they first entered the EU. The law permits denial of refugee status based on safe country of origin or safe country of transit but includes provisions that allow authorities to consider the protection needs of individuals in exceptional cases.

Freedom of Movement: Authorities placed some asylum seekers in guarded centers for foreigners while they awaited deportation or decisions on their asylum applications. Border guards may place an individual in a guarded center only by court order. The law prohibits the placement of unaccompanied minors younger than 15 in guarded centers. Border guards typically sought to confine foreigners who attempted to cross the border illegally, lacked identity documents, or committed a crime during their stay in the country.

Employment: Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first six months of the asylum procedure. If the asylum procedure lasts longer than six months, they may work until the asylum decision is final.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers faced language and cultural barriers and had limited access to higher education. Children in centers for asylum seekers had free access to public education, in addition to other educational activities organized in the center, but those placed with relatives in guarded centers for foreigners did not.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to some individuals who did not qualify as refugees. Between August 18 and November 12, according to Ministry of Interior and Administration statistics, 1,050 Belarusian citizens entered the country under special procedures, including “humanitarian visas,” refugee status, and special permissions from the Border Guard’s chief commander. In addition, 330 Belarusians entered the country under the Ministry of Development program Poland. Business Harbor, which facilitates business activity for Belarusians who want to relocate their business to Poland.

g. Stateless Persons

The law affords the opportunity for stateless persons to obtain nationality. A 2019 UNHCR report noted, however, that the government’s lack of a formal procedure of identifying stateless persons led to protection gaps and exposed stateless persons to many negative consequences, including detention.

The 2019 UNHCR report noted several problems resulting from stateless status, including the inability to undertake legal employment or to access social welfare and health care. Stateless persons often lack identity documents, which limits their ability to perform many legal actions, such as opening a bank account or entering into a marriage. According to UNHCR, such problems made this group particularly vulnerable to poverty and marginalization.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted an election observation mission and concluded in its preliminary findings that the June 28 first-round presidential election was administered professionally despite legal uncertainty during the electoral process related to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections were originally scheduled for May 10; however, the opposition and members of the ruling coalition objected to holding the election due to the risks posed by the pandemic and differences over the implementation of postal voting. After members of the ruling coalition agreed on May 6 to postpone the election until the summer, the National Electoral Commission issued a resolution on May 10 stating it was not possible to conduct the vote that same day, and the Sejm set a new date. According to the OSCE’s report on the first-round election, the decision to continue with the election under the pandemic necessitated legal and practical adjustments that put at risk “the stability and clarity of the otherwise suitable election legislation.” The report stated the changes “had practical implications for candidate registration, campaigning and campaign finance, voting methods, and resolution of election disputes.” The report stated the election campaign was characterized by “negative and intolerant rhetoric further polarizing an already adversarial political environment.” It also stated the public broadcaster “failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage, and rather served as campaign tool for the incumbent.” The OSCE noted that the second round of elections on July 12 was well managed and candidates were “able to campaign freely in a competitive runoff, but hostility, threats against media, intolerant rhetoric, and cases of misuse of state resources detracted from the process. The polarized media environment, and particularly the biased coverage by the public broadcaster, remained a serious concern.” On August 3, the Supreme Court formally certified the results of the July 12 presidential runoff that resulted in the incumbent president’s re-election. The OSCE’s final report published on September 23 confirmed the initial findings and included 27 recommendations to improve the conduct of elections and “to support efforts to bring [the country] fully in line with…international obligations and standards for democratic elections.”

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s political participation remained low, with women accounting for 5 percent of ministerial positions, 29 percent of local legislature positions, and 28 percent of national legislature (Sejm and Senate) positions.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal and punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

While courts may sentence a person convicted of domestic violence to a maximum of five years in prison, most of those found guilty received suspended sentences. The law permits authorities to place restraining orders without prior approval from a court on spouses to protect against abuse.

On November 30, a new law entered into force introducing an immediate restraining order that may be issued by police who respond to a domestic dispute. Under the revised law, the perpetrator must immediately leave the location where the violence took place. The president signed the legislation into law on May 19.

The Women’s Rights Center reported that police were occasionally reluctant to intervene in domestic violence incidents, sometimes arguing there was no need for police intervention. The center also noted some women complained police did not properly respond to their calls because they were preoccupied with duties related to monitoring the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. During the country’s lockdown in March and April due to the pandemic, women’s rights NGOs noted an increase in the number of calls to their hotlines from domestic violence victims.

The law requires every municipality in the country to set up an interagency team of experts to deal with domestic violence.

Centers for victims of domestic violence operated throughout the country. The centers provided social, medical, psychological, and legal assistance to victims; training for personnel who worked with victims; and “corrective education” programs for abusers.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and violations carry penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment. According to the Women’s Rights Center, sexual harassment continued to be a serious and underreported problem.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the legal right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children but had restricted access to the information and means to do so. On October 22, the Constitutional Tribunal outlawed abortion in all but limited circumstances, although the implementation of this ruling was delayed. NGOs noted that infertility treatments were only available to legally married couples defined as a man and a woman, restricting access by LGBTI couples and all single persons.

The law obliges both central and local governments to provide citizens with unrestricted access to methods and means serving “conscious procreation,” implemented by the government as gynecological counseling for women and girls and access to contraception. While there were no legal restrictions on the right to obtain contraceptives, a patient’s ability to obtain them was limited, according to NGOs. The Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) noted the government excluded almost all prescription contraceptives from its list of subsidized medicines, making them less affordable, especially for poor women in rural areas. The law also provides that doctors may refrain from performing health services inconsistent with their conscience. According to a report during the year by ASTRA (the Central and Eastern European Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights), doctors regularly used the conscience clause to refuse to write prescriptions for contraceptives. The report also noted that some pharmacies intentionally did not sell contraceptives or have them in stock. The law does not permit voluntary sterilization. According to Federa, young persons lacked sex counseling services.

Although women have the right to comprehensive medical services before, during, and after childbirth, home birth, while legal, is not subsidized by the National Health Fund. According to the Childbirth with Dignity Foundation, standards for perinatal and postnatal care written into the laws are adequate, but the government failed to enforce them effectively. A 2018 report by the Supreme Audit Office indicated women living in rural areas had limited access to medical services related to childbirth due to an insufficient number of gynecological and obstetric clinics in smaller towns and villages.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. According to women’s rights NGOs, access was limited due to victims’ fear of social stigma, some legal constraints, and the use of the conscience clause by medical doctors who refused to provide such services.

