Armenia

Executive Summary

Armenia’s constitution provides for a parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (parliament). The prime minister, elected by parliament, heads the government; the president, also elected by parliament, largely performs a ceremonial role. During 2018 parliamentary elections, the My Step coalition, led by Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, won 70 percent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament. According to the assessment of the international election observation mission under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the parliamentary elections were held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

The national police force is responsible for internal security, while the National Security Service is responsible for national security, intelligence activities, and border control. The Special Investigative Service (SIS) is a separate agency specializing in preliminary investigation of cases involving suspected abuses by public officials. The Investigative Committee is responsible for conducting pretrial investigations into general civilian and military criminal cases and incorporates investigative services. The National Security Service and the police chiefs report directly to the prime minister and are appointed by the president upon the prime minister’s recommendation. The cabinet appoints the heads of the Special Investigative Service and Investigative Committee upon the prime minister’s recommendations. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

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

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

The government took steps to investigate and punish alleged abuses by former and current government officials and law enforcement authorities. For example, throughout the year, an investigation continued into the culpability of former high-ranking government officials surrounding events that led to the deaths of eight civilians and two police officers during postelection protests in 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most prisons continued to lack accommodations for inmates with disabilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorities enforced court orders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; while the government generally respected this right, it restricted it in the COVID-19-related state of emergency and war-related declaration of martial law.

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

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

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

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

Media outlets in general lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television, which underwent leadership change during the year, continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint. On several occasions independent media experts expressed concern about cases of bias on public television, claiming such bias was especially obvious during critical political debates and coverage of developments. Nonetheless, public television was largely balanced and open and accessible to opposition voices and continued to cover more diverse topics of public interest than prior to the 2018 revolution.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” anonymous Telegram channels, and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government. There was a particular spike in misinformation on COVID-19-related topics, which led to stronger fact-checking efforts by a number of journals and other local organizations.

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

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. The July 17 Law on Audiovisual media that replaced the Law on Television and Radio did not foster ownership transparency.

The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. According to local media watchdogs, the July 17 Law on Audiovisual media did not provide a realistic path for the creation of private multiplexes, did not solve the issue of digital broadcasting for regional television stations, and did not reform outdated television licensing procedures.

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

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

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

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

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of nonsystemic discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration. Civil society contacts reported discriminatory attitudes and suspicion directed towards foreign migrants seeking employment.

During the year, seven foreigners seeking asylum were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border by land or air. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences.

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

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

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

Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Many of the countrywide reforms such as provision of increased social services, higher pensions, and more accessible health care also benefited refugees who became naturalized citizens.

While the quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles with non-Apostolic Christian and non-Armenian backgrounds.

Access to Basic Services: Many refugees were unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system, despite legal provisions protecting these rights, due to a lack of job openings, difficulty in accessing opportunities, and language barriers.

Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the close quarters in the refugee center (a housing facility where some asylum seekers were accommodated) also gave rise to fears of infection, although no COVID-19 cases were reported in the center during the year. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. Authorities operated an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences created barriers to employment, education, and access to services provided for by law.

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

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory. The SMS also offered integration programs to returnees from Western European countries who either voluntarily returned or were deported by the host country. As of January 1, there were 1,319 refugees who fled from Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In November 2019 the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing for up to 112 families who fled from Azerbaijan who were also granted citizenship along with the housing and thus no longer considered refugees. As of August, 106 applications had been approved and six refused. A second tranche of the program was approved in the spring for another 185 beneficiaries.

g. Stateless Persons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

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

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. On February 9, the government conducted National Assembly elections. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the National Assembly elections and the 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive legislative framework and political environment, which prevented genuine competition in these elections.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence matters. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

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

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; politically motivated reprisal against individuals outside the country; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel and slander, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police brutality against individuals based on sexual orientation; and existence of the worst forms of child labor. Significant human rights issues connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict included unlawful killings, civilian casualties, and inhuman treatment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were several credible reports of torture during the year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.

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

The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”

In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.

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

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”

Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Internet Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.

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

Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli (prohibited from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.

The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses and given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

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

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

f. Protection of Refugees

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

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

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

Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,591 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many refugee children, however, were able to enroll at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.

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

g. Stateless Persons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

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

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

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

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

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

Antidiscrimination laws exist but do not specifically cover LGBTI individuals.

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select a Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future