Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO), which reports to the King, is responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions.
On April 13, media reported that security forces shot and killed tribal activist Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti in the northwestern town of al-Khuraybah, Tabuk region. Al-Huwaiti reportedly refused to leave his home, which was slated for demolition in preparation for the construction of a new high-tech city to attract foreign investors. He was killed following a clash with authorities at his home. Hours before his death, al-Huwaiti posted YouTube videos in which he criticized the project and claimed his neighbors had been forcibly removed after facing pressure from the government and rejecting financial compensation to move.
An August 13 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Saudi border guards of killing several dozen Ethiopian migrants in April as they crossed over the border from Yemen illegally, fleeing Houthi forces who were forcibly expelling migrant workers.
Under the country’s interpretation and practice of sharia (Islamic law), capital punishment may be imposed for a range of nonviolent offenses, including apostasy, sorcery, and adultery, although in practice death sentences for such offenses were rare and usually reduced on appeal. As of December 31, five of the 25 executions during the year were for crimes not considered “most serious” (drug related). The total number of executions during the year was considerably less than the 185 executions carried out in 2019.
Since the country lacks a comprehensive written penal code listing criminal offenses and the associated penalties for them (see section 1.e.), punishment–including the imposition of capital punishment–is subject to considerable judicial discretion.
On September 7, the Riyadh Criminal Court issued a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Istanbul in 2018. All five government agents who were previously sentenced to death for their roles had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 20 years in prison. Three other defendants had their sentences of seven to 10 years’ imprisonment upheld. The court’s ruling came after Khashoggi’s sons announced in May they would exercise their right to pardon the five individuals who had been sentenced to death. On September 7, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, called the final verdict a “parody of justice” and asserted that the high-level officials “who organized and embraced the execution of Jamal Khashoggi have walked free from the start.”
In April a royal decree abolished discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The 2018 Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18 based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted in qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudud, crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law, could still face the death penalty, according to HRW. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.
On April 8, government authorities in al-Bahah region carried out a qisas death sentence against Abdulmohsen al-Ghamdi, who had been charged with intentional homicide when he was a child, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR). Al-Ghamdi was reportedly arrested in 2012, at the age of 15, after he had shot and killed a classmate at a high school.
On August 26, the governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) ordered a review of the death sentences of three Shia activists, Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Ali al-Nimr, who were minors at the time of arrest. The statement indicated that the review order was an implementation of the April royal decree and applied retroactively.
In November a judge in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) ruled to overturn al-Marhoon and al-Zaher’s death sentences, and resentenced them to 10 years. Al-Zaher and al-Marhoon were 16 and 17, respectively, at the time of their arrests in 2012. Both were charged in connection with their involvement in antigovernment protests.
As of December, al-Nimr’s case remained under review. Al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014 for crimes allegedly committed when he was 17. He was charged with protesting, aiding and abetting fugitives, attacking security vehicles, and various violent crimes. Human rights organizations reported due process concerns relating to minimum fair-trial standards for his case. Al-Nimr is the nephew of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, executed in 2016.
There was also no update by year’s end as to whether the April royal decree would be applied retroactively in the case of the death sentence against Mustafa al-Darwish for his involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012. On February 26, Nashet Qatifi, a Shia activist group, claimed the Supreme Court had upheld al-Darwish’s death penalty.
In November the rights group Reprieve expressed concern for 10 minors who remained on death row, including Muhammad al-Faraj. The group reported that prosecutors continued to seek the death penalty in a trial against al-Faraj, who was arrested in 2017 for protest-related crimes when he was 15.
In February a court issued a final verdict reducing Murtaja Qureiris’ sentence from a 12-year prison term handed to him in June 2019 to eight years, followed by a travel ban for a similar period, according to the human rights organization al-Qst (ALQST). According to rights groups including Amnesty International, Qureiris was detained in 2014 for a series of offenses committed when he was between 10 and 13 years old, and the public prosecution had sought the death penalty in his case.
There were terrorist attacks in the country during the year. Iranian-backed Houthis continued to target Saudi civilians and infrastructure with missiles and unmanned aircraft systems launched from Yemen. There were no civilian casualties during the year.
The United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and humanitarian and other international organizations reported what they characterized as disproportionate use of force by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, including the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi militants, and other combatants. The Group of Experts concluded that four airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition (SLC) between June 2019 and June 2020 were undertaken without proper regard to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution to protect civilians and civilian objects. A UN report released in June documented 395 instances of killing and 1,052 instances of maiming of children in Yemen between January and December 2019, of which 222 casualties were attributed to the SLC. The UN secretary-general noted this was a “sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the SLC from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. (See the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.)
There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.
In early March authorities reportedly detained four senior princes: Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s full brother; his son, Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, a former head of army intelligence; Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, former crown prince and interior minister; and his younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef. The detentions were not announced by the government, but Reuters reported that the princes were accused of “conducting contacts with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’etat.” The Wall Street Journal reported that at the same time, security forces detained dozens of Interior Ministry officials, senior army officers, and others suspected of supporting the alleged coup attempt. In August lawyers representing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said they were increasingly concerned about his well-being, alleging that his whereabouts remained unknown five months after he was detained and stating that he had not been allowed visits by his personal doctor. Prince Nawaf’s lawyers stated he was released in August, but there were no updates on the other three as of year’s end.
On March 16, authorities arrested Omar al-Jabri, 21, and Sarah al-Jabri, 20, in Riyadh and held them in incommunicado detention, according to HRW. They are the children of former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri, who has lived in exile in Canada since 2017. Prisoners of Conscience reported that the first trial hearing against Omar and Sarah occurred on September 10. They remained in detention at year’s end.
On March 27, authorities reportedly detained Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, son of the late king Abdullah and former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, and have since held him incommunicado and refused to reveal his whereabouts, according to HRW. The authorities previously detained Prince Faisal during a November 2017 anticorruption campaign.
On March 5, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions contacted the Foreign Ministry to urge the release of Princess Basmah bint Saud, 56, a daughter of the late king Saud. On April 15, a verified Twitter account owned by Princess Basmah issued a series of tweets stating that she and her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif were being held without charge in al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh and that her health was deteriorating, according to HRW. The tweets apparently disappeared after several hours. On May 5, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that family members had received no further information about her well-being or status. On April 6, the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council reported it sent a communication to the government alleging that authorities prevented Princess Basmah and her daughter from traveling to seek medical attention for her daughter’s health condition, that they were subsequently detained and held incommunicado for a period of approximately one month, and that they were being held at the al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh without charge, according to the ESOHR.
On May 17, State Security Presidency (SSP) officers arrested internet activist Amani al-Zain in Jeddah; her whereabouts remained unknown, according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and Prisoners of Conscience. They added that al-Zain was arrested after she apparently referred to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “Abu Munshar,” meaning “father of the saw,” while on a live video chat with Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim in October 2019.
On June 28, the Geneva-based Organization for Rights and Liberties (SAM) called on the government to disclose the fate of five Yemenis it said were being held in its prisons. On June 10, Prisoners of Conscience confirmed Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Zubayri, a member of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform or al-Islah Party had been in Saudi detention since May 20 for participating in an online meeting hosted by Yemeni students in Turkey.
In February disappeared humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was permitted to call his family briefly, at which time he stated he was being held in al-Ha’ir Prison. His family has not heard from him since.
The law prohibits torture and makes officers, who are responsible for criminal investigations, liable for any abuse of authority. Sharia, as interpreted in the country, prohibits judges from accepting confessions obtained under duress. Statutory law provides that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony.
Human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties noted numerous reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. ALQST alleged that authorities continued to use torture in prisons and interrogation rooms. Amnesty International assessed in a February statement that one of the most striking failings of the SCC in trials was “its unquestioning reliance on torture-tainted ‘confessions.’” It alleged at least 20 Shia men tried by the SCC have been sentenced to death on the basis of confessions obtained by torture since 2016, with 17 of them already executed. Former detainees in facilities run by the Mabahith alleged that abuse included beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.
On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Shia teenager Murtaja Qureiris (see section 1.a.), expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.
On July 11, the ESOHR stated the government continued to hold 49 women activists in detention, including several human rights advocates, and claimed they were subjected to torture and mistreatment.
On August 13, SAM alleged in Middle East Monitor that Jizan Prison authorities subjected hundreds of Yemeni detainees to torture and mistreatment. It said former Yemeni detainees claimed that prison officials subjected them to severe torture including electrocutions, crucifixions, being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, denial of health care, and being denied outside contacts, including with lawyers and family. According to the group, at least one detainee died.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior, the PPO, and the HRC, which is responsible for coordinating with other government entities to investigate and respond to alleged human rights violations (see section 5), claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system. The Ministry of Interior stated it installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in some criminal investigation offices, police stations, and prisons where such interrogations allegedly occurred.
Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment, but in April the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a discretionary (ta’zir) criminal sentence and replace it with prison sentences, fines, or a mixture of both. Flogging still could be included in sentences for three hudud crimes: drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery. The Supreme Court stated the reform was intended to “bring the Kingdom in line with international human rights norms against corporal punishment.”
Impunity was a problem in the security forces. The ongoing crackdown on corruption, including the investigation of security services personnel, and the announced reform of the legal code indicate efforts to address impunity.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions varied, and some did not meet international standards; reported problems included overcrowding and inadequate conditions.
Physical Conditions: Juveniles constituted less than 1 percent of detainees and were held in separate facilities from adults, according to available information.
Authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners. They separated persons suspected or convicted of terrorism offenses from the general population but held them in similar facilities. Activists alleged that authorities sometimes detained individuals in the same cells as individuals with mental disabilities as a form of punishment and indicated that authorities mistreated persons with disabilities.
Authorities differentiated between violent and nonviolent prisoners, sometimes pardoning nonviolent prisoners to reduce the prison population. Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.
Certain prisoners convicted on terrorism-related charges were required to participate in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs before consideration of their release.
In a June 7 report, the Guardian newspaper quoted rights groups as saying that al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh has long been associated with physical abuse. An ALQST representative alleged the general criminal area of al-Ha’ir was overcrowded and had poor sanitation and that denial of medical treatment and temporary transfer of political prisoners into the overcrowded general criminal prison were used as punishment.
On March 26, the HRC announced that authorities released 250 foreign detainees held on nonviolent immigration and residency offenses as part of efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
On April 24, human rights defender Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died in detention. Prisoners of Conscience, which tracks human rights-related cases in the country, asserted his death was due to “intentional health neglect” by prison authorities. According to ALQST and HRW, al-Hamid’s health deteriorated after authorities delayed a necessary heart operation. ALQST and HRW also reported that authorities took steps to prevent him from discussing his health condition with his family. Al-Hamid, cofounder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA), was serving an 11-year prison sentence following his conviction in 2013 on charges related to his peaceful political and human rights activism. On June 2, UN experts sent the government a letter expressing deep concern over al-Hamid’s death in detention.
Administration: There were multiple legal authorities for prisons and detention centers. The General Directorate of Prisons administered approximately 91 detention centers, prisons, and jails, while the Mabahith administered approximately 20 regional prisons and detention centers for security prisoners. The law of criminal procedure gives the PPO the authority to conduct official visits of prisons and detention facilities “within their jurisdictional areas to ensure that no person is unlawfully imprisoned or detained.”
No ombudsmen were available to register or investigate complaints made by prisoners, although prisoners could and did submit complaints to the HRC, which has offices in a number of prisons, and the quasi-governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) for follow up. The law of criminal procedure provides that “any prisoner or detainee shall have the right to submit, at any time, a written or verbal complaint to the prison or detention center officer and request that he communicate it to a member of the [former] Bureau of Investigations and Public Prosecution [renamed the PPO].” Inmates, however, required approval from prison authorities to submit complaints to an HRC office. Under the law there is no right to submit complaints directly to judicial authorities. There was no information available on whether prisoners were able to submit complaints to prison or prosecutorial authorities without censorship or whether authorities responded or acted upon complaints.
On January 13, the PPO launched Ma’akom, an electronic service that allows citizens and residents to submit complaints in case of any violation of the rights of detainees. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Muqbel, the PPO’s assistant undersecretary for prison supervision and enforcement of sentences, declared, “The PPO will follow up on the case, go to where the detainee is held, conduct the necessary investigations, order the detainee’s release if there are irregularities in his arrest, and take necessary measures against perpetrators of the illegal arrest.” There were no updates on implementation of the system by year’s end.
Record keeping on prisoners was inadequate; there were reports authorities held prisoners after they had completed their sentences.
A Ministry of Interior-run website (Nafetha) provided detainees and their relatives access to a database containing information about the legal status of the detainee, including any scheduled trial dates. Activists said the website did not provide information about all detainees.
Authorities generally permitted relatives and friends to visit prisoners twice a week, although certain prisons limited visitation to once or twice a month. Prisoners were typically granted at least one telephone call per week. There were reports that prison, security, or law enforcement officials denied this privilege in some instances, often during investigations. The families of detainees could access the Nafetha website for applications for prison visits, temporary leave from prison (generally approved around post-Ramadan Eid holidays), and release on bail (for pretrial detainees). Some family members of detained persons under investigation said family visits were typically not allowed, while others said allowed visits or calls were extremely brief (less than five minutes). Authorities at times reportedly denied some detainees weekly telephone calls for several months. Some family members of prisoners complained authorities canceled scheduled visits with relatives without reason. Since March human rights groups reported that in-person visitation in prisons was suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform religious observances such as prayers.
Independent Monitoring: Independent institutions were not permitted to conduct regular, unannounced visits to places of detention, according to the UN Committee against Torture. During the year the government permitted some foreign diplomats restricted access to some prison facilities in nonconsular cases. In a limited number of cases, foreign diplomats were granted consular visits to individuals in detention, but the visits took place in a separate visitors’ center where conditions may differ from those in the detention facilities holding the prisoners.
The government permitted the HRC and quasi-governmental NSHR to monitor prison conditions. The organizations stated they visited prisons throughout the country and reported on prison conditions. On July 9, local media reported the HRC conducted 2,094 prison visits during the fiscal year 2019-20, including visits to public prisons, security prisons, and various detention centers, as well as “social observation centers” and girls’ welfare institutions.
Improvements: On April 7, King Salman ordered the temporary suspension of execution of final verdicts and judicial orders related to the imprisonment of debtors involved in private rights-related cases in an effort to reduce the prison population and limit the spread of COVID-19. He also ordered the immediate, temporary release of prisoners already serving time for debt-related convictions.
The law provides that no entity may restrict a person’s actions or imprison a person, except under the provisions of the law. The law of criminal procedure provides that authorities may not detain a person for more than 24 hours, but the Ministry of Interior and the SSP, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained broad authority to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges, or effective access to legal counsel or family.
On May 11, the Council of Ministers established a new system for the PPO and amended Article 112 of the law of criminal procedure, giving the PPO “complete and independent powers” to identify major crimes that require detention, according to local media. On August 21, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab issued a list of 25 major crimes that mandate arrest and pretrial detention, including types of border crimes, corruption, homicide, and offenses against national security, among others.
According to the law of criminal procedure, “no person shall be arrested, searched, detained, or imprisoned except in cases provided by law, and any accused person shall have the right to seek the assistance of a lawyer or a representative to defend him during the investigation and trial stages.” By law authorities may summon any person for investigation and may issue an arrest warrant based on evidence. In practice authorities frequently did not use warrants, and warrants were not required under the law in all cases.
The law requires authorities to file charges within 72 hours of arrest and hold a trial within six months, subject to exceptions specified by amendments to the law of criminal procedure and the counterterrorism law (see section 2.a.). Authorities may not legally detain a person under arrest for more than 24 hours, except pursuant to a written order from a public investigator. Authorities reportedly often failed to observe these legal protections, and there was no requirement to advise suspects of their rights.
The law specifies procedures required for extending the detention period of an accused person beyond the initial five days. Authorities may approve detentions in excess of six months in “exceptional circumstances,” effectively allowing individuals to be held in pretrial detention indefinitely in cases involving terrorism or “violations of state security.” There is a functioning bail system for less serious criminal charges. The PPO may order the detention of any person accused of a crime under the counterterrorism law for up to 30 days, renewable up to 12 months, and in state security cases up to 24 months with a judge’s approval.
By law defendants accused of any crime cited in the law are entitled to hire a lawyer to defend themselves before the court “within an adequate period of time to be decided by the investigatory body.” In cases involving terrorism or state security charges, detainees generally did not have the right to obtain a lawyer of their choice. The government provided lawyers to defendants who made a formal application to the Ministry of Justice to receive a court-appointed lawyer and proved their inability to pay for their legal representation.
There were reports authorities did not always allow legal counsel access to detainees who were under investigation in pretrial detention. Authorities indicated a suspect could be held up to 12 months in investigative detention without access to legal counsel if authorized by prosecutors. Judicial proceedings begin after authorities complete a full investigation.
The king continued the tradition of commuting some judicial punishments. Royal pardons sometimes set aside a conviction and sometimes reduced or eliminated corporal punishment. The remaining sentence could be added to a new sentence if the pardoned prisoner committed a crime subsequent to release.
Authorities commuted the sentences of some who had received prison terms. The counterterrorism law allows the PPO to stop proceedings against an individual who cooperates with investigations or helps thwart a planned terrorist attack. The law authorizes the SSP to release individuals already convicted in such cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: Rights groups received reports from families claiming authorities held their relatives arbitrarily or without notification of charges. During the year authorities detained without charge security suspects, persons who publicly criticized the government, Shia religious leaders, individuals with links to rights activists, and persons accused of violating religious standards.
On September 4, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced six academics and journalists detained in 2017, including Abdullah al-Maliki, Fahd al-Sunaidi, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Yousef al-Qassem, to prison sentences of three to seven years. Saudi rights activist Yahya al-Assiri stated the men were arbitrarily detained and that their convictions were based on solely on tweets.
Pretrial Detention: In August, ALQST and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group lodged a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva over the “arbitrary” detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman and his father. In 2018 Prince Salman was detained along with 11 other princes after they staged what the PPO called a “sit-in” at a royal palace in Riyadh to demand the state continue to pay their electricity and water bills. Sources told AFP that the prince and his father have never been interrogated or charged since their detention began more than two and a half years ago.
Incommunicado detention was also a problem (see section 1.b.). Authorities reportedly did not always respect a detainees’ right to contact family members following detention, and the counterterrorism law allows the investigatory body to hold a defendant for up to 90 days in detention without access to family members or legal counsel (and the SCC may extend such restrictions beyond this period). Security and some other types of prisoners sometimes remained in prolonged solitary detention before family members or associates received information of their whereabouts, particularly for detainees in Mabahith-run facilities.
On September 6, HRW stated authorities denied some prominent detainees, including former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Muslim scholar Salman al-Odah, contact with their family members and lawyers for months. After almost three months in incommunicado detention, according to HRW, family members of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul said authorities allowed her parents to visit on August 31, following her six-day hunger strike; she started another hunger strike October 26 in protest of prison conditions (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Under the law detainees are not entitled to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. In the case of wrongful detention, the law of criminal procedure, as well as provisions of the counterterrorism law, provide for the right to compensation if detainees are found to have been held unlawfully.
The law provides that judges are independent and not subject to any authority other than the provisions of sharia and the laws in force. Nevertheless, the judiciary, the PPO, and the SSP were not independent entities, as they were required to coordinate their decisions with executive authorities, with the king and crown prince as arbiters. Although public allegations of interference with judicial independence were rare, the judiciary reportedly was subject to influence, particularly in the case of legal decisions rendered by specialized judicial bodies, such as the SCC, which rarely acquitted suspects. Human rights activists reported that SCC judges received implicit instructions to issue harsh sentences against human rights activists, reformers, journalists, and dissidents not engaged in violent activities. Activists also reported that judicial and prosecutorial authorities ignored due process-related complaints, including lack of access by lawyers to their clients at critical stages of the judicial process, particularly during the pretrial investigation phase.
Women’s ability to practice law was limited; there were no women on the High Court or Supreme Judicial Council and no female judges or public prosecutors. On June 17, the Shoura rejected a proposal to study appointing women as judges in personal status courts. In August 2019, however, the PPO announced the appointment of 50 women as public prosecution investigators, marking the first time that women had held this position. On June 4, the PPO appointed an additional 53 women as public prosecution investigators.
Defendants are able to appeal their sentences. The law requires a five-judge appellate court to affirm a death sentence, which a five-judge panel of the Supreme Court must unanimously affirm. Appellate courts may recommend changes to a sentence, including increasing the severity of a lesser sentence (up to the death penalty), if the trial court convicted the defendant of a crime for which capital punishment is permitted.
Defendants possess the right under the law to seek commutation of a death sentence for some crimes and may receive a royal pardon under specific circumstances (see section 1.d.). In some prescribed cases (qisas), the families of the deceased may accept compensation from the family of the person convicted in an unlawful death, sparing the convicted from execution.
On February 6, Amnesty International reported that authorities were using the SCC “to systematically silence dissent.” Amnesty accused the SCC of using overly broad counterterror and anticybercrime laws in unfair trials to hand down prison sentences of up to 30 years as well as the death penalty to human rights defenders, writers, economists, journalists, religious clerics, reformists, and political activists, particularly from the Shia minority. Amnesty asserted that “every stage of the SCC’s judicial process is tainted with human rights abuses, from the denial of access to a lawyer, to incommunicado detention, to convictions based solely on so-called ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.”
On April 17, HRW reported 68 Palestinians and Jordanians on trial before the SCC on the charge of links with an unnamed “terrorist organization” were subjected to a range of abuses, including forced disappearances, long-term solitary confinement, and torture, according to their family members, and that their trial raised serious due process concerns.
In the judicial system, there traditionally was no published case law on criminal matters, no uniform criminal code, no presumption of innocence, and no doctrine of stare decisis that binds judges to follow legal precedent. The Justice Ministry continued to expand a project started in 2007 to distribute model judicial decisions to ensure more uniformity of legal application, and as recently as August 2019, the ministry published judicial decisions on its website. The law states that defendants should be treated equally in accordance with sharia. The Council of Senior Scholars, or the ulema, an autonomous advisory body, issues religious opinions (fatwas) that guide how judges interpret sharia.
In the absence of a formalized penal code that details all criminal offenses and punishments, judges in the courts determine many of these penalties through their interpretations of sharia, which varied according to the judge and the circumstances of the case. Because judges have considerable discretion in decision making, rulings and sentences diverged widely from case to case.
Several laws, however, provide sentencing requirements for crimes including terrorism, cybercrimes, trafficking in persons, and domestic abuse. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice issued a compilation of previous decisions that judges could refer to as a point of reference in making rulings and assigning sentences.
Appeals courts cannot independently reverse lower-court judgments; they are limited to affirming judgments or returning them to a lower court for modification. Even when judges did not affirm judgments, appeals judges in some cases remanded the judgment to the judge who originally authored the opinion. This procedure sometimes made it difficult for parties to receive a ruling that differed from the original judgment in cases where judges hesitated to admit error. While judges may base their decisions on any of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, all of which are represented in the Council of Senior Scholars, the Hanbali School predominates and forms the basis for the country’s law and legal interpretations of sharia. Shia citizens use their legal traditions to adjudicate family law cases between Shia parties, although either party can decide to adjudicate a case in state courts, which apply Sunni legal traditions.
While the law states that court hearings shall be public, courts may be closed at the judge’s discretion. As a result, many trials during the year were closed. Since 2018 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs barred foreign diplomatic missions from attending court proceedings at the SCC as well as trials related to security and human rights issues. Diplomatic personnel were generally allowed to attend consular proceedings of their own citizens. Some family members of prisoners complained that neither they nor the legal representatives of the accused were permitted access to trials or notified about the status of trial proceedings. In a number of cases, family members were given only 24 hours’ notice before an SCC trial hearing.
According to the Ministry of Justice, authorities may close a trial depending on the sensitivity of the case to national security, the reputation of the defendant, or the safety of witnesses. Representatives of the HRC sometimes attended trials at the SCC.
According to the law, authorities must offer defendants a lawyer at government expense. In 2017 the Ministry of Justice stated that defendants “enjoy all judicial guarantees they are entitled to, including the right to seek the assistance of lawyers of their choosing to defend them, while the ministry pays the lawyer’s fees when the accused is not able to settle them.” Activists alleged that many political prisoners were not able or allowed to retain an attorney or consult with their attorneys during critical stages of the investigatory and trial proceedings. Detained human rights activists often did not trust the courts to appoint lawyers for them due to concerns of lawyer bias.
The law provides defendants the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney during the trial. The counterterrorism law, however, authorizes the attorney general to limit the right of defendants accused of terrorism to access legal representation while under investigation “whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to discovery, nor can defendants view their own file or the minutes from their interrogation. Defendants have the right to call and cross-examine witnesses under the law. Activists reported, however, that SCC judges could decide to restrict this right in “the interests of the case.” The law provides that a PPO-appointed investigator question the witnesses called by the defendant during the investigation phase before the initiation of a trial. The investigator may also hear testimony of additional witnesses he deems necessary to determine the facts. Authorities may not subject a defendant to any coercive measures or compel the taking of an oath. The court must inform convicted persons of their right to appeal rulings.
The law does not provide for a right against self-incrimination.
The law does not provide free interpretation services, although services were often provided in practice. The law of criminal procedure provides that “the court should seek the assistance of interpreters,” but it does not obligate the court to do so from the moment the defendant is charged, nor does the law specify that the state will bear the costs of such services.
While sharia as interpreted by the government applies to all citizens and noncitizens, the law in practice discriminates against women, noncitizens, nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and persons of other religions. In some cases the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man. Judges have discretion to discount the testimony of nonpracticing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, or persons of other religions; sources reported judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.
The government maintained there were no political prisoners, including detainees who reportedly remained in prolonged detention without charge, while local activists and human rights organizations claimed there were “hundreds” or “thousands.” Credible reporting by advocacy groups and press suggested authorities detained persons for peaceful activism or political opposition, including nonviolent religious figures, women’s rights defenders, and human rights activists, and those who the government claimed posted offensive or antigovernment comments on social media sites.
In many cases it was impossible to determine the legal basis for incarceration and whether the detention complied with international norms and standards. During the year the SCC tried political and human rights activists for nonviolent actions unrelated to terrorism, violence, or espionage against the state. Authorities restricted attorneys’ access to detainees on trial at the SCC.
International NGOs, the United Nations, and others criticized the government for abusing its antiterrorism legal authorities to detain or arrest some dissidents or critics of the government or royal family on security-related grounds, who had not espoused or committed violence. At least 192 persons remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders or policies, impugning Islam or religious leaders, or “offensive” internet postings, including prominent activists such as Raif Badawi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Naimah Abdullah al-Matrod, Maha al-Rafidi, Eman al-Nafjan, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Nassima al-Sadah; clerics including former grand mosque imam Salih al-Talib; and Sahwa movement figures Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar, and others.