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

Discrimination: The constitution provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women and prohibits discrimination against women, although few laws exist to implement the provision. The constitution requires equal pay for equal work, but discrimination against women in employment existed (see section 7.d.).

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

While the constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the specific grounds of sexual orientation, it prohibits discrimination “for any reason whatsoever.” The laws on discrimination in employment cover sexual orientation and gender identity but hate crime and incitement laws do not. The government plenipotentiary for equal treatment is charged with monitoring discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals and groups. LGBTI advocacy groups, however, criticized the plenipotentiary office for a lack of interest and engagement in LGBTI issues. The ombudsperson also continued to work on LGBTI human rights cases.

During the year several government officials made anti-LGBTI or homophobic public statements. In presidential campaign remarks on June 13, President Andrzej Duda asserted “LGBT ideology” was a form of “neo-Bolshevism” and “even more destructive” than Communism itself. Former interior minister and sitting Member of European Parliament Joachim Brudzinski wrote on Twitter on June 13 that “Poland without LGBT is most beautiful.” Minister of Education and Science Przemyslaw Czarnek stated on June 13 (he was not yet minister at the time) that LGBTI persons were “not equal to normal people.” On July 30, Deputy Minister of State Assets Janusz Kowalski declared the entire country should be an “LGBT-free zone.” He added that a law should be adopted to prohibit public funding of any activities of organizations that explicitly promote “LGBT.” At an election rally on July 1, President Duda said adoption by same-sex couples constituted experimentation on and enslavement of children. On August 25, then minister of education Dariusz Piontkowski defended the education superintendent of Lodz Province for saying the “LGBT virus…of ideology” was “much more dangerous” than COVID-19. On September 14, Law and Justice Party chairman and soon-to-be deputy prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said “LGBT ideology” was a threat “to the very foundations of our civilization.”

On August 7, authorities used force to detain 48 persons in Warsaw during a protest against the pretrial detention of an LGBTI activist. The representatives of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) operating under the human rights ombudsperson investigated the mass arrest and released a report on September 7 that stated the treatment of detainees by police “constituted degrading treatment, and in some cases…inhuman treatment.” The NPM interviewed 33 of the 48 detainees, who complained, inter alia, about disproportionate use of force by police, use of homophobic or transphobic comments by police, lack of access to food and drinking water, not being promptly informed of the right to a lawyer, and difficulty in contacting or meeting with a lawyer. In an August 8 press conference, the minister of justice stated police had behaved professionally. On September 2, the deputy minister of interior and the chief of police briefed a Sejm committee on the August 7 events and argued the police reaction was appropriate and proportional to the situation.

During the year there were several verbal and physical attacks against members of the LGBTI community. On August 11, two perpetrators using homophobic language brutally beat a man in Poznan. The man sustained a broken nose and concussion as a result of the attack. The attackers were charged with bodily injury and theft. On August 14, an activist affiliated with LGBTI rights groups reported he was physically and verbally attacked in Warsaw because he was holding hands with his LGBTI partner. He reported he had a broken tooth and a black eye and that his partner suffered bruises on his body. Police opened an investigation into the incident.

During the year local governments around the country adopted “family rights charters,” bringing the total number who had adopted such charters or separate declarations rejecting “LGBT ideology” to more than 90 since 2019. These legally nonbinding documents focused in varying degrees on preventing “LGBT ideology” in schools, called for protection of children against moral corruption, and declared marriage as a union between a woman and a man only. LGBTI NGOs stated the declarations may have a chilling effect on institutions subordinate to local governments and may increase the number of hate crimes. On July 14, the Gliwice administrative court struck down a declaration adopted by the Istebna municipality as a result of a complaint filed by the human rights ombudsperson in December 2019. The court ruled the declaration violated administrative law and the constitution, in particular the ban against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro sent appeals against the ruling and a similar one regarding a declaration in the Klwow municipality to the Supreme Administrative Court in September. Meanwhile, on June 23 and 24, the Krakow administrative court rejected the ombudsperson’s complaints against the municipality of Lipinki and the county of Tarnow, arguing that the declarations neither limited nor interfered with the constitutional rights and freedoms of any group of citizens and did not discriminate against any person. On August 18, Ziobro defended local communities that signed such declarations and emphasized the declarations referred to “ideology,” not individuals. Ziobro argued that while local authorities did not persecute LGBTI persons, they also did not accept “offensive actions” of LGBTI groups that tried to “impose their ideology” on others.

On February 11, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed the final appeal of a same-sex couple who wanted to register the birth of their foreign-born child in the country. The child was born abroad to the two women, and his foreign birth certificate listed them as his parents. Polish birth certificates list spaces for a mother and a father. The Supreme Administrative Court found that a woman could not be listed in the space provided for a father’s name, and a man could not be listed in the space provided for a mother’s name.

A 2019 survey conducted by Pew Research Center found a rise in tolerance toward the LGBTI community in the country, with almost half of citizens (47 percent) declaring society should accept homosexuality, compared with the 2002 edition of the survey, in which 40 percent of those polled expressed acceptance.

Ukraine

Read A Section: Ukraine

Crimea

Note: Except where otherwise noted, references in this report do not include areas controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine or Russian-occupied Crimea. At the end of this report is a section listing abuses in Russian-occupied Crimea.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Ukraine is a republic with a semipresidential political system composed of three branches of government: a unicameral legislature (Verkhovna Rada); an executive led by a directly elected president who is head of state and commander in chief, and a prime minister who is chosen through a legislative majority and as head of government leads the Cabinet of Ministers; and a judiciary. In April 2019 Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president in an election considered free and fair by international and domestic observers. In July 2019 the country held early parliamentary elections that observers also considered free and fair.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for maintaining internal security and order. The ministry oversees police and other law enforcement personnel. The Security Service of Ukraine is responsible for state security broadly defined, nonmilitary intelligence, and counterintelligence and counterterrorism matters. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reports to the Cabinet of Ministers, and the Security Service reports directly to the president. The Ministry of Defense and Ukrainian armed forces are responsible for defending the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by deterring armed aggression. The Ministry of Defense ensures sovereignty and the integrity of national borders and exercises control over the activities of the armed forces in compliance with the law. The president is the supreme commander in chief of the armed forces. The Ministry of Defense reports directly to the president. The State Fiscal Tax Service exercises law enforcement powers through the tax police and reports to the Cabinet of Ministers. The State Border Guard Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs implements state policy regarding border security, while the State Migration Service, also under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, implements state policy regarding migration, citizenship, and registration of refugees and other migrants. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces in the territory controlled by the government. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees by law enforcement personnel; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; abuses in the Russia-led conflict in the Donbas, including physical abuse of civilians and members of armed groups held in detention facilities; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and blocking of websites; refoulement of refugees; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence or threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minority groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.

The government generally failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity. Human rights groups and the United Nations noted significant deficiencies in investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed by government security forces.

In the Russia-instigated and -fueled conflict in the Donbas region, Russia-led forces reportedly engaged in unlawful or arbitrary killings of civilians, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances and abductions; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Other significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement across the line of contact in eastern Ukraine; restrictions on political participation, including unelected governments and elections that were not genuine, free, or fair; and unduly restricted humanitarian aid.

Significant human rights issues in Russia-occupied Crimea included: forced disappearances and abductions; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees to extract confessions and punish persons resisting the occupation; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including unelected governments and elections that were not genuine, free, or fair; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea reportedly continued to engage in widespread violence against and harassment of Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists in response to peaceful opposition to Russian occupation (see Crimea subreport).

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

In the Donbas region, Russia-led forces suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions, and assaults on journalists and media outlets. They also prevented the transmission of Ukrainian and independent television and radio programming in areas under their control.

Freedom of Speech: With some exceptions, individuals in areas under government control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal.

The law criminalizes the display of communist and Nazi symbols as well as the manufacture or promotion of the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol associated with Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. On March 29, police issued an administrative offense citation in Odesa to a local resident for publicly displaying a portrait of Stalin. During the May 9 celebration of World War II Victory Day, police fined individuals in Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, and Kyiv for carrying banned Soviet symbols.

The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression against the country, and the government prosecuted individuals under these laws (see “Censorship” and “National Security”).

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The NGO Freedom House rated the country’s press as “partly free.” Independent media and internet news sites were active and expressed a wide range of views. Privately owned media, particularly television channels, the most successful of which were owned by influential oligarchs, often provided readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners and providing favorable coverage of their allies and criticism of political and business rivals. The 10 most popular television stations were owned by businessmen whose primary business was not in media. Independent media had difficulty competing with major outlets that operated with oligarchic subsidies. Editorial independence was particularly limited in media controlled by individuals and oligarchs supportive of or linked to the Russian government and intelligence agencies. The Ministry of Defense on November 25 stated the Russian Federation “has intensified measures to discredit the top state and military leadership of Ukraine. To this end, pro-Russian media, journalists and agents of influence, including in Ukraine, are being used more actively.”

There were reports of continuing financial and political pressure on the National Public Broadcasting Company, created to provide an independent publicly funded alternative to oligarch-controlled television channels. The 2020 budget provided only 89 percent of the previous budget’s funding for the broadcaster, which was already reportedly 45 percent lower than what it should have received by law. Parliament consistently failed to comply with legal requirements allocating at least 0.2 percent of the state’s annual budget to the broadcaster. In late February the State Executive Service blocked the broadcaster’s bank accounts pursuant to a Supreme Economic Court order to repay the debt of its predecessor, the National Television Company of Ukraine. On March 6, the Independent Media Council noted the action left the broadcaster unable to continue operations. On June 2, the bank accounts were unblocked.

Jeansa–the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs–continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the Institute for Mass Information (IMI) of national print and online media for jeansa indicated a wide range of actors ordered political jeansa, including political parties, politicians, oblast governments, and oligarchs. Only 11 out of the 50 most-visited information sites did not contain jeansa, according to an IMI study conducted from June to August. The study found that 70 percent of the jeansa materials identified were of a political nature. The IMI attributed the widespread use of political jeansa during this period to an attempt to influence voters ahead of the October 25 local elections.

Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem. Human rights groups and journalists blamed what they saw as government inaction in solving the crimes for the emergence of a culture of impunity. Government authorities sometimes participated in and condoned attacks on journalists.

According to the IMI, as of September 1, there had been 20 reports of attacks on journalists, which is equal to the number of attacks on journalists during the first eight months of 2019. As in 2019, private, rather than state, actors perpetrated the majority of the attacks. As of September 1, there were 20 incidents involving threats against journalists, as compared with 33 during the same period in 2019. The IMI and editors of major independent news outlets also noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they asserted had the tacit support of the government.

There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists by government officials. For example, on August 26, members of the Zaporizhzhya city council physically removed Gvozdi (Nails) newspaper editor Bohdan Vasylenko from the city administrative building. Vasylenko had planned to attend the city council meeting to inquire about local COVID-19 prevention measures. The journalist filed a police report. No charges had been brought as of mid-September.

Media professionals continued to experience pressure from the Security Service, the military, police, and other officials when reporting on sensitive issues. For example, on April 29, a police officer beat Hromadske journalist Bohdan Kutyepov, pushed him to the ground, and broke his media equipment while he was live-streaming antiquarantine protests taking place in front of a government building. As of November the State Bureau for Investigations was looking into the incident.

There were reports of attacks on journalists by nongovernment actors, including numerous attacks against investigative journalists from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) program Schemes that occurred throughout the year. On August 7, RFE/RL investigative journalist Mykhailo Tkach found alleged evidence of wiretapping in his apartment and posted images on Facebook of holes drilled into the ceiling of his apartment as evidence of the suspected wiretapping attempt. Shortly thereafter, on the evening of August 16, the car of an RFE/RL Schemes driver and film crew member was set on fire. Tkach claimed he had received anonymous messages indicating that his “journalistic activities are annoying high-level officials.” Schemes journalists believe the attacks were in response to its critiques of President Zelenskyy and its investigative reporting on high-level corruption. Police initiated an investigation, and the case gained a high degree of media attention. The head of the Kyiv Regional Police, Andriy Nebytov, wrote on Facebook, “It is obvious that the arsonist and their ‘curators’ had a goal not only to destroy the vehicle, they wanted more to cause outrage among the journalistic community and the public, to create a perception of insecurity and permissiveness.” As of October, no arrests had been made in the case.

In January, RFE/RL journalist Halyna Tereshchuk’s car was set on fire in Lviv in an arson attack. In February the Security Service detained a 19-year-old believed to be responsible for the attack, and in August a police officer was arrested on charges indicating his complicity in the crime.

There were allegations the government prosecuted journalists in retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).