Between January and March, the Riyadh Criminal Court resumed trials against 11 women activists, including several arrested in 2018. Among them were Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdelaziz al-Jerawi, and Loujain al-Hathloul–all of whom remained detained and faced charges related to their human rights work and contact with international organizations, foreign media, and other activists. The women were accused of violating the cybercrimes law, which prohibits production of materials that harm public order, religious values, or public morals, and carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). On November 25, all five appeared in criminal court, where the judge referred al-Hathloul’s case to the SCC. There was no information about the outcome of the hearing for al-Sadah, Badawi, al-Zahrani and al-Jerawi.
On August 26, media reported authorities severed contact between some detainees and their families, including Loujain al-Hathloul (see section 1.d.), Princess Basmah bint Saud, and Salman al-Odah.
On December 22, the Riyadh Criminal Court dismissed al-Hathloul’s complaint that she had been tortured during the first months of her detention. On December 28, the SCC found al-Hathloul guilty of violating the antiterrorism law, specifically by “seeking to implement a foreign agenda and change the Basic Law of Governance,” through online activity. She was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison with two years and 10 months of that suspended and credit for time served since her May 2018 arrest.
In August, Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking Saudi intelligence official who fled the country in 2016, filed a suit in Canada alleging that a hit squad (Tiger Squad) had been sent to track and kill him in 2018. The team was reportedly stopped by Canadian border services and refused entry, around the same time that Saudi officials killed Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The suit also alleged al-Jabri’s family members were held hostage in Saudi Arabia and that spyware was implanted on his smartphone. According to media reports, INTERPOL lifted a Red Notice that Saudi Arabia filed against him in 2017 on the basis that it was politically motivated.
Complainants claiming human rights violations generally sought assistance from the HRC or the NSHR, which either advocated on their behalf or provided courts with opinions on their cases. The HRC generally responded to complaints and could refer cases to the PPO; domestic violence cases were the most common. Individuals or organizations may petition directly for damages or government action to end human rights violations before the Board of Grievances, except in compensation cases related to state security, where the SCC handles remediation. The counterterrorism law contains a provision allowing detainees in Mabahith-run prisons to request financial compensation from the Ministry of Interior/SSP for wrongful detention beyond their prison terms. In some cases the government did not carry out judicially ordered compensation for unlawful detentions in a timely manner.
The law prohibits unlawful intrusions into the privacy of persons, their homes, places of work, and vehicles. Criminal investigation officers are required to maintain records of all searches conducted; these records should contain the name of the officer conducting the search, the text of the search warrant (or an explanation of the urgency that necessitated the search without a warrant), and the names and signatures of the persons who were present at the time of search. While the law also provides for the privacy of all mail, telegrams, telephone conversations, and other means of communication, the government did not respect the privacy of correspondence or communications and used the considerable latitude provided by the law to monitor activities legally and intervene where it deemed necessary.
Authorities targeted family members of activists and critics of the government. On May 12, security officers raided the home of Saad al-Jabri’s brother, Abdulrahman, a professor at King Saud University, and detained him without explanation, according to HRW. On August 24, authorities arrested Saad al-Jabri’s son-in-law, Salem Almuzaini. His family said he was arrested without charge or justifiable cause, alleging the detention was in retaliation against and aiming to intimidate Saad al-Jabri for filing a lawsuit against Saudi government officials in a foreign court.
There were reports from human rights activists of governmental monitoring or blocking of mobile telephone or internet usage. The government strictly monitored politically related activities and took punitive actions, including arrest and detention, against persons engaged in certain political activities, such as calling for a constitutional monarchy, publicly criticizing senior members of the royal family by name, forming a political party, or organizing a demonstration (see section 2.a.). Customs officials reportedly routinely opened mail and shipments to search for contraband. In some areas, Ministry of Interior/SSP informants allegedly reported “seditious ideas,” “antigovernment activity,” or “behavior contrary to Islam” in their neighborhoods.
Encrypted communications were banned, and authorities frequently attempted to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who made critical or controversial remarks. Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. Media outlets reported that authorities gained access to dissidents’ Twitter and social media accounts and in some cases questioned, detained, or prosecuted individuals for comments made online. The counterterrorism law allows the Ministry of Interior/SSP to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications and banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is charged with monitoring and regulating public interaction between members of the opposite sex, although in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed compared with past years.
For information on Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen previously found in this section, please see the executive summary and section 1.a. of this report and the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were at least two reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
On March 11, authorities charged three police officers in the death of a motorcycle driver in Fatick. The man was allegedly carrying illegal drugs when he was stopped by police. Following his arrest, the police officers allegedly took the man to the beach where they beat him to death.
On May 2, a prisoner at Diourbel prison died from severe injuries. Three police officers and a security and community outreach officer from the Mbacke police station reportedly beat him. Authorities charged the alleged perpetrators for his death.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. Human rights organizations noted examples of physical abuse committed by authorities, including excessive use of force as well as cruel and degrading treatment in prisons and detention facilities. In particular they criticized strip search and interrogation methods. Police reportedly forced detainees to sleep on bare floors, directed bright lights at them, beat them with batons, and kept them in cells with minimal access to fresh air. Investigations, however, often were unduly prolonged and rarely resulted in charges or indictments.
Impunity for such acts was a significant problem. Offices charged with investigating abuses included the Ministry of Justice and the National Observer of Places of Deprivation of Liberty.
On March 24, during the first night of a nationwide curfew related to COVID-19, videos showed police swinging nightsticks at fleeing persons. Police in a statement apologized for “excessive interventions” and promised to punish officers involved.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in February of sexual exploitation and abuse by Senegalese peacekeepers deployed to United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of September the Senegalese government and the United Nations were investigating the allegation.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Some prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate medical care.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was endemic. For example, Dakar’s main prison facility, Rebeuss, held more than twice the number of inmates for which it was designed. Female detainees generally had better conditions than male detainees. Pretrial detainees were not always separated from convicted prisoners. Juvenile detainees were often held with men or permitted to move freely with men during the day. Girls were held together with women. Infants and newborns were often kept in prison with their mothers until age one, with no special cells, additional medical provisions, or extra food rations.
In addition to overcrowding, the National Organization for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), identified lack of adequate sanitation as a major problem. Poor and insufficient food, limited access to medical care, stifling heat, poor drainage, and insect infestations also were problems throughout the prison system. On February 20, an inmate passed away at Mbour Prison. According to official reports, he suffered an acute asthma attack due to being held in an overcrowded cell holding 87 other inmates.
According to the most recent available government statistics, 31 inmates died in prisons and detention centers in 2019, six more than perished in 2018. Government statistics did not provide the cause of death. While perpetrators, which included prison staff and other prisoners, may have been subject to internal disciplinary sanctions, no prosecutions or other public actions were taken against them.
Administration: Authorities did not always conduct credible investigations into allegations of mistreatment. Ombudsmen were available to respond to complaints, but prisoners did not know how to access them or file reports. Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, but there was no evidence that officials conducted any follow-up investigations.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison visits by local human rights groups, all of which operated independently, and by international observers. The National Observer of Detention Facilities had full and unfettered access to all civilian prison and detention facilities, but not to military and intelligence facilities. The national observer was unable to monitor prisons throughout the country. It previously published an annual report, but reports for 2015-19 had not been published by year’s end.
Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited prisons in Dakar and the Casamance.
Improvements: In April, President Sall pardoned 2,036 detainees as a measure to control the spread of COVID-19 within the prison system.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the government did not always observe these prohibitions. Detainees are legally permitted to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained; however, this rarely occurred due to lack of adequate legal counsel. In a January 2019 policy directive, the minister of justice instructed prosecutors to visit detention facilities on a regular basis to identify detainees with pending criminal dossiers to minimize use of detention for unofficial, extrajudicial purposes.
The government did not have effective mechanisms to punish abuse and corruption. The Criminal Investigation Department (DIC) is in charge of investigating police abuses but was ineffective in addressing impunity or corruption (see section 4, Corruption). An amnesty law covers police and other security personnel involved in “political crimes” committed between 1983 and 2004, except for killings in “cold blood.” The Regional Court of Dakar includes a military tribunal that has jurisdiction over crimes committed by military personnel. A tribunal is composed of a civilian judge, a civilian prosecutor, and two military assistants to advise the judge, one of whom must be of equal rank to the defendant. A tribunal may try civilians only if they were involved with military personnel who violated military law. A military tribunal provides the same rights as a civilian criminal court.
Unless a crime is “flagrant” (just committed or discovered shortly after being committed), police must obtain a warrant from a court to arrest or detain a suspect. Police treat most cases as “flagrant” offenses and make arrests without warrants, invoking pretrial detention powers. The DIC may hold persons up to 24 hours before releasing or charging them. Authorities did not promptly inform many detainees of the charges against them. Police officers, including DIC officials, may double the detention period from 24 to 48 hours without charge if they demonstrate substantial grounds for a future indictment and if a prosecutor so authorizes. If such extended detention is authorized, the detainee must be brought in front of the prosecutor within 48 hours of detention. For particularly serious offenses, investigators may request a prosecutor double this period to 96 hours. Authorities have the power to detain terrorist suspects for an initial 96 hours, and with renewals for a maximum of 12 days. The detention period does not formally begin until authorities officially declare an individual is being detained, a practice Amnesty International noted results in lengthy detentions.
Bail was rarely available, and officials generally did not allow family access. By law defense attorneys may have access to suspects from the moment of arrest and may be present during interrogation; this provision, however, was not regularly observed. The law provides for legal representation at public expense in felony cases to all criminal defendants who cannot afford one after the initial period of detention. In many cases, however, the appointed counsel rarely shows up, especially outside of Dakar. Indigent defendants did not always have attorneys in misdemeanor cases. A number of NGOs provided legal assistance or counseling to those charged with crimes. The Ministry of Justice published a policy directive in 2018 mandating counsel for defendants when questioning begins.
Arbitrary Arrest: On June 21, the Gendarmerie arrested a former civil servant after he published an open letter to President Sall in the press denouncing Sall’s alleged mismanagement of the country. Authorities released him the following day.
Pretrial Detention: According to 2018 UN statistics, 45 percent of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees. In late 2019 the country’s authorities reported the percentage to be 42 percent. A majority of defendants awaiting trial are held in detention. The law states an accused person may not be held in pretrial detention for more than six months for minor crimes; however, authorities routinely held persons in custody until a court ordered their release. Judicial backlogs and absenteeism of judges resulted in an average delay of two years between the filing of charges and the beginning of a trial. In cases involving murder charges, threats to state security, and embezzlement of public funds, there were no limits on the length of pretrial detention. In many cases pretrial detainees were held longer than the length of sentence later imposed.
On June 30, the legislature passed two laws authorizing Electronic Monitoring (EM) as an alternative to incarceration. Once operational the EM system is designed to allow criminal courts to release certain defendants awaiting trial and other first-time offenders convicted of low-risk crimes to home detention, where electronic bracelets would monitor their movements. The bracelet system is intended to relieve chronic overreliance on pretrial detention and thereby reduce the prison population.
Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was subject to corruption and government influence. Magistrates noted overwhelming caseloads, lack of adequate space and office equipment, and inadequate transportation, and they openly questioned the government’s commitment to judicial independence. The judiciary is formally independent, but the president controls appointments to the Constitutional Council, the Court of Appeal, and the Council of State. Judges are prone to pressure from the government on corruption cases and other matters involving high-level officials.
On several occasions the Union of Senegalese Judges and Prosecutors complained of executive influence over the judiciary, in particular the presence of the president and the minister of justice in the High Council of Magistrates, which manages the careers of judges and prosecutors. Members of the High Council of Magistrates previously resigned in protest, stating that the executive branch should not have the ability to interfere in judicial affairs. In August judicial authorities summarily demoted a district court president, prompting speculation he was punished for detaining a religious leader in a criminal case. The Union of Senegalese Judges and Prosecutors published an open letter condemning the demotion and hired counsel to defend the judge on appeal. On September 2, a Dakar daily published a list of 20 magistrates it claimed had been demoted during the past decade in retaliation for unpopular court decisions. The August demotion of the district court president prompted harsh criticism of the minister of justice in media and legal circles and renewed calls for justice reform, including reconstitution of the High Council of Magistrates. Authorities respected and enforced court orders.
The constitution provides for all defendants to have the right to a fair and public trial, and for an independent judiciary to enforce this right. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. They have the right to a timely trial, to be present in court during their trial and to have an attorney at public expense if needed in felony cases (although legal commentators note provision of attorneys is inconsistent) and they have the right to appeal. They also have the right to sufficient time and facilities to prepare their defense, and to receive free interpretation as necessary from the moment they are charged through all appeals. Defendants enjoy the right to confront and present witnesses and to present their own witnesses and evidence.
While defendants may not be compelled to testify against themselves or confess guilt, the country’s long-standing practice is for defendants to provide information to investigators and testify during trials. In addition case backlogs, lack of legal counsel (especially in regions outside of Dakar), judicial inefficiency and corruption, and lengthy pretrial detention undermined many of the rights of defendants.
Evidentiary hearings may be closed to the public and press. Although a defendant and counsel may introduce evidence before an investigating judge who decides whether to refer a case for trial, police or prosecutors may limit their access to evidence against the defendant prior to trial. A panel of judges presides over ordinary courts in civil and criminal cases.
The right of appeal exists in all courts, except for the High Court of Justice, the final court of appeal. These rights extend to all citizens. On June 15, the country’s largest union of court clerks declared a strike, causing major disruption of court proceedings, including delayed trials and inaccessible court decisions and administrative paperwork. On September 1, the union suspended the strike after the Ministry of Justice agreed to negotiate.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Citizens may seek cessation of and reparation for human rights violations in regular administrative or judicial courts. Citizens may also seek administrative remedies by filing a complaint with the ombudsman, an independent authority. Corruption and lack of independence hampered judicial and administrative handling of these cases. In matters related to human rights, individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there was at least one report the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
On June 1, police arrested activist Assane Diouf after breaking down the gate of his house. Diouf broadcasted live on his Facebook page a video in which he insulted authorities, including President Macky Sall, and denounced an ongoing water shortage in the Dakar suburbs. Diouf remained in pretrial detention at year’s end.
The de facto ceasefire in the Casamance has been in effect since 2012, and President Sall continued efforts to resolve the 38-year-old conflict between separatists and government security forces. Both the government and various factions of the Movement of Democratic Forces of the Casamance (MFDC) separatist movement accepted mediation efforts led by neutral parties. Progress toward a political resolution of the conflict remained incremental. On June 30, the army began a campaign to bombard MFDC rebel bases in the Mbissine forest after armed MFDC rebels had reportedly attacked villages in that area. Two soldiers died from landmines during the month-long campaign and several soldiers were injured. Since July the conflict dissipated, and no further military action took place.
Killings: There were no reported killings by or on behalf of government authorities.
Abductions: There were several incidents related to acts of banditry attributed to MFDC rebels in which they detained or otherwise harmed civilians.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There was no specialized governmental body to examine killings at the hands of the security forces. The Security Information Agency and the Directorate for the Enforcement of Penal Sanctions examined such cases through internal audits.
Throughout the year media reported on the 1999 disappearance and presumed killing of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi, three Kosovar-American brothers taken into custody by Serb paramilitary groups and buried on the grounds of a police training center commanded by Goran Radosavljevic. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, stated in a letter to the government in March that the country “has an obligation under international humanitarian law and domestic legal instruments to investigate the criminal responsibility of commanders and superiors, including [police commander] Goran Radosavljevic and Vlastimir Djordjevic, for the killing of the Bytyqi brothers.” The government made no significant progress toward providing justice for the victims, and it was unclear to what extent authorities were actively investigating the case. Criminal proceedings on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Srebrenica-Kravica case) continued, with three hearings held during the year.
Criminal investigations and proceedings related to wartime atrocities in the 1990s were largely stagnant. Hearings that occurred often resulted in further delays and limited tangible progress, according to independent observers.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, police routinely beat detainees and harassed suspects, usually during arrest or initial detention with a view towards obtaining a confession, notwithstanding that such evidence is not permissible in court. In its most recent 2018 report on the country, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which had visited Serbia regularly since 2007, stated: “The Serbian authorities must recognize that the existence of ill-treatment by police officers is a fact; it is not the work of a few rogue officers but rather an accepted practice within the current police culture, notably among crime inspectors.”
In July, 11 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) sent an urgent appeal to the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment demanding the rapporteur’s intervention with Serbian authorities to investigate police brutality during antigovernment protests throughout the country. NGOs reported excessive, unjustified, and illegal force against protesters, including journalists, by police and other unidentified persons allegedly from informal criminal groups closely linked to the Ministry of Interior. The ombudsman initiated an investigation of police actions and concluded police did not use excessive force against participants except in several individual cases, which were to be further investigated. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR) filed two criminal charges against police for actions during the protests.
On International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the ombudsman claimed that there was no systemic torture in the country and that efforts continued to improve the protection of arrested and detained persons’ rights and prevent torture and other types of abuse. The ombudsman highlighted that articles of the criminal code need to be conformed to the definition of torture in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The BCHR stated the “practice of courts and public prosecutors was to, without exception, show more trust in depositions of police and other officials than those of citizens who claim to have suffered torture and those who testified” and warned that most criminal charges filed by victims of torture and abuse against officials were rejected and very few resulted in convictions.
Police corruption and impunity remained problems, despite some progress on holding corrupt police officials accountable. During the year experts from civil society noted the quality of police internal investigations continued to improve.
In the first nine months of the year, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector of Internal Control filed five criminal charges against six police officers due to reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime of abuse and torture. During the same period, the ministry’s Internal Control Office filed 115 criminal charges and three annexes against 127 officers and civilian employees of the ministry.
The government was less effective when high-level police officials were accused of criminal wrongdoing. In these cases, criminal charges rarely reflected the seriousness of the offense and were often filed after lengthy delays. For example, in 2008 rioters attacked and set fire to a foreign diplomatic mission that supported Kosovo’s independence. In 2018, following a 10-year lapse, charges were filed against five high-level police officials, three of whom had since retired, who were charged with failing to protect the mission, endangering public safety, and abusing their offices. Three hearings in this case were held throughout the year.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were sometimes harsh due to physical abuse and overcrowding.
Physical Conditions: Physical abuse by police and prison staff occurred, and there were reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year. According to the Ministry of Justice, prison capacity was 10,543 inmates; the average prison population decreased from 11,077 in December 2019 to 10,543 in September 2020.
Administration: Authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. In two cases, employees were disciplined for excessive use of force against prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: Independent monitoring of prison conditions is allowed under the law, and the government provided access to independent monitors. The ombudsman and members of National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture visited and monitored prisons in Belgrade, Sombor, Kragujevac, Krusevac, Sremska Mitrovica, Pancevo, and Nis. They expressed concern related to prison staff shortages, lack of training for staff regarding special categories of prisoners, and implementation of Istanbul Protocols for health protection and material conditions of prisons.
Improvements: Although prisons remained overpopulated, construction of new prisons and wider use of alternative sanctions (for example, conditional release, community service, house arrest, and other measures) reduced overcrowding. New prison facilities were being constructed and renovated in Belgrade, Sremska Mitrovica, Leskovac, and Pozarevac. In its June Serbia 2020 Report related to EU enlargement, European Commission (EC) staff observed that several prisons, including the prison hospital in Belgrade, continued to be renovated and modernized in line with the national strategy for reducing overcrowding in penal institutions.
During the year the government purchased 1,995 electronic surveillance devices to facilitate sentences of house arrest, a two-fold increase over similar purchases in 2019. Courts increasingly tended to issue alternative sentences of house arrest, in lieu of incarceration, to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. The government generally observed these requirements. Despite improvements to pretrial procedures, prolonged pretrial confinement remained a problem.
Law enforcement authorities generally based arrests on warrants issued by a prosecutor or a judge. The constitution states that police must inform arrested persons of their rights immediately at the time of arrest, and authorities generally respected this requirement. Police may not question suspects without informing them of their right to remain silent and have counsel present. A prosecutor can elect to question a suspect or be present during police questioning. Statements given by suspects to police without a prosecutor present are admissible evidence only if given in presence of a defense attorney.
The law requires a judge to approve pretrial detention lasting longer than 48 hours, and authorities generally respected this requirement. The law provides alternatives to pretrial detention such as house arrest or bail, although in practice prosecutors and judges applied pretrial detention. The most frequently used alternative was house arrest, with or without electronic monitoring. Authorities generally allowed family members to visit detainees. The law allows for indefinite detention of prisoners deemed a danger to the public because of a mental disability.
Detainees can obtain access to counsel at the government’s expense only if they are charged with offenses that carry a possible prison sentence of at least three years and establish that they cannot afford counsel or if the law specifically requires it for that type of case and circumstances. For offenses with sentences of eight or more years, access to counsel is mandatory. Detainees who are eligible for social welfare qualify for free legal aid regardless of the seriousness of the charge they face.
The law prohibits excessive delays by authorities in filing formal charges against suspects and in conducting investigations. Authorities may hold suspects detained in connection with serious crimes for up to six months before indicting them. By law investigations should conclude either within six months or within 12 months in cases of special jurisdiction (organized crime, high corruption, and war crimes). If a prosecutor does not conclude an investigation within six months, or within 12 months in cases of special jurisdiction, the prosecutor is required to inform the higher-level prosecutor’s office, which is then required to undertake measures to conclude the investigation. In practice investigations often lasted longer because there were neither clear timelines for concluding investigations nor any consequences for failing to meet prescribed deadlines.
Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem. The average length of detention was not reported and could not be reliably estimated. Courts are generally obliged by law to act with urgency when deciding on pretrial detention. The constitution and laws limit the length of pretrial detention to six months, but there is no statutory limit to detention once the defendant is indicted. There is also no statutory limit for detention during appellate proceedings. Due to inefficient court procedures, some of which are legally required, cases often took extended periods to come to trial. The law provides a right to request compensation for the time spent in wrongful detention, i.e., pretrial detention during trials that ended in acquittal. Media reported that every year courts imposed approximately 50,000 days of wrongful detention and the amount of compensation paid to suspects who face wrongful detention exceeded one million euros ($1.2 million). In April the Ministry of Justice reported 150 individuals had been placed in pretrial detention due to violation of COVID-19 self-isolation measures. There were concerns regarding the lawfulness of such detention because it was based on a recommendation by the Ministry of Justice that prosecutors request pretrial detention in these cases.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but courts remained susceptible to corruption and political influence. Civil society contacts and international organizations such as the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) criticized the slow pace of constitutional reforms aimed at reducing political influence over the judiciary, the High Judicial Council, and the State Prosecutorial Council. The State Prosecutorial Council’s commissioner for autonomy examined more than 40 cases of alleged inappropriate political influence and issued several advisory opinions. The High Judicial Council expressed concern that 74 courts in the country operated under acting presidents.
The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that political pressure on the judiciary remained a concern. The report stated that government officials and members of parliament continued to comment publicly about ongoing investigations, court proceedings, or on the work of individual judges and prosecutors.
Regional cooperation on war crimes was limited. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report pointed out that bilateral cooperation protocols on war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide between the Public Prosecutor’s Office and its counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro contributed to reducing impunity for war crimes. Cooperation with Croatia, however, faced numerous obstacles and had not led to concrete results. Mutual judicial cooperation between the country and Kosovo, meanwhile, was extremely limited in war crimes cases. The implementation of the 2016 National Strategy for Processing of War Crimes continued at a slow pace, and no preparations were undertaken to create a new strategy when the current one expired at the end of the year. Serbian authorities continued to provide support and public space to convicted or suspected war criminals and were slow to respond to hate speech or the denial of war crimes.
The constitution and laws provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right.
The constitution and laws grant defendants the presumption of innocence. Authorities must inform defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free translation throughout criminal proceedings, if necessary. Defendants have a right to a fair and public trial without undue delay, although authorities may close a trial to the public if the trial judge determines it is warranted for the protection of morals, public order, national security, the interests of a minor, the privacy of a participant, or during the testimony of a state-protected witness.
Lay judges sit on the trial benches in all cases except those handled by the organized crime and war crimes authorities. Defendants also have the right to have an attorney represent them, at public expense, when a defendant lacks resources to acquire representation and one of two conditions is met: either the crime is punishable by three or more years of imprisonment and the defendant cannot afford a defense attorney, or a defense attorney is mandatory under the law. Defendants and attorneys are generally given ample time and sufficient facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to be present at their own trials, access government evidence, question witnesses, present their own witnesses and evidence, and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Both the defense and the prosecution have the right to appeal a verdict.
The government generally respected these rights. Some defendants complained about not being able to present evidence in court and not being able to depose witnesses. During the government’s COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency, there was concern regarding fair procedures for trials that utilized video links at the Ministry of Justice’s recommendation and expedited sentencing for individuals accused of violating self-isolation measures.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
The constitution grants individuals the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court regarding an alleged violation of human rights. In addition to ruling whether a violation occurred, the court can also issue a decision that can serve as grounds for seeking restitution. The government generally respected decisions rendered by the Constitutional Court. Once all avenues for remedy in the domestic courts are exhausted, citizens may appeal cases involving alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights to the European Court of Human Rights.
The government has laws and mechanisms in place, and NGOs and advocacy groups reported the government made significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including for foreign citizens.
In accordance with the country’s participation in the Terezin Declaration, in 2016 parliament adopted a law on the restitution of heirless and unclaimed Jewish property seized during the Holocaust. This law allows the Jewish community to file restitution claims based on these seizures, without restricting the rights of future claimants. The law defines “heirless property” as any property that was not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution under the General Restitution Law. The community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the Jewish community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust. The law also stipulates financial support from the state budget for the Jewish community in the amount of 950,000 euros ($1.05 million) per year for a 25-year period; the government made four payments since 2017.
The claims period under the 2016 law ended in February 2019. The Serbian Agency for Restitution reported that in 2020 it returned more than 2,225 acres of agricultural land and 18,417 square feet of residential objects, such as buildings, business premises, apartments, and garages. Since implementation of the law, 106,530 square feet of residential objects, 4,646 acres of agricultural land, and 4,757 square feet of construction land had been restituted to Jewish communities in Serbia.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, which covers Holocaust-era property restitution, was released publicly on July 29, 2020 and is available on the Department’s website at: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
While the constitution prohibits such actions, there were reports that the government failed to respect prohibitions on interfering with correspondence and communications. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to obtain a court order before monitoring potential criminal activity and police to obtain a warrant before entering property except to save persons or possessions. Police frequently failed to respect these laws.
Human rights activists and NGOs reported a lack of effective parliamentary oversight of security agencies. The extent of government surveillance on personal communications was unknown. Civil society activists and independent journalists alleged extensive surveillance of citizens’ social media posts and of journalists and activists critical of the government.
In April the Share Foundation discovered a publicly available webpage with password information to access a COVID-19 information database with personally identifiable information on individuals who had been tested, treated, placed into isolation, or died of COVID-19. In response the commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection launched a monitoring process on the implementation of the Law on Personal Data Protection.