There were reports that government officials sought to pressure journalists through the law enforcement system, often to reveal their sources in investigations. For example, the State Bureau for Investigations summoned television anchor Yanina Sokolova and editor in chief of the online news platform Censor.Net, Yuriy Butusov, for questioning. On August 18, Butusov, citing law enforcement sources, reported the detention of Russian mercenaries in Belarus had been part of a special operation by Ukrainian security services that failed due to a leak from the Office of the President. Sokolova announced she was summoned on the grounds that she had potentially disclosed information pertaining to a state secret.

Journalists received threats in connection with their reporting. For example, on July 13, Kateryna Serhatskova, a journalist and cofounder of the online platform Zaborona (Prohibition), left the country, claiming threats to her life and her family believed to be in connection with her reporting. On July 3, Zaborona published an article detailing alleged links between leaders of violent radical groups and the directors of Stop-Fake.org, a project of the nonprofit Media Reforms Center, aimed at stopping the dissemination of false information about the country (see Internet Freedom). According to Serhatskova, police refused to open an investigation into the threats against her, prompting her lawyer to appeal to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which opened an investigation in July. As of November, the investigation continued.

In December 2019 police arrested three suspects and two persons of interest in the 2016 killing of well known Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet (see section 1.a.). In early September the Shevchenkivskyy District Court in Kyiv began hearing the case.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights organizations frequently criticized the government for taking an overly broad approach to banning books, television shows, websites, and other content (see subsections on National Security and Internet Freedom).

On September 3, the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting (Derzhkomteleradio) revoked the broadcasting license of the Pryamy FM radio station for not broadcasting within a year of the date its license was issued. Derzhkomteleradio is an eight-member executive body charged with overseeing television and radio broadcasters’ compliance with Ukrainian laws. The parliament and the president appoint four members each to the council.

Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose their media owners or political allies to criticism or might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or provide information that could be used for Russian propaganda.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a civil offense. While the law limits the monetary damages a plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit, local media observers continued to express concern over high monetary damages awarded for alleged libel. Government entities, and public figures in particular, used the threat of civil suits, sometimes based on alleged damage to a person’s “honor and integrity,” to influence or intimidate the press and investigative journalists.

National Security: In the context of the continuing Russia-led conflict in the Donbas region as well as continuing Russian disinformation and cyber campaigns, authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat, particularly those emanating from Russia and promoting pro-Russian lines.

The government continued the practice of banning specific works by Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russian journalists. According to the State Film Agency, as of mid-September approximately 808 films and television shows had been banned on national security grounds since 2014. In response to Russia’s continued barrage of cyberattacks and disinformation as part of its efforts to destabilize the country, the government maintained a ban on the operations of almost 839 companies and 1,605 persons that allegedly posed a “threat to information and the cyber security of the state.” Among them were two widely used social networks based in Russia and major Russian television channels as well as smaller Russian channels that operated independently of state control.

Derzhkomteleradio maintained a list of banned books seen to be aimed at undermining the country’s independence; promoting violence; inciting interethnic, racial, or religious hostility; promoting terrorist attacks; or encroaching on human rights and freedoms. As of November the list contained 227 titles.

There were reports the government used formal pretexts to silence outlets for being “pro-Russian” and for being critical of its national security policy. On October 15, Derzhkomteleradio announced an unscheduled inspection of pro-Russian television channels Newsone, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK, claiming their favorable coverage of an October 6 meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk might have violated national security laws.

Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that radical groups committed attacks on journalists. For example, on June 15, members of radical groups attacked ZIK television journalist Alla Zhyznevska at the Shevchenkivskyy district courthouse in Kyiv where Serhiy Sternenko was being held and protests were organized by activists of the Youth Wing and members of the Opposition Platform for Life. Clashes broke out, and police detained five individuals. A few days prior, on June 12, Zhyznevska reported another incident in which she was conducting a story on a local market in Odesa when six unknown men emerged, demanded the journalist’s crew not take pictures, and forcibly removed them from the market. Police were called, but the six men dispersed before they arrived.

The ability to exercise freedom of expression reportedly remained extremely limited in territory controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. Based on HRMMU media monitoring, critical independent media on the territory controlled by Russia-led forces was nonexistent. According to Digital Security Lab Ukraine, an independent digital analysis organization, authorities in the “LPR” blocked approximately 158 Ukrainian news outlets as of late January.

The HRMMU reported that journalists entering Russia-controlled territory of the “DPR” had to inform the “press center” of the “ministry of defense” about their activities on a daily basis, were arbitrarily required to show video footage at checkpoints, and were accompanied by members of armed groups when travelling close to the contact line.

Internet Freedom

Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority, and took significant steps to block access to websites based on “national security concerns.”

On May 14, President Zelenskyy renewed sanctions on several Russian websites that were introduced in 2017 in retaliation for Russian cyberattacks. The sanctions included a ban on popular Russian social networks VKontakte and OdnoKlassniki, although the sites could easily be reached with use of a virtual private network connection. Ukrainian internet providers continued to block websites at government behest based on national security concerns. As of September, 475 sites were blocked in the country on such grounds. According to monitoring by Digital Security Lab Ukraine, internet service provider compliance with the government’s orders to block sites varied widely.

Free speech advocates expressed concern that courts continued to block access to websites on grounds other than national security. Freedom House reported thousands of websites, including some self-described news sites, were blocked for alleged involvement in cybercrime, fraud, and other illegal activities. For example, on January 27, a Kyiv court ruled to block access to 59 websites, including the media platforms smi.today, capital.ua, and ukr.fm, at the request of the Kyiv Oblast prosecutor’s office on grounds related to violations of intellectual property rights.

There were reports of the disclosure of personally identifiable information of persons to penalize expression of opinions. On July 11, a Ukrainian journalist with more than 130,000 followers on his social media account posted a picture of journalist Kateryna Serhatskova with her son as well as details about her personal life, suggesting she worked for Russian intelligence services. In the comments responding to the post, users posted her address, photos of her home, and death threats against her. The threats and disclosures came in response to Serhatskova’s July 3 publication of an article about the alleged influence of violent radical groups on a fact-checking organization, StopFake.org. Human Rights Watch called on authorities to provide for her safety. On July 14, Serhatskova left the country out of concern for her safety and that of her family.