In September, Danas reported that the Ministry of Interior would use 8,100 cameras for video surveillance in public spaces across the country. Placing these cameras was part of the “Safe Society” project that the Ministry of Interior was implementing with Huawei based on a 2017 agreement between the Ministry of Interior and the Huawei Technologies Company.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
In contrast to 2019, there were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
The Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB) is the body responsible for investigating police misconduct. The IPCB is an independent civilian oversight mechanism with a mandate within the security sector to receive and investigate complaints from the public and advise the leadership of the Sierra Leone Police.
On April 29, a riot broke out at Pademba Road Correctional Center in Freetown leading to 31 fatalities, including one corrections officer and 30 inmates. Thirty-two corrections officers and 21 inmates sustained injuries. After prisoners reportedly set fire to walls in storerooms and took hostages, security officials used live ammunition. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Prison Watch indicated the inmates were protesting the perceived preferential treatment of high-profile detainees, while Amnesty International reported it reflected health concerns after the first COVID cases in the Prison were reported the previous day. In July, Sierra Leone Correctional Services (SLCS) authorities reported the riot was sparked by overcrowding, an announcement that court sessions would be suspended for one month, COVID-19 health restrictions, and reports of a COVID-19 case at the prison.
The IPCB opened an investigation into the July alleged killing by security officers of six individuals in Makeni. The victims were participating in a protest against the government’s relocation of a power generator and transformers from Makeni to Port Loko District to support the airport’s operations. Residents reportedly burned tires on the streets and threw rocks during the protest. Authorities used tear gas and live ammunition in response.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them. NGOs reported, however, that security forces used excessive force to manage civil protests in Freetown and provincial town (see section 1.a.).
Impunity remained a significant problem in the security forces, notably in the Sierra Leone Police (SLP). Observers noted police lacked training on crowd control and on human rights topics.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening because of food shortages; gross overcrowding due to an inefficient justice system and a lack of sufficient correctional facilities and personnel; physical abuse; lack of clean water; inadequate sanitary conditions; and a lack of medical care.
Physical Conditions: The country’s 21 prisons, designed to hold 2,375 inmates, held 3,808 as of August. The most severe example of overcrowding was in the Freetown Male Correctional Center, designed to hold 324 inmates, which instead held 1,407 individuals. Some prison cells measuring six feet by nine feet held nine or more inmates. The NGO Prison Watch and the SLCS reported that 13 prisons and detention centers were moderately overcrowded.
In most cases pretrial detainees were held with convicted prisoners. The SLCS reported that as of August, of the 3,808 persons held in prisons and detention centers, 1,289 had been convicted. The SLCS also reported one inmate jailed in 2007 had yet to appear in court.
SLCS authorities and human rights observers reported detention conditions remained below minimum international standards because of overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and insufficient medical attention. Conditions in police station holding cells were poor, especially in small stations outside Freetown. Lack of adequate physical facilities created life-threatening conditions for detainees. Holding cells in some facilities were often dark, with little ventilation, and inmates slept on bare floors, using mattresses and clothes as bedding. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) reported poor toilet facilities in some correctional centers. Inmates were often forced to use buckets as toilets.
Cells often lacked proper lighting, bedding, ventilation, and protection from mosquitoes. For security reasons authorities refused to allow inmates to sleep under mosquito nets, requiring inmates to use chemical repellants instead. Most prisons did not have piped water, and some inmates lacked sufficient access to potable drinking water. In September 2019 observers reported that in some facilities to avoid overcrowding in the common areas, authorities confined inmates to their cells for long periods without opportunity for movement.
Prison authorities issued bedding and blankets to inmates at the Freetown Female and Male Correctional Centers. Some mattresses were on the floor at the Male Correctional Center. Conditions in detention centers, including lighting and ventilation, were generally better for female inmates than for male inmates.
As of August the SLCS reported 53 deaths in prisons and detention facilities due to malaria, respiratory infections, skin infections, hypertension, asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, kidney diseases, sickle cell disease, and typhoid fever. The HRCSL confirmed the causes of death as reported by the SLCS were further related to prison conditions, such as overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions. The SLCS reported the government provided adequate sanitation and medications for inmates. In cases of medical emergencies, prison authorities transferred inmates to the nearest government hospitals. Officials referred female inmates to local hospitals for special care, and government hospitals complied with the requests.
Some of the victims in the April 29 Pademba Road prison riot may also have been due to prisoner-on-prisoner violence (see section 1.a.).
Prison authorities and the HRCSL reported there was no discrimination against inmates with disabilities. The HRCSL reported it had no information regarding abuse of inmates with disabilities.
The HRCSL and Prison Watch reported a shortage of prison staff, which resulted in a lack of security that endangered inmates’ safety. The March 2019 inmate violence in Bo led to the death of one inmate. According to the SLCS, the case against 13 inmates who allegedly participated in the killing was pending trial at the high court in Bo. Prison authorities in Bo further reported that some of the suspects have completed their initial prison sentences but are still under detention pending a ruling from the high court.
As of August Prison Watch and the HRCSL reported that no prison or detention center facility held male and female inmates together.
The HRCSL reported on September 14 that there were no juveniles in correctional facilities across the country. Nonetheless, it was often difficult to confirm the ages of inmates due to the pervasive lack of official documentation, which resulted in some juveniles being treated as adults.
Authorities sent most offenders younger than 18 to “approved schools” or reformatory institutions. According to the SLCS, although authorities made some effort to avoid detaining juveniles with adults, they frequently detained minors with adults in police cells while waiting to transfer them to juvenile facilities in Freetown. There are two remand homes for juvenile suspects and one approved school for convicted juveniles. Authorities acknowledged these facilities lacked resources to function properly.
In juvenile facilities detainees had adequate access to food and water, but did not have access to education and were sometimes unable to attend court hearings due to lack of transportation.
According to SLCS authorities, as of August there were four infants in correctional centers across the country, most of whom were born in prison and initially kept there with their mothers. Once such children were weaned, authorities released them to family members or to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs, which placed them in foster care. SLCS authorities in Freetown, Bo, and Kenema provided government-funded child-care centers for children of inmates.
Administration: There was no prison ombudsman, but senior prison officials were available to respond to complaints. Inmates reportedly refrained from filing complaints directly with prison authorities because they believed such actions would spur retaliation by judicial authorities.
Authorities permitted regular family visits and provided a telephone for inmates to communicate with their relatives. The SLCS has visibly painted on murals the hours of inmate visitation and communicated that visits are free of charge.
Prison rights advocacy groups and the HRCSL reported that authorities generally investigated credible allegations of mistreatment of inmates.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. International monitors had unrestricted access to the detention centers and police holding cells. The HRCSL and Prison Watch monitored prisons monthly. The SLCS also freely allowed other NGOs such as Humanist Watch to monitor prison conditions on a regular basis.
Improvements: In recent years the SLCS has improved its facilities, policies, and practices in an effort to align with international standards for the treatment of inmates. Solar boreholes were constructed in the Port Loko, Bo, and Moyamba district correctional facilities. Recent SLCS security policies, such as key control, were complemented by expanded inmate programs, including access to information, increased visitation hours, and expanded services such as educational and vocational training opportunities.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the HRCSL indicated that police occasionally arrested and detained persons arbitrarily, including members of an opposition party. The government allows the SLP and the chiefdom police to hold suspects in police detention cells without charge or explanation for up to three days for suspected misdemeanors and up to 10 days for suspected felonies. The NGO Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) reported cases of illegal detentions at several police stations and the Freetown Male Correctional Center. Chiefs sometimes subjected both adults and children to arbitrary detention and imprisoned them unlawfully in their homes or “chiefdom jails.”
The law requires warrants for searches and arrests of persons taken into custody on criminal grounds, but arrests without warrants were common. CHRDI reported some arrests were made without warrants and that the SLP in some instances did not follow proper arrest procedures.
The law requires authorities to inform detainees of the reason for their arrest within 24 hours and charge them in court within 72 hours for suspected misdemeanors or within 10 days for suspected felonies. Detainees, however, were not always informed promptly of charges brought against them. According to Prison Watch, authorities routinely brought remanded (detained pretrial) inmates to court on a weekly basis to be remanded again to circumvent the legal restrictions.
The judiciary applied the bail system inconsistently and sometimes demanded excessive bond fees.
Detainees have the right to access family members and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Lawyers generally were allowed unrestricted access to detainees. According to the director of public prosecution and the office of the Legal Aid Board, an estimated 80 percent of inmates received legal representation, while the CHRDI reported 40 percent of accused persons received legal representation. Only defendants in the military justice system had automatic access to attorneys, whose fees the Ministry of Defense paid. Although there were 53 active state counsels (public defenders), the majority worked in the capital and were often overburdened, poorly paid, and available only for more serious criminal cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of individuals held for questioning for longer than permissible under law.
On May 1, police arrested Sylvia Blyden, former minister of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs and a journalist and opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party member, for alleged libel offenses involving social media posts critical of the government. Police detained her beyond the 72 hours legal limit provided by law. On May 29, authorities released Blyden on bail but then re-arrested her June 2 for allegedly violating bail conditions. On June 25, police released Blyden again on bail. The charges were dropped after the law criminalizing seditious libel was amended in August.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. As of September of the 3,808 persons held in prisons and detention centers, 33 percent were convicted, 41 percent were in pretrial detention, and 26 percent were on trial. The SLCS attributed the high percentage of pretrial detainees to a severe shortage of legal professionals. A donor-funded program identified other specific reasons for extensive pretrial detention, such as magistrates and judges not consistently granting bail when warranted, the Ministry of Justice Law Officers Department often failing to bring indictments, and inadequate information exchange and case management across the criminal justice system. Pretrial and remand detainees spent an average of three to five years in pretrial detention before courts examined their cases or filed formal charges. In extreme cases the wait could be as long as 12 years.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. Observers, including NGOs, assessed the judiciary maintained relative independence.
In addition to the formal court system, local chieftaincy courts administer customary law with lay judges, primarily in rural areas. Appeals from these lower courts are heard by the magistrate courts. Paramount chiefs in villages maintained their own police and courts to enforce customary local law. Chieftaincy police and courts exercised authority to arrest, try, and incarcerate individuals. Traditional trials were generally fair, but there was credible evidence that corruption influenced many cases. Paramount chiefs acting as judges routinely accepted bribes and favored wealthier defendants. In response in 2019 the government sent 36 paralegals to rural areas to provide access to justice and training for chiefdom officials.
The limited number of judicial magistrates and lawyers, along with high court fees, restricted access to justice for most citizens. Since 2019, six new judges were appointed to the High Court and one to the Court of Appeal.
The military justice system has a different appeals process. For summary hearings the defendant may appeal for the redress of a complaint, which proceeds to the next senior ranking officer, while the civilian Supreme Court hears appeals in a court-martial. According to civil society members and government interlocutors, corruption is prevalent in the redress system.
Authorities at all levels of government generally respected court orders.
The law provides for the right to a fair trial for all defendants, but this right was not always enforced.
Defendants enjoy the right to a timely trial, but the lack of judicial officers and facilities regularly resulted in long trial delays. Some cases reportedly were adjourned 20 to 30 times. Trials are public, but NGOs reported that due to corruption they were not always fair. Defendants generally enjoyed a presumption of innocence. While defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, some defendants were not afforded access to counsel. Although the law provides for attorneys at public expense if defendants are not able to afford their own attorneys, these attorneys were overburdened with cases, and often defendants who could not afford to pay for an attorney had no access to legal aid prior to trial.
Defendants were not always informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and did not always have access to free assistance from an interpreter as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants generally had adequate time to prepare their defenses, although they generally did not have adequate facilities to do so. Defendants may confront or question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Police officers, many of whom had little or no formal legal training, prosecuted some of cases on the magistrate level. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Although the law provides defendants with the right to appeal, delays in the appeals process were excessive, sometimes lasting more than two years. The law extends these rights to all defendants.
Traditional justice systems continued to supplement the central government judiciary, especially in rural areas, in cases involving family law, inheritance, and land tenure. The customary law guiding these courts was not codified, however, and decisions in similar cases were inconsistent. Paramount chiefs have authority over civil matters, such as land disputes, and referred criminal cases to police for investigation and prosecution. Local chieftains at times exceeded their mandates and administered harsh punishments.
Laws on gender equality were inconsistently enforced, and many traditional courts continued to ignore the rights of women regarding family law and inheritance. Juveniles were afforded few rights in the traditional justice system.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Both the central government judiciary and customary law courts handled civil complaints. Corruption influenced some cases and judgments, and awards were inconsistent. Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through regular access to domestic courts. Individuals may also seek redress from regional bodies, such as the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions. There were, however, reports the government used technology to surveil a journalist and opposition activist (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest–case of Sylvia Blyden).
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Killings by law enforcement officers and military personnel are investigated by the Special Investigation Section of the Singapore Police Force, prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Chambers, and tried in civilian courts. If the killing occurred overseas and the deceased was subject to military law or the offense was committed while the offender was on active service, the case is investigated by the Special Investigation Branch of the Singapore Armed Forces, prosecuted by the Military Prosecutor, and tried in a military court.
Two Singapore Civil Defense Force officers were convicted in September and sentenced to 10 weeks in prison for their involvement in the 2018 death of Corporal Kok Yuen Chin, who drowned when he was pushed into a pump well at a fire station during hazing celebrations. Three other officers were imprisoned in 2019 for their actions in the same incident.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits such practices, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
The law mandates imprisonment and mandatory caning for approximately 30 offenses, such as certain cases of rape, robbery, and drug trafficking. Caning is discretionary for convictions on other charges involving the use of force, such as kidnapping or voluntarily causing grievous hurt. Caning also may be used as a punishment for legally defined offenses while in prison, if a review by the Institutional Discipline Advisory Committee deems it necessary and the commissioner of prisons approves. Women and girls, men older than 50 years and boys younger than 16, men sentenced to death whose sentences were not commuted, and persons determined medically unfit were exempt from punishment by caning.
Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. The government took active steps to investigate and file charges against members of the security services when it deemed their behavior inappropriate or illegal.
In September police Staff Sergeant Mahendran Selvaragoo was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment for seeking sexual favors in 2019 from two subjects of interrogation, as well as accessing the subjects’ personal devices for personal purposes without authority.
In November, Central Narcotics Bureau officer Vengedesh Raj Nainar Nagarajan went on trial for three counts of voluntarily causing hurt to extort a confession about drugs found in a suspect’s possession in 2017. The trial continued at year’s end.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There were no reports regarding prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.
Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns about physical conditions or inmate abuse in prisons and detention centers.
Administration: Prisoners may file complaints alleging mistreatment or misconduct with judicial authorities without censorship and may request investigation of credible allegations of problematic conditions. When called upon, the Provost Unit investigates complaints. Criminal charges may be brought against government officials.
The Board of Visiting Justices, composed of justices of the peace appointed by the home affairs minister, examines the prison system and has oversight of any investigations undertaken by the Provost Unit. The board conducts regular prison inspections to provide for prisoners’ basic welfare and adherence to prison regulations. It may also conduct random visits. All inmates have access to the visiting justices. Authorities documented the results of investigations in a publicly accessible manner. Members of the Board of Visiting Justices visited prisons at least once a month.
The Institutional Discipline Advisory Committee renders an opinion to the commissioner of prisons on whether an instance of corporal punishment (which is permitted) was excessive.
The status of the suspect or convict determined the frequency and type of permitted visits. In general authorities allowed family members and close relatives to visit inmates. Prison authorities must approve visits from nonrelatives.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities allowed members of the press to visit the prisons with prior approval. The Ministry of Home Affairs also appointed a nongovernmental body composed of citizens to conduct regular prison inspections.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The law permits arrest without warrant and detention without trial in defined circumstances. Persons detained under these circumstances have a right to judicial review of their case but the scope is limited by specific legislation. The government generally observed the laws.
In most instances, the law requires issuance of an authorized warrant for arrests, but some laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), provide for arrest without a warrant if the government determines the suspect acted in a manner prejudicial to the security of the country. The law specifies that some offenses, such as robbery or rape, do not require an arrest warrant.
Those arrested according to regular criminal procedure must appear before a magistrate within 48 hours or be released. Authorities expeditiously charged and brought to trial the majority of those arrested. A functioning bail system existed.
Persons who face criminal charges are allowed access to counsel within a “reasonable,” but undefined, period of time. Any person accused of a capital crime is entitled to free counsel assigned by the state. The government also funded a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme run by the Law Society that covers additional, but not all, criminal offenses.
Arbitrary Arrest: Some laws, such as the ISA and the Criminal Law (temporary provisions) Act (CLA), have provisions for arrest and detention without a warrant, trial, or full judicial due process in defined circumstances where there is evidence that a person is associated with any of the criminal activities listed in the law that pose a threat to public safety, peace, and good order. ISA cases are subject to review by the courts to provide for compliance with its procedural requirements. Authorities invoked the ISA primarily against persons suspected of posing a security threat and employed the CLA mostly against persons suspected of organized crime activity or drug trafficking.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was not excessively long. Some individuals, however, were in prolonged detention without trial and with minimal judicial due process under laws that allowed for such detention.
The ISA and the CLA permit preventive detention without trial for the protection of public security, safety, or the maintenance of public order.
The government used the CLA against serious criminal activities involving narcotics, loan sharks, or criminal organizations. The government revised the law in 2019 to specify the criminal activities for which individuals could be detained without trial or placed under police supervision. Before issuing a CLA detention for an initial period of one year, the home affairs minister must obtain consent of the public prosecutor. A Supreme Court judge chairs a committee that reviews all cases and conducts hearings at which detainees or their lawyers are present. The country’s president considers the committee’s recommendations when deciding whether to cancel, confirm, or amend the detention. The president may extend detention for unlimited additional periods of up to one year at a time. Each detention, however, is reviewed by a separate advisory committee on an annual basis. The CLA lapses unless parliament renews it every five years.
The CLA allows for supervision within the community through means such as curfews, residence limitations, requirements to report regularly to authorities, and limitations on travel.
The ISA authorizes the home affairs minister, with the consent of the cabinet and with formal endorsement from the president, to order detention without filing charges if the minister determines that a person poses a threat to national security. The initial detention may be for a maximum of two years, after which the minister may renew the detention indefinitely. ISA detainees are permitted legal counsel. An independent advisory board consisting of a Supreme Court judge and two other presidential appointees reviews each detainee’s case within three months of initial detention and at intervals of no longer than 12 months thereafter. If the advisory board recommends that the detainee be released but the minister disagrees, the president has discretion over the detainee’s continued detention.
As of September the government held 18 persons under ISA orders of detention for alleged involvement in terrorism-related activities.
In January authorities detained a minor, age 17, under the ISA for supporting the Islamic State, the youngest individual to be arrested under the act. He was first investigated in 2017 for posting an image of President Halimah Yacob on social media and calling for her beheading. Authorities stated that, despite receiving religious counseling, he remained supportive of the Islamic State and was subsequently detained.
In November authorities detained a 26-year-old construction worker from Bangladesh under the ISA for suspected terrorism-related activities. The worker was reportedly radicalized by online ISIS propaganda, donated funds to a Syria-based organization, shared terrorist propaganda on social media, and intended to undertake armed violence once he returned to Bangladesh, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Early in the year, three Indonesian women held under ISA detention orders in September 2019 for activities in support of the Islamic State were convicted of terrorism financing in normal criminal proceedings. In February, Retno Hernayani and Turmini (one name only) were imprisoned for 18 months and three years and nine months, respectively, while Anindia Afiyantari was sentenced in March to two years in prison. They were the first foreign domestic workers to be detained under the ISA and the first jailed for terrorist financing.
In addition to detention, the ISA allows for issuance of restriction orders that require an individual to seek official approval for a change of address or occupation, overseas travel, or participation in any public organization or activity. Individuals subject to restriction orders could be required to report regularly to authorities. As of September, 27 persons were subject to such restrictions. This number included both released ISA detainees and alleged terrorists whom authorities never detained.
In February the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that Abu Thalha bin Samad was released on a restriction order when his detention order expired in September 2019. Abu Thalha, a Singaporean, was deported to Singapore by a regional government in 2017 and detained for being an alleged member of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
There is also a category of restriction called “suspension direction” that replaces a suspended order of detention and may prohibit association with specified groups or individuals and overseas travel without prior written government approval. Suspension directions also include reporting conditions. As of September no individuals were subject to them for terrorism-related conduct.
The drug laws permit detention without judicial approval of drug addicts in an approved institution for treatment and rehabilitation. If a suspected drug abuser tests positive for an illegal drug or displays signs of drug withdrawal, the director of the Central Narcotics Bureau may commit the person to a drug rehabilitation center for a six-month period, which a review committee of the institution may extend for a maximum of three years. By law the bureau director may order treatment as long as six months of a person determined by blood test or medical examination to be an abuser of intoxicating substances. The detained individual has the right to file a complaint to a magistrate who can issue an order to release the individual from the institution.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution provides the right of habeas corpus in regular criminal law, although not in ISA or CLA cases.
Under the CLA, the minister for home affairs’ decision on a suspect’s engagement in criminal activities is final and not subject to appeal, as is the minister’s subsequent decision on whether detention is necessary for reasons of public safety, peace, and good order, once concurrence by the public prosecutor is secured. The courts can review the decision, but only based on the tests of illegality, irrationality, and procedural impropriety.
Persons detained under the CLA and remanded for trial may apply to the courts for a writ of habeas corpus. Persons detained without trial under the CLA may challenge the substantive basis for their detention only to the CLA advisory committee, which is chaired by a Supreme Court judge.
Under the ISA, detainees may challenge their detention in the judicial system only by seeking judicial review of whether their detention complied with procedural requirements of the ISA; they have no right to challenge the substantive basis for their detention through the courts. Detainees under the ISA have a right to legal counsel and to make representations to an advisory board chaired by a past or sitting judge of the Supreme Court. The ISA specifically excludes recourse to the normal judicial system for review of a detention order made under its authority.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence. Some civil society activists and government critics expressed concern about undue government influence in the judicial system. Laws limiting judicial review, moreover, permitted restrictions on individuals’ constitutional rights.
The ISA and CLA explicitly preclude normal judicial due process and empower the government to limit, on broadly defined national security grounds, other fundamental liberties provided for in the constitution.
The law provides for a fair and public trial, except for persons detained under the ISA, CLA, and similar legislation. The judiciary generally enforced this right when applicable. Some commentators observed a small number of exceptions in cases involving direct challenges to the government or the ruling party. The judicial system generally provided an efficient judicial process.
In most circumstances the criminal procedure code requires that when a defendant is first charged in court, the charges must be framed, read, and explained to the defendant. After the charges are filed in court, the accused may seek advice of counsel before deciding whether to plead guilty or request a trial. At a pretrial hearing no earlier than eight weeks after criminal charges have been made, a judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial and sets a court date.
Criminal defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence in most cases. Cases involving narcotics are an exception; the law stipulates that a person who possessed narcotics shall be assumed to be aware of the substance and places the burden on the defendant to prove otherwise. The law also stipulates that if the amount of the narcotic is above set limits, the defendant must prove he or she did not have the drug for trafficking purposes.
Trials are public and heard by a judge; there are no jury trials. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and to be represented by an attorney. The Law Society administered a legal aid plan for persons facing criminal charges who could not afford an attorney. The state did so for anyone facing a capital charge. Defense lawyers generally had sufficient time and facilities to prepare an adequate defense. Criminal defendants who do not speak or understand English, or who have limited proficiency, are provided with translation services at no cost. Defendants have the right to question prosecution witnesses and to provide witnesses and evidence on their own behalf.
Defendants enjoy the right of appeal, which must be filed within 14 days in most cases. The criminal procedure code provides for an automatic appeal process for all death sentence cases. Those sentenced to death may ask for resentencing under certain circumstances, and judges may impose life imprisonment instead. The courts may offer nonviolent offenders the option of probation or paying a fine in lieu of incarceration.
Persons detained under the ISA or CLA are not entitled to a public trial. Proceedings of the ISA and CLA advisory boards are not public.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Access to the courts is open, and citizens and residents have the right to sue for infringement of human rights.
The constitution does not address privacy rights; statutory or common law provide remedies for infringement of some aspects of privacy rights. Several laws safeguard privacy, regulate access to and processing of personal data, and criminalize unauthorized access to data. Public agencies, however, are exempted from data protection requirements, can intercept communications, and can surveil individuals if it is determined to be in the national interest or necessary for investigations or proceedings. The government generally respected the physical privacy of homes and families. Normally, police must have a warrant issued by a court to conduct a search but may search a person, home, or property without a warrant if they decide that such a search is necessary to preserve evidence or permissible according to discretionary powers of the ISA, CLA, and other laws.
Law enforcement authorities have broad powers to search electronic devices without judicial authorization, including while individuals are in custody. According to Privacy International, “Singapore has a well-established, centrally controlled technological surveillance system.” Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, had extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone, email, text messaging, or other digital communications intended to remain private. No court warrants are required for such operations and the law gives police access to computers and decryption information under defined circumstances.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were multiple reports that federal and state government security forces, allied militias, and other persons wearing uniforms committed arbitrary or unlawful killings related to internal conflict (see section 1.g.). Military court prosecutors, with investigative support from police (Criminal Investigations Department), are responsible for investigating whether security force killings were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions, but impunity remained a significant issue (see section 1.e.). While reliable data is difficult to collect, reporting from the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) indicated that between November 5, 2019, and August 13, there were 491 killings of civilians in the country due to conflict. While al-Shabaab and clan militias were the primary perpetrators, extrajudicial killings of civilians by state security, and to a much lesser extent by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), forces occurred.
According to UNSOM data, between November 5, 2019, and August 13, state authorities carried out 11 of 32 executions ordered by courts. On February 11, authorities executed two men in Bosasso for raping and killing a 12-year-old girl, and two Somalia National Army (SNA) soldiers were executed on May 16 for killing their comrades. Due to capacity issues in the civilian court system, authorities often transferred criminal cases, sometimes even involving children, to the military court system, even when military courts did not appear to have jurisdiction. Human rights organizations questioned the military courts’ ability to enforce appropriate safeguards with regard to due process, the right to seek pardon or commutation of sentence, and the implementation of sentences in a manner that met international standards. Federal and regional authorities sometimes executed those sentenced to death within days of the court’s verdict, particularly in cases where defendants directly confessed their membership in al-Shabaab before the courts or in televised videos. In other cases the courts offered defendants up to 30 days to appeal death penalty judgments.
There were no reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by Somaliland authorities.
Al-Shabaab continued to carry out indiscriminate attacks and deliberately target civilians (see sections 1.g. and 6). According to UNSOM, al-Shabaab was responsible for approximately 60 percent of civilian casualties between November 5, 2019, and August 13. On May 23, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Dinsor, Bay region, that killed a local women’s leader and a nongovernmental organization (NGO) staff member.
On June 8, AMISOM admitted that its troops had inadvertently shot and killed three women in the course of a firefight with al-Shabaab fighters. AMISOM troops helped two wounded victims from the incident secure medical attention and promptly issued a press release expressing regret and a commitment to step up efforts to ensure civilian security.
On September 24, protests broke out in several towns in Gedo region over non-AMISOM Kenya Defense Forces’ killing of at least one civilian near the town of El-Wak.
Fighting among clans and subclans, particularly over water and land resources, occurred throughout the year, particularly in Galmudug State and the regions of Hiiraan, Lower and Middle Shabelle, and Sool (see section 6). Revenge killings occurred (see section 6). The area around Wanlaweyn in Lower Shabelle region, South West State, saw fierce interclan fighting between clan militias starting in April and continuing off and on throughout the year, with a number of atrocities sparking national outrage. As a result state and federal authorities, as well as international partners, intervened several times to defuse the situation, including by sending troops to separate the warring factions and conducting reconciliation meetings with clan elders and the local populace to mediate the disputes. Drivers of conflict in the area included: historical and existing friction between the two clan blocs; the negative influence of federal politicians, some of whom were stoking tensions along clan lines; the ramifications of recent restructuring and redeployment of security forces in South West State; and al-Shabaab’s influence on and exploitation of the situation for its own purposes.
In April conflict occurred between the Galjecel and Shanta Alemod clan militias over the control of illegal checkpoints in Wanlaweyn. The fighting spilled into neighboring villages, leaving at least 24 dead, including 20 civilians. There were reports that several victims were mutilated, and one person was reportedly burned alive.
During the year there were some cases of reportedly government-directed, politically motivated disappearances, particularly of journalists but also of political opponents. From February 29-March 2 National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) officers detained Radio Higsi journalist Mohamed Abdiwahab Nur “Abuja,” reportedly in retaliation for his investigative journalism regarding the intelligence service’s conduct. He was made to sign a confession under duress, released on March 2, detained again on March 7, and held incommunicado from his family and attorney for nearly five months. In August, NISA turned Abuja over to a military tribunal, charging him with murder and membership in al-Shabaab. On August 6, after a three-day trial, the military tribunal acquitted Abuja of all charges.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of Somaliland authorities.
Al-Shabaab continued to abduct persons, including humanitarian workers and AMISOM troops taken hostage during attacks (see section 1.g).
According to the International Maritime Bureau, as of September 21, pirates based in the country held no hostages.
The law prohibits torture and inhuman treatment, but there were credible reports that government authorities engaged in instances of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
NISA agents routinely conducted mass security sweeps against al-Shabaab and terrorist cells, as well as against criminal groups. The organization held detainees for prolonged periods without following due process and mistreated suspects during interrogations.
There remained multiple credible reports of rape and sexual abuse by government agents, primarily in the security forces (see section 1.g.). For example, in April, SNA troops were implicated in four rapes of women and girls of various ages, with one as young as three years old, in Lower Shabelle region. The SNA soldiers involved reportedly were arrested and face trial in military tribunals. Experts attribute a decline in such instances to the increasing professionalization of those forces with international partner assistance.
Al-Shabaab imposed harsh punishment on persons in areas under its control. AMISOM alleged that al-Shabaab tortured residents in el-Baraf for offenses ranging from failure to pay taxes to being a government agent (see sections 1.a. and 1.g.). In September al-Shabaab militants attacked local villagers in Galmudug State who had refused to contribute livestock and small arms, according to an international press report, leaving 30 residents dead after a pitched battle.
AMISOM forces were implicated in rapes and other unspecified grave abuses of human rights while conducting military operations against al-Shabaab in Lower and Middle Shabelle, according to an advocacy organization. AMISOM headquarters staff investigated such allegations.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment at the hands of clan militias, some of which are government-affiliated, remained frequent. There remained a culture of impunity due to clan protection of perpetrators and weak government capacity to hold the guilty to account. Research indicated that such practices remained common along the road from Mogadishu to Afgooye at the hands of Hawiye clan-affiliated militias, some with strong ties to the SNA.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
With the exception of newly built facilities, prison conditions in most areas of the country remained harsh. Poor sanitation and hygiene, inadequate food and water, and lack of medical care were the norm.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in urban prisons–particularly following large security incidents involving arrests–sometimes occurred. Authorities occasionally held juveniles and adults together, due in part to the belief juveniles were safer when held with members of their own subclan. There was a report of one female prisoner in Garowe who was confined separately from male inmates, although she lacked access to the vocational training offered to male inmates. Prison authorities often did not separate pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners, particularly in the southern and central regions.
Conditions were better in the new Mogadishu Prison and Court Complex (MPCC) than in Mogadishu Central Prison (MCP). Two facilities–Garowe Prison in Puntland and Hargeisa Prison in Somaliland–met international standards and were reportedly well managed. As of June detainees at the Puntland Security Force detention facility in Bosasso received meals at least twice per day, consisting of rice and some form of protein, and had access to a rudimentary shower, according to observations by a foreign military service member. Prison conditions in such areas were believed to be harsh and at times life threatening.
Only inmates in the MCP, the MPCC, and Garowe and Hargeisa Prisons had daily access to showers, sanitary facilities, adequate food and water, and outdoor exercise. Inmates in most prisons relied on their family and clan to supplement food and water provisions. Although no signs of abuse were identified, the International Monitoring Committee raised concerns regarding the protection of basic human rights and the safety and well-being of prisoners.
Authorities generally required the families of inmates to pay the cost of health services. Inmates without family or clan support had very limited access to such services. Disease outbreaks, such as tuberculosis and cholera, continued to occur, particularly in overcrowded prisons such as the MPC. Such outbreaks could be life threatening during the rainy season.
Information on death rates in prisons and pretrial detention centers was unavailable.
On August 10, several inmates held at the MCP killed four guards and took the prison commander hostage during an hours-long siege. The attack resulted in 15 prisoner deaths and seven wounded. Four prison officers were killed and two wounded.
Al-Shabaab detained persons in areas under its control in the southern and central regions. Those detained were incarcerated under inhuman conditions for relatively minor offenses, such as smoking, having illicit content on cell phones, listening to music, watching or playing soccer, wearing a brassiere, or not wearing a hijab. Prison conditions in areas controlled by al-Shabaab and where traditional authorities controlled detention areas were often harsh and life-threatening. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that several facilities at the federal member state (FMS) level suffered from frequent flooding, which required prisoners to be moved to temporary facilities, usually at police stations, until water receded.
Administration: Most prisons did not have ombudsmen. Federal law does not specifically allow prisoners to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship. Somaliland law, however, allows prisoners to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, and prisoners reportedly submitted such complaints.
Prisoners in the MCP and Garowe and Hargeisa Prisons had adequate access to visitors and religious observance. Infrastructure limitations in other prisons throughout the country impeded such activities. Transportation to court facilities while awaiting trial was limited, and information was limited and anecdotal on defendants’ ability to access legal counsel while incarcerated in pretrial status or serving sentences.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities actively worked with international humanitarian and monitoring groups amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to some gains in access as these groups provided medical supplies and protective equipment for prison and detention center staff. UNODC staff maintained regular access to prisons where training and infrastructure support was delivered.
Somaliland authorities permitted some prison monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers during the year.
Geographic inaccessibility and insecurity impeded such monitoring in territory controlled by al-Shabaab or in remote areas where traditional authorities controlled detention areas.
Improvements: In February the government opened the MPCC as an integrated court and prison facility designed for judicial hearings and the detention of high-security detainees.
Unreliable power supply was a factor that worsened the impact of the August 10 MCP violence; international partners provided generators to enable the functionality of available security systems and controls, especially at night.
Although the provisional federal constitution prohibits illegal detention, government security forces, allied militias, and regional authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained persons (see section 1.g.). The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but only politicians and some businesspersons could exercise this right effectively.
The provisional federal constitution provides for arrested persons to be brought before judicial authorities within 48 hours. The law requires warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by authorized officials for the apprehension of suspects. The law also provides that arrestees receive prompt notification of the charges against them and judicial determinations, prompt access to a lawyer and family members, and other legal protections. Adherence to these safeguards was rare.
The federal government made arrests without warrants and arbitrarily detained individuals. The government sometimes kept high-profile prisoners associated with al-Shabaab in safe houses before officially charging them. The law provides for bail, although citizens were rarely aware of this right, authorities did not always respect this provision, and judicial personnel lacked adequate training in criminal procedures. In some cases security force members, judicial officers, politicians, and clan elders used their influence to have favored detainees released.
Arbitrary Arrest: Federal and regional authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained numerous persons, including persons accused of terrorism and either supporting or opposing al-Shabaab. Authorities frequently used allegations of al-Shabaab affiliation to justify arbitrary arrests (see section 1.g.).
Government authorities frequently arbitrarily arrested and detained journalists. In addition to the disappearance of Radio Higsi journalist Mohamed Abdiwahab Nur “Abuja,” (see section 1.b.) government authorities arbitrarily detained and arrested several other journalists on questionable charges and provided limited or no access to their families or attorneys. On September 6, Puntland officials in the Nugal region arrested Radio Daljir journalists Abdiqani Ahmed Mohamed and Khadar Awl when the two visited Nugal’s regional court complex to investigate a murder and rape case that had occurred in Garowe several months prior. They were released the following day but were threatened that the regional prosecutor’s office could charge them at any time with unspecified criminal offenses. Between October 16 and 21, NISA held Radio Kulmiye journalist Abdullahi Kulmiye Addow after he interviewed a businessman who reportedly criticized the government and expressed pro-al-Shabaab views. To secure Addow’s release, Radio Kulmiye agreed to suppress parts of the interview. NISA reportedly detained the interview subject as well but released him after one night because of his powerful clan connections.
Somaliland’s government continued to use arbitrary detention and arrest to curb negative reporting by journalists, particularly on the suppression of support for unification with Somalia and on the Sool and Sanaag regions, which are the subject of territorial disputes with Puntland. On November 4, Astaan TV Chief Executive Officer Abdimanan Yusuf was sentenced to five years in prison and a substantial fine on charges that remain unclear after being held incommunicado and denied access to his attorney since July 17, in violation of Somaliland’s law. On December 10, Somaliland authorities released Yusuf for reasons still unclear, according to Facility for Talo and Leadership, an independent policy institute. On August 23, the Somaliland Criminal Investigations Department staff detained Eryal TV journalist Liban Osman Ali for interviewing a woman detained for wearing an outfit made from Somalia’s flag.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was common, although estimates were unavailable on the average length of pretrial detention or the percentage of the prison population being held in pretrial detention. The large number of detainees, a shortage of judges and court administrators, and judicial inefficiency resulted in trial delays.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not always respect judicial independence and impartiality. The civilian judicial system remained dysfunctional and unevenly developed, particularly outside of urban areas. Some local courts depended on the dominant local clan and associated factions for their authority. The judiciary in most areas relied on a combination of traditional and customary law, sharia (Islamic law), and formal law. The judiciary was subject to influence and corruption and was strongly influenced by clan-based politics. Authorities often did not respect court orders or were not able to enforce the orders. Without clear protocols and procedures in place for the transfer of military case to civilian courts, authorities prosecuted only a handful serious criminal cases.
The lack of accountability enabled judges to abuse their power. Civilian judges also lacked the necessary security to perform their jobs without fear. Cases involving security personnel or individuals accused of terrorism-related crimes were heard by military courts.
In Somaliland functional courts existed, although there was a serious shortage of trained judges, as well as limited legal documentation upon which to build judicial precedent and widespread allegations of corruption. Somaliland’s hybrid judicial system incorporates sharia, customary law, and formal law, but they were not well integrated. There was widespread interference in the judicial process, and government officials regularly intervened to influence cases, particularly those involving journalists. International NGOs reported local officials interfered in legal matters and invoked the public order law to detain and incarcerate persons without trial.
Traditional clan elders mediated conflicts throughout the country. Clans frequently used and applied traditional justice practices. Traditional judgments sometimes held entire clans or subclans responsible for alleged violations by individuals.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but the lack of an independent functioning judiciary meant this right was often not enforced. According to the law, individuals have the right to a presumption of innocence. They also have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them in a language they understand, although the law is unclear on whether the right to translation applies through all appeals. Detainees have the right to be brought before a competent court within 48 hours of arrest, to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if indigent), and to not be compelled to incriminate themselves. Authorities did not respect most rights relating to trial procedures. Clan politics and corruption often impeded access to a fair trial. The law does not address confronting witnesses, the right to appeal a court’s ruling, the provision of sufficient time and facilities to prepare a defense, or the right to present one’s own evidence and witnesses.
Military courts tried civilians. Defendants in military courts rarely had legal representation or the right to appeal. Authorities sometimes executed those sentenced to death within days of the court’s verdict (see section 1.a.). Some government officials continued to claim that a 2011 state of emergency decree gave military courts jurisdiction over crimes, including those committed by civilians, in areas from which al-Shabaab had retreated. There were no clear indications whether this decree remained in effect according to government policy, statements, or actions, although the initial decree was for a period of three months and never formally extended.
In Somaliland defendants generally enjoyed a presumption of innocence and the right to a public trial, to be present at trial, and to consult an attorney at all stages of criminal proceedings. The government did not always inform defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them and did not always provide access to government-held evidence. The government did not provide defendants with dedicated facilities to prepare a defense but generally provided adequate time to prepare. The government provided defendants with free interpretation or paid for private interpretation if they declined government-offered interpretation from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants could question witnesses, present witnesses and evidence in their defense, and appeal court verdicts.
Somaliland provided free legal representation for defendants who faced serious criminal charges and could not afford a private attorney. Defendants had the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. A functioning legal aid clinic existed.
There was no functioning formal judicial system in al-Shabaab-controlled areas.
Government and regional authorities arrested journalists, as well as other persons critical of authorities. Neither government nor NGO sources provided any estimate of the number of political prisoners.
In 2018 South West State presidential election candidate and prominent defector from al-Shabaab leadership Mukhtar Robow was detained by AMISOM soldiers and brought to Mogadishu (see section 3). He was placed in NISA custody and later moved into house arrest. While Robow reportedly had some contact with the outside world, as of December, he remained under house arrest on unclear legal grounds.
Somaliland authorities continued to detain Somaliland residents employed by the federal government in Mogadishu, sometimes for extended periods. Somaliland authorities did not authorize officials in Mogadishu to represent Somaliland within or to the federal government and viewed such actions as treason, punishable under Somaliland law. On October 25, Somalia’s former deputy prime minister, Mohamed Omar Arte, received a “presidential pardon” after renouncing his statements against Somaliland independence. He reportedly did so to visit his ailing father, who was resident in Somaliland.
There were only a handful of lawsuits during the year seeking damages for or cessation of human rights abuses. The Benadir Regional Court reported that it received four cases pertaining to abuses by NISA, police, and the Mogadishu municipality. Individuals generally do not pursue legal remedies for abuses due to a lack of trust and confidence in the fairness of judicial procedures. The provisional federal constitution provides for “adequate procedures for redress of abuses of human rights.”
Some federal and state officials abused their positions to engage in land grabbing and forced evictions, primarily involving internally displaced person (IDP) returnees, without due process. Those driven from their homes were often too politically and socially disempowered to resist or obtain restitution (see section 2.d.).
According to the provisional federal constitution, “every person has the right to own, use, enjoy, sell, and transfer property,” and the private home is inviolable. Nonetheless, authorities searched property without warrants.
Government and regional authorities harassed relatives of al-Shabaab members.
Killings: Conflict during the year involving the government, militias, AMISOM, and al-Shabaab resulted in death, injury, and displacement of civilians. ISIS-Somalia claimed attacks against Somali authorities and other targets in Puntland, where it is based, and around Mogadishu, but there was little local reporting on its claims. State and federal forces killed civilians and committed gender-based violence. Clan-based political violence involved revenge killings and attacks on civilian settlements. Clashes between clan-based forces and with al-Shabaab in Puntland and Galmudug States, as well as in the Lower Shabelle, Middle Shabelle, Lower Juba, Baidoa, and Hiiraan regions, also resulted in deaths.
Al-Shabaab committed religiously and politically motivated killings that targeted civilians affiliated with the government and attacked humanitarian NGO employees, UN staff, and diplomatic missions. The group attacked soft targets, such as popular hotels in Mogadishu, killing noncombatants. Al-Shabaab often used suicide bombers, mortars, and IEDs. It also killed prominent peace activists, community leaders, clan elders, electoral delegates, and their family members for their roles in peace building, in addition to beheading persons accused of spying for and collaborating with Somali national forces and affiliated militias. Al-Shabaab justified its attacks on civilians by casting them as false prophets, enemies of Allah, or aligned with al-Shabaab’s enemies (see also section 1.a.).
On August 16, al-Shabaab conducted an attack at the Elite Hotel in the Lido Beach area of Mogadishu, killing at least 18 and injuring 25. A July 13 al-Shabaab suicide-vehicle-borne IED attack in Mogadishu targeting the SNA chief of defense forces killed three SNA soldiers and six civilians.
There were reports of AMISOM forces killing civilians, either deliberately or inadvertently (see section 1.a.).
Abductions: Al-Shabaab conducted kidnappings and abductions throughout the year.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Government forces and allied militias reportedly used excessive force, including torture. While some security force members accused of such abuses faced arrest, not all those charged were punished (see section 1.c.).
Al-Shabaab also committed gender-based violence, including through forced marriages.
Child Soldiers: During the year there were reports of the SNA and allied militias, the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jumah (ASWJ), and al-Shabaab unlawfully recruiting and using child soldiers.
Implementation of the government’s 2012 action plan to end the unlawful recruitment and use of children by the national army remained incomplete.
The Ministry of Defense Child Protection Unit (CPU) was a focal point within the federal government for addressing child soldiers within the country, including within government armed forces. During the year the CPU carried out screenings of thousands of SNA soldiers at SNA bases to raise awareness of unlawful child soldier recruitment and verify the numbers of children in Somali security sector units. The CPU continued the use of biometric registration and reported it was a useful tool for increasing accountability in police and the military and helping to detect and deter unlawful child soldier recruitment.
In the absence of birth registration systems, it was often difficult to determine the age of national security force recruits.
Al-Shabaab continued to recruit and force children to participate in direct hostilities, including suicide attacks. According to UN officials, al-Shabaab accounted for the majority of child recruitment and use.
Al-Shabaab raided schools, madrassas, and mosques and harassed and coerced clan elders to recruit children. Children in al-Shabaab training camps were subjected to grueling physical training, inadequate diet, weapons training, physical punishment, and forced religious training in line with al-Shabaab’s ideology. The training also included forcing children to punish and execute other children. Al-Shabaab used children in combat, including placing them in front of other fighters to serve as human shields and suicide bombers. The organization sometimes used children to plant roadside bombs and other explosive devices. In addition al-Shabaab used children in support roles, such as carrying ammunition, water, and food; removing injured and dead militants; gathering intelligence; and serving as guards. The country’s press frequently reported accounts of al-Shabaab indoctrinating children according to the insurgency’s extremist ideology at schools and forcibly recruiting them into its ranks.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Armed groups, particularly al-Shabaab but also government forces and militia, deliberately restricted the passage of relief supplies and other items, as well as access by humanitarian organizations, particularly in the southern and central regions. Humanitarian workers regularly faced checkpoints, roadblocks, extortion, carjacking, and bureaucratic obstacles.
From January to September, there were 117 verified incidents of denial of humanitarian access by armed groups, security forces, or security incidents. Due to increased airstrikes and the loss of economically strategic towns and areas, al-Shabaab increased attacks against security forces along main supply routes. Increased insecurity along these routes impaired delivery of humanitarian supplies.
In September the Galmudug Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation issued a letter accusing unnamed humanitarian NGOs of influencing the South Galkayo district council elections, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The ministry warned that continued political activity on the part of the NGOs could result in disciplinary action, including revocation of work permits.
ISIS-Somalia targeted business leaders for extortion in urban areas as it attempted to leave the remote mountains in Puntland, where it had operated the last three years. It targeted businesspersons with violence when they did not meet extortion demands. According to a UN report, ISIS-Somalia carried out increased small-scale IED attacks and killings in Puntland, Mogadishu, and Lower Shabelle, where the group maintains pockets of presence.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Police use of lethal and excessive force, including torture, resulted in numerous deaths and injuries, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Amnesty International, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Watchdog groups noted deaths in custody often resulted from physical abuse combined with a lack of subsequent medical treatment or neglect (see section 1.c.).
NGOs criticized the use of excessive force by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to enforce lockdown measures that began in March. On April 10, police and defense force members beat to death Collins Khosa after allegedly finding alcohol on his property. On May 31, the North Gauteng High Court ordered the suspension of officers involved and ordered the Ministry of Police to issue lockdown use-of-force guidelines to respect human rights in accordance with South African law and international treaty obligations. On August 26, SAPS officers shot and killed unarmed 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, who had Downs’ syndrome. Police allegedly took this action because he did not respond to questioning. Following rioting and clashes with police, three officers were arrested and charged with murder. One officer was released on bail, and the other two remained incarcerated at year’s end.
Courts convicted few perpetrators of political violence. Media and NGOs claimed the vast majority of killings resulted from local-level intraparty African National Congress (ANC) disputes, often in the context of competition for resources or as revenge against whistleblowers who uncovered corruption.
In 2018 the Moerane Commission, which then KwaZulu-Natal Province premier Willies Mchunu established to investigate political killings, published a report that identified ANC infighting, readily available hitmen, weak leadership, and ineffective and complicit law enforcement agencies as key contributing factors to the high rate of political killings. There were numerous reported political killings at a local level similar to the following example. In June an ANC councilor for the Umlazi Township, Bhekithemba Phungula, and two other party leaders in KwaZulu-Natal townships were killed.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were reports of police use of torture and physical abuse during house searches, arrests, interrogations, and detentions, some of which resulted in death. The NGO Sonke Gender Justice reported that almost one-third of sex workers interviewed stated police officers had raped or sexually assaulted them.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. The factors contributing to widespread police brutality were a lack of accountability and training.
As of October 30, the United Nations reported three allegations against South African peacekeepers, a reduction from six allegations in 2019. According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, since 2015 there have been 37 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against 43 peacekeepers from South African units deployed to the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of the 37 allegations, the South African government had not reported taking accountability measures in 12 of the cases, including the three cases reported during the year, three from 2019, three from 2018, and three from 2017. One of these cases involved rape of a child, four involved transactional sex with one or more adults, six involved an exploitative relationship with an adult, and one involved sexual assault of an adult. In six of the open cases, the South African government, the United Nations, or both substantiated the allegations and the United Nations had repatriated the peacekeepers. According to the United Nations, South African authorities continued to investigate the other six open cases.
Since 2018 remedial legislation to address peacekeeper abuses has been pending.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh due to overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate medical care, disease (particularly tuberculosis), inmate-on-inmate rape, and physical abuse, including torture.
Physical Conditions: According to civil society groups, gross overcrowding of prisons was a problem. In September 2019 the Department of Correction Services (DCS) deputy commissioner reported to a parliamentary committee the country had approximately 43,000 more inmates than beds in correctional facilities. In December 2019 the release of 15,911 low-risk inmates under a special presidential remission order reduced overcrowding by 28 percent. According to the Department of Correctional Services Annual Report 2019/2020, the total inmate population declined by 6 percent from 162,875 inmates in 2019 to 154,449 inmates in May, and the number of children held in correctional facilities declined by more than 80 percent to 0.1 percent of the total inmate population.
During enforcement of COVID-19 lockdown regulations, a rise in arrests increased crowding in prisons and pretrial detention centers. Prisoners at the Johannesburg Correctional Center complained to media and civil society organizations of inadequate social distancing, a lack of masks and other protective measures, and inadequate testing for COVID-19. Cells built to hold 36 inmates with one toilet held 70 inmates. On May 8, the president ordered the release of 19,000 inmates to reduce prison overcrowding during the pandemic.
Prisons generally held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, although in some large urban areas dedicated pretrial facilities were available.
Media and NGOs continued to report instances in which prisoners were seriously abused. According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate Report 2019/2020, deaths in police custody (237 cases) increased by 11 percent from 2018/2019. There were 120 reported inmate rapes by police officers, 216 reports of torture, and reports of assault.
There were reports of shortages of prison doctors, inadequate investigation and documentation of prisoner deaths, inadequate monitoring of the prison population, and high prisoner suicide rates. The DCS required doctors to complete and sign reports of inmate deaths to lessen the incidence of deaths caused by neglect being reported as due to natural causes.
In February 2019 the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services launched an investigation into a violent incident at St. Albans Prison Correctional Center (Eastern Cape Province) that left an inmate dead and a prison guard injured. The investigation continued at year’s end.
Food, sanitation, and health care in prisons and detention centers were inadequate. Prisons provided inmates with potable water, but supplies and food were occasionally inadequate, and sanitation was poor. Most cells had toilets and basins but often lacked chairs, adequate light, and ventilation.
NGOs reported some mentally ill inmates who had committed no crime or other infraction were incarcerated rather than being cared for in a mental-health facility. Such prisoners also were often denied medical services. According to the Commission for Gender Equality, some mentally ill female prisoners were straitjacketed and kept in solitary confinement.
Administration: Authorities did not always conduct proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The government usually permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers of prison conditions, including visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements; however, there were numerous cases of arbitrary arrest of foreign workers, asylum seekers, and refugees.
The law requires that a judge or magistrate issue arrest warrants based on sufficient evidence. Police must promptly inform detainees of the reasons for their detention, their right to remain silent, and the consequences of waiving that right. Police must charge detainees within 48 hours of arrest; hold them in conditions respecting human dignity; allow them to consult with legal counsel of their choice at every stage of their detention (or provide them with state-funded legal counsel); and permit them to communicate with relatives, medical practitioners, and religious counselors. The government often did not respect these rights. Police must release detainees (with or without bail) unless the interests of justice require otherwise, although bail for pretrial detainees often exceeded what suspects could pay.
Arbitrary Arrest: During the year there were numerous cases of arbitrary arrest, particularly of foreign workers, asylum seekers, and refugees. NGOs and media outlets reported security forces arbitrarily arrested migrants and asylum seekers–including those with proper documentation–often because police were unfamiliar with migrant and asylum documentation. In some cases police threatened documented migrants and asylum seekers with indefinite detention and bureaucratic hurdles unless they paid bribes. The law prohibits the detention of unaccompanied migrant children for immigration law violations, but NGOs reported the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and SAPS nevertheless detained them.
Legal aid organizations reported police frequently arrested persons for minor crimes for which the law stipulates the use of a legal summons. Arrests for offenses such as common assault, failure to provide proof of identity, or petty theft sometimes resulted in the unlawful imprisonment of ordinary citizens alongside hardened criminals, which created opportunities for physical abuse. Human rights activists condemned the arrests and complained some of the individuals were undocumented because the DHA failed to reopen a refugee center in Cape Town, despite a court order. In October 2019 hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers encamped outside the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cape Town and Pretoria, claiming they were not safe in South Africa, demanding resettlement to third countries. In October 2019 SAPS removed protesters from UNHCR’s Cape Town office and in November 2019 from the UNHCR Pretoria office. Approximately 180 male protesters were arrested, charged, and convicted of trespassing on the UNHCR compound, most of whom received suspended sentences and were released. As of November approximately 60 protesters remained in prison, having rejected the option of release.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was common. According to the Department of Correctional Services 2019-2020 Annual Report the pretrial population averaged 47,233 detainees, 33 percent of the total inmate population. According to the DCS, detainees waited an average of 176 days before trial. Observers attributed the high rate of pretrial detention to arrests based on insufficient evidence for prosecution, overburdened courts, poor case preparation, irregular access to public defenders, and prohibitive bail amounts. Police often held detainees while prosecutors developed cases and waited for court dates. Legal scholars estimated less than 60 percent of those arrested were convicted. The law requires a review in cases of pretrial detention of more than two years’ duration. The pretrial detention frequently exceeded the maximum sentence for the alleged crime.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. There were numerous reports of lost trial documents, often when the accused was a government official. NGOs stated judicial corruption was a problem.