The Myrotvorets (peacemaker) database, which reportedly maintained close ties to the country’s security services, published the personal data of journalists and public figures who had been critical of the country’s security services or had made other statements the site considered unpatriotic. For instance, in early August the website published personally identifiable information of the editor and host of the television program Nashi Hroshi (Our Money), Denys Bihus. Myrotvorets published the information in retaliation for Bihus’s investigative reporting on Ihor Hladkovsky, the son of a former National Security and Defense Council official. Myrotvorets justified its actions by citing a July court ruling that dismissed the claims of Bihus and other journalists regarding Hladkovsky’s alleged involvement in embezzlement.

There were reports of cyberattacks on journalists who reported on corruption. For example, after publishing an investigative report in July on the pro-Russian influence of certain Telegram channels closely followed by members of parliament, journalist Lyubov Velychko reported repeated attempts to hack her social network and messenger accounts as well as numerous online death threats against her.

Human rights groups and journalists who were critical of Russia’s aggressive actions in the Donbas region and its occupation of Crimea reported their websites were subjected to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers, as well as coordinated campaigns of trolling and harassment on social media.

In its annual Freedom on the Net report published in November, Freedom House concluded that the country has made cautious improvements in regards to internet freedom. Improvements included the removal of telecommunications licensing requirements that were previously tied to corruption and a reduction in the practice of administratively blocking websites, with the exception of President Zelenskyy’s extension of sanctions to several Russian-owned technology companies in May.

There were reports the government prosecuted individuals for their posts on social media. For example, according to press reports, in early August, the Security Service in Sumy searched a house and detained a man who allegedly posted calls on social networks to break the ceasefire in Donbas.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were some instances in which the government restricted academic freedom or cultural events.

The government maintained a list of Russian or pro-Russian musicians, actors, and other cultural figures it prohibited from entering the country on national security grounds.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but police sometimes restricted, or failed to protect freedom of assembly. No laws, however, regulate the process of organizing and conducting events to provide for the right, and authorities have wide discretion under a Soviet-era directive to grant or refuse permission for assemblies on grounds of protecting public order and safety. Organizers are required to inform authorities in advance of demonstrations.

There were reports of police restricting and failing to protect freedom of assembly. For example, in July police officers in Lviv restricted activists’ ability to assemble peacefully near the Taras Shevchenko monument in the city’s center by dispersing the group and writing up a police report for “petty hooliganism.” The activists held a performance in which one member wore a Zelenskyy mask and handed out one million hryvnia notes to all who passed by, while others smashed a printer that was printing the fake money.

Human rights defenders noted that police at times arbitrarily enforced COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, including through selective dispersal of civic assemblies. For example, on June 25, organizers of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community support month in Kyiv scheduled two events at the same location. Organizers informed police about both events in advance to abide by legal processes and COVID-related restrictions. The events were reportedly both approved in advance, and police allowed the first event–a panel discussion–to proceed as planned but dispersed participants of the second event and wrote a misdemeanor report against the venue’s owner, citing alleged quarantine restrictions. The owner reported that in addition to the events being previously approved, authorities also previously checked the venue to ensure it met quarantine requirements and had not reported any concerns.

Events organized by women’s rights activists or the LGBTI community were regularly disrupted by members of violent radical groups. Police at times did not adequately protect participants from attack before or after the events, nor did they provide sufficient security for smaller demonstrations or events, especially those organized by persons belonging to minority groups or opposition political movements. For example, two men who participated in the March 8 Women’s Rights March in Kyiv were beaten and sprayed with tear gas in an underground tunnel after the event. Police detained four suspects, including Vita Zaverukha and three other activists from the violent radical group Unknown Patriot. As of July 6, only one indictment against one suspect for “hooliganism” had been sent to court.

On August 30, members of the radical group Tradition and Order attacked participants of the Odesa pride rally. Tradition and Order members punched, kicked, and threw projectiles at both participants and police. Two officers were injured. International monitors noted that poor communication between event organizers and police contributed to police failure to provide adequate protection. Police arrested 16 persons involved in the attack and investigated the incident. Similarly, on September 20, representatives of violent radical groups gathered in the downtown area of Zaporizhzhya for a counterprotest in response to the March of Equality (pride march). During the event, police detained an armed man after he aimed a gun at the pride march participants. No shots were fired, and the perpetrator was taken to the Dnipro police department.

On December 14, a group of young men attacked two teenage boys in Kyiv’s Kontrakova Square, shouting homophobic slurs, beating, and kicking them in what appears to have been an unprovoked attack. A witness who posted a video of the attack claimed that while police arrested one of the victims for arguing with them, the attackers remained in the square even after police left, shouting racist slogans.

In Russia-controlled territory, the HRMMU observed the absence of free and peaceful assembly and noted, “Such a restrictive environment, where dissenting opinions may trigger retaliation, has a long-lasting chilling effect on the population.” The HRMMU also noted the only demonstrations permitted in these areas were ones in support of local “authorities,” often apparently organized by Russia-led forces with forced public participation.

Russia-led forces in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the HRMMU, a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under “laws” in the “DPR” and “LPR” that mirrored Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).

Freedom of Association

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

Human rights organizations reported an increase in attacks on activists following a decrease in attacks in 2019 (48 attacks in the first six months of the year, up from 39 in the same period of 2019). International and domestic human rights NGOs remained concerned about the lack of accountability for attacks on members of civil society organizations, which they believed had created a climate of impunity.

For example, on July 23, the head of the NGO Anticorruption Center, Vitalii Shabunin, reported suspected arson after his home was set on fire. Shabunin’s parents and children were in the house at the time but managed to escape unharmed. After an investigation, police concluded the fire resulted from an arson attack that started on the activist’s porch with the assistance of a flammable liquid to ignite a stable flame. As of September the perpetrators had not been identified. Shabunin believed the arson was an assassination attempt carried out at the request of politically influential oligarchs to prevent his organization’s investigative reporting on corruption. On December 30, police removed suspicious items resembling bombs from the doorsteps of apartments belonging to Shabunin’s relatives. In recent years several major human rights groups have expressed concern about the government’s singling out of Shabunin for unfair treatment.

There were reports the government targeted activists for raids, arrests, or prosecution in retaliation for their professional activity. For example, on September 30, Shabunin was fined 850 hryvnias ($30) for the late submission of an asset declaration by half a day. The Anticorruption Center believed the fine was issued to include Shabunin on a register of corrupt individuals and used against the organization in a smear campaign.

On March 30, police arrested Yuriy Fedorenko, the head of the Tverdynia NGO that works to expose illegal construction projects, as he was attempting to film construction in Kyiv he believed to be illegal. Fedorenko himself called police to report the construction violation, but they instead arrested and searched him and transported him to a nearby police station where he was charged with a violation of quarantine, despite his wearing a mask while in public. Police, citing privacy concerns, did not provide a reason for the arrest, and Fedorenko was later completely acquitted in court.