Government agencies sometimes ignored orders from provincial high courts and the Constitutional Court.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Criminal defendants enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence; to be informed promptly of the charges; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at their trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay; to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to free assistance of an interpreter; to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence; and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Police did not always inform detainees promptly and in detail of the charges against them, nor did they always accurately complete corresponding paperwork. Provision of free interpreter assistance depended on availability and cost. Limited access to interpreters sometimes delayed trials. According to civil society groups, interpretation standards were low and sometimes compromised the accuracy of exchanges between a defendant and officers of the court. Judges sometimes transferred cases from rural to urban areas to access interpreters more easily.
Although detainees and defendants have the right to legal counsel provided and funded by the state when “substantial injustice would otherwise result,” this right was limited due to a general lack of information regarding rights to legal representation and inadequate government funding of such legal services. There is no automatic right to appeal unless a convicted individual is younger than 16, but courts may give defendants permission to do so. Additionally, the law provides for the High Court to review magistrate court sentences exceeding six months.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts, including equality courts designated to hear matters relating to unfair discrimination, hate speech and harassment, and the South African Human Rights Commission, but the government did not always comply with court decisions. Individuals and organizations may not appeal domestic court decisions to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, because the government does not recognize the competence of the court.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions. There were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Civil society organizations raised concerns government management of the COVID-19 pandemic employed telephonic contact tracing that violated privacy rights. In April the government issued amended disaster management regulations. While the regulations recognized the right to privacy, the government urged citizens to make concessions until pandemic emergency measures were no longer necessary.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office has responsibility for investigating whether killings by civilian security forces are justified and pursuing prosecution when appropriate. Military police investigate killings by military personnel.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits such practices, but there were a few reports that government officials employed them; the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported some instances of violence and cruel treatment in the military.
The Ministry of National Defense reported no instances of bullying in the military, although local NGOs believed hazing played a role in suicides in the military. The Center for Military Human Rights noted concern about the increase in suicide among military personnel from 51 deaths in 2017 to 62 in 2019, particularly among lower-ranked field officers, including sergeants and lieutenants.
Reports from NGOs and media of hazing and mistreatment of military personnel by more senior personnel persisted, with credible allegations of sexual and nonsexual harassment and assault. As in previous years, the Center for Military Human Rights’ hotline counselors responded to complaints of physical abuse, verbal abuse, and sex crimes. In June the center published a press release regarding an air force sergeant who allegedly sexually harassed enlisted soldiers verbally and physically, including by making obscene comments and by grabbing the soldiers from behind. According to the center, the harassment continued for months as soldiers did not speak out for fear of repercussions. After the soldiers came forth with their complaints and the center engaged with the air force to assist the soldiers, the air force reassigned the sergeant to another unit. The air force did not publicize whether any disciplinary action was taken against the sergeant.
With support from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), the Defense Ministry trains military human rights instructors. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry trained fewer instructors in person than in recent years, but conducted distance education. The ministry also worked with the Defense Media Agency to produce and distribute human rights education television programs to military personnel. Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There were no significant reports regarding prison and detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.
Physical Conditions: There were no major concerns regarding physical conditions or inmate abuse in prisons and detention centers.
In May a prisoner who reportedly suffered from an anxiety disorder died in the Busan Detention Center the morning after he had been imprisoned. According to detention center personnel, his feet and hands had been bound because, among other reasons, he was incessantly ringing the bell for assistance. Security camera footage showed that the prisoner, who was awake late into the night, showed signs of decreased movement at approximately 4:00 a.m., fell unconscious at approximately 5:45 a.m., and was taken to a hospital around 7:00 a.m. He died at the hospital around 7:30 a.m. A Ministry of Justice investigation determined that his death had resulted from negligence, improper use of restraints, and lack of medical care during the night. In the aftermath of the incident, the ministry implemented corrective measures, including mandating the removal of restraints during sleeping hours and the establishment of an on-call system for doctors to provide telemedicine services at night and on holidays.
In response to concerns raised in 2019 about discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners, the Ministry of Justice conducted a campaign to ensure all correctional facilities were aware of and fully implementing the prisoner antidiscrimination law. In April the government disseminated updated guidelines for correctional facilities to improve the treatment of transgender prisoners, to include considering the preference of the prisoner and the guidance of experts when assigning prisoner accommodations.
Administration: According to the Ministry of Justice, inmates have several relief procedures available to them for any perceived violations of their rights. Detainees may petition the minister directly, file a complaint with the Human Rights Violation Hotline Center in the ministry or with the NHRCK, or appeal to the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission, to the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea, or to the Administrative Judgment Commission.
Independent Monitoring: There were no reports of problems in accessing prison facilities. The NHRCK and NGOs have access to correctional facilities to investigate reported cases of human rights violations.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.
The National Security Law (NSL), in effect since 1948, grants authorities the power to detain, arrest, and imprison persons believed to have committed acts intended to endanger the “security of the state.” Domestic and international NGOs continued to call for reform or repeal of the law, contending its provisions do not clearly define prohibited activity and that it is used to intimidate and imprison individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression. By law the National Intelligence Service investigates activities that may threaten national security. Civil society groups argued that the agency’s powers and a lack of oversight enabled it to define its mandate overly broadly.
The law requires warrants in cases of arrest, detention, seizure, or search unless authorities apprehend a person when committing a criminal act, a judge is not available, or if authorities believe a suspect may destroy evidence or flee if not arrested quickly. In such cases a public prosecutor or police officer must prepare an affidavit of emergency arrest immediately upon apprehension of the suspect. Authorities may not interrogate for more than six hours a person who voluntarily submits to questioning at a police station. Authorities must either indict or release an arrested suspect within 20 days. The law allows 10 additional days of detention in exceptional circumstances. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office issues warrants in 15 foreign languages, including English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, Khmer, Urdu, and Burmese.
There is a bail system. By law bail is authorized except for repeat offenders; those deemed a flight risk, danger to the public, or likely to attempt to destroy evidence; those charged with committing serious offenses; and those who have no fixed address. Even if one of the above justifications applies, a court may still grant bail if there is a “substantial reason” to do so.
The law provides for the right to representation by an attorney, including during police interrogation. There were no reports of denial of access to counsel. There are no restrictions on access to a lawyer, but authorities may limit a lawyer’s participation in an interrogation if the lawyer obstructs the interrogation or impedes an investigation. During the trial stage, and under certain circumstances during the pretrial stage, an indigent detainee may request that the government provide a lawyer.
Access to family members during detention varied according to the severity of the crime.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. By law defendants in criminal trials are presumed innocent, enjoy protection against self-incrimination, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, with free interpretation as necessary; communicate with an attorney (at public expense if necessary); have a fair and speedy trial; attend the trial; and appeal. Defendants receive adequate time and resources to prepare a defense. They are protected against retroactive laws and double jeopardy, although prosecutors appealed not-guilty verdicts. By law initial trials must begin within six months of arrest.
Trials are generally open to the public, but judges may restrict attendance if they believe spectators might disrupt the proceedings. There is a jury trial system, but jury verdicts are not legally binding. In serious cases such as murder and rape, the judge may consent to a legally binding jury verdict, provided it is reached in consultation with the judge. The defendant must request a jury trial beforehand.
Judges have considerable scope to cross-examine witnesses for both the prosecution and defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt.
The Ministry of Justice stated there were no persons incarcerated or detained because of their political beliefs. Some NGOs, however, argued that individuals arrested for violations of the NSL, for conscientious objection to military service, or for strike activities qualified as political prisoners.
On January 1, the Alternative Service Act took effect, allowing conscientious objectors to fulfill their military service obligations by working for 36 months at correctional facilities. Previously those who refused military service faced up to three years’ imprisonment. The Commission for Examination of Alternative Service began reviewing applications for alternative service on June 30, and as of August had granted 224 applications for alternative service, scheduled to commence in October. Civil society organizations assessed the new law as a clear improvement over the previous system, but still flawed. They noted the new law departs from international norms in several ways, including the length of alternative service, which appears punitive in comparison to the regular military service of less than two years. They also argued that the commission should fall under fully civilian oversight, rather than under the Ministry of National Defense.
Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that three conscientious objectors from their denomination were sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment during the year because courts determined that they were not sincere in their beliefs. In addition trials continued for 293 conscientious objectors charged with refusing to serve in the military or to participate in reserve forces training before the new law took effect in January. Prosecutors continued to appeal the “not guilty” verdicts in the cases of some conscientious objectors whom they asserted were not sincere in their beliefs. As of August the Commission for Examination of Alternative Service was evaluating the cases.
There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, and there were no problems enforcing domestic court orders. Citizens had court access to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to domestic human rights bodies, and then to the UN Human Rights Committee. Administrative remedies are also available for alleged wrongs.
The law prohibits such interference, and the government generally respected these prohibitions. The law establishes conditions under which the government may monitor telephone calls, mail, and other forms of communication for up to two months in criminal investigations and four months in national security cases. The Security Surveillance Act requires some persons sentenced to prison for breaching the NSL to report their whereabouts, travel plans, family relations, occupation, and financial status to a local police office within seven days of leaving prison and every third month thereafter.
While it does not outright prohibit access to North Korean media content, the NSL forbids citizens from listening to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) radio programs, viewing DPRK satellite telecasts, or reading books published in the DPRK if the government determines such an action endangers national security or the basic order of democracy. For example, citizens were prohibited from reading the Rodong Sinmun (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party in the DPRK) or listening to broadcasts by the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency. Enforcement of these prohibitions was rare, however.
The disease control law allows the government to access personal information such as mobile phone location and credit card transaction data without a warrant to conduct contact tracing to stop the spread of a pandemic. During the government’s COVID-19 response, most citizens accepted these infringements on privacy as necessary to protect public health. The government also published information on the whereabouts of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 to assist in contact tracing. After a cluster of cases emerged from LGBTI-friendly clubs in Seoul, the government released enough information about persons who had tested positive for COVID-19 that it was possible to identify certain individuals. The government also required some businesses, including nightclubs, to keep a log of persons who had visited the establishments, and some LGBTI individuals were hesitant to provide identifying information. Since many members of the LGBTI community keep their sexual orientation or gender identity secret due to fear of stigmatization, LGBTI rights advocates urged the government to find a balance between respect for individual privacy and the need for disease mitigation for public health and safety. Similarly, some religious groups voiced complaints about government invasion of privacy when clusters of COVID-19 cases arose in their communities.
In December 2019 the general military court sentenced General So Gang-won to one year’s imprisonment for illegal surveillance of civilians affected by the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
The United Nations, international cease-fire monitors, human rights organizations, and media reported the government, or its agents, committed numerous arbitrary or unlawful killings. Security forces, opposition forces, armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition, and ethnically based groups were also responsible for widespread extrajudicial killings. The term “unknown gunmen” was often used to describe death squads affiliated with the National Security Service (NSS) or other security services. The security services investigated alleged abuses by members of their respective forces.
A human rights organization reported the June 14 killing of businessman and former NSS detainee Kerbino Wol Agok. Wol was captured and executed by a group of NSS members, army officers, and gang members in Rumbek, Lakes State, alongside another former NSS detainee. Earlier that month he published a revolutionary manifesto for what became known as the 7 October Movement.
According to Human Rights Watch, on July 11, a force including the NSS, military intelligence, army, and local armed youth killed Monydiar Maker, a youth leader in Amongpiny, Lakes State. The joint force surrounded Monydiar’s house in the early morning and opened fire, killing Monydiar and his family while they slept.
On June 3, soldiers led by Lieutenant Lual Akook Wol Kiir fired on civilians engaged in a land dispute in the Sherikat neighborhood of Juba. The soldiers killed four persons and wounded at least seven others. Lieutenant Lual later died of a head injury. Later in the day, police and soldiers fired on demonstrators protesting the killings as they approached a police post, killing one more and injuring several. Six soldiers and 14 civilians were detained in the case. In September the fact-finding committee formed to investigate Lieutenant Lual’s killing recommended that unnamed “suspects” be tried in open court, but the case was pending at year’s end.
Security and opposition forces, armed militias affiliated with the government or the opposition, and ethnically based groups abducted an unknown number of persons, including women and children (see section 1.g.).
In February, Bor Dinka youth militias abducted two women and five children in one raid. In late April they were released by Bor Dinka community leaders to improve relations between the Murle and Dinka communities. The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan issued a report in February 2019 that alleged a continuing practice of unlawful or arbitrary detention followed by extrajudicial killings in secret, but the report did not publish details on specific cases.
The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Remembering the Ones We Lost documented the names of 280 persons missing since the conflict began in 2013, many of whom were abducted or detained by security forces. In 2019 the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 4,000 persons were missing and their whereabouts unknown since the conflict began.
The government did not comply with measures to ensure accountability for disappearances.
Although prohibited under law, security forces mutilated, tortured, beat, and harassed political opponents, journalists, and human rights workers (see sections 2.a. and 5). Government and opposition forces, armed militia groups affiliated with both, and warring ethnic groups committed torture and abuses in conflict zones (see section 1.g.).
According to the UN Security Council Panel of Experts and several independent human rights advocates, the NSS Operations Division maintained a facility known as “Riverside” where it detained, interrogated, and sometimes tortured civilians. In addition the Panel of Experts reported that several detainees died as a result of torture or from other conditions at the facility. The Panel of Experts also alleged the existence of secret, unofficial detention centers operated by the NSS. The Panel of Experts reported allegations of torture, including electrical shocks, and beatings in these sites.
There were numerous additional reported abuses at NSS-run sites, including sexual and gender-based violence, beating and torture of detainees, and harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and humanitarian workers. In July, Peter Biar Ajak, a prominent political activist and former detainee, claimed that detainees in NSS facilities were subject to sexual abuse, including forced sodomy.
Impunity of the security services was a serious problem. Although the NSS created an internal disciplinary tribunal to conduct internal investigations of alleged abuses by its officers, the results of such investigations and any disciplinary actions taken were not made public. The army and police also launched investigations into misconduct, including a court-martial of more than 20 soldiers accused of a variety of crimes against civilians in and around Yei, Central Equatoria. Investigations into security-sector abuse continued to focus on low-level offenders, avoided delving into command responsibility for abuses, and generally did not refer offenders to civilian courts for trial.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding and inadequate medical care at times resulted in illness and death. While some prisons employed doctors, medical care was rudimentary, and prison physicians often had inadequate training and supplies. There were reports of abuse by prison guards.
Physical Conditions: Men and women were generally held in separate areas, but male and female inmates often mixed freely during the day due to space constraints. Due to overcrowding, authorities did not always hold juveniles separately from adults and rarely separated pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners. Children, especially infants, often lived with their mothers in prison.
Nonviolent offenders were kept with violent offenders because of resource and spatial constraints. There were no special facilities for the persons with mental disabilities, and persons determined by a judge to be sufficiently dangerous (and “mentally ill”) following referral by family or the community, were incarcerated, medicated, and remained in detention until a medical evaluation determined they were no longer a threat and could be released.
Health care and sanitation were inadequate, and basic medical supplies and equipment were lacking. According to NGOs, prisoners received one meal per day of low nutritional value and relied on family or friends for additional food. Potable water was limited. In some locations prisoners slept in overcrowded open hallways and buildings lined with bunk beds. In December 2019 the national prison administration reported it held more than 7,000 detainees. There were no data on the capacity of prison facilities, although in 2015 Juba prison held 1,317 detainees in a facility constructed for 400 persons. Ventilation and lighting were inadequate.
Malnutrition and lack of medical care contributed to inmate deaths, although no statistics were available. Remedial actions by prison authorities were not reported.
Some detention centers were under the control of local tribal or state authorities, and conditions were uniformly harsh and life threatening. Many facilities in rural areas consisted of uncovered spaces where authorities chained detainees to a wall, fence, or tree, often unsheltered from the sun. As with state-run prisons, sanitary and medical facilities were poor or nonexistent, and potable water was limited. Detainees sometimes spent days outdoors but slept inside in areas that lacked adequate ventilation and lighting.
Conditions in South Sudan People’s Defense Force (SSPDF)-run detention facilities were similar, and in some cases worse, with many detainees held outdoors with poor access to sanitary or medical facilities.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) maintained facilities at Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites in Juba, Malakal, Bentiu, and Bor to hold internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were criminal suspects. Authorities did not intend the holding facilities to house IDPs for more than 72 hours, but they sometimes held IDP suspects longer due to delays in determining how to treat individual cases, or due to the inability to reintroduce offenders into PoC sites because of threats from their victims, or due to the threat the offender posed to the greater community. UNMISS observed prisoners daily and offered medical treatment for serious complications. Prisoners received food twice a day. Some prisoners detained by UNMISS police were subsequently turned over to the custody of the government.
The NSS operated a detention facility in Juba that held civilian prisoners (see section 1.d.).
Administration: The SSNPS allowed prisoners to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of allegations of inhuman conditions. Prison authorities sometimes investigated such allegations, although they seldom acted on complaints. The SSNPS allowed most prisoners access to visitors and permitted them to take part in religious observances, but NSS and SSPDF authorities were less likely to do so, and prisoners in SSNPS custody but originally arrested by the NSS or SSPDF also had limited access to visitors.
Independent Monitoring: The SSNPS permitted visits by independent human rights observers, including UNMISS human rights officers, nongovernmental observers, international organizations, and journalists. Authorities sometimes permitted monitors to visit detention facilities operated by the SSPDF. International monitors were denied permission to visit facilities operated by the NSS, which held both military prisoners and civilians without legal authority.
The transitional constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention without charge. The government, however, arrested and detained individuals arbitrarily. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, but there were no known cases where an appellant successfully sought compensation for wrongful detention.
Since the beginning of the crisis in 2013, there were regular reports that security forces conducted arbitrary arrests, including of journalists, civil society actors, and supposed political opponents. While not legally vested with the authority, the SSPDF often arrested or detained civilians. The NSS also routinely detained civilians without warrants or court orders and held detainees for long periods without charge or access to legal counsel or visitors. Security services rarely reported such arrests to police, other civilian authorities, or, in the case of foreigners arrested, diplomatic missions. NSS detainees were rarely brought before a court to be charged. Police also routinely arrested civilians based on little or no evidence prior to conducting investigations and often held them for weeks or months without charge or trial.
While the law requires police to take arrested persons before a public prosecutor, magistrate, or court within 24 hours, there were no public prosecutors or magistrates available below the county level in most areas. Court dockets often were overwhelmed, and cases faced long delays before coming before a judge. Police may detain individuals for 24 hours without charge. A public prosecutor may authorize an extension of up to one week, and a magistrate may authorize extensions of up to two weeks. Authorities did not always inform detainees of charges against them and regularly held them past the statutory limit without explanation. Police sometimes ignored court orders to take arrested persons before the court. Police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges were often unaware of the statutory requirement that detainees appear before a judge as quickly as possible. Police commonly conducted arrests without warrants, and warrants were often irregular, handwritten documents. Warrants were commonly drafted in the absence of investigation or evidence. There were multiple reports of arrests in civil cases, where a complainant exerted influence upon police to arrest someone as a negotiation tactic. The government routinely failed to notify embassies when detaining citizens of other countries, even when the detainee requested a consular visit.
The law allows bail, but this provision was widely unknown or ignored by authorities, and they rarely informed detainees of this possibility. Because pretrial appearances before judges often were delayed far past statutory limits, authorities rarely had the opportunity to adjudicate bail requests before trial. Those arrested had a right to an attorney, but the country had few lawyers, and detainees were rarely informed of this right. The transitional constitution mandates access to legal representation without charge for the indigent, but defendants rarely received legal assistance if they did not pay for it. Authorities sometimes held detainees incommunicado.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces arbitrarily arrested opposition leaders, civil society activists, businesspersons, journalists, and other civilians due to ethnicity or possible affiliation with opposition forces. The SSPDF and NSS often abused political opponents and others they detained without charge. Ignorance of the law and proper procedures also led to many arbitrary detentions. Many justice-sector actors, including police and judges, operated under a victim-centric approach that prioritized restitution and satisfaction for victims of crime, rather than following legal procedure. This approach led to many arbitrary arrests of citizens who were simply in the vicinity when crimes occurred, were of a certain ethnicity, or were relatives of suspects. For example, there were numerous reports women were detained when their husbands, accused of having unpaid debts, could not be located.
There were numerous reported arbitrary arrests or detentions. On March 9, James Dhieu Mading, the former commissioner of Rumbek East County, in Lakes State, was arrested for denouncing illegal checkpoints and corruption in the county. James later filed a suit against a local military commander after his arbitrary detention. He was detained again for seeking legal redress and speaking to media regarding his ordeal. He was sentenced to one month’s jail time and a monetary fine.
On March 29, the NSS detained activist Kanybil Noon without filing formal charges. The NSS reportedly denied him access to a lawyer until September 9, more than 100 days after his arrest. On September 22, Noon was released after nearly six months in detention.
On June 13, the NSS detained transparency activist Moses Monday for 12 days without charge. The NSS detained Monday after his accountability and transparency organization erected billboards around Juba demanding “Gurush Wen?” a Juba Arabic phrase that means, “Where is the money?” The NSS removed the billboards and detained Monday, claiming his organization did not have the proper authorization paperwork, notwithstanding the fact that the city council had approved the permit for the billboards.
On September 1, the NSS detained Jackson Ochaya, a journalist with the newspaper Juba Monitor, for quoting a holdout opposition spokesman in an article critical of the government’s financial management. As of mid-September, Ochaya had not been charged and remained in detention without access to a lawyer or his family.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, due largely to the lack of lawyers and judges; the difficulty of locating witnesses; misunderstanding of constitutional and legal requirements by police, prosecutors, and judges; and the absence of a strong mechanism to compel witness attendance in court. The length of pretrial detention commonly equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime. Estimates of the number of pretrial detainees ranged from one-third to two-thirds of the prison population. The NGO World Prison Brief reported (2015 data) that 28.9 percent of detainees were pretrial detainees. The chronic lack of access to law enforcement officers and judicial systems became even more severe as armed conflict displaced officials (see section 1.g.).
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees have very little ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or magistrate, despite having the right to do so under the law.
The transitional constitution provides for an independent judiciary and recognizes customary law. The government did not generally respect judicial independence and impartiality. While the law requires the government to maintain courts at federal, state, and county levels, lack of infrastructure and trained personnel made this impossible, and few statutory courts existed below the state level.
In many communities customary courts remained the principal providers of justice services. Customary courts maintained primary authority to adjudicate most criminal cases other than murder. Customary courts may deal with certain aspects of murder cases if judges remit the cases to them to process under traditional procedures and determine compensation according to the customs of the persons concerned. If this happens, the judge may sentence an individual convicted of murder to no more than 10 years’ imprisonment. Government courts also heard cases of violent crime and acted as appeals courts for verdicts issued by customary bodies. Legal systems employed by customary courts varied, with most emphasizing restorative dispute resolution and some borrowing elements of sharia (Islamic law). Government sources estimated customary courts handled 80 percent of all cases due to the capacity limitations of statutory courts.
During the year the United Nations supported the judiciary to hold sessions in mobile courts in the towns of Malakal, Bentiu, and Rumbek, trying cases including rape, robbery, and assault. Since the mobile courts were re-established in 2018, they had held proceedings in more than 10 areas where protracted conflict resulted in significant neglect of the justice system and delayed trials. While the mobile courts enhanced access to justice, a UN consultation with civil society and participants raised concerns regarding due process and the large number of serious crimes.
Political pressure, corruption, discrimination toward women, and the lack of a competent investigative police service undermined both statutory and customary courts. Patronage priorities or political allegiances of traditional elders or chiefs commonly influenced verdicts in customary courts. Despite numerous pressures, some judges appeared to operate independently on low-profile cases.
Under the transitional constitution defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges (with free interpretation as necessary), be tried fairly and publicly without undue delay, be present at any criminal trial against them, confront witnesses against them, present witnesses and evidence, not be compelled to incriminate themselves, and to legal counsel.
Despite these protections law enforcement officers and statutory and customary court authorities commonly presumed suspects to be guilty, and suspects faced serious infringements of their rights. Free interpretation was rarely offered, and when it was, it was of low quality. Most detainees were not promptly informed of the charges against them. Prolonged detentions often occurred, and defendants generally did not have adequate access to facilities to prepare a defense. While court dates were set without regard for providing adequate time to prepare a defense, long remands often meant detainees with access to a lawyer had sufficient time to prepare. Magistrates often compelled defendants to testify, and the absence of lawyers at many judicial proceedings often left defendants without recourse.
Public trials were the norm both in customary courts, which usually took place outdoors, and in statutory courts. Some high-level court officials opposed media access to courts and asserted media should not comment on pending cases. The right to be present at trial and to confront witnesses was sometimes respected, but in statutory courts, the difficulty of summoning witnesses often precluded exercise of these rights. No government legal aid structure existed.
Defendants did not necessarily have access to counsel or the right of appeal, and discrimination against women was common. Some customary courts, particularly those in urban areas, had sophisticated procedures, and verdicts were consistent. Some customary court judges in Juba kept records that were equal to or better than those kept in government courts.
Defendants accused of crimes against the state were usually denied these rights.
There were reports of dozens of political prisoners and detainees held by authorities from a few hours to a few days or weeks prior to release, usually without charge.
Amnesty: In 2018 President Salva Kiir declared a “general amnesty to the leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) Riek Machar Teny and other estranged groups who waged war against the Government of the Republic of South Sudan from 2013 to date.” Subsequently, President Kiir ordered the release from prison of Riek Machar’s former spokesman James Gatdet Dak and military adviser William John Endly, who had been sentenced to death. This general grant of amnesty potentially posed serious impediments to achieving justice and accountability for the victims of atrocity crimes.
There were credible reports that the country exerted bilateral pressure on other countries, including Uganda, aimed at having them take adverse actions against specific individuals for politically motivated purposes. In July, Peter Biar Ajak, a high-profile political activist and former political prisoner, fled Nairobi, Kenya, with his family after receiving credible threats that the government of South Sudan was planning to kidnap or kill him.
Statutory and customary courts provided the only options for those seeking to submit claims to address human rights abuses, and these claims were subject to the same limitations that affected the justice sector in general.
The government rarely provided proportionate and timely restitution for the government’s confiscation of property. Human rights organizations documented instances of government forces systematically looting abandoned property in conflict areas where the population was perceived to be antigovernment.