There were reports that unknown actors initiated violent attacks against activists because of their involvement in civil society organizations. For example, on June 20, Valentyna Buchok was wounded when a grenade exploded near a gate outside her home in Ivanopillya in the government-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast. Buchok, who was reportedly tortured while imprisoned by Russia-led forces in the Izolatsiya detention facility on falsified charges from 2016-17, was a member of SEMA Ukraine, a group that advocated for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Human rights groups claimed the explosion marked the third attempt on her life since her release in a prisoner exchange in 2017.

According to the HRMMU, in the territories controlled by Russia-led forces, domestic and international civil society organizations, including human rights defenders, could not operate freely. Residents informed the HRMMU they were being prosecuted (or feared being prosecuted) by the “ministry of state security” for their pro-Ukrainian views or previous affiliation with Ukrainian NGOs. If human rights groups attempted to work in those areas, they faced significant harassment and intimidation. The HRMMU also noted some civil society organizations run by Russia-led forces appeared to require certain persons, such as public-sector employees, to join.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide citizens with freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government, however, restricted these rights, particularly in the eastern part of the country near the zone of conflict.

In-country Movement: The government and Russia-led forces strictly controlled movement between government-controlled areas and territories in the Donbas region controlled by Russia-led forces. Crossing the line of contact remained arduous.

On March 16, the government introduced COVID-related restrictive measures on transit through the five entry and exit checkpoints, barring all crossings except those involving humanitarian grounds. On March 21, Russia-led forces in the “LPR” and “DPR” established similar restrictions. On June 10, the government reopened its side of the Stanytsia Luhanska and Marinka checkpoints, but it began requiring individuals to download an app on their cell phones monitoring their compliance with quarantine orders, effectively preventing anyone who did not own a cell phone from crossing into government-controlled territory. Russia-led forces in Donetsk likewise turned many away who attempted to cross into government-controlled territory; those allowed to cross were required to sign a document indicating they would not return until the COVID-19 pandemic had subsided. On June 19, the “LPR” reopened its side of the Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint but required individuals seeking entry to provide proof of residency. Public passenger transportation remained prohibited; private transportation was available at high prices and was generally unaffordable for the majority of persons crossing.

According to the HRMMU, from late March to mid-June, the number of monthly line-of-contact crossings decreased from 1.3 million to a few hundred, most of which occurred in Luhansk Oblast. As a result, thousands were separated from their families and lost access to quality health care, pensions, social protection, and employment. Women and elderly persons, who comprised the majority of those crossing before the COVID-19 lockdown, were particularly affected. The government required those seeking to cross into government-controlled territory to obtain a pass. The pass system imposed significant hardships on persons crossing into government-controlled territory, in particular those seeking to receive pensions and government benefits not distributed in the territory controlled by Russia-led forces.

According to the HRMMU, since late June, civilians seeking entry to territory controlled by Russia-led forces in the “DPR” had to have permission from the “Operational Headquarters to Combat COVID-19” and have a residence registered in the “DPR.” To enter government-controlled territory from the “DPR,” civilians had to be registered in the government-controlled territory.

The government and Russian occupation authorities subjected individuals crossing between Russian-occupied Crimea and the mainland to strict controls at the administrative boundary between Kherson Oblast and Crimea. Authorities prohibited rail and commercial bus service across the administrative boundary, requiring persons either to cross on foot or by private vehicle. Civil society, journalists, and independent defense lawyers reported that the government made efforts to ease requirements for entering Crimea, improving previously lengthy processes to obtain required permissions that hindered their ability to document and address abuses taking place there. On April 3, Russian occupation authorities imposed a measure in Crimea banning Russian citizens from leaving the territory of the Russian Federation. The measure affected Ukrainian residents of Crimea due to authorities requiring all residents of Crimea to be Russian citizens, and Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea (see Crimea subreport).

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to the Ministry of Social Policy, as of late September more than 1.4 million persons were registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea. Some NGOs and international organizations estimated the number to be lower, since some persons returned to their homes after registering as IDPs, while others registered while still living in the conflict zone. The largest number of IDPs resided in areas immediately adjoining the conflict zones, in government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as well as in the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts and Kyiv. Many resided in areas close to the line of contact in the hope they would be able to return home.

The government granted social entitlements only to persons who had registered as IDPs. Local departments of the Ministry of Social Policy regularly suspended payment of pensions and benefits to IDPs pending verification of their physical presence in government-controlled territories, ostensibly to combat fraud, requiring recipients to go through a burdensome reinstatement process.

According to the HRMMU, as part of its COVID-19 prevention measures, the government suspended the burdensome requirement that IDPs undergo identification checks every second month in order to receive social benefits.

Humanitarian aid groups had good access to areas under government control.

IDPs were able to vote in local elections and for single-mandate district seats in parliamentary elections. In May the Central Election Commission passed a resolution allowing IDPs, working migrants, and citizens without registration to apply in-person or online to the State Registry of Voters to identify or change their voting address and vote where they actually live. As a result, approximately 5.5 million additional Ukrainians were eligible to participate in local elections in October.

According to the HRMMU, IDP integration remained impeded by the lack of a government strategy and the absence of allocation of financial resources, leading to IDPs’ economic and social marginalization. UN agencies reported the influx of IDPs led to tensions arising from competition for scarce resources.

NGOs reported employment discrimination against IDPs. IDPs continued to have difficulty obtaining education, medical care, and necessary documents. According to the law, the government should provide IDPs with housing, but authorities did not take effective steps to do so. A shortage of employment opportunities and the generally weak economy particularly affected IDPs, forcing many to live in inadequate housing, such as collective centers and temporary accommodations. Other IDPs stayed with host families, volunteers, and in private accommodations, although affordable private accommodations were often in poor condition. Some IDPs, particularly those in government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, lacked sufficient sanitation, shelter, and access to potable water.

Romani activists expressed concern that some Roma could not afford to flee conflict areas, while others had no choice but to leave their homes.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. International and domestic organizations reported the system for protecting asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern did not operate effectively.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities frequently detained asylum seekers for extended periods without court approval.