The transitional constitution prohibits interference with private life, family, home, and correspondence, but the law does not provide for the right to privacy. Authorities, however, reportedly violated these prohibitions. To induce suspects to surrender, officials at times held family members in detention centers. The National Security Service Act gives the NSS sweeping powers of arrest, detention, surveillance, search, and seizure, outside the constitutional mandate. The NSS utilized surveillance tools, at times requiring telecommunications companies to hand over user data that could be used to tap telephone numbers or make arrests. The NSS also carried out physical surveillance and embedded agents in organizations and media houses and at events. Some individuals were subject to physical and telephonic surveillance prior to arrest and detention, with such surveillance continuing after detainees were released.
Since the conflict between the government and opposition forces began in 2013, security forces, opposition forces, armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition, and civilians committed conflict-related abuses around the country. While both government and opposition forces committed abuses, the United Nations and international NGOs reported government forces were responsible for a significant range of conflict-related abuses against civilians. Government soldiers reportedly engaged in acts of collective punishment and revenge killings against civilians assumed to be opposition supporters, and often based on their ethnicity, particularly in greater Equatoria.
In February the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported on a pattern of deliberately targeting civilians based on their ethnic identity, including obstruction of humanitarian aid, and concluded government forces were responsible for acts that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. In October the UN commission issued a report documenting how, between January 2017 and November 2018, government forces intentionally deprived Fertit and Luo communities living under the control of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO) in Western Bahr el Ghazal State of critical resources, in acts amounting to collective punishment and starvation as a method of warfare. Atrocities included unlawful killings, rape and gang rape employed as a weapon of war, arbitrary detention and torture, forced disappearances, explosive remnants of war, forced displacement, the mass destruction of homes and personal property, widespread looting, and use of child soldiers.
Casualty totals were difficult to estimate because the belligerents typically did not maintain accurate records. In 2018 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reported the conflict had left at least 382,000 individuals dead, due to direct and indirect causes, between December 2013 and April 2018. As of September the number of IDPs and refugees was estimated at 3.9 million, including 2.3 million refugees and 1.6 million IDPs. Humanitarian aid workers were subject to harassment, violence, and killings.
Killings: Government forces and armed militias affiliated with the government, frequently prompted by opposition ambushes of government soldiers, engaged in a pattern of collective punishment of civilians perceived to be opposition supporters, often based on ethnicity. According to UNMISS human rights division, between January and June more than 1,500 civilians were killed, usually by community militias and civilian defense groups, but in some cases by organized forces. For example, in May a series of attacks committed by Murle armed groups led to the death of more than 120 civilians during a two-day period.
UN agencies and international NGOs that interviewed victims reported widespread killings, mutilations, and sexual violence, disproportionately committed by government forces but also by the National Salvation Front.
Remnants of war also led to the killing and maiming of civilians. Military items such as grenades were often left behind in schools used by government and opposition forces and by armed actors affiliated with both.
Abductions: Abductions, particularly of women and children, took place in both conflict and nonconflict zones, as government and opposition forces and affiliated armed militia groups recruited children and women against their will. The United Nations and international NGOs reported multiple accounts of government soldiers or other security service members arbitrarily detaining or arresting civilians, sometimes leading to unlawful killings.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Government forces, opposition forces, and armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition tortured, raped, and otherwise abused civilians in conflict areas. Sexual and gender-based violence was a common tactic of war employed by all parties. According to multiple reports, between January and June government troops stationed in Lasu and Otogo Payams in Central Equatoria State engaged in a violent campaign of looting, violence against women and young girls, beatings, and extortion. In July an outcry regarding the abuses led the army to establish a special court-martial in Yei to prosecute accused soldiers, which resulted in the conviction of more than 25 soldiers. According to an army spokesperson, the most common punishment for these abuses was dismissal from the service.
Child Soldiers: Following the outbreak of conflict in 2013, forced conscription by government forces, as well as recruitment and use of child soldiers by both government and antigovernment forces, increased. During the year, the cease-fire largely held, reducing the forced or voluntary recruitment of soldiers, including child soldiers. Nevertheless, there were reports these forces continued abducting and recruiting child soldiers. In 2019 the UN verified 270 grave violations involving 250 children by the SPLA-IO, government security forces (including the, SSNPS and NSS), the South Sudan United Front/Army, the National Salvation Front, the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), and the National Democratic Movement.
Girls younger than age 18 were recruited to wash, cook, and clean for government and opposition forces. Sudanese refugee women and girls were also forced to wash, cook, and clean for armed Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) elements who the government allowed to visit and at times reside in refugee camps in Maban, Upper Nile State. The government, which has responsibility for the safety and security of refugee camps in its territory, also failed to stop the SPLM-N’s forced conscription in Maban-based refugee camps. UNICEF verified 6,000 cases of child abduction by armed groups since the conflict started in 2013.
UNICEF estimated that as of July 2019, approximately 19,000 children had been recruited by government, opposition, and militia forces in the country since the conflict began in 2013. There were sizeable numbers of releases during the past few years, but UNICEF also reported a downward trend in the size of those releases. During the year UNICEF worked with the SSPDF and opposition forces to organize the demobilization of child soldiers in several instances across the country. According to UNMISS, more than 250 child soldiers were released by armed groups in 2019. The National Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Commission and its constituent members reported the release of 54 children from armed groups during the first six months of 2020.
The 2018 peace agreement mandated that specialized international agencies work with all warring parties to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers from the SSPDF, the SPLA-IO, elements of SSOA, the Nuer White Army, and other groups, usually those involved in community defense. There were reports of child-soldier recruitment associated with the cantonment, registration, and screening process under the peace agreement.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Throughout the year the environment for humanitarian operations remained difficult and dangerous, although the cease-fire contributed to improved access and safety in most areas. Armed actors, including government, opposition forces, and armed SPLM-N elements that the government allowed to operate on its territory continued to restrict the ability of the United Nations and other international and NGOs to safely and effectively deliver humanitarian assistance to populations in need. Access was impeded by direct denials, bureaucratic barriers, occupation of humanitarian spaces including education centers, and renewed fighting in areas of the country where humanitarian needs were highest. Despite repeated safety assurances, armed elements harassed relief workers, looted and destroyed humanitarian assets and facilities, and government and rebel authorities imposed bureaucratic and economic impediments on relief organizations. Government, SPLA-IO, and in areas close to the Sudanese border, SPLM-N elements continued to occupy civilian structures.
On multiple occasions, fighting between government and opposition forces and subnational violence put the safety and security of humanitarian workers at risk, prevented travel, forced the evacuation of relief workers, and jeopardized humanitarian operations, including forcing organizations to suspend life-saving operations entirely in areas of active conflict. Delayed flight safety assurances, insecurity, and movement restrictions often prevented relief workers from traveling to conflict and nonconflict areas. Humanitarian personnel, independently or through the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) access working group, negotiated with government and SPLA-IO forces as well as other armed groups to address access problems; however, these negotiations were often protracted and caused significant delays in the delivery of assistance.
The humanitarian operating environment remained volatile despite improvements in some areas of the country, and the country remained very dangerous for aid workers. The most common forms of violence against humanitarian workers included robbery and looting, harassment, armed attacks, commandeering of vehicles, and physical detention. On multiple occasions, insecurity put the safety and security of humanitarian workers at risk, prevented travel, and jeopardized relief operations. In November the United Nations reported that since the start of the conflict in 2013, 124 humanitarian workers had been killed in the country, with most being South Sudanese nationals.
Looting of humanitarian compounds and other assets was also common. For example, in December 2019 armed groups attacked and assaulted humanitarian workers and looted multiple humanitarian compounds in Maban, Upper Nile State. In February an NGO contractor transporting nonfood items from Pibor to Likuangole in Jonglei State was intercepted by an armed group, and the four passengers were robbed. In August an armed group ambushed an NGO aid convoy on the Yei–Lasu road while travelling to Lasu refugee camp in Central Equatoria State. The armed group looted the vehicles of all medical and nutritional supplies. In October, UNMISS evacuated humanitarian workers from Renk, Upper Nile, in response to threats and attacks by youth in Renk Town after youth demands for employment turned violent.
Restrictions on humanitarian operations took other forms as well. NSS authorities operating at Juba International Airport arbitrarily denied humanitarian workers internal travel permission for a variety of constantly changing reasons, including a lack of work permits, permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, travel approval from the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, or at least six blank pages in their passports; or because their passports did not have six months’ remaining validity. These restrictions were implemented inconsistently, without notice or consultation, prompting confusion regarding the required travel procedures.
Humanitarian organizations also experienced delays (some up to six months or more) and denials of tax exemptions and were forced to purchase relief supplies on the local market, raising quality concerns. Government authorities required international NGO staff to pay income taxes and threatened national staff into paying income tax at the state level.
Continuing conflict and access denial to humanitarian actors contributed to households facing acute food insecurity. It was difficult to accurately gather information and assess some conflict-affected areas due to insecurity and lack of access.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were reports that the government or its agents committed several arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Journalists reported at least five separate incidents of police killing suspected drug dealers during arrests or raids. For example, on October 20, Samarasinghe Arachchige Madush Lakshitha, alias “Makandure Madush,” was shot and killed during a police raid in Colombo. Police reportedly took Madush, who was in police custody, along on the raid to help locate a stash of heroin, but during the raid he was allegedly killed in the crossfire. Politicians, rights activists, and press accused the government of staging Madush’s death to prevent names of politicians involved in the drug trade from being disclosed in court. National People’s Power (NPP) Member of Parliament (MP) Vijitha Herath told parliament, “This is not the first killing of this nature. There have been several other similar killings. The issue is not Madush’s killing but the manner in which he was killed.” Herath noted that in January 2019 Madush had called into a radio program and accused unnamed politicians of involvement in drug trafficking.
On November 29, prison guards at the Mahara prison in Gampaha District opened fire on prisoners, killing 11 and injuring more than 100, according to human rights activists and press reports. Prison guards fired on prisoners reportedly attempting to escape during a riot sparked by panic related to a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison. Human rights activists noted that Mahara prison was severely overcrowded, holding more than 2,000 inmates, despite its official capacity of 1,000, and said that nearly half of the prisoners were COVID-19 positive. Autopsies conducted on eight of the victims by a panel appointed by a court at the attorney general’s request indicated they all died of gunshot wounds; autopsies on the remaining three were pending. A committee appointed by the Justice Ministry to investigate the incident issued a report that was not made public. The Mahara unrest followed a November 17 incident at Bogambara prison in Kandy where one prisoner was killed, and a March 21 incident at Anuradhapura prison in which guards opened fire on prisoners protesting COVID-19 conditions and killed two prisoners and injured several others. Police announced investigations into all three incidents, but no public disciplinary action or arrests were made in connection with the shootings.
On September 7, the Court of Appeal issued an interim order directing the commissioner general of prisons to make arrangements for Premalal Jayasekara, a member of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), who was imprisoned on death row for the 2015 murder of a rival political party supporter, to attend the parliament. Despite the attorney general’s legal recommendation against seating Jayasekara and protests from opposition lawmakers, Jayasekara was sworn into parliament on September 8, becoming the first MP to concurrently serve a murder sentence and serve as a member of parliament. Jayasekara appealed his conviction and requested bail while he awaited his appeal hearing. As of years end, he had not been granted bail.
On January 7, authorities transferred Shani Abeysekera, then director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sri Lanka Police, from his post, demoting him to an administrative role. On July 31, the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) of the police arrested Abeysekera on charges of fabricating evidence in a 2013 case. Civil society considered the demotion and arrest to be reprisal for Abeysekera’s investigations into several high-profile murder, disappearance, and corruption cases involving members of the current government, including members of the Rajapaksa family.
On July 15, the Colombo High Court trial at bar acquitted Prisons Officer Indika Sampath of murder and related charges for the killing of eight inmates, allegedly at then defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request, during the 2012 Welikada Prison Riots. The trial-at-bar court maintained that sufficient evidence had not been presented to prove the charges against Sampath.
Lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses persisted, particularly regarding military, paramilitary, police, and other security-sector officials implicated and, in some cases, convicted of killing political opponents, journalists, and private citizens. Civil society organizations asserted the government and the courts were reluctant to act against security forces, citing high-level appointments of military officials credibly accused of abuses and pardons of convicted murderers, including Army staff sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and the seating in parliament of convicted murderer Premalal Jayasekara. During the year there was no progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. Disappearances during the war and its aftermath remained unresolved.
In February the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) received authorization to issue Interim Reports (which can be used to obtain a Certificate of Absence) to the relatives of the missing and disappeared. The Interim Reports and Certificates of Absence can be used by family members to legally manage the assets of missing persons and assume custody of children. The OMP reported that it had provided more than 600 Certificates of Absence for the families of missing persons and accelerated the process of issuing the certificates throughout the year, although efforts were slowed by COVID-19. On December 11, the OMP published online lists of those reported missing or disappeared for 24 districts. The OMP press release stated that the lists included persons who went missing or were disappeared in connection with Sri Lanka’s civil war, political unrest, or civil disturbances, or as enforced disappearances, and personnel of the armed forces or police who were identified as missing in action. The lists included 9,391 cases obtained from direct complaints, complaints obtained by the former Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation, and names of missing-in-action personnel provided by the armed forces. The OMP’s press release noted that the list for the Batticaloa District, which had the largest numbers of complaints, was still under review but would be released shortly. Each case in the lists had a reference number assigned by the OMP as well as the name of the victim, date, and district in which the disappearance took place, and the district where the disappeared person last resided.
On January 17, President Rajapaksa told a UN official that all persons believed to be missing were dead. He stated that after investigations, steps would be taken to issue death certificates for the allegedly missing persons. His remarks provoked criticism from civil society groups and families of the disappeared as a dismissal of their calls for investigations and their right to know the full and complete truth about the circumstances of their deaths. Civil society actors and families of the disappeared suggested that issuing death certificates for the missing and disappeared, without investigation and disclosure of what happened to them, promoted impunity for those who were responsible for the disappearances.
On September 2, the trial of seven intelligence officers accused of participating in the 2010 disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist and cartoonist for the newspaper Lanka eNews, began at the Permanent High Court. The disappeared journalist’s wife, Sandya Ekneligoda, testified as the first witness to the case. Sandya Ekneligoda faced harassment from officials who claimed, without proof, that she coordinated with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE)-affiliated NGOs to discredit the country before the UN Human Rights Council. Officials further blamed the 2019 Easter bombing on a paralysis of intelligence agencies caused by human rights investigations, including that of Prageeth Eknaligoda’s disappearance. The case was underway at year’s end.
Two human rights activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan, went missing in 2011 during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as defense secretary. The Jaffna Magistrate’s Court in 2019 presented a summons to Gotabaya Rajapaksa requiring him to appear as a witness in connection with the disappearance, but his attorneys claimed that he could not, as a presidential candidate, appear in Jaffna due to security concerns, which the court accepted. Despite the ruling Rajapaksa travelled to Jaffna for campaign visits during the presidential race. After his election, the Attorney General’s Department informed the court that the president was immune to judicial processes under the constitution.
On February 24, the Special Permanent High Court at Bar issued a summons for the former commander of Sri Lanka Navy, Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, who was named in the case of the abduction and disappearance of 11 youths from Colombo in 2008 and 2009. This was the fourth summons issued to Admiral Karannagoda, who had failed to appear in court when previously summoned. On June 24, despite contrary arguments by the Attorney General’s Department, the Court of Appeal granted permission to hear Karannagoda’s appeal and issued the interim injunction preventing the trial at bar from proceeding. Karannagoda remained free pending his appeal.
The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but authorities reportedly employed them. The law makes torture a punishable offense and mandates a sentence of not less than seven years’ and not more than 10 years’ imprisonment. The government maintained a Committee on the Prevention of Torture to visit sites of allegations, examine evidence, and take preventive measures on allegations of torture. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) allows courts to admit as evidence any statements made by the accused at any time and provides no exception for confessions extracted by torture.
Interviews by human rights organizations found that torture and excessive use of force by police, particularly to extract confessions, remained endemic. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), for example, noted that many reports of torture referred to police officers allegedly “roughing up” suspects to extract a confession or otherwise elicit evidence to use against the accused. As in previous years, arrestees reported torture and mistreatment, forced confessions, and denial of basic rights, such as access to lawyers or family members.
The HRCSL documented 260 complaints of physical and mental torture from January to August in addition to 37 complaints from prisoners. In response to allegations of torture, the HRCSL carried out routine visits of detention centers.
Impunity remained a significant problem characterized by a lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses, particularly by military, paramilitary, police, and other security-sector officials implicated and, in some cases, convicted of killing political opponents, journalists, and private citizens. Civil society organizations asserted the government, including the courts, were reluctant to act against security forces alleged to be responsible for past abuses, citing high-level appointments of military officials alleged to have been involved in such abuses. During the year there was no progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings.
On January 9, President Rajapaksa appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization from 2015-2019. The PCoI conducted 10 months of closed-door hearings, interrogating opposition politicians, as well as police, lawyers and judges who had led investigations into corruption and alleged human rights abuses and presented its findings to the government in December in a confidential 2,000-page report. The PCoI faced particular criticism when its chair, Upali Abeyratne, a retired Supreme Court judge ordered the Attorney General (AG) to cease investigations into the Trinco 11 disappearance case allegedly perpetrated by naval officers and summoned and interrogated a key witness in the ongoing 2010 disappearance case of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, resulting in the witness recanting prior testimony. In both instances, the Attorney General publicly denounced the PCoI’s efforts, saying that the Commission had no power to investigate the AG or his officials or interfere in ongoing investigations. Civil society activists said the PCoI “has spent the past year treating perpetrators as victims and attempting to interfere in ongoing [criminal] investigations.” In December, President Rajapaksa appointed Abeyratne chair of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the state body charged with investigating disappearances.
On March 26, President Rajapaksa pardoned a death row prisoner, former staff sergeant Sunil Ratnayake. After a 13-year-long trial, Ratnayake had been sentenced to death in 2015 for the 2000 killings of eight Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs), including a five-year-old child and two teenagers. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction on appeal in 2019. The pardon, for which no formal justification was issued, was condemned by opposition political leaders, civil society groups, and international NGOs for overturning what had been a rare, emblematic example of official accountability in the country. On September 24, the Supreme Court took up a petition filed by civil society activists challenging the president’s decision. The hearing was rescheduled to February 8, 2021, after a justice recused himself due to his involvement in Rathnayake’s death sentence appeal.
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP H. L. Premalal Jayasekara and SLPP-aligned Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (aka Pillayan) were elected to parliament while incarcerated. Jayasekara was convicted of murder in 2019 and sentenced to death for an election-related shooting in 2015. His appeal was pending at the end of the reporting period. Chandrakanthan (aka Pillayan) has been in pretrial remand custody since 2015 for the 2005 murder of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Joseph Pararajasingham and faces allegations of human rights violations including child soldier recruitment. Both MPs were granted permission to attend the August 20 swearing in of parliament despite the Attorney General’s objection to the seating of Jayasekara on the grounds that his murder conviction precluded him from serving in parliament. On September 22, President Rajapaksa appointed Pillayan as Co-Chairperson of the Batticaloa District Coordinating Committee (DDC) charged with coordinating, implementing, and monitoring all development activities of state institutions and NGOs in the district.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were poor due to old infrastructure, overcrowding, and a shortage of sanitary facilities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. On December 3, the press reported that Prisons Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya stated prisons in Sri Lanka were overcrowded by 173 percent, with the Colombo Welikada Prison overcrowded by 300 percent. He noted that many were imprisoned due to inability to pay fines or bail charges. Upuldeniya stated that due to overcrowding, inmates lacked adequate space to sleep and basic hygiene facilities. Authorities often held pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together as well. In many prisons inmates reportedly slept on concrete floors, and prisons often lacked natural light or ventilation. Ministry of Justice officials stated that expanding and modernizing prisons physical infrastructure was a government priority.
Upon the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners protested the overcrowded conditions in prisons. Since March security forces killed 14 prisoners during three separate incidents related to prisoner protests against COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons. On November 29, prison guards at the Mahara prison in Gampaha District opened fire on prisoners, killing at least 11 and injuring more than 100, according to human rights activists and press reports. Human rights activists noted that Mahara Prison was severely overcrowded, holding 2,750 inmates, despite its official capacity of 1,000, and claimed that at least half of Mahara prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 as of late November. The Mahara unrest followed a November 17 incident at Bogambara prison in Kandy where one prisoner was killed, and a March 21 incident at Anuradhapura prison in which two prisoners were killed and several others injured when guards opened fire on prisoners protesting COVID-19 conditions.
The HRCSL recommended the Department of Prisons address overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing detainees in pretrial detention due to their inability to pay bail, prisoners who are seriously ill, older than age of 70, and those convicted of minor offenses. In February the government pardoned 512 prisoners and by September had released 3,405 prisoners on bail in accordance with the recommendations.
Administration: The HRCSL investigates complaints it receives and refers them to the relevant authorities when warranted. The HRCSL reported it received some credible allegations of mistreatment from prisoners, but the Department of Prisons reported it did not receive any complaints.
Independent Monitoring: The Board of Prison Visitors is the primary domestic organization conducting visits to prisoners and accepting complaints; it also has the legal mandate to examine overall conditions of detention. The Board of Prison Visitors functions as an internal governmental watchdog and was established under the Prisons Ordinance. Its members are representatives of civil society who are otherwise unaffiliated with the government or other state institutions. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the HRCSL also have a mandate to monitor prison conditions, and police largely respected their recommendations.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but there were reports that arbitrary arrest and detention occurred.
The criminal procedure code allows police to make an arrest without a warrant for offenses such as homicide, theft, robbery, and rape. Alternatively, police may make arrests pursuant to arrest warrants that judges and magistrates issue based on evidence. The law requires authorities to inform an arrested person of the reason for the arrest and arraign that person before a magistrate within 24 hours for minor crimes, 48 hours for some grave crimes, and 72 hours for crimes covered by the PTA. Ministry of Justice officials noted that due to the limited infrastructure as well as human resources and legal constraints, in many cases more time elapsed before detainees appeared before a magistrate, particularly in PTA cases. For offenses that are bailable under the Bail Act, instead of arraignment in court, police may release suspects within 24 hours of detention on a written undertaking and require them to report to court on a specified date for pretrial hearings. Suspects accused of committing bailable offenses are entitled to bail, administered by police before seeing a magistrate. For suspects accused of nonbailable offenses, bail is granted only after appearing before a magistrate and at the magistrate’s discretion.
The Bail Act states no person should be held in custody for more than 12 months prior to conviction and sentencing without a special exemption. Under the PTA, detainees may be held for up to 18 months without charge, but in practice authorities often held PTA detainees for longer periods, some for more than 10 years.
Judges require approval from the Attorney General’s Department to authorize bail for persons detained under the PTA, which the office normally did not grant. In homicide cases, regulations require the magistrate to remand the suspect, and only the High Court may grant bail. In all cases, suspects have the right to legal representation, although no provision specifically provides the right of a suspect to legal representation during interrogations in police stations and detention centers. The government provided counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases before the High Court and Court of Appeal but not in other cases; the law requires the provision of counsel only for cases heard at the High Court and Court of Appeal.
According to police, authorities arrested 2,299 individuals, primarily under the PTA, in the aftermath of the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. As of December, 135 suspects remained in custody, but no charges were filed against them. International NGOs continued to have access to the remaining attack suspects.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of October the National Police Commission reported 17 complaints of unlawful arrest or detention. The HRCSL received numerous complaints of arbitrary arrest and detention. Police sometimes held detainees incommunicado, and lawyers had to apply for permission to meet clients, with police frequently present at such meetings. In some cases, unlawful detentions reportedly included interrogations involving mistreatment or torture. While the government did not report the number of persons held under the PTA, human rights groups in the north reported at least 22 PTA arrests unrelated to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks during the year. On April 1, the inspector general of police ordered the arrest of critics of the government’s COVID-19 response. Media outlets reported at least 20 arrests for publishing or sharing misinformation as of December.
On April 14, police arrested six men under the PTA, including Hijaz Hizbullah, a prominent constitutional lawyer, and Riyaj Bathiudeen, brother of MP Rishad Bathiudeen. Authorities searched Hizbullah’s office and seized his telephone, computer, and some legal files. Hizbullah, an outspoken critic of the Rajapaksas, had led the Supreme Court challenge that ultimately ended the 2018 constitutional crisis when then president Maithripala Sirisena attempted to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister. Hizbullah was ordered to be detained until January 2021, although he was not charged with a crime. Hizbullah’s family reported his lawyers were only able to visit him twice since his arrest and police prohibited them from discussing details of the case with their client. On December 15, the attorney general agreed to allow counsel to meet Hizbullah after his lawyers filed a writ application at the Court of Appeal seeking access to their client. Authorities allegedly arrested Hizbullah and others for their connections to the 2019 Easter Sunday attack, but human rights lawyers claimed no credible evidence had been presented to link Hizbullah to the attack.
Families of three Muslim children alleged that, at the end of April, police abducted and interrogated the children, ages 11, 13, and 16, for two days on suspicion they received weapons training as a part of their schooling at al-Zuhriya Arabic College, an Islamic boarding school. The children’s families claimed police investigators threatened the children and coerced them to sign documents they could not understand implicating Hizbullah in promoting extremist ideology.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detainees composed approximately one-half of the detainee population. The average length of time in pretrial detention was 24 hours, but inability to post bail, lengthy legal procedures, judicial inefficiency, and corruption often caused delays. Legal advocacy groups asserted that for those cases in which pretrial detention exceeded 24 hours, it was common for the length of pretrial detention to equal or exceed the sentence for the alleged crime.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: A person may legally challenge an arrest or detention and obtain release through the courts. The legal process takes years, however, and the Center for Human Rights Development reported that the perceived lack of judicial independence and minimal compensation discouraged individuals from seeking legal remedies. Under the PTA, the ability to challenge detentions is particularly limited.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The law presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. All criminal trials are public. Authorities inform defendants of the charges against them, and they have the right to counsel and the right to appeal. The government provided counsel for indigent persons tried on criminal charges in the High Court and the Court of Appeal but not in cases before lower courts. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence.
The law requires court proceedings and other legislation to be available in English, Sinhala, and Tamil. Most courts outside the northern and eastern parts of the country conducted business in English or Sinhala. Trials and hearings in the north and east were in Tamil and English. A shortage of court-appointed interpreters limited the right of Tamil-speaking defendants to free interpretation, as necessary. In several instances, courts tried criminal cases originating in the Tamil-speaking north and east in Sinhala-speaking areas, which exacerbated the language difference and increased the difficulty in presenting witnesses who needed to travel. Few legal textbooks were available in Tamil. Defendants have the right to be present in court during trial and have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Defendants also have the right not to testify or admit guilt.
Some Tamil politicians and local human rights activists referred to alleged former LTTE combatants accused of terrorism-related violent crimes as “political prisoners.” Politicians and NGOs reported that more than 130 such prisoners remained in detention. The government did not acknowledge any political prisoners and claimed the prisoners in question remained detained for terrorist or violent criminal acts. The government permitted access to prisoners on a regular basis by the HRCSL, magistrates, and the Board of Prison Visits, and it allowed the ICRC access to monitor prison conditions. Authorities granted irregular access to those providing legal counsel.