Refoulement: There were reports the government did not provide for protection against the expulsion or return of some asylum seekers to a country where there was reason to believe their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. For example, on May 14, the Supreme Court rejected the asylum appeal of prominent Kazakhstani journalist and opposition activist Zhanara Akhmetova. Human rights groups warned that the decision put Akhmetova at risk of deportation to Kazakhstan, where she would likely face mistreatment or torture for her political views.

The Open Dialogue Foundation claimed the decision was rushed and failed to address defense arguments. Akhmetova fled Kazakhstan in 2017 with her minor son without serving her suspended sentence for a 2009 fraud case, fearing that moves by Kazakhstani authorities to shut down her newspaper and fine her for social media posts put her in danger of political harassment and abuse.

There were also allegations that officials deported three individuals to Uzbekistan, where they were at risk of imprisonment. At a news conference on October 23, relatives and advocates for three Uzbekistani men who disappeared in October alleged that the Uzbekistani State Secret Service had kidnapped the men with the help of the Security Service of Ukraine and taken them to Uzbekistan, where they were allegedly imprisoned. The disappearances occurred in Poltava, Kharkiv, and Odesa. The families’ lawyers alleged that in two of the cases, witnesses claimed the men were detained by plainclothes Security Service officials. The men’s lawyers called on police to initiate investigations and claimed the extraditions were linked to Uzbekistan’s religious persecution of Muslims, including members of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine. Two of the families submitted claims to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on behalf of their missing relative.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a legal system for providing protection to refugees. Protection for refugees and asylum seekers was insufficient, however, due to gaps in the law and the system of implementation. According to the State Migration Service, the number of refugees and asylum seekers has decreased. The country is a transit and destination country for asylum seekers and refugees, principally from Afghanistan, the Russian Federation, Bangladesh, Syria, and Iraq.

Many Belarusian nationals were either forcibly exiled by Belarusian authorities or voluntarily fled Belarus, crossing into Ukraine to seek refuge during a violent crackdown and political crisis in Belarus stemming from election-related mass protests following the fraudulent presidential election there on August 9. On October 4, President Zelenskyy signed a decree that relaxed requirements for certain categories of Belarusian citizens seeking residence. The decree directed the Cabinet of Ministers to extend the time allotted for temporary stays for Belarusian citizen entrepreneurs and information technology specialists from 90 to 180 days as well as to simplify procedures for obtaining a residence permit. While a few hundred Belarusians utilized the relaxed requirements for temporary stays and residence, relatively few applied for asylum. As of October, only 11 Belarusians had applied for asylum in the country.

Human rights groups noted that the refugee law falls short of international standards due to its restrictive definition of a refugee. The law permits authorities to reject many asylum applications without a thorough case assessment. In other instances government officials declined to accept initial asylum applications without a legal basis, leaving asylum seekers without documentation and vulnerable to frequent police stops, fines, detention, and exploitation. Asylum seekers in detention centers were sometimes unable to apply for refugee status within the prescribed time limits and had limited access to legal and other assistance. Asylum seekers have five days to appeal an order of detention or deportation.

A lack of access to qualified interpreters also hampered the full range of asylum procedures. International observers noted the government did not provide resources for interpreters, which created opportunities for corruption and undermined the fairness of asylum application procedures.

Employment: Refugees frequently had a hard time finding employment due to lack of qualifications and language proficiency. Some worked illegally, increasing their risk of exploitation.

Access to Basic Services: The national plan on the integration of refugees adopted by the government did not allocate resources for its implementation.

Temporary accommodation centers had a reception capacity of 421 persons. Asylum seekers living outside an official temporary accommodation center often experienced difficulties obtaining residence registration, and authorities regularly imposed a substantial fine because they lacked registration. According to the State Migration Service, refugees could receive residence registration at homeless shelters for up to six months.

According to UNHCR, gaps in housing and social support for unaccompanied children left many without access to state-run accommodation centers or children’s shelters. Many children had to rely on informal networks for food, shelter, and other needs and remained vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation. UNHCR noted a lack of educational programs and vocational activities for those in detention for extended periods.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection (“complementary protection”) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of August 31, authorities had provided complementary protection to 56 persons.

g. Stateless Persons

UNHCR estimated there were more than 35,000 stateless persons in the country. Persons who were either stateless or at risk of statelessness included Roma, homeless persons, current and former prisoners, and persons older than 50 who never obtained a Ukrainian personal identification document after the fall of the Soviet Union and were no longer able to obtain one.

The law requires establishing identity through a court procedure, which demanded more time and money than some applicants had. UNHCR reported Roma were at particular risk for statelessness, since many did not have birth certificates or any other type of documentation to verify their identity. Homeless persons had difficulty obtaining citizenship because of a requirement to produce a document testifying to one’s residence.

In June parliament amended the laws on recognition of stateless persons to define clearly the terms “stateless person,” “child separated from the family,” and “legal representatives” of such individuals. The law allows stateless persons to stay in the country and obtain a residence permit and stateless identity card, which facilitates foreign travel.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

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

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Nationwide local elections took place on October 25, with runoff mayoral elections taking place through November and December. The local elections were the first to take place after decentralization reforms devolved power concentrated at the national level to local leaders. Due to COVID-19 related restrictions, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) only sent a limited election observation mission to monitor the conduct of these elections, while other observers cancelled their missions. As of early December, the ODIHR had not released its preliminary findings on the elections.

The country held early parliamentary elections in July 2019. A joint international election observation mission by the ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament assessed that “Fundamental rights and freedoms were overall respected and the campaign was competitive, despite numerous malpractices, particularly in the majoritarian races.” The administration of the election was generally competent and effective, despite the short time available to prepare the elections. In sharp contrast, the campaign was marked by widespread vote buying, misuse of incumbency, and the practice of exploiting all possible legislative loopholes, skewing equality of opportunity for contestants. Intertwined business and political interests dictate media coverage of elections and allow for the misuse of political finance, including at the local level.

The country held a presidential election in two rounds in March and April 2019. The joint international election observation mission assessed the election, “was competitive, voters had a broad choice and turned out in high numbers. In the pre-electoral period, the law was often not implemented in good faith by many stakeholders, which negatively impacted trust in the election administration, enforcement of campaign finance rules, and the effectiveness of election dispute resolution. Fundamental freedoms were generally respected. Candidates could campaign freely; yet, numerous and credible indications of misuse of state resources and vote buying undermined the credibility of the process. The media landscape is diverse, but campaign coverage in the monitored media lacked in-depth analysis and was often biased. Election day was assessed positively overall and paves the way to the second round. Still, some procedural problems were noted during the count, and conditions for tabulation were at times inadequate.”

Russian occupation authorities and Russia-led forces did not allow voting in either the parliamentary or the presidential elections to take place in Crimea or in the parts of the Donbas region under the control of Russia-led forces.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Communist Party remains banned. Voters in 18 communities in government-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were denied the right to participate in local elections in October due to a decision by the Central Election Commission that elections could not be held there, based on security concerns identified by local civil-military authorities. Rights groups criticized the lack of transparency and justification, as well as the inability to appeal the decision.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. To increase women’s representation in elected office, parliament amended the electoral code in July to require at least two of every five candidates on political party lists to be of a different gender than the other three. In the July 2019 parliamentary elections, women accounted for 23 percent of the candidates and won 21 percent of the seats. In the October local elections, women accounted for 43 percent of candidates on party lists and won approximately 30 percent of seats on local councils. No woman was elected mayor of a major city.

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

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape of men or women. The penalty for rape is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems.

On September 21, the president signed a decree that introduced new measures for preventing and counteracting domestic and gender-based violence. The measures included increased funding and staffing of support service programs for domestic violence victims.

Domestic violence against women remained a serious problem. In the first six months of the year, police received 101,000 domestic violence complaints, which is a 40 percent increase compared with the same period in 2019. Spousal abuse was common. The HRMMU reported the spread of COVID-19 and the implementation of quarantine measures exacerbated the situation. According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, approximately 2,900 cases of domestic violence were investigated during the first nine months of the year. Police issued approximately 81,000 domestic violence warnings and protection orders during the first nine months of the year. Punishment included fines, emergency restraining orders of up to 10 days, ordinary restraining orders from one to six months, administrative arrest, and community service. Human rights groups noted the ability of agencies to detect and report cases of domestic violence was limited.

According to the NGO La Strada, quarantine restrictions made it difficult for victims of domestic violence to receive help. From mid-March to early May–the period during which the most severe quarantine restrictions were in place–human rights groups noted a decrease in the responsiveness of police officers to cases of domestic violence. Victims faced increased difficulty in accessing domestic violence shelters due to the requirement to obtain a hospital certificate declaring they were not infected with COVID-19 before the shelters would provide social services.

According to press reports, on June 29, a 50-year-old man beat his 46-year-old wife in their home in Drohobych, Lviv Oblast. The woman sustained grave bodily injuries and later died in the local hospital. The man was arrested on murder charges and faces seven to 10 years in prison. As of mid-September, police were conducting a pretrial investigation.

According to La Strada, the conflict in the Donbas region has led to a surge in violence against women across the country in recent years. Human rights groups attributed the increase in violence to post-traumatic stress experienced by IDPs fleeing the conflict and by soldiers returning from combat. IDPs reported instances of rape and sexual abuse; many said they fled areas controlled by Russia-led forces because they feared sexual abuse.

As of late September, the government operated 28 shelters for survivors of domestic violence and 21 centers for social and psychological aid across the country for survivors of domestic violence and child abuse.

Sexual Harassment: While the law prohibits coercing a person to have sexual intercourse, legal experts stated that safeguards against harassment were inadequate. The law puts sexual harassment in the same category as discrimination and sets penalties ranging from a fine to three years in prison. Women’s rights groups reported continuing and widespread sexual harassment, including coerced sex, in the workplace. Women rarely sought legal recourse because courts declined to hear their cases and rarely convicted perpetrators.

Reproductive Rights: The government recognizes the right of couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Romani women sometimes faced barriers in managing their reproductive health, including segregation in maternity wards and other forms of discrimination. Some groups opposed contraception on religious grounds.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence–including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence–but human rights groups said these services were sometimes unreliable and often did not reach Romani communities.

Women in Crimea accessed reproductive health care through services funded by the Russian occupation authorities, private insurance, and NGO programs; however, no Ukrainian or international monitors had access to Crimea, making it difficult to assess the state of reproductive health care there. A 2020 UN Population Fund report found that 81 percent of surveyed married or in-union women ages 15 to 49 reported they made their own decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights, including deciding on their own health care, deciding on the use of contraception, and consenting to sex. According to a 2020 WHO World Health Statistics report, 100 percent of births were attended by skilled health personnel (based on primary data from 2010-2019); the adolescent birth rate was 19.1 percent (ages 15-19 years; based on primary data from 2010-2018); and 68 percent of women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods (based on primary data from 2010-2019).

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

Discrimination: While the law provides that women enjoy the same rights as men, women experienced discrimination in employment. According to the government commissioner on gender policy, women on average received 30 percent lower salaries than men. The Ministry of Health maintained a list of 50 occupations that remain prohibited for women. Women experienced discrimination in pay and in access to retirement and pension benefits (see section 7.d.).

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

There was societal violence against LGBTI persons often perpetrated by members of violent radical groups, and authorities often did not adequately investigate these cases or hold perpetrators to account. The LGBTI rights organization Nash Mir noted that criminal proceedings for attacks against members of the LGBTI community were rarely classified under criminal provisions pertaining to hate crimes, which carried heavier penalties. For example, on April 30, a group of men robbed, beat, and sexually assaulted a 19-year-old transgender man in Zhytomyr while shouting homophobic slurs. Media outlets reported the attackers stripped the man naked, broke his nose, and threatened him with rape before robbing him. Police filed the case as a “robbery” and refused to investigate it as a possible hate crime. An investigative judge subsequently added a hate crime charge.

On February 1, four men disrupted a closed training on sexual orientation and gender identity for journalists in Vinnytsya. Three masked attackers broke into the premises, doused one of the organizers with oil and threw feathers at her, and shouted “No LGBT garbage in Vinnytsya.” The organizers had requested protection in an official letter to police prior to the event, but police did not arrive at the scene until they received a call after the attack. Police launched an investigation of the incident.

According to Nash Mir, violent radical groups consistently tried to disrupt LGBTI events with violence or threats of violence (see examples in section 2.b.).

The labor code prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. No law, however, prohibits such discrimination in other areas, and discrimination was reportedly widespread in employment, housing, education, and other sectors.

Transgender persons reported difficulties obtaining official documents reflecting their gender identity, which resulted in discrimination in health care, education, and other areas.

A UN report noted that Russia-led forces’ regular use of identify checks in the “DPR” and “LPR” and at the line of contact put transgender persons at constant risk of arbitrary arrest, detention, and connected abuses, given the lack of identity documents matching their gender identity.