Citizens may seek civil remedies for alleged human rights violations through domestic courts up to the Supreme Court.
Land ownership disputes continued between private individuals in former war zones, and between citizens and the government.
The military seized significant amounts of land during the war to create security buffer zones around military bases and other high-value targets, known as high security zones (HSZs). During and immediately following the civil war, government officials frequently posted acquisition notices for HSZ lands that were inaccessible to property owners, many of whom initiated court cases, including fundamental rights cases before the Supreme Court, to challenge these acquisitions. Throughout the year, lawsuits, including a 2016 Supreme Court fundamental rights case and numerous writ applications filed with courts, remained stalled. Although HSZs had no legal framework following the lapse of emergency regulations in 2011, they still existed and remained off limits to civilians.
With the amount of remaining in dispute, many of those affected by the HSZs complained that the pace at which the government demilitarized land was too slow, that the military held lands it viewed as economically valuable for military benefit, and that military possession of land denied livelihood to the local population. According to the acquisition notices, while most of the land acquired was for use as army camps and bases, among the purposes listed on certain notices were the establishment of a hotel, a factory, and a farm. Some Hindu and Muslim groups reported they had difficulty officially claiming land they had long inhabited after Buddhist monks placed a statue of Buddha or a bodhi tree on their property, and they described these acts as part of a “colonialization” plan to dilute the concentration of minorities in the north.
The PTA permits government authorities to enter homes and monitor communications without judicial or other authorization. Government authorities reportedly monitored private movements without authorization. During the year civil society and journalists reported allegations of surveillance.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
During the year the use of lethal excessive force against civilians and demonstrators significantly decreased. There were reports of lethal excessive force against protesters in Darfur, and killings by armed militias (see section 1.g.).
In July trial sessions began against the nine Rapid Support Forces (RSF) soldiers accused of killing six protesters in El-Obeid in July 2019.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The 2019 constitutional declaration prohibits such practices of torture or inhuman treatment of punishment, and reports of such behavior largely ceased under the civilian-led transitional government (CLTG).
On December 16, the RSF detained Bahaa el-Din Nouri in Khartoum. His body was found in a morgue five days later showing signs of torture while in custody. The case was referred to the prosecutor’s office and remained pending at year’s end.
The UN-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) reported government forces committed sexual violence in a few instances, although most abuses were committed by militias (see section 1.g.).
Although impunity was less of a problem than in previous years, some problems with impunity in the security forces remained. The CLTG took strong steps towards reckoning with the crimes perpetrated by the Bashir regime, including opening up investigations into past abuses and working to address legal immunities that would otherwise bar prosecutions for serious crimes.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions throughout the country remained harsh and life threatening; overcrowding was a major problem, as was inadequate health care.
Physical Conditions: The nongovernmental organization (NGO) World Prison Brief estimated, based on 2009 and 2017 data, that the country’s prisons held approximately 21,000 prisoners in facilities designed for 7,500 prisoners. More recent data were not available, but overcrowding remained a serious problem. The Prisons and Reform Directorate, a branch of the national police that reports to the Ministry of Interior, oversees prisons. The Ministry of Interior generally did not release information on physical conditions in prisons. Data on the numbers of juvenile and female prisoners were unavailable.
Authorities generally provided food, water, and sanitation, although the quality of all three was basic. Prison health care, heating, ventilation, and lighting were often inadequate but varied from facility to facility. Some prisoners did not have access to medications or physical examinations. Family members or friends provided food and other items to inmates. Most prisoners did not have beds. Former detainees reported needing to purchase foam mattresses. These problems persisted throughout the year.
Overall conditions, including food and sanitation, were reportedly better in women’s detention facilities and prisons, such as the Federal Prison for Women in Omdurman, than at equivalent facilities for men, such as the main prison in Khartoum or the Kober or Omdurman Prisons. In Khartoum juveniles were not held in adult prisons or jails, but they were reportedly held with adults at other prisons.
Administration: The police inspector general, the minister of justice, and the judiciary are authorized to inspect prisons. Police allowed some visitors, including lawyers and family members, while prisoners were in custody and during judicial hearings Islamic and Christian clergy were allowed to hold services in prisons following the CLTG’s coming to power. Access varied across prisons. In Omdurman Women’s Prison, church services were held six times a week, but information on the regularity of services was not obtained. Sunni imams were granted access to facilitate Friday prayers.
Independent Monitoring: During the year the CLTG lifted restrictions on independent monitoring, but the International Committee of the Red Cross was still generally denied access to prisons, with the exception of installing water points and distributing hygiene products during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ministry of Interior granted UNAMID access to government prisons in Darfur to monitor, mentor, and advise prison officials.
The 2019 constitutional declaration prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. In contrast to the previous regime, during the year the CLTG generally observed these requirements. The period of arrest without a warrant is 24 hours.
Under the law, warrants are not required for an arrest. The law permits police to detain individuals for 24 hours for the purpose of inquiry. A magistrate may renew detention without charge for up to two weeks during an investigation. A superior magistrate may renew detentions for up to six months for a person who is charged. The General Intelligence Service is not allowed to detain individuals.
The law provides for an individual to be informed in detail of charges at the time of arrest, with interpretation as needed, and for judicial determination without undue delay.
The law allows for bail, except for those accused of crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment if convicted. There was a functioning bail system; however, persons released on bail often waited indefinitely for action on their cases.
Suspects in common criminal cases, such as theft were compelled to confess guilt while in police custody through physical abuse and police intimidation of family members.
By law any person may request legal assistance and must be informed of the right to counsel in cases potentially involving the death penalty, imprisonment lasting longer than 10 years, or amputation if convicted. Accused persons may also request assistance through the legal aid department at the Ministry of Justice or the Sudanese Bar Association. The government was not always able to provide legal assistance, and legal aid organizations and lawyers partially filled the gap.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrest largely ended under the CLTG.
In August several artists were arrested while rehearsing a prodemocracy theater piece (see section 2.a., Academic and Cultural Events).
Pretrial Detention: The law states that pretrial detention may not exceed six months. Lengthy pretrial detention was common. Using 2013 data, World Prison Brief estimated 20 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention. The large number of detainees and judicial inefficiency resulted in trial delays.
The constitutional declaration and relevant laws provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. The CLTG dismissed numerous judges throughout the country who were considered incompetent or corrupt or who had strong ties to the former regime or the country’s intelligence apparatus. There were no known reports of denials of fair trials, but this lack of reports may be partially due to the closure of the majority of courts between February and July due to strikes and COVID-19 restrictions.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial as well as a presumption of innocence; however, this provision was rarely respected. Trials are open to the public at the discretion of the judge. In cases of national security and offenses against the state, trials are usually closed. The law stipulates the government is obligated to provide a lawyer for citizens in cases in which punishment if convicted might exceed 10 years’ imprisonment or include execution or amputation.
By law criminal defendants must be informed promptly of the charges against them at the time of their arrest and charged in detail and with interpretation as needed.
Defendants generally have the right to present evidence and witnesses, be present in court, confront accusers, and have access to government-held evidence relevant to their cases. Throughout the year some defendants reportedly did not receive legal counsel, and counsel in some cases could only advise the defendant and not address the court. Persons in remote areas and in areas of conflict generally did not have access to legal counsel. The government sometimes did not allow defense witnesses to testify.
Defendants have the right to appeal, except in military trials. Defendants were sometimes permitted time and facilities to prepare their defense.
Unlike under the prior regime, there were no reports of lawyers being arrested or harassed by the CLTG.
Military trials, which sometimes were secret and brief, lacked procedural safeguards. The law subjects to military trials any civilians in Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF)-controlled areas believed to be armed opposition or members of a paramilitary group.
Three-person security courts deal with violations of constitutional decrees, emergency regulations, and some sections of the penal code, including drug and currency offenses. Special courts primarily composed of civilian judges handled most security-related cases.
Due to long distances between court facilities and police stations in conflict areas, local mediation was often the first resort to try to resolve disputes. In some instances tribal courts operating outside the official legal system decided cases. Such courts did not provide the same protections as regular courts.
Sharia continued to influence the law.
On September 3, Prime Minister Hamdok and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hilu, signed a declaration of principles agreement to begin peace talks on the basis that separation of religion and state would be protected in the constitution to be developed during the transitional period, a key demand of the SPLM-N.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Unlike under the Bashir regime, there were no reported cases of such practices.
Although persons seeking damages for human rights abuses had access to domestic and international courts, there were problems enforcing domestic and international court orders. According to the law, individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies. Some individuals, however, reported they feared reprisal if they did appeal.
The law prohibits such actions, and this type of activity appeared to have ceased, or been dramatically reduced, under the CLTG.
On October 3, leaders of the CLTG and a number of armed opposition groups signed a peace agreement in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Observers expressed hope it would end nearly two decades of conflict in the country’s war-torn regions of Darfur and the Two Areas.
Killings: Military personnel, paramilitary forces, and tribal groups committed killings in Darfur and the Two Areas. Most reports were difficult to verify due to continued prohibited access to conflict areas, particularly Jebel Marra in Central Darfur and SPLM-N-controlled areas in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Humanitarian access to Jebel Marra remained stable compared with past years.
Nomadic militias also attacked civilians in conflict areas. Under the CLTG, renewed intercommunal violence occurred mainly in Darfur, South Kordofan, and East Sudan. These resulted in the deaths of several civilians. For example, on July 25, the UN Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS) reported that armed Arab nomads killed at least 65 civilians including two police officers at Mesteri town, West Darfur. The UNDSS asserted that the perpetrators also burned houses, looted shops, and broke into a SAF armory in the town.
On August 6, in South Kordofan, reliable sources and Sudanese media reported at least a dozen persons were killed and several others injured in fighting between armed Arab nomads and Nuban farmers at Khor al-Waral area. The sources asserted that the Sudan Revolutionary Front and the SPLM-N faction led by General Abdel Aziz Adam al-Hilu’s units were both involved in the fighting. The CLTG announced formation of an investigation committee to probe the incident. Its report was pending completion as of October.
On January 2 and 4, the government announced that 15 persons were killed, and 127 others injured in the renewed intercommunal fighting between Beni Amir and Nuba tribesmen at Port Sudan, capital of Red Sea State. The governor of Red Sea State imposed a curfew in Port Sudan and deployed additional SAF units to deter and contain the situation. On August 22, the governor of Red Sea State blamed the Bashir regime for inciting the fighting between Beni Amir and Nuba tribesmen. The CLTG initiated a separate truce and peace reconciliation process between the Beni Amir and Nuba tribes in the eastern part of the country and between Arab nomads and Nuba tribes around Kadugli. Truces temporarily quelled the violence and paved way for the reconciliation process to continue among various ethnic groups and communities throughout the country.
The general political and security situation of Abyei, the long-standing oil-rich disputed territory between Sudan and South Sudan, continued to remain fragile, and was marked by instances of violence between Misseriya and Ngok Dinka communities. For instance, on January 20 and 26, the Ngok Dinka native administration in Abyei announced that 33 civilians were killed, 20 others injured, and 16 children abducted in two attacks by armed Messiriya nomads of Kolom area inside Abyei. Faisal Mohamed Saleh, the minister of information and CLTG spokesperson, condemned the deadly attacks, urged UN Interim Special Force for Abyei to protect civilians, and called upon the Messiriya and Ngok Dinka communities to coexist peacefully.
Abductions: There were numerous reports of abductions by armed opposition and tribal groups in Darfur. International organizations were largely unable to verify reports of disappearances.
There were also numerous criminal incidents involving kidnapping for ransom.
UNAMID reported that abduction remained a lucrative method adopted by various tribes in Darfur to coerce the payment of diya (“blood money” ransom) claimed from other communities.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: There were continued reports that government security forces, progovernment and antigovernment militias, and other armed persons raped women and children. Armed opposition groups in Darfur and the Two Areas reportedly detained persons in isolated locations in prison-like detention centers.
The extent to which armed opposition groups committed human rights abuses could not be accurately assessed, due to limited access to conflict areas. The state of detention facilities administered by the Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid and SPLM-N in their respective armed opposition-controlled areas could not be assessed due to lack of access.
Under the CLTG, human rights groups reported armed individuals committed rape and arbitrarily killed civilians in the five Darfur states and government-controlled areas of the Blue Nile. While some wore government uniforms, including those affiliated with the RSF, it was not clear whether the individuals were actual official government security forces or militia.
Unexploded ordnance killed and injured civilians in the conflict zones.
Child Soldiers: The law prohibits the recruitment of children and provides criminal penalties for perpetrators.
Allegations persisted that armed opposition movements conscripted and retained child soldiers within their ranks. Both SPLM-N al-Hilu and SPLM-N Malak Agar reportedly continued to conscript child soldiers from refugee camps in Maban, South Sudan, just across the border from Blue Nile State and brought them into the country. If refugee families refused to provide a child to SPLM-N, they were taxed by whichever SPLM-N armed group with which they were considered to be affiliated, continuing SPLM-N’s long-standing practice. Many children continued to lack documents verifying their age. Children’s rights organizations believed armed groups exploited this lack of documentation to recruit or retain children. Some children were recruited from the Darfur region to engage in armed combat overseas, including in Libya. Due to access problems, particularly in conflict zones, reports of the use of child soldiers by armed groups were few and often difficult to verify.
Representatives of armed groups reported they did not actively recruit child soldiers. They did not, however, prevent children who volunteered from joining their movements. The armed groups stated the children were stationed primarily in training camps and were not used in combat.
There were reports of the use of child soldiers by the SPLM-N, but numbers could not be verified, in part due to lack of access to SPLM-N-controlled territories.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Although humanitarian access improved considerably during the year for UN and NGO staff, there were still incidents of restrictions on UN and NGO travel in some parts of North Darfur and East Jebel Marra based on what the government described as insecurity. The CLTG took steps to allow for unfettered humanitarian access. For example, under guidance from the prime minister, the Humanitarian Aid Commission issued guidelines to ease restrictions on movement of humanitarian workers. While the guidelines were not consistently implemented, there was marked improvement from the Bashir regime.
UN reporting continued to indicate that intercommunal violence and criminality were the greatest threats to security in Darfur. Common crimes included rape, armed robbery, abduction, ambush, livestock theft, assault and harassment, arson, and burglary and were allegedly carried out primarily by Arab militias. Government forces, unknown assailants, and rebel elements also carried out violence.
Humanitarian actors in Darfur continued to report victims of sexual and gender-based violence faced obstructions in attempts to report crimes and access health care.
Although the 2019 constitutional declaration pledged to implement compensation to allow for the return of internationally displaced persons (IDPs), limited assistance was provided to IDPs who wanted to return, and IDPs themselves expressed reluctance to return due to lack of security and justice in their home areas. IDPs in Darfur also reported they still could not return to their original lands, despite government claims the situation was secure, because their lands were being occupied by Arab nomads who were not disarmed and could attack returnees, and there were reports of such attacks.
Government restrictions in Abyei, administered by the country, limited NGO activities, especially in the northern parts of Abyei. Additional problems included delays in the issuance of travel permits.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the regime and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.). No internal governmental bodies meaningfully investigated whether security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), more than 227,180 civilians were killed in the conflict from 2011 to December. Other groups estimated this number exceeded 550,000. This discrepancy was due in part to the vast number of disappeared, many of whom remained missing.
During the year the SNHR reported 1,462 civilians were killed, including at least 200 women and 218 children. The majority of these deaths occurred at the beginning of the year, during a military operation led by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies against the areas in and around Idlib.
The regime continued to commit extrajudicial killings and to cause the death of large numbers of civilians throughout regime-controlled territories. For example, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reported that the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Assault Corps of the Syrian Arab Army entered al-Quraya on March 27, killed six armed residents in the fighting, and later summarily executed five men and detained others.
The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) and numerous human rights groups reported the regime continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. According to the SNHR, more than 14,500 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and December, including 179 children and 91 women; the SNHR attributed approximately 99 percent of all cases to regime forces, including 115 deaths during the year (see section 1.c.).
Despite a ceasefire established in March, the regime maintained its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling, killing hundreds of civilians during the year. In 2019 the UN secretary-general established a Board of Inquiry (BOI) to investigate attacks on civilian sites shared between humanitarian groups and military actors for the purpose of deconfliction from September 2018 through 2019 in northwest Syria. In April the BOI concluded that, in four of the seven incidents investigated, it “was highly probable” the Assad regime and its allies were responsible for attacks on UN deconflicted hospitals. In March the COI reporting on Idlib determined there were reasonable grounds to believe Russian forces were guilty of the war crime of “launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas” and that “progovernment forces repeatedly committed the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects and intentionally attacking medical personnel. In attacking hospitals, medical units, and health-care personnel, progovernment forces violated binding international humanitarian law to care for the sick and wounded and committed the war crime of attacking protected objects.”
Other actors in the conflict were also implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
There were numerous reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of regime authorities, and the vast majority of those disappeared since the start of the conflict remained missing. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. The SNHR reported approximately 1,185 forced disappearances during the year and documented at least 149,360 Syrians were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions. The regime targeted medical personnel and critics, including journalists and protesters, as well as their families and associates. Most disappearances reported by Syrian and international human rights documentation groups appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July, Syrian journalist Wafa Ali Mustafa told the UN Security Council the number of detained and disappeared was still growing as the regime continued to use detention “as a weapon to terrorize civilians.” As of December the regime issued nearly 17 amnesty decrees, the last of which was in March and included only a small number of cases heard by the Counter-Terrorism Court and military field courts. The decree excluded the vast majority of detainees who were never formally convicted of a crime in any court of law and were classified by the international community as unacknowledged detainees or forcibly disappeared.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) reported in August that it had requested information from the regime on 113 individuals whom the regime reportedly subjected to enforced disappearance between May 2019 and May 2020. The UNWGEID received no response from the regime on these or other outstanding cases. The UNWGEID also received reports of disappearances, including women and children, perpetrated by various armed groups, including those affiliated with the Turkish armed forces.
According to the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, in February the regime released the bodies of Maher Suleiman al-Dali and Ahmad Ali al-Awad, who were arresting after defecting from the Syrian army. Both had signed reconciliation agreements.
Throughout the year the regime continued publishing notifications of detainees’ deaths in regime detention facilities. According to Families for Freedom, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. In many cases the regime had denied the presence of these individuals in its detention centers until it released death notifications. The SNHR recorded at least 970 of these notifications but estimated that the number of detainees certified as dead was in the thousands. The regime did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred.
For example, the SNHR received information in June that Wesam Fawwaz Mer’i al-Haj Ali, a college student detained and forcibly disappeared by regime forces in 2013, had died in regime custody. As was frequently the case, the regime did not provide Wesam’s body to the family or officially inform the family of the timing or manner of his death, although the SNHR reported it was likely due to torture.
The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared approaching authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.
Some terrorist groups and armed opposition groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The regime made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.
The law prohibits torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, reported thousands of credible cases of regime authorities engaging in systematic torture, abuse, and mistreatment to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations, a systematic regime practice documented throughout the conflict and even prior to 2011. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights assessed that, while individuals were often tortured in order to obtain information, the primary purpose of the regime’s use of torture during interrogations was to terrorize and humiliate detainees.
While most accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in regime custody during the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of regime reprisal. Many torture victims reportedly died in custody (see section 1.a.).
A military defector, nicknamed “Caesar,” testified outside the country in April that he had been ordered to take photographs of the bodies of victims–including thousands of photographs he later smuggled out of the country–who had been detained, tortured, and extrajudicially killed in regime detention centers between 2011 and 2013. Caesar said the bodies had signs of burning, strangulation, and whipping with cables. NGOs continued to report various forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison described the testimonies of 14 former detainees held by the regime in Sednaya Prison and reported prison officials subjected detainees to a wide range of torture as an interrogation tactic and, at times, for no reason at all. The SNHR documented the deaths of at least 33 individuals between March and June, including one woman, due to torture and medical negligence in regime detention centers. For example, the State Security Force arrested Mahmoud Abdul Majid al-Rahil from Daraa on May 4, returning his body to his family three days later. Al-Rahil, whose body bore signs of torture, had previously settled his legal and security status with the regime via a reconciliation agreement and was not engaged in military activity at the time of his arrest. In May the SNHR interviewed 96 individuals released under the March amnesty decree, all of whom had been arrested for their connection to protests. Many reported being subjected to torture by regime security forces as a method for extracting confessions to “terrorism” related crimes.
The COI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported regular use of torture against perceived regime opponents at checkpoints and regime facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. Human rights groups identified numerous detention facilities where torture occurred, including the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra Prison; Sednaya Prison; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and the Tishreen Military Hospital.
The SNHR estimated that parties of the conflict committed at least 11,520 acts of sexual violence between 2011 and December. Regime forces were responsible for at least 8,020 cases of sexual violence between 2011 and December, including 879 cases inside detention centers and 443 violations against girls younger than age 18. American University’s Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence stated that regime authorities subjected men, women, and children in detention to sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, sexual torture and abuse, and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment.
In July, HRW reported the regime and, to a lesser extent, nonstate actors subjected men, boys, transgender women, and nonbinary persons to sexual violence during detention, and that this violence was perpetrated with the intent to torture and terrorize detainees. Those interviewed by HRW described being subjected to rape, threat of rape, genital violence, forced nudity, and sexual harassment. One interviewee, 28-year-old Yousef, stated he was detained by regime intelligence agencies and, once his sexual orientation was revealed, the interrogations increased drastically, accompanied by torture and sexual violence designed to humiliate detainees, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) assessed in June that the regime perpetrated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including the detention and torture of medical workers, intending to “make delivery of health care a crime and to criminalize doctors for treating people.”
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the regime. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relationships, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities. According to the SNHR’s database, at least 4,815 children were still detained or forcibly disappeared as of September, with at least 100 of those detentions having taken place during the year. In January the COI issued a special report on abuses against children throughout the conflict in Syria. The report noted that regime coerces detained boys as young as 12, subjecting them to severe beatings and torture and denying them access to food, water, sanitation, and medical care. The COI also noted the presence of male and female detainees as young as age 11 recorded in Security Branches 215, 227, 235, and 248 in Damascus. The COI reported that children were made to witness the torture and other abuses inflicted on family members and, on occasions, were forced to inflict torture on other detainees. One COI interviewee described how a 16-year-old boy was forced to electrocute the genitals of another detainee.
The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique of abuse and interrogation.
Numerous human rights organizations concluded that regime forces continued to inflict systematic, officially sanctioned torture on civilians in detention with impunity. There were no known prosecutions or convictions in the country of security force personnel for abuses and no reported regime actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
In April the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, initiated the first trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria, charging former regime officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib. Raslan was charged with crimes against humanity, rape, aggravated sexual assault, and 58 murders at Branch 251, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 individuals between April 2011 and September 2012. Al-Gharib was charged with aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity and complicity in some 30 cases of torture.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assessed in April the conditions in regime prisons were alarming and presented unique risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. The SNHR estimated at least 149,360 Syrians were in detention centers or forcibly disappeared, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. Poor conditions in detention centers were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy. Human rights groups reported that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults.
Reports from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) suggested that there continued to be many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the regime housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.
Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and often denied pregnant women any medical care. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. One former detainee, Omar Alshogre, testified the regime detained him as a minor in 2012 and subjected him to extensive torture, including at Branch 215 where he was held in an underground prison cell with hundreds of other detainees. He said malnutrition and disease, including tuberculosis, was prevalent among the detainees.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable. The OHCHR reported in April that Syrian detainees with disabilities and underlying health conditions were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
According to the COI, conditions in detention centers run by nonstate actors, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked HTS, violated international law (see section 1.g.).
Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with most families waiting years to see relatives and, in many cases, never being able to visit them at all without bribing regime officials.
In areas where regime control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not respect due process and lacked training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The regime prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its visits to formal prisons in 2016 and reported making limited progress on restoring family links to relatives in detention. The ICRC was unable to visit intelligence and military detention centers during the year.
The ICRC and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties to gain access to detention centers across the country but were unable to gain access to any regime-controlled facilities during the year. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the ICRC and UN-supported NGOs access to SDF prisons during the year.
Reportedly, the regime often failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The regime also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the regime to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The COI and various NGOs, activists, and former detainees reported police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the regime did not observe this requirement. Arbitrary arrests continued during the year, according to the COI, local news sources, and various human rights organizations.
The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Under the constitution and code of criminal procedure, for example, defendants must be informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are entitled to legal aid and are presumed innocent until convicted by a court in a fair trial. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the regime applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which could be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not ensure lawyers’ access to their clients before trial. The ICTJ reported the accused were generally tried without a lawyer and denied the right to present a defense. Judges usually followed the intelligence director’s sentence recommendations, even though it was widely known many confessions were made under torture.
In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the Counterterrorism Court (CTC), courts-martial, or criminal courts. The CTC, military field courts, and military courts are exempted from following the same procedures as ordinary courts, allowing them to operate outside of the code of criminal procedure and deny basic rights guaranteed to defendants. Numerous human rights organizations asserted that trials before these courts were unfair and summary in nature. The regime reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not identify themselves or inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Of the former detainees interviewed by ICTJ, mostly from Sednaya Prison, 99 percent said they were never provided paperwork describing the charges against them during their entire period of detention.
NGOs such as the STJ and the Office of Daraa Martyrs confirmed that reported intelligence branches had arrested at least 500 Syrians who had signed reconciliation agreements with the regime during the last two years. The Office of Daraa Martyrs stated reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government; therefore, the regime often fabricated criminal charges against former opposition members. Organizations such as Amnesty International also charged the regime with breaking terms of surrender deals and arresting civilians in Homs, Daraa, and the Damascus countryside.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGO reports and confirmed by regime memoranda secured and released by human rights documentation groups, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. In areas under regime control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that regime forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests.
Estimates varied widely on the number of Syrians remaining in arbitrary detention, as the regime continued to withhold information on the status of the vast majority of detainees. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported at least 149,360 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed 88 percent of these cases to the regime.
In May the ICTJ issued a report stating that the Syrian Arab Army and the four main security services–Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence Directorate, and Air Force Intelligence Directorate–were responsible for the majority of arbitrary arrests and detentions, often on fabricated charges. The SNHR reported that regime forces and proregime militias were responsible for nearly 500 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year, including eight minors and 11 women. The COI stated regime forces and affiliated militias continued to hold tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. It further reported that women with familial ties to opposition fighters or defectors were detained for intelligence-gathering purposes or retribution.
In June, Amnesty International reported regime security forces arrested 11 men for participating in peaceful protests in Sweida. The regime threatened to send eight of them to the “antiterrorism” court in Damascus if protests in Sweida continued. The regime reportedly carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Douma, arresting 12 civilians in June and taking them to an undisclosed location.
The PHR reported that regime forces continued to target specifically health-care workers because of their status as medical professionals and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. Survivors reported the regime relied on torture to coerce medical workers to confess to crimes they did not commit and gather information on other health workers and healthcare activities. Additionally, human rights activists said the regime was arresting health-care providers who spoke to international media outlets about the COVID-19 crisis or contradicted the tightly controlled narrative on the impact of the pandemic on the country.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) reported authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at checkpoints, often citing no reason for their arrest or solely for being of military age. Some who had previously settled their security status with the regime via reconciliation agreements were then transferred to a long-term detention facility or forcibly disappeared.
The HRW reported regime intelligence branches were arbitrarily detaining and disappearing persons in areas retaken by the regime, in violation of reconciliation agreements. The COI reported fear of such arbitrary arrests and detention deterred internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in areas retaken by regime forces.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.). The STJ reported that Turkish-supported armed opposition groups (TSOs) detained residents based on their affiliation with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (SNES). For example, the STJ reported that civil police affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups receiving support from the government of Turkey, arbitrarily arrested Kurdish civilians Samia Alo, Abdulhamid Shaiko, Mustafa Ahmad Ibrahim, Abdulrahamn Mustafa Alo, and Rashid Mustafa Ibo in an April 8 raid, demanding their families pay a fine to secure their release.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial, while many detainees died in prison (see section 1.a.). A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. There were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for the prison and detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release, compensation, or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases where defendants were affiliated with the opposition appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. The SNHR reported regime authorities detained and denied access to fair public trial at least 1,730 individuals during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the regime did not respect judicial independence.
The constitution presumes that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them, with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held via video conference instead of in person. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying. The courts appoint lawyers for indigents.
The ICTJ reported that, in the majority of cases involving individuals arrested by regime intelligence branches, defendants were held incommunicado throughout their detention and denied access to a lawyer. The SNHR reported detainees on trial in military courts were often transferred to unknown locations without notification to their attorneys or families. Numerous NGOs reported families of individuals detained by the regime continued to be unable to access information on the status of their relatives.
Human rights groups reported that in some cases the regime provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. By law defendants may present witnesses and evidence or confront the prosecution witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported defendants were tortured and intimidated to acquire information and force confessions, as described in a May ICTJ report.
Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia (Islamic law) regardless of the religion of those involved.
Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the regime denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the regime, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. The regime did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the International Legal Assistance Consortium, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents from the court’s file.
In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. NGOs reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.
According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.
In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities continued to implement a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies.
Human rights groups and media organizations continued to report that the HTS denied those it had detained the opportunity in its sharia courts to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. The HTS reportedly permitted confessions obtained through torture and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
Tens of thousands of men, women, and children from former ISIS held areas remained in the overcrowded al-Hol camp, administered by an international NGO with security assistance provided by the SDF, where living conditions remained challenging. While basic humanitarian needs were met, services were at times reduced at times due to COVID-19, security incidents persisted, and camp residents did not have freedom of movement.
The SDF reportedly provided information to the COI on its procedure for the return of al-Hol inhabitants and facilitated the return of approximately 1,500 inhabitants between December 2019 and February.
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime continued to detain civilians systematically. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the regime, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force, Military, Political Security, and General–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding the numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges. Human rights groups noted detainees included doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and widespread torture. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners’ access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the regime denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. There were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by regime forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.
NGOs continued to report the regime used the counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.
Amnesty: The regime had issued 17 amnesty decrees since 2011, but decrees generally resulted in the release of limited numbers of ordinary criminals. These amnesties excluded detainees who had not been charged with any crimes, which comprised the majority in regime detention. In May the SNHR reported the regime only released 96 detainees in the two months following the March amnesty announcement, arbitrarily detaining 113 others within that same period. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the regime. During the year regime forces violated prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns against civilians and former members of armed opposition factions in areas with signed settlement agreements with the regime.
Regime civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. The HTS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the areas of northeastern Syria under the control of the SNES, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.
Regime security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law, and although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, regime forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC could try cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
The regime continued to use Decree 66 to “redesign unauthorized or illegal housing areas” and replace them with “modern” real estate projects. In May the Carnegie Middle East Center called the “Marota City” project in Damascus “the blueprint for future regime-led reconstruction process in Syria used to consolidate its authoritarian rule and crush dissent.” The regime gave residents of the area, known as Bastin al-Razi, 30 days to prove their property rights, an impossible timeframe for those detained, internally displaced, or outside the country due to the conflict.
The regime also continued to implement Law No. 10 to create “redevelopment zones” for reconstruction. Property owners were notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or lose ownership to the state. In January 2019 the regime extended the window from 30 days to one year for citizens to prove they own land being seized for development under Law No. 10, but the NGO PAX reported it was nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property. Refugees and IDPs reportedly feared regime retribution should they attempt to claim their property, and others were unable to assert their housing, land, and property rights due to land zoning, titling, and documentation requirements. Despite the existence of an appeals process, the SJAC expressed serious concern the law was being implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.
In August the European Institute of Peace (EIP) reported the regime had prevented IDPs from returning to Wadi Barada, an area formerly held by the opposition where extensive demolitions subsequently took place. It was estimated more than 10,000 displaced residents were unable to return to their homes in Wadi Barada.
The EIP interviewed a former Ain al-Fijeh resident who had received a notice of the regime’s intent to seize his property on charges of supporting terrorism. The resident stated that even his settlement agreement would not be accepted until he surrendered, despite previous regime promises to IDPs that they could return to their homes during settlement negotiations.
Armed groups also reportedly seized residents’ properties. In September the COI reported it had “corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, and detention.” The COI also reported TSO looting and seizures of schools, businesses, and agricultural machinery.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the regime routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the regime maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against regime targets, or resumption of regime control.
The regime continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).
As described in COI reports, the regime employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.
The regime reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. Numerous reports confirmed that the regime continued to punish entire families placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets. The EIP interviewed a resident of Ain al-Fijeh who reported being arbitrarily detained for six months by regime security forces after several of his family members fled to Idlib.
The regime, proregime militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and violent extremist groups, such as the HTS and ISIS, as well as foreign terrorist groups such as Hizballah, continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran participated in armed combat and supported armed groups operating in the country.
The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the regime’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, law enforcement authorities refusing to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports, such as the September COI report, indicated the regime continued to arbitrarily and unlawfully kill, torture, and detain persons, notably including refugees and IDPs who voluntarily returned to regime-controlled territories. Attacks impacting and destroying civilian infrastructure including schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country.
As of September there were more than 5.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.6 million IDPs. UNHCR also estimated that as of September there were 11.1 million persons in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.1 million in hard-to-reach, besieged areas.
Killings: The regime reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; the United Nations stopped publishing estimates of the death toll in 2016. The SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed within that time, and other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the large number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown. The SNHR attributed 91 percent of civilian deaths to regime and proregime forces.
Regime and proregime forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for IDPs and Palestinian refugee camps throughout the year; these attacks included bombardment with barrel bombs. These forces used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Reports from NGOs and a July COI report indicated that in Idlib, hostilities escalated from the beginning of the year until a ceasefire was brokered between Turkey and Russia in March. Before the ceasefire began, airstrikes by regime and proregime forces caused hundreds of civilian deaths in Idlib.
The SNHR reported the regime and Russian forces carried out at least 490 cluster munition attacks from 2011 to December, comprising the majority of cluster munition attacks during that period. The group also reported that attacks launched by these forces resulted in the deaths of at least 1,030 civilians, including 382 children and 217 women, as well as injuries to approximately 4,350 civilians. For example, the SNHR reported that six civilians, including a child and four women, were killed when a fixed-wing warplane believed to be Russian fired missiles on Jedraya on February 5.
Aerial and ground offensives throughout the demilitarized zone destroyed civilian infrastructure including “deconflicted” hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and farmlands. In April the BOI found it “highly probable” that the regime carried out attacks that impacted three health-care facilities, a school, and a refuge for children in northwest Syria, despite these locations coordinates being deconflicted between the United Nations and Russia.
In July the COI issued a report investigating incidents in northwest Syria, finding that the regime and proregime forces were responsible for 534 of the 582 confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of the year. The COI reported that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that proregime forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” as well as “the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians,” and “that members of progovernment forces, and in particular the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, committed the war crime of pillage.” The COI further stated that proregime forces likely committed “the war crime of spreading terror among the civilian population.” The report noted that “progovernment forces carried out attacks consistent with clear patterns previously documented by COI, affecting markets and medical facilities,” and that “attacks on schools have emerged as one of the most vicious patterns in the Syrian conflict.”
On January 5, as proregime forces intensified efforts to recapture the town of Ariha, six aircraft launched munitions that damaged a water distribution point where civilians had gathered to collect water, in addition to damaging residential homes, a kindergarten, and a mosque, killing at least 13 civilians. On March 5, far from the front lines of the contested area, proregime forces conducted airstrikes on a poultry farm in Marat Misrin where displaced civilians had been relocated, killing at least 16 civilians, including eight women and three children. The COI indicated in its July report there was reason to believe that Russian Aerospace Forces conducted two consecutive airstrikes in this incident.
Although no use of prohibited chemical weapons was reported during the year, in April the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe the regime was responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Ltamenah in 2017. These attacks preceded the more deadly sarin attack in nearby Khan Shaykhun less than two weeks later and were part of the same concerted campaign of terror perpetrated by the Assad regime.
Additionally, the PHR, SNHR, and other NGOs concluded that Russia and the regime targeted humanitarian workers, such as the Syria Civil Defense (The White Helmets) as they attempted to save victims in affected communities. In February the Washington Post reported that airstrikes and shelling killed aid and medical workers attempting to help civilians in Idlib. Most of the 10,000 aid workers in the area were displaced by the regime’s offensive in the first few months of the year, including 15 percent of the International Rescue Committee staff.
There were numerous reports of deaths in regime custody, notably at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison, by execution without due process, torture, and deaths from other forms of abuse, such as malnutrition and lack of medical care (see section 1.a.). In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families.
Violent extremist groups were also responsible for killings during the year. The SNHR attributed 17 civilian deaths to the HTS in the first half of the year. The HTS arbitrarily detained 19-year-old Mohammed Tano in late 2019 and in April condemned him to death for blasphemy, although activists suspected the HTS executed him after discovering texts criticizing HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. In May the online news outlet Middle East Eye reported the HTS killed a civilian in Idlib while using force to disperse a protest. In June the SNHR reported the HTS executed a university student by firing squad at a detention center after detaining him during a raid on his home. There was no trial, and his family was never given his body for burial. In July the COI reported the HTS launched antiregime attacks that affected civilians in regime-controlled areas. On January 21, a nine-year-old boy was killed by a mortar attack reportedly originating from the HTS-controlled part of Aleppo. The COI’s July report found “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the HTS committed the war crimes of murder and of passing sentences and carrying out executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court as well as the war crime of cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture.”
The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in Syria from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey were involved in fighting in Syria during the year. The COI blamed Russia for aerial attacks in northwest Syria throughout the year. Eyewitnesses, a local human rights monitor, and local media reported that an attack carried out by Turkish forces or TSOs on October 16 struck a rural area killing a young boy and injuring others in Ain Issa; the circumstances of this event are in dispute. Official Turkish government sources reported responding to enemy fire on the date in question and in the area that corresponds with this event, with four to six People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters reportedly “neutralized,” a term Turkish authorities used to mean killed, captured, or otherwise removed from the battlefield. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. According to media, YPG forces have also reportedly fired on Turkish and TSO forces following Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria and in November and December 2020 during fighting in the vicinity of Ayn Issa, including near civilian infrastructure.
During the year TSOs were allegedly engaged in extrajudicial killings. For example, in May the STJ reported TSO Sultan Murad detained and executed Ibrahim al-Youssef, after a failed extortion attempt. In August the Kurdish National Council and the Afrin Post reported that TSO Faylaq al-Sham militants killed a 63-year-old Kurdish Yezidi civilian, Nouri Jammou Omar Sharaf, following an unsuccessful extortion attempt. Human rights monitors also reported several instances of individuals dying under torture in Firqat al-Hamza and SNA Military Police detention. During the year the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), to whom the SNA nominally reports, announced the establishment of a commission within its Ministry of Defense to investigate serious allegations of abuses. The SIG sentenced one SNA fighter to a life sentence for the 2019 killing of the Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, and a range of other SNA abuses committed during Operation Peace Spring; however, the SIG did not publicly announce this sentencing and subsequently reduced the sentence to 10 years. Human rights and documentation groups expressed a lack of confidence in the credibility of the SIG’s accountability effort.
COI, the SNHR, and other human rights groups reported multiple car bombings, other attacks involving improvised explosive devices, and intra-TSO fighting in TSO-held areas in northern Syria, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, and noted the rise in such attacks during the year. While there was generally a lack of attribution for these attacks, Turkish government officials alleged most attacks were carried out by groups affiliated with PKK.
Abductions: Regime and proregime forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.).
Armed groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists.
The COI noted in its March and September reports that the HTS routinely detained and tortured civilians in territory in northwest Syria under HTS control. According to the COI and HRW, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived regime supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of the HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. The SNHR reported that approximately 2,115 persons remained in HTS detention as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention. For example, the SNHR reported that in August the HTS abducted a pharmacist and director of the midwifery institute in Idlib, Mustafa al-Jazi. His fate remained unknown.
Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, who ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children had since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.
There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups during the conflict: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio.
The COI reported the SDF continued to arrest civilians, including women and children, and hold them in detention without charge. In March the SNHR reported that since the start of the crisis in 2011, more than 3,000 Syrians, including 169 women and 602 children, were still missing after being detained or forcibly disappeared by the SDF. The SNHR and STJ reported instances of SDF fighters detaining civilians, including journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons affiliated with the SNA. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. For example, the SNHR reported the SDF detained Muhammad Muhsen al-Ibrahim in March 2019 in a raid on his home in Deir Ez-Zour. The SDF did not provide information on al-Ibrahim’s status until September, when the family learned of his death in detention. The SDF continued to allow the ICRC into detention facilities to monitor and report on conditions. In September the SDF stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
The COI, HRW, Amnesty International, and Syrian human rights monitors reported multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention by TSOs, including the groups Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police. The SNHR attributed 185 arbitrary detentions and abductions in the first half of the year to TSO-aligned SNA fighters. The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.
According to the COI, areas where TSOs were active continued to face instability due to increased infighting between the groups during the year. Victims of abductions by TSOs were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin. The Afrin Human Rights Organization, the VDC, and Iraqi media outlet Rudaw reported the February 27 kidnapping of Areen Dali Hassan, a Yezidi woman, in Afrin City. Areen was believed to be in Firqat al-Hamza captivity in the “Castle Prison” in al-Basuta in Afrin District. In June, Families for Freedom and a coalition of 11 other human rights groups reported that fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Firqat al-Hamza resulted in the deaths of three civilians and led to the discovery of at least eight women in degrading conditions in Firqat al-Hamza captivity.
The COI reported in September on the transfer of Syrians detained by SNA fighters to the custody of the government of Turkey, indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.” The Turkish government denied these reports and denied responsibility for Syrian opposition or TSO conduct but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and relayed that the Turkish-supported SNA had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline. The government of Turkey stated its own conduct in the operation was consistent with international law and that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the COI and reliable NGO reports, the regime and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Numerous organizations and former detainees reported that nearly all detainees in regime detention experienced physical abuse and torture at some point during their detention.
As of March the SNHR estimated parties of the conflict committed at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence since March 2011. Regime forces and affiliated militias were responsible for the vast majority of these offenses–more than 8,000 incidents in total–including more than 800 incidents inside detention centers and more than 400 against girls younger than age 18 years. The SNHR also reported 3,487 incidents of sexual violence by ISIS and 12 incidents by the SDF. Numerous NGOs reported that persons in areas retaken by regime forces remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals. The Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence reported most sexual and gender-based abuses by regime forces during the year occurred at checkpoints or in detention (see section 1.d.). In August the SNHR and the All Survivors Project issued a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as a tool of torture used by the regime against men and boys.
There were also reports of armed opposition groups engaging in physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected regime agents and collaborators, proregime militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and June, the SNHR attributed more than 43 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 26 to the HTS (including one child), and more than 33 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 52 deaths to torture by Kurdish forces.
The SDF was also implicated in several instances of torture, with the SNHR reporting the group used torture as a means of extracting confessions during interrogations. On January 29, the SNHR reported it had received notification that Fajr Ibrahim died in custody allegedly as the result of medical negligence, after being detained by the SDF in February. The SNHR also reported detainee Mua’th al-Muhammad al-Kal from Raqqa, reportedly detained in February for transferring money to ISIS-affiliated family members, asserted that while imprisoned, he was left in solitary confinement without food and was subjected to beating and torture for several days. The SNHR also reported video surveillance obtained in March showed severe overcrowding in Ghwayran Prison. In September the COI reported several instances of repeated torture of detainees in SDF prisons. The SDF continued to implement protocols to ensure torture was not used as an interrogation technique and initiated investigations into specific incidents of torture presented by the COI. In September the SDF also stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
According to the SNHR’s June report on the use of torture in Syria, the HTS continued to carryout detentions and kidnappings of local political opponents and journalists. In June the SNHR reported that members of HTS arrested human rights activist Omar al-Eis and kept him in solitary detention for 126 days. Al-Eis reported hearing sounds of torture every day at the Uqab Prison. In April, HTS fighters abducted Hassan Salh Abs from Sarmin. On April 20, his family received information he had been tortured to death at an HTS detention center. Human rights groups continued to report that the HTS officially denounces secularism and routinely detained and tortured journalists, activists, and other civilians in territory it controlled who were deemed to be have violated the group’s stringent interpretation of sharia. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. Media organizations also documented the forced conversion of Druze and Alawite civilians by the HTS, detaining or disappearing those refusing to comply.
The COI, OHCHR, and human rights groups reported that, since January 2018, TSO groups had allegedly participated in the torture and killings of civilians in Afrin and, since October 2019, in the areas taken during Turkish Operation Peace Spring. The COI reported in March, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of armed groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture” in Afrin and the Operation Peace Spring area. The COI in September reported the torture and rape of minors in TSO detention and “corroborated widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions.” The Violations Documentation Center and local media reported in July that SNA-affiliated Firqat al-Hamza had tortured Mahmoud Hassan Omri, a 27-year-old man with a disability, to death in Ras al-Ayn after forcibly disappearing him in November 2019 when he sought to return to his home, which had been seized by the group.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN special representative on children and armed conflict reported in its annual report that at least 820 children had been recruited as child soldiers during the reporting period. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, the SNA, as well as ISIS and the HTS, actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”
The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported the recruitment and use of 820 children (765 boys, and 55 girls) in the conflict between January and December of 2019. According to the report, 798 of the children served in combat roles and 147 were younger than age 15. The report attributed 283 verified cases to SDF-affiliated groups; 245 to the HTS; 191 to Free Syria Army-affiliated groups; 26 to Ahrar al-Sham; one to ISIS; 17 to Jaysh al-Islam; three to Nur al-Din al-Zanki; and 10 to regime forces.
In January the COI reported it continued receiving reports of young boys, some considered by persons who saw them to not be older than age 13, observed at checkpoints staffed by the regime and associated militia in Hama. One interviewee explained to the COI how one of the boys, age 16, joined the regime military forces after ISIS killed his brothers.
The COI continued to receive reports of children being recruited by HTS in Idlib governorate, as proregime forces intensified their offensive. In Aleppo boys between 13 to 17 years of age joined armed groups. One interviewee described the case of a 14-year-old boy who joined Ahrar al-Sham in 2018 along with his older brother to participate in operation “Olive Branch” and served at a checkpoint in Aleppo.
In 2019 the SDF signed an action plan with the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, as well as to identify and separate boys and girls within the group’s ranks and to put in place protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use. The SDF continued to implement an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibited using children for spying, to act as guards, or to deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. During the year the SDF screened out more than 250 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the United Nations.
The United Nations confirmed the SDF had demobilized 86 minors (56 girls and 30 boys) during the year and, working with the SNES, returned these minors to their families for community-based reintegration, pursuant to UN requests. In 2019 also the SDF demobilized 86 children.
The SDF and SNES in August announced the establishment of the Complaints Mechanism, a key component of the child soldier demobilization initiative, which provides parents a single SNES and SDF point of contact to inquire about, identify, and demobilize minors from the SDF. The United Nations reported 10 children were recently returned to their parents through this mechanism.
In August the SDF publicly announced it would cease its use of schools for military purposes; the United Nations subsequently confirmed the SDF withdrew from 16 of 28 schools it identified as under SDF use for military purposes, as well as from two other schools.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In January the COI reported, “warring parties have looted and vandalized educational establishments and used schools for military purposes, including as depots, barracks, sniper posts, temporary bases or launching sites. Repeated attacks on educational facilities combined with the complete breakdown of the education system have minimized the opportunities for children to resume their studies and improve prospects for their future.” The COI further concluded it had documented “instances where Government forces deliberately attacked schools, and therefore committed the war crimes of deliberately targeting a civilian object and deliberately attacking civilians.”
In cities where sieges ended and the regime regained control, the SNHR reported the regime and its allies frequently imposed new collective measures to punish communities by restricting humanitarian access; looting and pillaging; expropriating property; extorting funds; engaging in arbitrary detentions and widespread forcible conscription; detaining, disappearing, or forcibly displacing individuals; engaging in repressive measures aimed at silencing media activists; and destroying evidence of war crimes.
The United Nations estimated that violence in Idlib displaced more than 900,000 persons–80 percent women and children–since December 2019.
According to Amnesty International and numerous other human rights and humanitarian groups, those trapped in the area were crammed into close quarters with IDPs and vulnerable to the regime’s and Russia’s campaign of aerial bombardments impacting civilian infrastructure. The White Helmets documented more than 2,200 airstrikes in January and February, including 32 cluster-bomb attacks and 605 barrel bombs in Idlib, along with Aleppo and Hama. UN officials throughout the year voiced grave concerns about the situation for civilians caught in the Idlib siege. Cross-border assistance remained the only means of reaching persons in and around Idlib.
HRW and various media organizations found that the regime implemented a policy and legal framework to manipulate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funding to benefit itself, punish perceived opponents, and reward those loyal to it. The regime regularly restricted humanitarian organizations’ access to communities in need of aid, selectively approved humanitarian projects, and required organizations to partner with vetted local actors to ensure that the humanitarian response was siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the state apparatus, at the cost of preventing aid from reaching the population unimpeded. Organizations continued to report that entities such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) faced difficulties accessing areas retaken by the regime.
The regime frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups. Foreign Policy and HRW reported that the regime had weaponized humanitarian assistance, only allowing the delivery of assistance to loyalist-held areas through regime organizations such as the Syria Trust for Development, which was led by Bashar Assad’s wife, or the SARC.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning, and hundreds of health-care workers had been killed during the conflict. NGOs and media outlets documented repeated and continuing attacks on health facilities and other civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria perpetrated by regime and Russian forces. From March 2011 through March 2020, the PHR reported 595 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 923 medical personnel, with regime and Russian forces responsible for 91 percent of attacks (301 by regime forces and 229 by either Russian or regime forces). In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year. The COI concluded this pattern of attack strongly suggested proregime forces systematically targeted medical facilities and that such acts constituted war crimes. The BOI further reported that Russian and regime forces launched attacks that devastated medical facilities and networks in Idlib. In June, Russia informed the United Nations it would no longer participate in the UN deconfliction mechanism.
The COI reported that the above incidents followed a well documented pattern of attacks with humanitarian and civilian impact conducted by the regime, with Russian and Iranian support.
The 2018 COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, regime and proregime forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed, the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime and served as a regime strategy for punishing those individuals. Various sources continued to report cases during the year in which the regime targeted persons who agreed to reconciliation agreements (see sections 1.b., 1.d., and 1.e.).
Regime forces and armed groups also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
The COI and NGOs such as PAX indicated that, taken together with steps such as the enactment of Law No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties, the forcible displacements may fit into a wider plan to strip those displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the regime and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).
While the government pushed forward to recapture areas around the M5 highway at the beginning of the year, armed groups such as the HTS launched counterattacks against government positions in Idlib, Aleppo. These attacks, although much fewer and smaller in scale than those by the regime and proregime forces, caused some civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure. The COI reported that on February 5, armed groups fired three rockets impacting a densely populated area in the government-controlled Hamdaniya neighborhood of western Aleppo. This attack damaged a hospital and residential home and killed a family of five. The COI described this attack as “indiscriminate, indirect artillery fire of area weapons into densely populated civilian areas.” The COI also reported the HTS sought to intimidate the local population from expressing dissent by beating and detaining participants during protests throughout the year. In April, HTS forces killed a man while breaking up a demonstration. The COI stated the HTS detained journalists and NGO workers for weeks on the basis of their criticism of HTS activities and that HTS had shot and killed detainees trying to escape during airstrikes on the Qasimiah detention facility on January 17. The COI reported other HTS abuses as well, including looting in Atarib, attempts to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and preventing large numbers of girls from attending school.
The COI and international and Syrian NGOs such as the STJ reported throughout the year that TSO groups had engaged in the systematic looting, seizure, appropriation, and destruction of civilian homes and religious sites, particularly those of Kurds and Yezidis, resulting in significant civilian displacement. TSOs also reportedly continued to bar returnees from their properties in northern Syria and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area. Confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families. According to numerous organizations, including STJ, VDC, and al-Monitor, TSOs, including Firqat al-Hamza and Sultan Murad, seized agricultural machinery, water tanks, and other private property in Ras al-Ayn and sold it back to owners. Firqat al-Hamza and Ahrar al-Sharqiya reportedly seized homes and clinics and then charged their owners rent. In August and September, the COI, media organization The Syria Report, and the STJ reported the Syrian Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council seized two private properties owned by Kurdish residents in Ras al-Ayn and that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, then converted the properties into religious centers without compensating the owners, despite petitions made to the Council. The governor of Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province delivered remarks in June for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of one of these converted sites.
TSOs continued to interfere with and disrupt water access to parts of northeast Syria despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR reported in September that “Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which control the Alouk water pumping station in Ras al-Ain, have repeatedly disrupted water supplies, affecting access to water for up to one million individuals in the city of al-Hassakeh and surrounding areas, including extremely vulnerable displaced persons in various IDP camps.” According to NGO reporting, Alouk Station was offline for 55 percent of the time between October 2019 and August due to TSO denial of access to maintenance crews and deliberate shutdown of the station. Turkish authorities alleged the frequent shutdowns resulted from inadequate power being provided to the plant from a power generation facility in SDF-controlled area, a claim disputed by the United Nations and NGOs present in northeast Syria.
The COI reported in September that SNA members looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites in the Afrin region, including Yezidi shrines and graveyards, as well as sites protected by UNESCO. In April the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar cemetery. These organizations also reported cases where TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.
In August, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported continued abuses against the Christian community, including the detention of Radwan Mohammad by Faylaq al-Sham in Afrin on charges of apostasy after he refused to hand his school building over to the group for conversion into an Islamic school. In July, Faylaq al-Sham also prevented Mohammad from preparing his wife’s body for burial due to her faith.